I did something novel with regards to Outlander and life this week. I took Matt B Roberts’ advice (from After The Episode) and watched episode 508 twice. Because yes, upon watching it the first time I was caught up in my emotions (so accurate, Matt!), emotions of incredulity, irritation and indignation over the most bonkers gimmick of all time.
And after watching it again? Still pissed. I was right.
It can be a bold choice for an established television drama to use a gimmick episode midway through a season. (“Is bold the right word?”) A musical episode. A character point-of-view switcheroo. An alternate ending. A dream sequence. It can shake up a storyline or refresh a relationship or pinpoint a tonal shift. It can be done well.
Critics can often look at a show’s gambit for creativity with a generous lens: hailing the writers for bringing nuance to a tired trope, or lauding the brave leap the production took away from its winning formula to produce something indelible, lofty, unique. Somehow, I don’t think Outlander Episode 508 “Famous Last Words” is going to go down quite like that.
The episode “Famous Last Words” is going to forever be known in the Outlander fandom as the “Silent Movie One” in the same way that “The Search” is the “Traveling Circus One” and “Creme de Menthe” is the “Worst One.” The show runners, along with director Stephen Woolfenden and new writer Danielle Berrow (who I am not blaming) decided that the cinematic edge of Roger’s post-hanging trauma would be sharper with a different visual medium than straight storytelling. That different visual medium: the silent movie and intertitles, ie The Gimmick.
Gimmicks themselves are not an issue. What show runners using gimmicks decide to throw into the mix can often sharpen the emotional underpinnings of a character’s journey or can set plot-lines that will have a big pay off when the format returns to its roots. The problem (among many) is that Outlander is already rife with gimmicks. It’s a period piece that is also a time-travel show that incorporates nonsensical and non-linear flashbacks and just last week used a beloved actor who played a long-dead character as that character’s unknown illegitimate son. It’s gimmicks galore.
And even if you are going to use a cinematic gimmick to highlight a character’s trauma, shouldn’t that device relate in some way to the character as already portrayed? Outlander decided to introduce that Roger used to enjoy silent films in his Oxford days at a time when somehow Bree was also with him in Oxford? Neither of those things have been established. Roger is an Oxfordian historian and a Scottish boomer who likes folk music and old books. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he’s into Charlie Chaplin, but there’s already quite a well of backstory to draw from if he needs a story-telling stunt. They didn’t need to pull one tangentially related to his suffering out of a bowler hat.
And when I say “tangentially related” I mean that I understand the greater metaphor they’re using. The silent movie for the character who is refusing to talk, whose voice has been damaged by his torture. A character who throughout the episode begins to process that trauma from black and white to sepia to color, from unreality to resignation to triumph. WE GET IT. It’s just not at all visually or narratively compelling.
Instead it was belabored. Each silent movie interlude felt a million years long. Each one robbed us of the emotion of the moment and turned them into stunts. I truly cannot believe that we didn’t see the full scenes of Jamie, Claire and Bree cutting Roger down, grief-stricken, realizing he wasn’t dead and shifting to saving his life. I can’t believe we didn’t get to see Buck Mackenzie giving him over. If there was one gimmick they should have drawn out, it was using more Graham MacTavish.
Not only that, but they robbed the audience of the gravitas of that moment. It already felt like a slowly leaking party balloon when the camera lingered too long on Bree’s face and Jamie’s slow recovery time at realizing it was Roger and moving to cut him down at the end of episode 507. Bearing this scene all the way out, giving us the emotion, the tears, the drama and the relatability of those moments under the tree would have brought his full circle comeback to a greater payoff.
Instead of spending so much time in episode 508 with a silent Roger, we could have been treated to the villainous machinations of Buck and his cohorts. The aftermath of the Battle of Alamance. And as a bonus, we would have had a lot less plaintive Bree begging Roger to deal with his shit. The juxtaposition of her having to beg him to engage with his family after he was hung by reminding him that she was brutally raped was a stark reminder that this show used to do something very different than it’s doing now.
Top Moments from Outlander Episode 508
Here’s the thing, those first emotions when you are watching a television show, for most people, are the experience of the television show. We were all shocked to our socks watching The Tiger King because every single person on it was crazy. We all bawled our eyes out watching Unorthodox because the story is harrowing and uplifting. Your first impressions matter, and when it comes to a world in which the TV-watching possibilities are endless, you can’t ask viewers to give you a second and a third chance just to not be pissed. That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.
My first impression of Outlander Episode 508: incredulous boredom. I absolutely did not want to watch the silent film bits. I was angry, frustrated and uninterested. I couldn’t believe that they were incorporating that device so heavily. It made the episode drag and kept me from being engaged. Only when watching it again was I able to push away that boredom and irritation and focus on what I did like about the episode. But man, the show based on one of my favorite book series, that had such a stellar episode two weeks ago, should not be that much work. But it had its moments.
A bright ray of sunshine, the writers are consistently giving Marsali good content this season. She took the light reins of connecting where the entire cast of characters are now with where they have been and what they have been through during her conversation with Young Ian about family. The easy reminder that the two of them grew up together, have a shared history, and now have a shared family was a potent one. I don’t understand why she has suddenly taken to tarot reading or why they haven’t given some equally compelling material to Fergus, but so far I have no complaints about Laoghaire’s firstborn. She’s the one character who connects with everyone.
Young Ian Returns
Surprise! He’s back. He’s back early. He’s morose. He’s killing boar. He’s making poison tea. He’s foreshadowing future drama.
But as happy as I was to see him, I don’t believe that Young Ian would ever have been suicidal. Obviously, he’s going through some stuff, but why come all the way home just to not tell them what’s up and take yourself out of their lives right after bounding back into them? Despite that epic and unrelenting sadface, it was not believable that this version of Ian was ready or willing to take his life.
Give Claire more bairns to play with. I cannot wait for next season when they are all preschoolers, engaging in poop jokes and completely wild while she tries to … idk do whatever Claire does in book 6; I haven’t read that far.
I’m reserving this top moment for only one grandparent because Jamie, despite interacting with his grandson, is never closer than 3 feet from him and I find that wholly unbelievable. Is Sam Heughan allergic to children? Jamie’s tactile and his love language is affection. Fight me over it, but he would have swung Jemmy up in his arms after he found him hiding behind that tree. He would have had him on his knee while giving Claire that Gaelic lesson.
We saw a lot of it. I think Richard Rankin did a great job with portraying Roger’s trauma in an episode that was way too much about Roger’s trauma. Previous episodes about a character’s trauma have also incorporated other plot lines and character arcs. This one, not so much. Just Roger’s face. Sometimes Ian’s. As a foil. Fun times.
Hotness Thy Name is John
Oh, and Lord John Grey apparently can just hang out in North Carolina whenever he wants, bringing news and official papers and astrolabes and stealing scenes that belong to Bree and her Da and chemistry that belongs to Bree and her husband. Yay, David Berry, your spinoff is looking imminent.
Join us Monday night at 8pm EST/5pm PT for Hangoutlander. We will sort all of this nonsense out and come up with about seventeen different ways in which this episode could have been better. IT WILL BE FUN.
Click for all the Outlander coverage at The Cool Table.
Beth is the proud sponsor of two little women and a huge fan of fandom. She took 3 years of Latin in high school and now speaks fluent pretension, which fully explains her current preference for gay wizard regency novels. She will roll over for a giant book with a map in the front. She takes comic book recommendations every day but Wednesday and TV recommendations never (she knows what's good).