Still Farther to Go…A Reflection on Season 6 Episode 1 “Echoes”

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by Beth Wesson

Hello, my Outlander Peeps! I’ve missed you! This Droughtlander has been a long and “unique” one to be sure. The return of Jamie and Claire and all the folks of the Ridge was a welcome respite and a momentary reprieve from real life. I missed them too! 

Despite being one of my favorite methods of escapism, I find that Outlander often reflects many truths about real life and our relationships with others. Echoes, the first installment in season 6, was no exception.  After watching the episode, I found myself thinking about the truths I had just seen and about my life as a teacher these past two years.  I was musing about how similar the Outlander writers and producers’ job must have been to what I experienced creating lessons and teaching during a pandemic. 

As a teacher, I am tasked with teaching skills and concepts. These are often presented to us in an extensive list of standards and goals created by the State Board of Education. The chance that a teacher is able to teach every standard in a normal school year is rarely actualized.  In times like these? Impossible. The pandemic forced me to identify which items in that long list of concepts and skills were essential. I asked myself, what are the things my students absolutely have to know?  What concepts and skills are vital to their future learning? I had to get creative, I had to be flexible. I had to combine some lessons with other lessons and I had to let go of some lessons because there just wasn’t time, even if that lesson was one of my favorites! I then had to decide how to present the new lessons in a way that was engaging and made sense. I had to make lessons that would be accessible to both students in the classroom and those learning remotely. It was challenging to say the least, I used every bit of my own teaching knowledge, experience, and skills, and then begged and borrowed ideas from my peers.  Teaching in a pandemic wasn’t ideal, but it was my reality.  I made the best of it out of love for my students. 

I imagined that Outlander’s producers and writers had similar challenges with creating the show during a pandemic.  They are tasked with bringing the essence of Diana Gabaldon’s books and characters to life on the screen. We all know that even in a normal year that is difficult, they are big books and with big characters. Allotted screen-time and seen and unforeseen circumstances require them to make difficult decisions about how to adapt the story.  I’m sure the pandemic made circumstances exponentially more difficult and time dramatically shorter. Sunday night, I recognized that they too had had to decide what was essential.  They had to decide what viewers absolutely had to know to move the story forward. They had to get creative, they had to be flexible. They had to combine some story lines with others and had to let go of some story lines, even if they were one of their favorites. They then had to decide how to present their adaptation in a way that was engaging and made sense for both book readers and show-only viewers. I’m sure it was challenging to say the least.  I’m sure they used every bit of their knowledge and experience and maybe they too asked for help from their peers!  I’m sure creating a show in a pandemic wasn’t ideal. But, I KNOW they made the best of it out of love for Outlander and its fans. 

As one of the fandom’s book readers, it is always a struggle to just watch the show during the first viewing. The book is always there coloring everything I see.  The second time I watch it is always easier to just watch what is happening for what it is.  I still notice the changes, but I can accept them as part of this “new” story.  Every change, save one, felt as if it could have happened the way I was seeing it.  In an episode that seemed to be about people being unable to escape the truth about themselves that one “truth” rang false.

The Ridge And Its Truths

Jamie

The episode begins with a flashback. After Fergus lost his hand, outside the cave at Lallybroch something else broke in an already broken and grieving Jamie. He had been hiding from the British in a cave and knows his existence there continues to put his family in danger and he can no longer live with that knowledge. Without his Claire, he determines that he is never likely to ever live any differently than he has been and decides to exchange one type of prison for another.  He arranges for himself to be captured for the reward money it would bring his family and begins his life at Ardsmuir. Jamie, in the early days of his captivity, is a man who just wants to be left alone to serve his time with what peace he can find.  He has lost much and is now longer the man he once was… or at least, that is what he believes. But, despite appearances, the truth is that Jamie can no longer stop being Jamie than the tide can stop beating against the shore. Faced with the strife and misery of his fellow prisoners, he naturally falls into being the leader of men that he is and has always been.  He isn’t happy about it, but he does it. And, we know that the “having care” of these men kept him whole. He had a purpose. 

Tom Christie

We meet Protestant Tom Christie, who despite not being a soldier, finds himself caught up in the aftermath of Culloden and imprisoned at Ardsmuir.  He has been relegated to some position of power over the other prisoners and believes himself to be a leader of men. However, the viewer quickly realizes that Tom is not the leader of men that Jamie is.  Mark Lewis Jones plays Christie’s righteousness and then his confusion and incredulous disbelief to perfection. Tom doesn’t understand Jamie or his leadership style, but he does recognize him as a rival. The scene where Jamie is moved to act on behalf of his fellow prisoner exposes the stark differences between these two men. When the guards ask who the tartan belongs to, Christie is quick to point to the guilty party, but Jamie beats him to the punch and takes the blame. It is obvious that Christie is gobsmacked. The guilty should be punished. Christie’s black and white version of justice doesn’t take into account any extenuating circumstances and certainly doesn’t extend the mercy offered by Christ.  When Jamie’s lash scared back is revealed, his sacrifice becomes even more meaningful. His back is witness to his suffering at the hands of a whip and he chose to feel that cruelty again for the sake of another…a true Christ-like act of mercy. I could not help but believe that Tom Christie recognized this and it shamed him. Men like Christie do not like being shown their own failings, he is seething.

My favorite scene is a small one that told me everything I needed to know about Tom Christie.  It was when he sat down at the table in this obviously beautiful and clean home and brushed away an imaginary crumb from the table. It reminded me of a time when an unnamed relative was given a tour of her sister’s brand new kitchen. While we all exclaimed appreciation for the beauty we saw, she walked around the room with a face void of emotion and then pointed out a dead fly in the windowsill. We recognized what she wouldn’t acknowledge with her condescending display…she was jealous.  Christie’s actions at the Ridge smack of jealousy and show the viewer he has not forgotten or forgiven being shown his own truth. He believes himself the better man and is angry at the unfairness of a man like Jamie Fraser, a catholic, having good fortune. I am anxious to see where the writers take Tom’s story and truth.

Fergus and Marsali

Cesar Domboy and Lauren Lyle steal every scene they are in! Brilliant!  Viewers can already tell that Fergus and Marsali are struggling. Something is up with Fergus; the subtle reference to the helpfulness of two hands and his reaction leads us to believe his phantom hand has come back to haunt him. He apologizes for being a disappointment.  The truth is that having any disability during this time period would make you question your worth.  Very excited to see more of these two and see their story unfold. 

Brianna and Roger

Brianna is struggling to find her truth.  Who is she? What is she to do with her knowledge and skills? How do you live here and now? Her fears are real. She saw what happened to her mother. Claire reminds Brianna that you can’t live your life being afraid of who you are. Who will she decide to be?

Roger is pretty much in the same boat as Brianna. There is not much use for a historian on Fraser’s Ridge.  So, who will he become?  I was delighted to see a glimmer of the truth Roger will find about himself in his concern for Adian and his mother. 

And finally,… Claire

We have been told that we will see Claire struggle with the aftermath of her ordeal and rape.  I’ve always supported the show’s commitment to showing the aftermath of trauma.  Too many times other shows have characters move on to the next struggle without acknowledging the past.  Outlander has done a wonderful job of showing us the real consequences in people’s lives and relationships. Claire saying she is fine, changing the subject, throwing herself into her work are all in character.  But, abusing ether? Sorry, I can’t make the jump. I can’t make it make sense.  Not that it doesn’t make sense! People who have suffered what she suffered often turn to substances to ease their pain and I don’t judge them a bit.  But, I can’t reconcile the Claire, who in the book angrily and defiantly says…

 “I have lived through a f**king world war”, I said, my voice low and venomous. “I have lost a child. I have lost two husbands. I starved with an army, been beaten and wounded, been patronized, betrayed, imprisoned, and attacked.  And I have f**king survived! My voice was rising, but I was helpless to stop it. “And now, should I be shattered because some wretched, pathetic excuses for men stuck their nasty little appendages between my legs and wiggled them?!” I stood up,seized the edge of the washstand and heaved it over, sending everything flying with a crash, basin, ewer, and lighted candlestick, which promptly went out. 

“Well, I won’t”, I said quite calmly.  .

A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Diana Gabaldon

…with the one that abuses ether to escape her own thoughts and feelings. Can I picture her pushing forward without acknowledging what is really going on inside her and then falling apart? Yes.  But, I can’t reconcile her abuse of a compound she was so careful with, one she believes to be extremely dangerous. This just doesn’t fit her character and how she deals with the difficult things in her life. 

There have been a few times in the show where I felt the characters were made to say and do things they never would do or say.  Jamie’s request of Fergus while he was imprisoned on the ship comes to my mind. It was understandable for a human being to act as he did under the stress and strain of his situation, but just not that particular human, Jamie. This situation with Claire feels the same.  

I understand sometimes things are done for dramatic impact. I’m sure an ether huffing Claire would be interesting to play and I am willing to see where they take this story, I’ve been wrong before.  However, I am reminded that just because you can make a character wander around a jungle speechless for half of a show doesn’t mean you should. And, just because you can have a character make ether, it doesn’t naturally follow that they huff it.

To conclude

I couldn’t help but notice how effectively the show juxtaposed Ardsmuir with Fraser’s Ridge.  The prison was stark, gray, cold and …lifeless. In contrast, the ridge was bustling with light, warmth, and…life. Jamie tells Tom Christie he would trade some of his blessings for peace for himself and Claire.  He acknowledges that he has come a long way from Ardsmuir, but he has farther to go…and we are reminded…war is coming…