Gallberry ointment, amirite? Let’s discuss our Season Six penultimate episode.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 607: Sticks and Stones. Minor spoiler-y stuff about Malva, too, for non-book readers.
First, apologies for getting this post up later than usual…I spent the whole weekend at a soccer tournament with my kids and, needless to say, spending forty-eight hours with a bunch of nine year olds did not lend itself to the right sort of head space for such a heavy episode. And speaking of head space…
Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me…or will they?
Let’s talk about those names, shall we? Much has been said over the years about the many aliases Jamie employs— MacTavish, Red Jamie, The Dunbonnet, Mac Dubh, Alexander Malcom, etc. But lost in the conversation are the many aliases Claire has also used over the years, and in this episode, by way of Colum, Dougal, Frank, Blackjack Randall, Geillis, and Lionel Brown, we are reminded of them all: Mrs. Beauchamp, Claire, Madame Fraser, Dr. Rawlings. All murdered people turn into ghosts, so Mr. and Mrs. Bug say, and here we have the dead of Claire’s past haunting her every move. Whether or not she’s responsible for their deaths (or Malva’s) is beside the point…for all of them she thinks she is, and that is truth enough for her.
Danielle Berrow wrote this episode and last season’s Famous Last Words (Episode 508), and in both she does an amazingly effective job at conveying a character’s psyche (Roger’s then, Claire’s now) as they process trauma. Whereas Roger relived his ordeal in an unforgiving and repeating silent movie reel, here Claire’s inner demon is voiced by an unrelenting Lionel Brown. And through Brown’s narration we come to understand that Claire has not just been processing the events of the past few weeks or the past year but, rather, the whole of her life’s choices since she ventured up to Craigh na Dun nearly thirty years ago. Her memories are the movie reel in this episode, equally as torturous as they were for Roger.
Beyond Claire and her noms de guerre, much is said in Sticks and Stones about the names people call us: whore, bastard, witch, sinner, grandmother, etc. “We aren’t hurting anyone,” Lizzie pleads to Claire regarding her relationship with Jo and Kezzie. But Claire knows it doesn’t matter…the words people throw around hurt more than actions. “Hiram Crombie will stone you,” Claire warns Lizzie. Sticks and stones may break bones, but in this case they’re not even needed. Perhaps a younger version of Claire might have counseled Lizzie differently…who better to empathize with loving two husbands? But at this moment, as a woman wounded by the names people are calling her, she understands that words are deadlier than any pruning knife.
Claire’s seemingly off-hand remark about leaving the oven on obliquely references the gaslighting occurring in the episode. Gaslighting—the act of making someone question their own reality—can either be enacted upon someone or we can do it to ourselves. Did I leave that (maybe gas-powered) oven on? Did I leave the candle burning? Did I actually kill Malva? Claire’s questioning of her own sanity—the progressive lack of faith she has in her own memories—extends beyond Malva to all of Claire’s past. Indeed, Claire’s trauma extends beyond her abduction and rape, now encompassing memories and emotions that begin the moment she touched those standing stones. We are reminded of Claire’s history and we see that all of Claire’s memories are true and yet they are not true. All of it is her fault and yet not her fault at all. She has no faith in any of it anymore. The ether, it should be said, does not help.
The subplot involving Lizzie and the Beardsley twins provided some lighter moments, but the story illuminates what is at the heart of this episode: things that look the same on the surface but are different upon closer inspection. Identical twins are the same and yet they are not…they are two separate people in nearly identical bodies. And so other things this hour also inhabit that dual space— things can be both the same and different, things can be true objectively and yet not true in perception. What looks identical is not quite so, and the distinctive truth exists beneath the layers.
Like twins, memories can look the same to different people but they are not; they are subjective and it all depends on who’s doing the remembering. As Claire lays out the ramifications of her time traveling to Jamie, nothing that she’s feeling guilty about is a falsehood. But, as Jamie points out to her, her understanding of those objective events is not correct. Claire carries the burden of her choices in this episode, but Jamie reminds her that what she sees as a burden others see as their blessings.
As always, faith comes in the form of Jamie. Notice that in Claire’s inner-demon/Lionel Brown flashback none of those voices belong to Jamie— their love is a truth that is not in question…there is no duality there. It’s only the choices around that truth that eat away at Claire’s psyche. Staying when she should have left, leaving when she would have stayed…disrupting the fabric of time and space in the name of love.
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan did some amazing work together in this episode, and Claire’s confession to Jamie about her ether use has Emmy submission written all over it. Claire’s whole physicality emanated terror coming out of her surgery, as she sees Lionel Brown stalking around every corner. But, literally and figuratively, Jamie does not see what Claire sees. Claire sees a past marred by her choices. Jamie sees only a family grateful for her presence.
Lizzie’s mostly light-hearted storyline also serves as a contrast to Malva’s exceptionally bleak and serious one. Keeping thematically, Lizzie and Malva’s stories look the same, but they are notably different. Whereas Malva was made to feel ashamed of almost everything she did, Lizzie sees nothing wrong with her actions. While no man claimed Malva or her child, Lizzie is claimed and loved by two men. Malva likely looked upon her pregnancy with nothing but trepidation. Lizzie, in contrast, views her pregnancy as a blessing. Claire and Jamie fear that Lizzie may fall victim to the same reputation as Malva, but this episode illustrates that Lizzie has the benefit from the start. And, listen, I never would have guessed that malaria and gallberry ointment would be a sufficient premise for erotica, but here we are.
And speaking of Malva, her monologue at the start of the episode was terrifically executed and I will truly miss Jessica Reynolds’s interpretation of this character. Pay close attention to what Malva says to the congregation…nothing she says is a untrue (and book readers know how to read between those lines), but people’s understanding of her words is false. Similarly, observe how those in this episode grieve her…as with other things in this hour, anger and other emotions (guilt, fear) look nearly identical, and yet at their core they are different.
Roger’s discussion with Jamie regarding a pursuit of ministry also speaks to the differences in interpretation of memory. Roger is still morally conflicted about killing a man, but Jamie reminds him that teachings about killing have changed depending on the cultural source— killing is not necessarily murder. Like other things this episode, the two look the same but are inherently different. Similarly, Roger is propelled into pursuing his ministry because of the nearly identical feeling it gives him to teaching. The two vocations look alike are but not the same. (It should be said that I have complete faith, pun intended, that Roger and Brianna do know the difference).
Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins of Greek and Roman mythology, looked identical but weren’t— one was immortal and one was not. Similarly, the stars named for them look alike to the naked eye but they are actually very different. Pollux shines brighter with a golden hue and is closer to Earth. Castor is bluer, less bright, and several light years further from our solar system than Pollux. But despite their differences the two stars are predictably together, in their same spot above the raised arm of Orion, century after century, millennium after millennium.
Outlander has found Claire looking up at the moon on more than one occasion and in more than one century. It’s not hard to speculate why— the stars and heavens provide a reassuring constant, no matter where in time one might find themselves. And that’s where the lifeline comes in this episode— in things that look different but are the same. The moon is unchanging. The constellations are predictable. Family is forever. Love is infinite. When we find ourselves questioning everything, sometimes that’s all we need to know.