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Outlander: “Castle Leoch”

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan (Starz)
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It’s time for Claire Beauchamp to say goodbye to 1945. In a beautiful sequence, she sheds the only remains of the era she came from, removing her now tattered white dress and allowing head housekeeper Mrs. Fitz (Annette Badland) to dress her in the many layers of more era-appropriate garb. The transformation marks a sharp turning point for the character, as life for Claire is suddenly all about adapting to survive. It’s also an early turning point for Outlander, which dragged so slowly in its first episode that it teetered on the verge of boring. “Castle Leoch,” however, enchants with its relentlessly foreboding tone.

This week, Claire arrives at the fully functional Castle Leoch, wandering the very halls she and Frank explored just days before. Only that had been in the 20th century, when the castle held nothing but shadows and decay. Now, in 1743, it brims with danger and uncertainty. The writers perfectly build that tension by keeping us tightly confined to Claire’s perspective. We only get to see the grisly parts of Jamie’s past that he articulates to her. Claire doesn’t understand Gaelic, so the Gaelic dialogue remains un-subtitled. It’s frustrating, but smart, because it makes us feel exactly like we’re Claire. We only know as much as she does, and that means we too are fully immersed in this alien world and have to start putting the pieces together alongside our protagonist. We’re in this now.

So because Claire has no idea who to trust, neither do we. We meet Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis), the castle’s laird, who seems harmless at first but spends the episode slowly chipping away at Claire’s interrogation defense tactics learned from Frank. The heavy tension that oozes throughout the episode reaches its peak during dinner, when Claire’s assumed backstory starts to fall apart and Colum and his much more nefarious brother Dougal (Graham McTavish) decide she must be hiding something.

Technically, not much happens in “Castle Leoch,” and for all the complaining I did about pacing last week, you’d think I’m highlighting this as a fault. But Outlander’s restraint this week works, because whereas the pilot slowed things down with clunky and seemingly unnecessary exposition, “Castle Leoch” spends its time crafting character work and mood, thrilling not with gore or flashy spectacle but with perfectly executed suspense. The aforementioned dinner scene serves as the unlikely climax, but the fact that such a simple scene can be so spine-chilling speaks wonders to the tightness of the dialogue and to Balfe’s powerful performance: You can see the subtle shifts in her expression as the wine and Colum’s questions dissolve her composure. Every peaceful moment Claire finds herself in is sharply interrupted by the narrowed eyes of the MacKenzie men. They think she’s a British spy, and it becomes very apparent that she won’t be leaving their watch any time soon. Even Claire’s encounter with a potential new friend, Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) spells danger, as Verbeek plays the local healer with a touch of seductive darkness.


And the best part of all of this is that even while surrounded by unmistakable threat, Claire avoids becoming the obliging waif the inhabitants of Leoch expect her to be. She springs into action, knowing that the only way to get back to her time is to get used to this one. If this were Westeros, we might say she knows how to play the game. But even as she dons the apparel and adopts the colloquialisms, she remains the same cheeky woman we met in 1945. “For a woman, you ask too many questions,” spits Dougal’s crony. “So I’ve been told,” she retorts, suggesting challenging gender roles has kind of been her thing well before the time jump. The fact that we’re taking this journey through the perspective of a woman makes things infinitely more interesting, especially because Claire so closely resembles the archetypal reluctant male hero we’re used to seeing in the fantasy genre. Outlander seems determined to flip that script.

Stray observations:

  • Again with the witch tease! But alas, Geillis isn’t a witch, just a village abortion provider, basically.
  • Claire’s response to Colum when he asks why a knight would attempt to rape a stranger in the woods for no good reason: “Is there ever a good reason for rape?” Thank you, Claire. Never change.
  • Claire, on what Frank must be thinking: She was abducted; she was murdered; or, “worst of all,” she left him for another man. Sounds like Frank has questionable priorities.
  • Mrs. Fitz’s face when she sees Claire’s bra.
  • Because we’ve been confined to Claire’s perspective, I kind of assumed the cut to Frank looking for her in the present was just what she was imagining and not what he was literally doing. Based on comments, it sounds like a lot of people want more Frank and therefore more cuts to the present, but I kind of hope I’m right about this because while limiting, I think seeing things through Claire’s eyes and Claire’s eyes only is very important to the series (even though that’s not at all how I felt in the case of something like the Hunger Games books).
  • No cunnilingus in a castle this time, but the sexual tension between Claire and Jamie builds with every new bandage. Can anyone verify whether dressing someone’s wounds in real life is as sexy as it always is on television? Let me know.

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