You say it best, Outlander, when you say nothing at all. Let’s discuss this excellent episode.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 508: Famous Last Words
If you’re unfamiliar with the silent film The Great Train Robbery, the movie Brianna and Roger see on their date in 1969, I suggest you watch it (it’s only about twelve minutes long and you can view it here). Debuted to audiences in 1903, it is widely considered the first Western film and was truly groundbreaking for its time. Notable are the many, many familiar cinematic elements that originate with this short movie. The trope of people shooting at someone’s feet to get them to dance? This film did it first. Complete with a holdup and chase and shootout scenes, much of what we associate with classic Western genre arises from this film.
The plot of the silent movie is thus: bandits break into a train station, proceed to hijack a train, rob the passengers at gunpoint, steal the mail on the train, then make their escape. A chase and shootout scene ensues.
It’s pretty standard Western fare for us here in 2020, more than one hundred years after this film was initially shown to audiences. But for those seeing it in 1903 it was an amazing and terrifying experience. The vast majority of audiences had never seen a motion picture before and so they flinched when the train on screen came rushing towards them. They screamed and ducked when an actor pointed a gun at the camera. The violence in the movie, although it seems entirely minimal to us, was extreme for the time.
And it’s a fitting movie to reference in this particular episode, as thematically what we’re focusing on this hour is how Roger and Ian have been robbed. Roger has been robbed of his voice- his one gift and essentially the basis for his identity- while Ian has been robbed of his tribe and his own sense of belonging. Both men are lost, and it will take more than an astrolabe to help them rediscover their place in this world.
The use of the silent film device to represent Roger’s psyche is an interesting but ultimately compelling and intelligent choice. Just as the image of an actor shooting at the camera made 1903 audiences feel as though they might be shot, Roger is similarly terrified, constantly replaying what he thought were his final moments in an unforgiving loop in his mind.
But notably absent is one element that should be present with most silent films: the music. Accompanied only by the clicking of the movie reel, Roger’s silent film is completely silent, lacking both the voice and the song…just like Roger himself.
And for a man who defines himself by his voice, who likely considers it the most important thing he can offer this world, the loss quite literally sends him nearly over the edge. Who is he if not a singer? What can he provide if not his voice? Where does he belong if not in front of a classroom or behind a guitar?
The episode opens three months after Alamance and finds Roger and others struggling (and failing) to return to life as normal. Jamie and Jocasta mourn Murtagh’s death, while Brianna struggles to pull Roger from the dark theater of his mind. Only Marsali seems truly happy, remarking later in the episode that she knows her place in this world and in this family (no astrolabe needed).
Tryon, consummate politician, attempts to right his egregious wrong by gifting Brianna and Roger a sizable amount of land in the backcountry. Lord John is there to deliver the news.
Amid this emotional upheaval returns Young Ian, physically transformed in more ways than one. Gone is the jovial Scottish boy and in his place stands an unnervingly quiet Mohawk man. Like a soldier returning from war, he is welcomed back by a loving family that doesn’t quite understand the person who has come home.
Ian is forced to tackle similar inner conflicts as Roger, and the two character’s stories run beautifully in parallel during the episode. But while Roger is essentially imprisoned in the smallest space possible (his mind) and cannot bring himself to leave his home, Ian is the opposite, refusing to be indoors and rejecting re-assimilation into his old life. Recall Ian’s joy at having run the gauntlet…he had finally found his worth (indeed, the episode was titled “Man of Worth); now that his Mohawk life is gone is he worth anything at all?
Both men have been robbed of their place in this world and subsequently find themselves held hostage by their grief. Such grief is recognized by Jamie, who perhaps understands that escaping the Ridge could be beneficial to them both. He suggests they embark on a surveying mission of the new land, away from the pressures of well-meaning family. There is no better way to move a film along, after all, than to change the setting.
In their shared mission and shared heaviness, Roger and Ian discover understanding in each other. Just as Ian recalls talking to the birds when he couldn’t speak with the Mohawk, Roger and Ian find that they can reveal their grief to one another…they are each other’s birds, speaking each other’s language.
Ian remarks that birds always seem to know which way to go when the winter comes. But our two birds, in the throes of a figurative winter, don’t quite know which direction to take.
The answer, as they eventually discover, is that the path isn’t always laid out so clearly…very often you have to struggle to find your way.
Which brings us back The Great Train Robbery, in which good triumphs over bad in the end. The townspeople form a posse and engage in a shootout with the bandits, killing them all and recovering the stolen possessions. The good guys win, but it takes a fight to get to that happy ending.
And so our good guys take the first steps toward banishing their inner “bad guys.” Director Stephen Woolfenden and writer Danielle Berrow do something brilliant in showing Roger’s recovery: Roger’s inner movie becomes a “talkie,” coming vividly into color and with spoken dialogue. The music, we hope, can’t be far behind.
Roger releases the paper “bird,” knowing that as humans the best we can hope for is to glide for as long as we can and brace for the eventual crash. Thoughts of our loved ones give us the strength to try to fly after we fall.
And so Roger, in turn, implores Ian to pick up his weapon and begin fighting again. Thwarting Ian’s suicide attempt, Roger beseeches Ian to do the hard work of living. They aren’t the first characters in the world of Outlander to claw their way back from grief, nor will they be the last. Upon returning to the Ridge, Roger promises he will always sing for Brianna…like a bird having found his way home.
Life isn’t always a movie, neatly wrapped up by the end credits. The pain and grief of life require time and patience that cannot be packaged into a feature film. But what movies give us- and what they have always given audiences- is the magic to inspire us. To believe that we can brandish a weapon against evil. To believe that we can right a wrong. To believe that we, too, can have a happy ending.
Upon the first viewing of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 the audience shouted “More! More!” And so the theater played it again. And again. And again. Like that audience- like Roger and Ian- we choose to stand and yell in the cinema of our own life, knowing that we might be scared but still shouting for more. More. More.