A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Battle of Prestonpans was the first major battle in the Jacobite Rebellion, fought on the foggy day of September 21st, 1745 at four in the morning. Considering the result of the rebellion as a whole, the battle became memorialized, entering the echelons of Scottish lore and mythology. The elements of glorification aside, Prestonpans is one of the most important dates in Scottish history, when a mildly trained group of Highlander warriors used their traditional highlander charge to outflank and slaughter an unsuspecting British army led by a Sir John Cope. Cope’s ardent belief in the superiority of his forces, position, and artillery, despite the relative impoverishment of the first and last, was in some fashion founded upon a logical foundation. There was no reasonable doubt that they would be overrun by a group of what they considered to be nothing more than a ragtag group of barbarians with pitchforks and axes. Their position was naturally fortified, bordered by a saggy marsh that would significantly cause any Scottish troops camped above them to be bogged down and thus become easy cannon fodder. That reality opens the episode with a debate over what course of action was necessary. Jamie points out that that intractable trench put them in a fairly difficult position from which to maneuver and from that point forth, there was only a single task left to accomplish. Someone had to test the true intractable nature of the marsh and Dougal was sent forth to carry out the task. Jamie needed someone potentially expendable but also someone who would ride forth into that battle with a keen idea of a potential treat if he succeeded. Dougal does so, barely riding back with his life to report on the trench and in the wildest of his dreams, he is welcomed back with open arms by Bonnie Prince Charlie. “If every man in our army was like you,” he noted loudly (to paraphrase), “then each man would carry the strength of a thousand.”
War is an event upsetting by its inherent nature, that much is something Jamie manages to astutely observe to Murtagh as they contemplate the losses around them. The episode opens with its traditional musical thoroughfare with an accompanying visual metaphor but then transitions into Claire observing the maggot-infested body of a soldier lying in the ground, decomposing and wasting away as diminutive particles of snow filter down to his body. She had seen more men die in war than perhaps anyone else in this series, tended to their wounds personally or checked their pulse before closing their eyes forever. Each one of those men dying was far, far too many and it’s a sobering thoroughfare for the hour. The Battle of Prestonpans itself historically lasted about fifteen minutes, the degree of surprise and accidentally brilliant tactics giving the British absolutely no room to maneuver to even draw the fight outwards. A significant number of Cope’s men had started to flee upon the Highlander charge, whose men accidentally formed a sort of “V” shape as the center had become entrenched in the unfortunate marsh. The royal foot soldiers, no longer aided by the dragoons at their side, were sandwiched and massacred. There’s notably a significant chunk more to the brief battle as a whole, but that specific example is a perfect encapsulation of the battle as a whole. The episode, beautifully shot in close, intimate quarters, eschews the wide shots that would have made the “V” shape more obvious, but the episode got right down to the matter at hand and delivered the same result. The most iconic frame of the hour perhaps is the shot through the morning fog of a lone British soldier sentry, almost falling asleep with his musket standing upright and into the air. The drums and feet of the oncoming Scottish charge ring throughout the air and he looks up in startled fright right before a sword crashes right through his chest and his blood flies into the air.
The battle from that one striking shot is thrillingly executed. The heavy use of fog makes perfect sense from the morning setting onwards, cloaking the entire battle in an intense sense of terror. Perhaps due to budgetary constraints, Philip John’s camera eschews wide shots often found in war films and opts instead for a much more intimate look at the carnage that is unfolding. It works stunningly well within the context of an episode that is just as concerned with the meaning of death as the sheer quantity of it unfolding on screen, if not more. Placing Angus, Rupert, Ross, and Fergus into the midst of the fighting along with Jamie provides the emotional hook into the battle, crisscrossed consistently with scenes of Claire preparing the women for the sheer quantity of wounded men that may come through their door. Bear McCreary’s music fluctuates organically in between the battlefield and Claire’s caring, never allowing the audience to really forget the consequences of what was unfolding on the battlefield itself. There are small moments that undercut the bloodletting but never allow the battle itself to feel stagnant in any considerable fashion. The close-up of a British soldier cowering in terror, crying as Jacobites leaped over him hit hard. The shots of young Fergus’s battle enthusiasm quickly wafting away as the blood and noise bombasts around him. His tearful admission to Claire that he killed a British soldier with his knife was palpable in its loss of innocence. Flashbacks to what the characters were doing a moment ago rarely work well, but here those little bits and pieces of foreshadowing land quite neatly to allow for some of the heartbreak that was to arrive to land with just the right amount of power. Rupert was struck by General Cope but Angus took him down with a well-aimed shot of his gun. The two best friends grinned towards one another right before a cannon blast knocks Angus off of his feet and onto the ground. It looked like he hadn’t received an injury greater than a mild concussion, but as Claire discovers far too late, he was suffering from massive internal bleeding.
Angus’s death provides the tragedy from the Battle of Prestonpans, the one that hits the audience the most. Angus is a shameless man but a kindhearted, brave soul, loyal to a fault. He kept by Rupert’s side, making sure he didn’t die knowing at least to some extent what was happening to him. It’s a terribly way to go but there weren’t really that many options on that battlefield that were better at all. War is a terrible thing, a ridiculous thing in the sense of how often people have to be reminded of how terrible it really is. Angus didn’t expect to die by convulsing as blood poured out of his mouth but no one ever does and that adds immeasurable poignancy to the entire event, heightened by his request for a kiss from Claire in case he met his maker that day. There is always some semblance of humanity to be found in the time of war, however. I’m reminded of the Christmas Truce of World War I, where soldiers stopped fighting for twenty-four hours on the holiday. Some played games, others talked, some went into enemy territory to garner the fallen bodies of their comrades. For a singular day, there was an understanding of humanity and as the Jacobites and British shared a single tent, there was a similar sentiment afloat. Jamie holds the glass Claire gave for him to urinate in to check for any blood that may be there forward to a British officer, challenging him to see how far he could piss into the glass or if he would just miss it. It’s a nonsensical moment but in the midst of all the guts and little glory, where Dougal delves into his inhumanity be making sure that the British soldiers on the ground were actually dead, it’s a necessary respite to understand that no matter what happens on the battlefield, the human connection is essential. One side wins and logically another must lose but at the end of the day what matters the most is for one to be able to look into another’s eyes and not see an enemy, but a fellow human being. It doesn’t make the taste of war any sweeter, for victories in such battles are always a bit ephemeral, but it does provide a bit of hope. And at times where there is so much loss, that bit of hope can be the difference between everything and nothing at all.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Damn my liver!”
+“We are all brothers after all.”
+Claire obedient to an edict from her lord and master? Jamie’s smirk at that suggestion says it all
+“Gore and glory!”
+Lieutenant Anderson and his tip
+“Your death would have meaning.”
+“That’s not a very comforting thought.”
+“The day is ours.”
+Dougal interrupting and wanting British blood but Jamie skillfully placing him as the head of the Highlander Dragoons was ingenious. I suspect the outcome will be less so.
+“You expected the flavor of victory to taste sweeter?”
“The taste of war is always bitter, no matter the outcome.”
Episode Title: Prestonpans
Written by: Ira Steven Behr
Directed by: Philip John
Image Courtesy: Vanity Fair