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Outlander: “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs”

Illustration for article titled Outlander: “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs”
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Outlander has the best sex scenes on television. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have a lot to do with that, bringing the same level of full-bodied commitment to Claire and Jamie’s lovemaking as they do to any other scene. But Outlander’s sex scenes stand out because of how they’re shot and directed. There’s a considerable amount of restraint shown in the making of the scenes—not in the sense that they aren’t very sexually explicit, but rather in the focus and rhythm of the scenes. Outlander takes its time when it comes to sex. The scenes aren’t just focused entirely on the climax; in fact, Outlander’s sex scenes have a much more abstract and fluid trajectory than the much more limiting—not to mention heteronormative—foreplay, penetration, orgasm, fin pattern many sex scenes on television adhere to. “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs” opens on Claire, all limbs and sheets and sighs. The scene unfolds intimately, slowly, focusing on Claire’s pleasure throughout. It’s fully immersive, believable, beautiful, hot sex that’s imbued with real passion and emotion in a way that sex on TV usually doesn’t accomplish.

That kind of slow and careful pacing applies not only to just the sex scenes, but all of Outlander’s plotting. Since the beginning, Outlander has been a slow-moving series, but its pacing rarely bores. For one, it’s a stunning show, with the landscapes, intricate sets, handmade costumes, and intimate camerawork all working together to make for a very aesthetically stimulating experience. Outlander pulls you in without too much fanfare.

Take, for example, one of the most engaging scenes in tonight’s episode: Claire watches on as Geillis Duncan performs a dark magic ritual in the moonlight. The scene is definitely stylized, but for that minute, the story stops. There isn’t any dialogue. It’s a scene that entirely relies on mood and aesthetics. Geillis’s performance is sexy and foreboding, and even though it’s a break from all of the thrilling action of “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs,” it’s just as exciting and lends to the overall mystical themes of the episode.

Even though it allowed the writers to explore a different tone and point of view, dipping into Jamie’s mind in last week’s midseason premiere ultimately didn’t do the show many favors. The break from form isolated viewers from Claire, who is not only a more fleshed out character than Jamie but also just a more absorbing position to be in as a viewer. Outlander forces us to be sassenachs with Claire, so we explore this new world right by her side, making Claire’s emotional beats visceral and suspenseful. In “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs,” Jamie’s back to prioritizing Claire’s pleasure, and the writers are back to prioritizing Claire’s perspective, so that feeling of being squarely in the mind of our protagonist is back.

“By The Pricking Of My Thumbs” hits on all of Outlander’s strengths as it blends all of the series’s many genres. It has romance, mystery, and adventure, all packaged up in historical fiction and tied off with a fantastical bow. The episode twists and turns. People die. People murder. The series’s most fascinating non-Claire character, Geillis, returns to shake things up, and Lotte Verbeek absolutely nails the character’s confidence and wickedness. Whereas last week developed Claire and Jamie’s relationship, “By The Pricking Of My Thumbs” zooms in on the friendship between Claire and Geillis, and now the two are bound together in peril. Claire goes to great lengths to try and save Geillis, even though she knows she’s hiding dark secrets and murdered her own husband. But Geillis was one of the first people to show kindness to Claire in her new surroundings, and the two share an emotionally complex friendship that we haven’t had a chance to explore in a while because of the physical distance between them for several episodes.

Geillis owns most of the episode’s more riveting moments, and they’re marked with a distinct quietness and eeriness when compared to the louder, action-packed scenes of Dougal reacting to his wife’s death and Jamie participating in a duel gone wrong. “Quiet anger can be really effective,” Jamie says, as Claire dresses his wounds. Quiet suspense can also be really effective, sometimes exciting even more than clashing swords can. With the exception of the time travel element, Outlander has remained pretty grounded in reality. The spiritual and magical elements that enter the series happen in organic and understated ways so that we’re never quite sure whether there really is something supernatural going on or not. As Jamie explains to Claire, people believe what they want and need to believe. Outlander grants us that same leeway, teasing with hints of magic and witchcraft that add to the immersiveness of this world but never explicitly stating “yes, this is magic.”


Though not quite as nefariously as Geillis does, Claire also schemes and deceives in the episode, pressuring the Duke of Sandringham into accepting a petition of the charges waged against Jamie by using information she remembers Frank sharing in the past-future about the Duke’s support for the Jacobite cause. Even with all the restrictions and patriarchal social norms of her new world, Claire finds ways to take control of her life and wield power. Here, she uses knowledge as her weapon, going behind Jamie’s back to help save his life. Last week, Jamie realized that he and Claire have—or should have—equal power over one another. Even if he doesn’t quite realize it, she’s as much his protector and savior as he is hers. When Outlander plays with and obscures those lines between hero and victim, it becomes not only an exciting action-romance-time-travel-thriller, but also a smart and subversive series—one that’s adorned with smart and subversive sex scenes.

Stray observations:

  • I’ll let you in on the (not-so-secret) secret that I am a huge Claire/Geillis shipper, which is a pretty futile position to be in, but this episode certainly threw me a few bones. “You could have joined me, you know” nearly killed me.
  • I’m still not really a fan of this whole Evil Laoghaire development. I wish her villain origin story hinged on more than just unrequited love. The Outlander writers are smarter than this tired, gendered trope.
  • So Geillis totally knows Claire is from the future, right? I feel like the series has been hinting at that for a while now. She definitely knows something.
  • Geillis is literally a man-killing witch.
  • Geillis and Claire’s coats were so beautiful, that I reached toward my screen when I saw them. Give all the awards to costume designer Terry Dresbach.
  • Jamie and Claire reside in Castle Leoch proper, correct? So this counts as the second on-screen instance of cunnilingus in a castle.
  • I loved the look of panic on the Duke’s face when he told Jamie to make sure to tell Claire he had nothing to do with his injury. We should all fear Claire’s wrath.
  • That quick look Geillis gives to Dougal right before she starts screaming about her dead husband was another one of my favorite moments. Lotte Verbeek is so great at everything she does.