Outlander’s fourth episode, “The Gathering,” opened with Claire frolicking in a damp field with a bunch of ragamuffins, the kiddies deliriously laughing at their protean game of tag. But the joke was on them as Claire had been engaging in the game primarily to chart an escape route from the castle out into the wilderness, and from there to the standing stones! That’s right, our fourth episode was Outlander: Prison Break, and Claire was determined to get back to Frank if it was the last thing she ever did! (“Why?” we all wondered, silently. “He seems so dull?”)
Claire had cleverly (or perhaps stupidly) decided to make a break for freedom during the titular Gathering, a time when every member of the clan MacKenzie would descend on Castle Leoch to pledge fealty to the Laird and get a fine sip of his rennish in return. She'd bundled up a bindle of food, counted out the number of watchmen, memorized their positions throughout the day. Even though Miss Fitzmuffin pressured her into putting on some extremely drab formalwear and making an appearance at the oath-takings, Claire suavely drugged her personal guard, snuck past the watchman, clouted Dougal on the head when he made a pass at her in a corridor, and successfully made it to the stables! Freedom was in sight!
And then, she tripped over Jamie.
Freud says there are no mistakes, and faced with braining Jamie and riding for the standing stones (and back to Frank) or just sheepishly confessing the whole plot to Jamie and hanging out with him for a while, guess what she did? She told Jamie all her problems. We don’t blame you, Claire. It’s hard to whip up a sense of urgency in getting back to old Frankie boy. Wouldn’t we all rather bundle down in the hay with Jamie and crack jokes and drink whiskey while everyone else pledges oaths than return to Frank, with his genealogy obsession and utter refusal to crack a smile?
“The Gathering” was the first episode of Outlander that pitted Claire against a ticking clock. She had a limited window of time in which to achieve a goal, and when she failed, the conflict shifted. Naturally, it shifted to the primary concern of the series: Beautiful Jamie is at RISK! Yes, because of Claire’s shenanigans, Jamie’s own, more humble plot (to hide out with the horses) was discovered, and he was dragged forcefully to the Gathering where he would be faced with a terrible choice. Either (A) pledge fealty to the MacKenzies and put a target on his head for emerging as a strong contender to be the next Laird, or (B) not pledge fealty and be killed by a thousand drunken MacKenzies for disrespecting the Gathering. But Jamie, because he is Perfect, came up with option (C): Sweet-talk the Laird, assuring him of his loyalty but assuring all other concerned parties that he was not interested in ascending to the throne (chair? tuffet?) of Laird Mackenzie.
Well done, Jamie. Thanks to his smooth diplomacy, everyone could just relax and go on a boar hunt, except boars are apparently faster and deadlier than Batman and managed to kill poor Jody, which meant that Claire, who was brought along on the boar hunt as a protean EMT, had to hold his hand and talk him through dying. Thanks to a truly amazing performance by Caitriona Balfe, we understood immediately that Claire had done this many, many, many times, too many times dear Lord, as a nurse during World War ll.
Then everyone played field hockey, a sport beloved by hot high school girls on the East Coast and a crazy Laird-to-be who wanted to crack some balls and send people face-first into campfires.
"The Gathering" was a weird episode, I’m not going to lie. It featured a premise with a lot of urgency that promised thrills and chills but was deflated almost immediately, and then it moved through several arbitrary moments that didn’t branch organically from the A-story but attempted to naturalistically convey what a “gathering” would've been like for a healer. That’s kind of the stumble of Outlander as a series; the show is following a book with a lot of detail that wasn't written to any real standard format, because it’s hard to apply a realist approach to time travel. It's admirable and enjoyable as a concept, but challenging for those viewers used to a show hitting very specific story beats.
There was also the unforgivable line, “There’s no place like love” which Claire gave Laoghaire as a spell to use to win Jamie’s heart through magick (along with some powdered horse dung).
The hour ended with a very promising cliffhanger (though, honestly, every episode so far has ended with a very promising cliffhanger): Next week, Claire is on the road with Dougal and Jamie collecting the rents! Scenery is going to change! Stasis will shift! Normal will be no more!
As the final sample in our 4-Episode test, “The Gathering” affirmed what has been apparent from the outset: Though Outlander boasts a beautiful setting and incredible art direction, it’s a series about INTERNAL drives and conflicts. The real action takes place in the characters' hearts and minds, and you have to identify strongly with the proxy to feel those highs and lows. The primary arc will always focus on Claire’s experience in the Highlands, her decisions regarding Frank, and her decisions regarding Jamie.
Personally, I love that. I love character studies, I love naturalism—especially in period entertainment—and I love stories that chart emotional geography. To viewers who are looking for peppy battle scenes or a traditional A-story/B-story, false defeat/catharsis/resolution/return to the status quo story wheel, a character study will at times feel quite slow. Outlander is “slow” in that Claire's experience is unfolding in real time, just as it does in the book, taking us through the day-by-day of a surreal situation. This series is not by any means giving us the “best parts” version of a huge, wordy tome. It’s developing the themes and events of the book with painstaking faithfulness.
So, my 4-Episode Test verdict is a little tricky. There are a couple caveats. But here’s what I want to say: If you’re a fan of the books by any means, you’re a fool not to watch Outlander. Like, you are the Grinch on Christmas. You’ll never find a production as highly budgeted, as faithful, as dedicated to the source material. Hell, the author herself, Diana Gabaldon, even guest-starred in this episode. The production is LEGIT.
If you are someone who rolls your eyes at a character study and a slower, more thoughtful pace, this series is simply not for you. God bless and move on. Gotham is premiering soon and looks AMAZING. Enjoy.
If you’re on the fence, I implore you to stick with this series. Outlander has only scratched the surface of the themes explored the books and the relationship between Jamie and Claire. However, let me add this disclosure: If you are someone who is going to experience PTSD from depictions or discussion of sexual assault, know that these themes will come into play both on and offscreen. I don’t want to spoil anything, maybe I just saw Clarissa too young, but TRIGGER WARNING. A million times a trigger warning.
All told, I love Outlander. If I were Diana Gabaldon I’d worry that I'd somehow sold my soul to the devil to get such a prestige retelling that’s so faithful to its source. The cast is amazing, the setting and overall production are captivating. The thoughtfulness invested in developing Claire and Jamie as individuals and as a couple is perfect. The books couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. Four episodes in, Outlander has left a lasting impression thanks to the overall quality of the production. More of this please, and thank you, Starz.
What is your 4-Episode Test verdict on Outlander? Keep watching or head for the inlands?
AIRED ON 7/9/2016
Season 2 : Episode 13