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Outlander uses silent film to hauntingly explore trauma and grief

Illustration for article titled iOutlander /iuses silent film to hauntingly explore trauma and grief
Image: Outlander (Starz)
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“Famous Last Words” deals with the traumatic aftermath of last episode’s haunting final image: Roger hung from a tree. He survives—with significant physical and mental trauma. And to explore this dark story of recovery and PTSD, Outlander breaks from its usual form. It’s a smart and surprising choice. Despite the show’s tendency to take a lot of narrative risks and combine several genres at once, the show has never played with form before quite like it does here. It’s a brilliant choice and one that achieves several things at once, keeping it from feeling like mere gimmick. By interweaving scenes styled like a silent film with its normal scenes, Outlander reinforces the cracks in Roger’s reality and perceptions as he grapples with significant trauma.

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The episode opens first with a flashback to Roger and Brianna’s time before in the future. Roger’s teaching his history students about the importance of words—specifically, last words. It’s an effective setup for the themes the episode contemplates but also a stark juxtaposition of Roger’s life before with his life now. In his life before, war and death were mostly things to be studied, concepts to be tilled for philosophical and cultural meaning. He was a professor and a historian, and he lectured on wars. He didn’t fight them. Roger imagines his final words with a heavy dose of fantasy and romance: “I’d say let history forget my name so long as my words and my deeds are remembered by those I love,” he muses for his students, eyes flitting over to Brianna who’s sitting in. Death and war do not allow room for such musings though. His death is brutal and lonely and violent, and there’s no time for final words. It’s all the result of a massive miscommunication, but it’s also the result of war, which Roger finds himself embroiled in in his new life in the past with Brianna.

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That contrast between his two lives is palpable. From the warm classroom we next transition hard into Jamie, Claire, and Brianna finding Roger hanged, filmed in the style of a silent film. The dialogue is sparse but urgent, conveying only what is exactly necessary in that utilitarian way that silent films use text. The rest has to be conveyed visually. Throughout the episode, Roger’s PTSD flashbacks take the form of these silent black-and-white images. It’s an effective way to establish just how disorienting and out-of-body these intrusive thoughts are for him. It also allows Outlander to really intimately show horrific images, slightly softening the gore of it. A close-up of Roger’s hands intertwined moments before he’s hanged is instantly stirring and also personal. Another shot shows what Roger sees through his hood. Even as it takes off some of the grisly edge, the silent film style also makes the scenes feel even more visceral, making Roger’s trauma immediately immersive.

Outside of these flashbacks, his hurt is palpable, too. His relationship with Brianna is fractured. She doesn’t quite understand why he won’t even try to talk or why he still struggles mentally even when he’s doing physically well according to Claire. Brianna has experienced her own traumas, but there’s still a rift between them, and while the relationship writing when it comes to these characters has been wobbly, it’s nuanced and intricate in “Famous Last Words” in ways that ring true. Brianna sings to Jemmy, and it’s meant to be a sweet moment, but just off to the side, Roger weeps, knowing he won’t sing to his son like he did before. The use of contrast and juxtaposition in the episode is exquisite, burrowing into ideas of how trauma splits the self. One of the more devastating instances of the silent film interruptions happens when Roger tries to play the ukulele. Music used to be a passion of his, but now even that can’t provide escape. Roger feels trapped, alone, depressed, and all of these deep, affective emotions are expertly embedded in these scenes. The acting and direction are both at their finest. Slow fades throughout the episode lend a somber feeling.

“You’re still the man I married, and I want him back,” Brianna says, frustrated. It’s not a fair accusation, but it comes from a very believable place. Her monologue is tough to watch, because it’s true that she felt pressured to continue on with life in the wake of her trauma for the sake of both Roger and Jemmy, but it’s also true that not everyone works through trauma in the same way or on the same timeline. There’s no real roadmap for any of this. And Brianna’s frustration only widens the divide between them. Roger further retreats into himself.

There are other happenings in the episode, including the sudden return of Young Ian, who swoops in to save the day when a wild boar interrupts Jamie and Claire playing a very cute game of hide-and-seek with Jemmy. Ian’s arc parallels Roger’s. He’s similarly evasive and silent, struggling to fit neatly back into his old life. When Marsali tries to fill him in on her life, all bubbly and hopeful, Ian pulls back. Like Roger, he struggles to accurately express his pain when surrounded by people who seem to rather casually just be going about their lives.

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Outlander then deftly intertwines the two men’s arcs, forcing their fates together when Tryon offers up a chunk of land to Roger. He needs someone who knows how to work the land, so he teams up with Young Ian. In the woods, away from the others, with only each other’s company and an implicit understanding that they’ve suffered similarly, they visibly relax. There’s an easy comfort between them and zero pressure to share. “It flies but does not sing,” Ian says of the paper plane—which he calls a paper bird. It’s an obvious metaphor for Roger, but it’s a genuinely tender moment between them. Roger still has nightmares of his hanging when he’s with Ian, but Ian is also the first person to really make him feel assured about those flashbacks, to ground him by reminding him he isn’t there but here.

Both struggle with thoughts of suicide, though Roger decides to live when he remembers Brianna’s face on the brink of his near-death. Ultimately, it wasn’t the last words that mattered; it was the last visual. Again, the silent film device perfectly evokes this. Last words sound grand and romantic, especially to a historian. But that’s not how memory and feelings always translate.

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Claire notices that some of her hemlock has been stolen, intensifying the suspense enveloping Ian and Roger. Claire even thinks it might have been Roger who swiped it. But it’s Ian who has taken it, and it turns out he lost someone he loved, though we don’t get all the details. Which is fine. Part of the point is that Ian doesn’t want to talk about it; he isn’t ready. Just like Roger isn’t ready to really try talking again. The episode situates itself firmly in Roger and Ian’s heads and asserts that healing requires more than patience. It’s a long, grueling, sometimes never-ending process. It’s a contemplative and layered exploration of grief, and the silent film experiment yields brilliant results.

Stray observations

  • I do wish the show consistently treated Brianna’s trauma with as much nuance and while giving her as much agency as it does for Roger and Ian here.
  • Usually episodes that are light on Claire and Jamie are not the best, but this episode absolutely shines even with minimal scenes of its two protagonists.
  • Now I absolutely understand why there were so many scenes of Roger singing earlier in the season.
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