Episode 508: Famous Last Words

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Slàinte

12 thoughts on “Episode 508: Famous Last Words”

  1. Love your review of this episode. Some reviewers and viewers have disliked the silent movie motif. I thought it was brilliantly done, because sometimes, painful episodes are relieved over and over on a loop when it’s the last thing we want. I felt that so much from Roger’s reliving his hanging. It’s something that has happened to me. Your review helped explain my reaction to this device. I almost felt like “The Ballad of Roger Mac” and “Last Words” would play as a wonderful movie–in fact, If watched them that way on Sunday, since Starz shows the previous episode right before premiering the current one. Life can be very messy, as the difficult recoveries of Roger and Ian will be. I’m glad the last scenes were hopeful, even though both have a long road to travel. I know a bit about that, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Janet. It does seem to be a really polarizing episode, but I loved it for all the reasons you listed. And I like it more on each subsequent watching.

      Like

  2. I appreciate your background information about the silent film. I do recall having read something about peoples’ reactions to it somewhere before. i know some people did not like the use of the silent black & white film in this episode. I thought it fit with the way that traumatic memories often play out, especially in his replaying the scenes over and over. As we watch we begin to notice there are subtle and then larger changes in how he recalls it and what he remembers. From what I have read of PTSD this is very realistic. And the b/w version expresses without words how depressed Roger is, while the change to color shows us he is, in a very real way, finally coming back to life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, exactly! The shift to color and sound was a brilliant way to show him breaking free of his inner turmoil. I really enjoyed the device.

      Thanks as always for reading 🙂

      Like

  3. On first viewing I thought the B/W film device clunky and did not like it. On subsequent watching I saw the subtle differences more clearly. Maybe watching at midnight half asleep is not the best way to *really* watch a new episode. It is an episode that has to be watched several times to get all the nuances. So, I’m still a little on the fence about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your thoughts should be mandatory reading for everyone. I was stunned at the beginning but the second flash to the silent film was an ah-ha Moment for me. I have seen people complaining that Murtagh should have had a funeral and less of the black and white parts. But that was right, we all needed to let him go and move on. I felt they managed to show the passing of time for the others, but Roger was stuck in his loop. Much better than having to skip the Gathering altogether. I felt an immediate link for Roger and Ian. They will need that going forward. Not all changes are bad! So, bravo for your thoughts. Maybe we need to get you a position as a writer for the show!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was initially taken aback by the b/w movie scenes. But as they continued in Roger’s head, I appreciated the technique. That’s what happens in my own head when I can’t let something go…continuous loop. Thanks, as always, for your analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Best review I’ve read on the episode. Thanks for giving additional insight. It is a polarizing episode and most of what I’ve read is very against the silent movie story telling vehicle. Admittedly, I wish we saw more of the actual saving of Roger, but the flashbacks were a very effective and different way of seeing what what going on in his head. During quarantine I’ve been trying out Poldark. Same time period, good looking cast, strong production values, etc. but I found it quite boring and have given up after 7 episodes. I envision that Poldark is what Outlander would have been if the producers/writers didn’t take some chances with the source materials. A good story but, in the end, nothing more than that. The phenomenon of the Outlander TV show is what it is, IMO, because of the chances it takes to use the significant talents of the cast, crew, production to it’s collective strongest conclusion. That’s not to say that some of their choices haven’t been clunkers but overall, most of the risks they take improve the story rather than detract from it. Glad to have found you. I’ll be back.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I very much enjoyed your review. It was very stimulating comparing the two vehicles. Your explanation of events was straight on. I too thought the silent movie hook was very effective. This is one of my favorite episodes ever. Thank you for the review. You are very gifted.

    Liked by 1 person

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