Hi friends. Before we dive into Outlander, I must say a word on behalf of the recent fire victims here in Northern California. The Carr Fire has blazed through Shasta County since last week, displacing thousands of people and animals, destroying hundreds of homes and structures, and taking the lives of six victims (including two firefighters).
I used to live and practice veterinary medicine in this county so I know the region well. It is a rural area of California, full of kind and hard-working people. The resources of the local animal shelter, Haven Humane, were already limited before this tragedy and now they are in desperate need as they take in hundreds of pets and livestock. If you have the means, please consider donating. Here is a link; they are asking people to donate through their PayPal button. A regional bank has also set up a Go Fund Me account for general aid to the area.
Thanks for considering and, now, time for Outlander. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Warning: Contains spoilers from Episode 106: The Garrison Commander. Some minor spoilers from the novels and all seasons of Outlander are also present- read at your own risk!
“Let us begin with you telling me who you are.”
Who you are.
And there it is— The Garrison Commander is the the first real episode of the series to significantly address identity, one of the most prominent themes of Outlander. The country with which we sympathize, the names we take, the aliases we use, the languages we speak, the accents we develop, the wars we fight…they all help make us who we are or, just as importantly, how we see ourselves.
These elements come up again and again in Outlander, especially in this episode: Claire “Beauchamp”, Jamie “McTavish”, Black Jack Randall’s Sussex accent (or lack of one), Dougal’s Scottish accent, the use of French and Gaelic, Scottish versus English sympathies, etc. Moreover, our identity can change depending on the company we keep. We present to others who we are trying to be; sometimes we become someone different with that presentation.
I can’t recall another story that deals with identity in quite the same way as Outlander. Whereas the narrative of so many other shows or novels hinges on the assumption that people are incapable of change, Outlander allows its characters to continually operate in realistic shades of gray. Characters learn and grow and perspectives shift depending on their experiences. Often they begin a journey as one person and end it as another; such is the case with Claire in this episode, and such is the case for us out in the real world, too.
The Garrison Commander is a uniquely structured episode, as it is essentially one long scene (featuring beautiful monologues by Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies) bookended by shorter periods of action. As Ron Moore points out in the podcast, the episode reads more like a play than a television show. Indeed, it is very easy to imagine this episode set on stage. With so much emphasis on dialogue and relatively little on action, the focus really shifts to character development. We are captivated for an hour as Claire and Black Jack engage in a push-and-pull and try to convince the other of who they say they are.
But let’s back up just a bit so we can remember how we got there. Last we left Claire and Dougal they had once again run into Lieutenant Foster. He inquires about Claire’s welfare and he looks very handsome doing it:
Claire assures him she is a guest of Clan MacKenzie, but Lieutenant Foster nonetheless insists she meets with his commanding officer. Dougal knows this could either go really badly for Claire…or really badly for him (having, you know, just spent a huge chuck of the past few weeks raising money for the Jacobite rebellion), so he tags along to keep everything in check.
Claire expresses some relief at once again being among her fellow countrymen, which is a feeling I totally understand. If you’ve ever gone through Customs after traveling abroad you probably understand it, too. As much as you might have loved wherever you’ve been, there’s no place like home; the familiar is usually welcoming. And so it also goes for Claire in this episode…until she realizes that the Highlanders have become her new “familiar.”
She also has a bit of an upper hand now with regards to Dougal; as she correctly astutes, now he is the outsider.
They arrive in Brockton, where they head upstairs to meet Brigadier General Sir Oliver Lord Thomas…
…who is a snazzy-dressed pompous blowhole. He’s polite and falls over backward to Claire (one of his “kind”), but he is a total ass to Dougal. He speaks of Dougal as if he were less than human, mocking his language, referring to him as a “specimen,” and essentially treating him as a noble savage.
There’s a wonderful little moment where Lord Thomas marvels at Claire’s confidence in ordering men around, and Dougal smiles and agrees. I just love it— it shows how Claire has become accepted among Clan MacKenzie. There is a mutual affection there, which helps explain why she now feels so defensive of the Highlanders.
Not surprisingly, Lord Thomas does not invite Dougal to stay for lunch. Claire, alone with the officers, charms them sufficiently and they promise to escort her back to Inverness. Her joy and relief are palpable, until…
SURPRISE! Look who pops in to crash the lunch.
A few notes about BJR’s appearance on this scene. First, it’s clear that he’s one of the few officers who actually does any work around here— he has no doubt earned his commission rather than purchasing it (as was common for the time). Second, it’s apparent the other officers don’t like him and the feeling is mutual; it is likely no coincidence that they dined together while Randall was out in the field. Lastly, Black Jack is the only one who seems to take Dougal MacKenzie seriously. Whereas Lord Thomas dismisses Dougal as a joke, BJR is appropriately alarmed at having the MacKenzie war chief in their midst. There is not much to admire about Black Jack Randall, but he is admittedly very, very good at his job.
He’s also dangerously intelligent. After he and Claire tacitly agree that they won’t discuss their previous encounter in front of the other officers, Randall deftly baits Claire into expressing sympathy for the Scottish. He gives her just enough rope to hang herself, and the growing suspicions of the other officers are obvious.
Just when the tension becomes almost too palpable, someone pops in to report that there’s been a small attack and a Redcoat is hemorrhaging all over the taproom downstairs.
Back in a jiff! Gotta go amputate an arm!
Okay, emergency limb removal complete, Claire wanders back upstairs only to find everyone is gone with one notable exception:
Apprently, an incident of guerilla warfare and limb amputation is also the best time for a shave.
After a flashback (flash forward?) to a time when that razor belonged to someone slightly less sociopathic, Randall gets down to the business of questioning Claire. Evidently, both the razor and interrogation skills will be handed down through the generations to Frank.
(I have always loved this nightgown on Claire. Terry Dresbach has some nice insider details on the costuming of this episode, found here.)
What follows is an extraordinary half hour of exquisite acting by Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies. I’m not going to attempt to recap all of the dialogue since I can’t possibly do it justice. If you you haven’t watched this episode in awhile I highly recommend revisiting it.
For me the title of this episode, The Garrison Commander, has multiple meanings that become clear during this exchange. Claire and Black Jack are both fortresses of secrets and feelings, each struggling to retain control or command of this highly charged situation.
Randall attempts to elicit Claire’s true story, which she understandably isn’t willing to give. What he offers in return, however, is a truly dark glimpse into his soul. He recounts his flogging of Jamie and, as he does so, a reverential and almost eroticized look crosses his face. What he says about the experience is truly telling:
“I could see the beauty in it. That boy and I were creating a masterpiece.”
People are nothing but bodies to Randall; there is no empathy. He only sees others as extensions of himself and a way to fulfill his needs.
Mild spoilers here: I’ve seen Laoghaire and Stephen Bonnet compared to BJR in terms of villainy, but to me no other character even comes close. Laoghaire is immature and self-focused, but she is mostly capable of forming meaningful relationships. Bonnet does horrendous things, but his primary motivation is material wealth. Black Jack Randall, in contrast, is a sadist who loves evil for nothing more than its power and pain.
Jamie would not beg for mercy. It’s what Randall wants, but Jamie will not give it to him. And perhaps this is what sets in motion Randall’s obsession with Jamie— this desire to bring Jamie to his weakest. If you are able to give someone mercy then you are the one with the power. Think of their eventual scenes together at Wentworth Prison— Randall wants Jamie to ask for it, to beg. Randall has dark sexual impulses, but he mostly gets off on power, control, and manipulation of others. He says of Jamie’s flogging, “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
Randall admits- perhaps sincerely, perhaps not- that he hardly recognizes the man he has become. His character and identity, he claims, have been warped by years of military service in the Highlands. Claire latches on to this as some small glimmer of his humanity, and argues that redemption is still achievable.
In a tonal shift, Randall seems to also grasp on to the idea that he can become a changed man. He suggests escorting Claire back to Inverness. For a moment she believes him.. and we maybe believe him, too. It’s hard to say whether it’s still part of his game, or if he feels a need to return to evil- his familiar- after so much confession. In any case, Randall moves to help Claire to rise, then…
…sucker punches her in the solar plexus. He told Claire that “the truth carries a weight that no lie can counterfeit,” and perhaps this is his truth. Evil is the reality of Black Jack Randall— it is who he is.
In an eighteenth century version of the Milgram experiment, Randall orders Corporal Hawkins to kick Claire while she’s down. Hawkins obeys (just following orders!), and again we see how Randall really gets off on the manipulation of others. This is who he is.
And the Milgram experiment model is a poignant way to end this scene, because it asserts that people are capable of losing their agency- their identity- when given an excuse. I’m just following orders. In Randall’s case, The Highlanders made me turn to evil. It’s arguably one of the most famous psychological experiments, capping off an hour of intense psychological battle between Randall and Claire.
Claire as a punching bag might have gone on for awhile if it weren’t for this guy busting in to save the day:
You’d think they would learn to lock this door with everyone barging through it. Anyway, Dougal is an appropriate badass and whisks Claire away, but not before BJR orders him to return Claire to him the next day.
Dougal and Claire ride fast and furious away from Brockton. What a change from just a few episodes ago— in a reversal of sentiments, now the MacKenzies seem like a safe haven and the English soldiers are threatening.
Dougal tricks Claire into drinking from St. Ninian’s spring and asks her again if she is a spy. Believing the spring acts as a sort of truth serum, Dougal is finally satisfied with her answer that she is plain Claire Beauchamp and nothing more.
Well, we all know what comes next. In the most convenient interpretation of the law possible, it’s arranged that Claire gets to marry this tall, muscular, and handsome Scottish lad who’s witty and smart and appears to be an excellent kisser. Dougal wins for matchmaker of the century…possibly of the next two centuries.
And there we end it, with Claire beginning the episode as one person (Randall/Beauchamp) and ending it on the verge of becoming another (Fraser). We will see this theme of identity again and again over the next few seasons- characters adopting aliases, wondering about their past, questioning their allegiances, and shifting their sympathies. I have no doubt we will revisit it again in Season 4; I can think of one character in particular who undergoes a radical identity shift (no spoilers, please).
Which brings me to…the Season 4 trailer! Wasn’t it great? I will be attempting to break it down this weekend, for those that are interested.
p.s. I already recapped The Wedding (Episode 107) last fall, so the next retrospective recap will be Episode 108.