Through the Stones
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
A dragonfly is symbolic of transition. It can symbolize the turning of seasons, the comings and goings of relationships, the distinctly different direction one’s life might be headed in as they stand upon a precipice, defined or otherwise. It’s quite a vague, broad symbol and in that sense it can be frustrating but I find the ubiquitous nature of the dragonfly’s meaning to be thoroughly fascinating in its layered complexity. There’s a sort of poetic, dramatic beauty to the symbol and it plays out in more ways throughout tonight’s finale than perhaps the episode intended, but that largely turns out to be a complement to the quality of writing on display. On the surface the title evokes the name of the source material that has provided the blueprint for the show’s second season, a title that in and of itself seamlessly evokes the true heart and soul of Outlander’s journeys. Amber stones are not, as people sometimes think off the bat, gemstones at all. They’re fossilized tree sap, famed as much for their unique color as what is sometimes found thinly veiled behind their golden shimmer. Amber stones are symbolic as a good luck charm of sorts, meant to bring in healing powers for marriage and love. Its encasing of a dragonfly is a brilliant piece of thematic poetry from Diana Gabaldon, the symbol of transition being encased within a symbol of love and a representative of time. Dragonfly in Amber as an episode represents the most seismic shift in the story of Outlander, where the narrative transcended the boundaries of space and time in stronger forces than ever before, transitioning the story to include the next generation of those who might travel through the stones of Craigh na Dun. It’s a gutsy narrative construction in almost every sense of the word but beyond neatly bookending the season opening in 1948 after Claire’s return it also points to how Outlander itself has grown. The series has become confident enough in its storytelling acumen and the attention of its audience that it no longer feels the pressure to wrap every chapter of Gabaldon’s magnum opus before moving onto the next one.
There’s a great deal of momentum satisfaction in Dragonfly in Amber, only occasionally stifled because of a ninety-minute running time that didn’t feel completely necessary. The Battle of Culloden looms like a shadow of death over the entire proceedings and understandably so. The carnage that doomed the cause of Scottish independence has been a focal point of Claire’s journey from the series’s very beginning and it may at the onset feel odd that the battle itself is barely existent in the episode. It really doesn’t need to be in all honesty. The outcome is known, is felt, and the resolution to the bloody fields can wait until the opening of season three. It’s a choice that may annoy some but with Claire realizing at the episode’s closing moments that Jamie indeed survived the Battle of Culloden, that dramatic tension would have been cut short if the battle had already played out. There is nevertheless an inescapable feeling that that chapter of Outlander has come to an end, that no matter what remains of the story in Scotland (one would understandably expect a great deal), the arc of Scottish independence is going to transition into a new set of challenges for our protagonists to face. That chapter of Outlander’s history is over and the wheels towards a new pathway have been inserted neatly throughout this finale whose emotional crux focuses once more upon Claire. But it won’t be forgotten certainly, it could never be. Outlander has an admirable grasp of history (a good thing as it is a work of historical fiction), including most vitally its seeming finality and consequences. The entirety of the second season has been largely constructed around the plot of Claire and Jamie trying to overturn history and avoid the catastrophic carnage that awaited the Highlanders but time and time again they fell into history’s fierce, relentless grasp. The relationship with history is key to Outlander’s newest major characters, who struggle with the past as much as Claire (well, one more so than the other to be quite fair) but in uniquely different understandings. History is as open to interpretation as is art, even if there are arguably more underlying realities in existence. Those interpretations form an individual’s truest relationship with the constructs of history and those clashes drove much of the dramatic tension and largely in a hugely satisfying manner.
Claire in 1968 is a surgeon, a woman of great accomplishment whom always lived in another world, as her daughter Brianna so aptly, so sharply put. The relationship between Claire and Brianna, notably slightly icy at the Reverend’s funeral (which opened the finale) drives much of the aforementioned character tension, their relationships with their own histories and indeed their intertwining one brimming with grief, loss, hurt, and a sense of distance that neither of them could really grasp and or explain to one another. Claire had promised Frank that she would never bring up her relationship with Jamie again, that they would never raise Brianna with the knowledge that she was in fact his daughter and not Frank’s. But the specter of Jamie never left and it remained intact at least in name. Every time Claire uttered her daughter’s name throughout her childhood and through her adolescence as she grew to an adult, there was the shadow of Jamie reverberating from her lips. An experience like the one Claire had with Jamie isn’t in any sense a simple one, an experience that could be forgotten upon the whims of wind. It was a life she had led, a different world she had been a part of. She could never let that go, never truly be able to detach herself from, no matter what she had ended up promising Frank for the sake of their future together. Now Frank had gone and Claire was still in a sense steeped in her past. It’s inferable that Claire threw herself into her work to escape that sense of an overwhelming past while closing that part of her existence off to her only child. She couldn’t love Frank like she did before, she couldn’t be his wife the way she was before and that sense of respect but without unconditional love made its way down to Brianna’s understanding of whom her mother was. There’s nothing that suggests that Claire didn’t raise Brianna with the love and affection we would expect of her but hiding such a vital aspect of her existence would inherently create a distinctive barrier that Brianna wouldn’t be able to cross until Claire allowed her to do so. And when that barrier opened, it became the equivalent of a lifetime of emotional floodgates cascading forward and Claire suddenly finds herself free of her greatest secret but overburdened with distrust, hurt, and hate. Frank had somehow believed her but Brianna was different. She could hardly bring herself to reckon that the kindest man in the world wasn’t in fact her father. Time travel was a completely different beast.
Brianna is an intriguing character, brimming with Jamie’s impatience and bravado while retaining Claire’s knowing, stubbornness, and that wholehearted belief in her independence. Her dialogue at times, one of the finale’s fee weaknesses, feels too on the nose, as if the writers either haven’t fully grasped her character yet and or want to ensure that the audience understands whom she is within the episode. It’s a small quibble but the dichotomy shows within the episode itself. Brianna has a plethora of quieter, more understated moments that are brimming with emotional subtext that Sophie Skelton brings quite sharply to the front. At times those moments are unfortunately undercut by pointed dialogue that puncture the scene and unnecessarily so, leaving behind a bit of a sense of lacking fulfillment when it wasn’t necessary. The rat satire was one of those perfect, understated moments. Skelton’s natural chemistry with the fantastic Richard Rankin comes organically to the forefront before Brianna’s light falls upon a box simply entitled “Randall”. Brianna’s relationship with Claire was always behind that aforementioned barrier and in part because Frank didn’t have that level of emotional attachment to Claire’s secret, he was able to simply be the parent with whom Brianna could bring herself to bond more. As Brianna grew, that sense of disconnect from Claire only became more strongly intertwined with Claire’s brilliance, her seeming perfection distancing Brianna still further from her mother. When she learns of Claire’s seeming infidelity, a part of Brianna can’t help but feel happy that the mother she had found to be so impenetrably perfect wasn’t that, that there was a chink in her armor that suddenly made her that much more human, that much more relatable. But it’s a chink that gets right to the heart of her identity and she can’t take any joy, wallowing instead in a whirlwind of negative emotions she can’t comprehend, let alone grapple with.
Brianna notes that she enjoys history being made but history of the type she witnessed was something she clearly never had in mind. The first note was a bit more on the routine side (if one can say that), with Brianna witnessing a rally of a firebrand nationalist party named The White Roses of Scotland. Understanding perhaps the historical pattern that everyone should be wary of political groups with overly verbose names (or that include a variation of “People’s Party”), she observes a woman named Gillian Edgers rile up the crowd with cries of “We are Bonnie Prince Charlie!” The Outlander audience cringes but while the crowd eats it up, Brianna stands back with a more critical eye. There’s a less direct attachment there as well, to be sure, but Brianna asks the sharp questions that nationalist politicians like Gillian often are afraid to address because they unravel their arguments. But Gillian welcomes those questions, answering Brianna’s inquiries and leaving behind a distinct impression on the visiting American even though Brianna doesn’t care for her particular firebrand politics. It’s a welcome return for the incredible Lotte Verbeek, germane both in its independent origin and how it provides proof to Brianna that her mother hadn’t, as she had surmised, gone completely insane. Gillian, for her part, had done what Claire had when she went through Craigh na Dun but she had planned everything out meticulously. She had, as her forlorn husband cried, spent a plethora of his money on random folklore courses (which is totally cool if that’s your thing) in between spreading her nationalist rhetoric. What Greg saw as foolhardy, however, would prove quickly to be his undoing. Gillian had taken all of those courses to find out how she could make the magic at Craigh na Dun work in favor of her cause. Her top two notes, for lack of a better phrase, were that the magic of the stones required a human sacrifice and that gemstones would protect her through her journey (well, the second part didn’t pan out). Claire is desperate to make sure that Brianna is able to catch some proof of Geillis’s attempts to get through the stones, an attempt she knows will be successful. They arrive in the nick of time for the three of them to witness Greg’s burning body filling the air with a macabre, putrid smell. The flames are reaching into the air as a fiery glow envelops the stone as if an ephemeral being, Gillian almost swims towards the stones, placing her hand upon them before she disappears right through them.
Dragonfly in Amber is at its heart Claire’s story and it once again rises to the occasion on the strength of the show’s most complex, powerful character. The writers simply understand Claire more than anyone else and even if anything else falters, when Claire comes into command the narrative, all the mistakes are at the very least largely forgiven. Caitriona Balfe never ceases to amaze me with the strength of her performances and without her absolute command of the incredible complexities of Claire’s inner turmoils, this episode wouldn’t have packed nearly the emotional punch and emotional punching (for lack of a better phrase) is where Outlander truly excels. From the moment where she walks around the Reverend’s house, to her heart to heart at Clan Fraser’s tombstone on the battlefield of Culloden, Balfe commands the screen and even if one doesn’t see exactly what is happening on screen, the emotions convened through her visage are tremendously powerful in and of themselves. Key to note is Claire and Jamie’s good-bye at Craigh na Dun. The sounds of the impending doom in battle sound in the background as Claire and Jamie have sex for what they believe to be the final time. I can’t say enough about the chemistry between Sam Heughan and Balfe (at least something that hasn’t been said yet), but that moment was beyond heartbreaking. I’m not much of a romantic in the mainstream sense, but when it is brought forth with so much passion and emotional truth, there’s hardly a complaint to be truly had. Jamie grasps Claire’s hand and they push it quietly towards the stones, with the hope that a brighter future lies ahead for Claire and their future child. That paralleling final moment where Claire realizes through Brianna and Roger that Jamie is alive may very well be Balfe’s finest performance yet. Her eyes brim with all of the hopes for the past, present, and future and the camera moves confidently towards the stones. For its flaws, for its admitted cheesiness, that final moment encapsulates the transition of Outlander into a new story, the moment when the story snapped shut Act I and moved confidently towards Act II. It works, everything works and every little thing that irked me or felt a little off (some of the dialogue, the writing, the movement of plot), it didn’t end up mattering very much. Outlander for now grabbed me emotionally in ways few stories are able to do and I patiently await what it brings forth in the following season. Sláinte!
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Diana Rigg on The Avengers!!!!!!!
+“Now I can’t bear to part with any of it.”
+“That’s the hell of it, isn’t it?”
+The Bible metaphors with Bonnie Prince Charlie are brilliant
+Claire’s visit to the ruins of Lallybroch
+The fight to the death between Jamie and Dougal was beautifully choreographed. Claire did end up helping bleed someone out, it just happened not to be Black Jack Randall.
+“They’ve taken a fool and turned him into a hero.”
+Hugh’s gift of a dragonfly in amber
+“Good-bye, Jamie Fraser. My love.”
+“How about we keep an open tab instead?”
+“It smells like a fuckin’ barbecue.”
+“I’ll find you, I swear.”
+“Lord, you gave me a rare woman. God, I loved her well.”
+“Blood of my blood. And bone of my bone. As long as we shall live…”
+“I have to go back.”
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, folks. Please stick around to create a new community for Outlander fans. I will be waiting patiently for season three and I hope to see all of you and your wonderful discussions once more!
Episode Title: Dragonfly in Amber
Written by: Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts
Directed by: Philip John
Image Courtesy: Outlander TV News