Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

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Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, the first of two annual camps (also in July), I continue and hope to reinvigorate the process of writing my 2016 NaNo novel based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Currently, I have a detailed plot outline, my main characters are taking shape, and I’m zeroing in on the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve drafted almost the first half of the story, but many of those scenes and especially several pieces of exposition probably will require significant rewriting to match the second half’s focus and character arcs.

My Camp NaNo goal is to finish the first draft of the whole story by April 30–however disjointed, incoherent, or mediocre it might be. Forward momentum! The summary and excerpt below represent my latest clues to what the final draft may become.

To see hints of the slow, unsteady development of the project since last summer, see this seed, a snapshot on the cusp of its germination, and the small bud of a key scene‘s rough draft.


Happy writing and reading this month, which is also National Poetry Month. For ideas on how to celebrate poetry, visit my list of suggestions from last year. Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 27th this year. Whatever you’ve got going, I wish you the best. Enjoy!

Plus, nature lovers, don’t forget to watch The Zoo tonight at 10pm EDT on Animal Planet, and Wild Scotland starting tomorrow at 8pm EDT on NatGeoWild. My post from earlier this week about TV nature programs and Scotland nature tourism can be found here.


I’ll soon share some other projects seeking fertile soil.

Summary: Novel synopsis-in-progress (drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17)

A fantasy tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

Hunted Song novel excerpt (3/28/17, rev 4/1/17):

A story was told. Another was told after that. A minimum of three short stories or two longer ones would always be spoken in any given sitting where storytellers and story hearers gathered together.

Every story told was a try on the part of a contestant. It was a storytelling contest. Each contestant was a member of the Looking-Glass Land community, a long-standing member of the fellowship of the realm. No one was new. No one was young. No one was particularly old. The Royals were an exception. The White Royals looked wizened. The Red Royals, middle aged.

Storytelling had once been merely a pastime as popular as baking and walking in Looking-Glass Land. As popular as tea time. In fact, stories were often told over hearths and tea tables and tea sets. Tea things were the natural scenery for a storytelling session. Like other pastimes, preoccupations, and cultural rituals, the tradition of storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came with many rules. There were particular steps to be taken in the telling of a story. Specific qualities each story must have. A certain size an audience must have in number, to represent a story telling properly. Like tea time in England, storytelling in Looking-Glass Land had a certain order of operations to it.

As times grew harder, the wizened, middle-aged and neither youthful nor old inhabitants of the land grew more serious, less playful, less tolerant of creativity, invention, new ideas, new characters, or, eventually, any new stories. The only stories permitted were stories that had been told many times before. Known stories. Stories people had heard over and over again. Stories that became in their telling like the reciting of a pledge each morning in school or the swearing of an oath for public office. Familiar, unoriginal, the same–always the same. Even the wording had become regimented so that each well-known story could only be told in exactly one way with exactly the same words from start to finish, every time.

The contest continued, however. It became a competition in style of delivery. The stories never changed, so contestants needed only to memorize the content, and the rest could take on a variety of bellowing, shrill screeching, whispering, and outrageous inflections, dramatic pauses, vibrations and other sound effects, as well as musical accompaniment of every kind. Even a technique such as ventriloquism had been a trend at one time, but eventually, the crowds began to crave more elaborate movements on the part of the storytellers and from any actors they chose to act out the events of the tale.

You may think, So what? Stories are popular because they are told over and over again. When a story is repeatedly shared, it means it is popular. This can be true. However, the people of Looking-Glass Land took repetition to a whole other level. There were never to be any new stories of any kind for any purpose. Even recounting the events of one’s day to one’s family came to carry with it very strict rules and restrictions. Such recollections could only be so long and would not be permitted to be repeated outside the family circle within hearing range of other families or anywhere in public.

This was at first very difficult for people to comply with, as you might imagine. But over time, with practice, and a few minor adjustments to the rules, as with many things grown easier with habit, recitative storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came into its own. Upon visiting the land at such a time, you would note that it was as if no one had ever heard an original story, so much so that it mattered little who had originated the stories in the general repertoire. The creators had been forgotten, and no one mourned the loss of their memory. Memory instead became less and less important, and forgetfulness became au courant and du jour, as the French might say of more benign customs.

As a result, even short-term memory became devalued and less tenable among the people. This had reached a level of such ridiculousness that an outsider would find it absolutely comical how poorly the people held facts, events, even names in their memory, how few things they remembered while traveling from point A to point B, even just down the road from their houses. A side effect of this was that the Looking-Glass Landers were constantly getting lost in their own neighborhoods and villages, and needed help from a kindly neighbor they’d sought help from a thousand times before but whom at the moment they could not recognize. They could only hold so much information in those dry, unused brain muscles, you see.

The lack of need for invention, creativity, new ideas, or any kind of refreshing of activity had an even more devastating impact. It created scores of demented community members, folks with early onset Alzheimer’s, as it were, though they wouldn’t be able to spell that word let alone hold their own attention long enough to grasp its meaning. To try to remember the term? Forget it! And so they would.

This chronic, permanent forgetfulness applied to all things. There were occasional anomalies among the villagers in the thoughts they managed to commit to memory in their own clandestine ways, even while original storytelling became illegal, in both spoken and written form. Mainly, though, among most of the population, to forget was to comply, and to recite was patriotic. It was a way to pay homage to the stories the kingdom had declared the best, most worthy tales to be passed down from generation to generation in Looking-Glass Land. It could therefore hardly be noticed when the variation in delivery of these rote storytelling activities gradually lessened as well.

Like the flappers on the floating island world discovered by Gulliver, the people of Looking-Glass Land devised a means of support for their forgetfulness, to steer them aright and keep them from wandering forever aimlessly amidst their brooks, woods, and meadows. One of these devices was a system of concrete roads on which were painted in permanent pigments instructions to every destination known in the land to every other destination, as well as labels several points in advance of reaching a destination to remind the traveller that the arrival was imminent.

This worked even in cases where the person was in fact closer to their point of origin than they were to their designated destination. With abysmal short-term memory, the misguided could be guided best only by counter-factual signs and directions exaggerating the distance, the nearness, the direction, and the size of the places people sought to reach.

In fact, in our land, with our far superior short-term remembering skills (trust me, even you with poor short-term memory have nothing on these characters), we would interpret these overdone instructions as patently false, utter lies, and deep absurdities.

And who made such systems, you ask? Why, the government of course! They were naturally exempt from the restrictions they decreed. They became the parents, nurses, and shepherds of their people, and they could do very much as they liked, always, without challenge or correction or fear.

Such was the state of Looking-Glass Land in the years around the time Alice made her historic visit.

Actually, that would have been her second visit, if memory serves. Alice had been to Looking-Glass Land before, and the results of the first visit differed greatly from what that old fart Charles Dodgson professed them to be in his famous novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It’s really quite funny. For a man who treasured his memories of childhood and later friendships with children so dearly, he proved to have significant memory problems of his own when it came to the fictional worlds he himself had created.

As an outsider myself, from the next country of Wonderland, I saw what went on in Looking-Glass Land with my own eyes. I possess certain . . . powers that made these observations easier. Because of my unique circumstances and close investigation, I can tell you how it really happened, and I will very shortly. I only hope your memory is not so short. I hope that you will be able to learn and benefit from this history–for everyone’s sake. Perhaps having this written form to re-read and refer to will aid you in that endeavor. I bid you good luck and urge you to make an effort, if you can.

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

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Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.

 

Scottish Color: A Photo Essay

From my trip photo collection, sample the colors and textures of Scotland.

Stirling Castle and environs is one of the most colorful places on Scottish soil. From the castle’s view of varied shades of green hills and darker trees, to rows of gray houses below and its flagged, green terraces above flower gardens, to the sumptuous tapestries, royal bedroom furniture, majestic banners, interactive kids’ exhibits, period re-enactors, to paintings and fabrics on wall, floor, and ceiling, this historic seat of power is well worth more than one visit. And don’t forget the Wallace National Monument on the next tree-covered hill to the northeast.

Besides being uniquely spectacular in mountain majesty, Glencoe is Glen Colorful. Most striking to me in contrast to shorter deciduous-covered hills of the Ohio Valley and the sharper, starker, browner Rocky Mountains in the States are the blankets of green that cover the slopes of many of these ancient peaks in the Scottish Highlands. It’s my kind of green mountain.

Some leafy trees sprinkle about them, creep up their sedimentary seams where the water rushes to the bottom. But some later-installed conifers in Argyll, the Cairngorms, and periodically up the Great Glen impose themselves like patches of black-on-black tartan made too small for its wearer. Forestry efforts compete with natural beauty. The most prized evergreens are the Caledonian forests of Scots pine, now mere remnants in the country.

All over Scotland, with a high average rainfall, green is the go-to background color. Lichens, mosses, grasses and ferns are just a few of the non-arboreal results of this pervasive canvas. Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh and the plethora of green spaces in Glasgow, which means “dear green place” from the (correction) “green hollow” in Gaelic, attest to green’s primacy in Scotland.

Red is another dominant hue in both wild and domestic Scotland. Red deer, red squirrels, Highland cows, some spray-painted sheep, and various burgundy, rust, and orange and yellow flora mingle with the greens. Ferns fade into bracken with the fall, and heather pops magenta-purple and then fizzles grey into autumn across the country’s vast moors and storied glens. Sandstone is the other big red. The Beauly Priory is a breathtaking example of ruins made largely of red sandstone.

Lilac purples add magic to the greens and reds in both sun and shade, not just with the plentiful heather but with foxgloves, gems in cultivated gardens, and of course, the national flower, the thistle. But many flowers and plants retain their bright colors well into winter, re-blooming periodically, and the typical temperate-zone transition from green summer into red, yellow, orange, and brown fall happens in Scotland, too.

Sheep are everywhere, like the grass they munch, and you probably know what that looks like. The flocks power the long-standing textile industry of wool and tweed in Scotland. Tartan long ago sported muted tones that blended with the natural landscape. After having been banned by the Crown following the Jacobites’ defeat at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, tartan’s revival in the late 1800s brought with it a flashier spectrum. Today, even women and girls can benefit from the plentiful choices in feminine shades among the clan-based plaids available at tourist shopping hot spots.

The waters of life in the land of Scots range from root-beer rapids of brown and foam along the walking paths at Carie Forest near Loch Rannoch, Perthshire, to the golden gamut of whiskies forged in distilleries from the islands to the northern Highlands, to the deep-sea and turquoise blues of clear-sky-reflecting burns, rivers, firths, bays, and lochs. Modern Scotland has done its best with drinking water bottled from mountain sources, and then its worst in the hopelessly sugary, bubble-gum-flavored orange soda that is the national drink, Irn Bru.

The British tea tradition also persists, alive and well in both city and countryside. A venture to Glasgow’s Willow Tea Room, designed by the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, gave my husband good Kenyan black tea and me some aromatic Jasmine green tea, neatly cut finger sandwiches, and a gluten-free chocolate brownie topped with clotted cream. I finished all of my teapot’s worth with pleasure, and I’m not even much of a tea drinker.

I guess it was the blend of artistic atmosphere, my first real experience of tea time, and a well-chosen tea. Making it more memorable was an inchworm Jason discovered on his jacket from recent outdoor adventures. In and out of sight, we kept him alive till I dropped him accidentally on the stairway as we left. His ultimate fate is a mystery.

It was also in Glasgow that we learned about the Glasgow Boys group of artists and the Scottish colourists featured in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Influences from French Impressionists to “Whistler’s Mother,” and of course Scottish landscapes, informed their work over the years. There are life waters, watercolours, and water horses in Scotland. Modern architecture like the Kelpies, at the Helix car park and recreation center near Falkirk, celebrates the country’s artistic and industrial traditions, while one white and one black horse graze at the site of the Culloden Battlefield.

Wild bird coloring is not all that different from home. The British robin redbreast is a distinctly different species from our American robin, a rounder, more petite orange-breasted songbird with a song that sounds prettier to my untrained ear than that of the omnipresent States-side version. I knew about that difference before landing in Scotland, but I was surprised to see the dapper-looking pheasant hanging around the farm bird feeders at the breakfast windows of our luxury B&B near Inverness.

Not quite ring-necked, this male turns out to be the common pheasant of the UK, introduced to Roman Britain as a game bird from Asia. His aristocratic associations befitted our romantic, up-scale portion of the trip, evidenced by the rich red and white furnishings amidst the dark four posts of the bed and the crystalline bed-side dimmer lamps. They even gave us complimentary Ferrero Rocher truffles and a crystal of sherry and two champagne glasses.

There’s a variety of local color in soccer jerseys on display at the National Museum of Scottish Football at Hampden Park, Glasgow, home of the Queen’s Park Rangers and the Scottish National Team. But some of the most colorful parts of Scotland are still its people. The dialects, sensibilities, hotel and B&B personnel, street performers, musicians including guitarists, accordianists, bagpipers, and fiddlers, cab drivers, store cashiers, theatre players, tourism workers from receptionists to historical figure actors, mostly courteous drivers we encountered, and everyday people were always, for better or worse, innocuous, pleasant, and helpful. Good for us tourists, certainly.

Whites, blacks, and greys in the buildings, ruins, and stone monuments pulled us back in time to the mysteries of archaeological evolution. That is, the presence alone of chambered cairns and standing stone circles fascinates, but it’s even more interesting to learn of the layers of change their shapes represent, the multiple peoples and purposes that swept through a given place, obscuring the earlier inhabitants and users, muddling the picture of a Pict or a Scot or an Angle or a Roman. The clues keep bubbling to the surface in diverse ways, and their hunt can become an obsession, and a literary inspiration in the cases of authors such as Diana Gabaldon of the Outlander series.

Whether you’re one for science or for literature, which Gabaldon and I both are, the romance of the past is real, palpable, just as the puzzles, if not the ghosts, left by the remnants beckon the solvers forward. Ruins, especially religious ones even to this agnostic, possess the most affecting beauty of all historic buildings, and the monoliths are at least figuratively magnetic. Ruins speak in a steady voice of struggle, violence, survival, and death. They show the creativity, innovation, reverence, passions, sorrows, and daily subsistence of peoples long gone, and sometimes they demonstrate long periods of thriving, the revival of resilient groups, and the diligence of those dedicated to preserving history and memory.

At the Clava Cairns, I touched some of the piled stones as I walked into the center of one chambered cairn, but semi-unconsciously, I avoided touching the split standing stones. The stones at this site are said to have inspired Gabaldon’s invention of Craigh na Dun, the central plot mechanism–strange and terrifying–of the entire Outlander saga. The ubiquitous nature of stone and stonework in Scotland adds an indescribable charm to visiting this old country when one’s own is so young by contrast, but the stories they inspired are what sent me there.

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The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

There’s no generalizing Scotland, and yet the tourist tends heavily toward equating places with their people. In the end, they are inextricable, multi-dimensional, many-layered and intriguing enough to merit repeat exploration.

Besides, I just love to hear Scots speak, even if I don’t understand them the first time, or, in the case of Glaswegians, the second or third. Although I’ve seen a lot, I hope I’ll get another chance to practice listening in Scotland.

All photos copyright C.L. Tangenberg

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Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation

Previewed in my post Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft, this review takes an in-depth look at the final scene of Episode 202, “Not in Scotland Anymore,” in the second series of Outlander STARZ, based on Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander book Dragonfly in Amber. It is an episode that manages to capture practically everything our heroes grapple with for the rest of the first half of the season. Spoilers imminent.

Paris, 1744. Escape, recovery, new purpose, new digs. Specters of a horrid past in Scotland and its bloody future. Mysticism and superstition in France as in the Scottish Highlands. Duels and fighting practiced, threatened, and restrained. War and religion married in royal ambition. Wine and money mixing with political lies and secret agendas.

Sex, sex, and more sex in anticipation, pursuit, dark corners, and gossip. The irony of an extremely sexy early marriage in Scotland for Claire and Jamie Fraser juxtaposed against their sex-deprived Paris in the aftermath of Jamie’s severe psycho-sexual trauma–at the hands of a real psycho. Old flames re-surfacing. A lowest-cut, billowing blood-red dress. A constipated King Louis XV and his nipple-pierced mistress. A new aristocratic friend forged through sexual misunderstanding.

And finally, an utter change of tone–in the forms of a truly nauseating reunion and a devastating revelation–occurs amidst inner and outer fires and explosions.

Overview

This final scene featuring the Duke of Sandringham’s reappearance begins about seven minutes from episode’s end. For that duration, British actor Simon Callow commands both light and darkness with the aplomb his fans have come to expect and relish.

In this single performance, Callow encapsulates the intriguing essence of the character he and the show’s writers have adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series. Sandringham delivers the final blow to Claire that brings her full circle back to Jamie’s nightmare at the episode’s opening:

Sexual sadist and pervert (Gabaldon’s description) “Black Jack Randall is dead” but “alive in [Jamie’s] head” at the start, and by the end, between them, only Claire learns that Randall is in fact very much alive.

And who should deliver the news? Not even Sandringham, but his secretary Alexander Randall, diminutive, sickly younger brother to the infamously brutish captain. Sandringham’s superior skill in verbal dueling with Claire takes center stage until Alex’s arrival, which, unaided by Sandringham’s intent, perpetrates the final stab for him.

The journey from Murtagh’s spotting of the Duke in the room at Versailles to that painful revelatory moment is intricately layered, extremely tense, and fascinating to watch.

Every single thing the Duke of Sandringham says to Claire and Jamie in this scene represents a provoking, passive-aggressive lunge at them even as he attempts to weasel himself into the position of pitiable victim. His Grace is a walking, talking contradiction, playing his opposing motives, impulses, and meanings off each other to perfection.

Gentlemanly pleasantries interlace with dark, survivalist intentions, and pretenses of buffoonery with calculated and carefully selected barbs. Although not neatly archetypal, Sandringham proves to be the ultimate gentleman jester who only lightly masks his malevolent master mind. The Duke by turns hints at and blatantly flashes his many sides, remaining unnervingly difficult to parse.

Both the more direct, baritoned Sandringham, in conversation with Claire alone, and the falsely polite tenor one, in the presence of Jamie, communicate things that are observable as well as implied or waiting to be revealed.

Beat by Beat: The Lines–and Spaces in Between

A breakdown of character interactions and of the Duke of Sandringham’s comments to Claire and Jamie in this one scene alone makes plain the existence of these layers. Only in the context of known back story, established in the latter half of season one, can the nature of the immediate Fraser-Sandringham conflict and its significance be fully appreciated.

I break the scene down roughly into beats. A beat in story performance can be thought of as “a bubble of action, of dialogue, of thought, or of mood” (source) that represents a shift within a scene.

This final scene makes excellent use of sound and silence (another kind of beat) to convey emotion and drama. Note that the screenwriters may think of these divisions differently; this is my interpretation, with beats labeled by purpose or nature of shift.

Beat 1: Disaster Averted. To open the scene, Jamie thwarts Murtagh’s attempt to exact revenge for the Duke’s treachery, which Black Jack Randall had revealed to Jamie at Wentworth Prison when he burned the intercepted petition of complaint against himself.

The Frasers had entrusted the document to Sandringham for conveyance to London’s Court of Sessions, hoping the accusations of gross sexual impropriety and violence committed by Randall against Claire would countermand Randall’s false accusation of murder against Jamie.

Beat 2: Overture of Good Will. Turning around, a visibly uncomfortable Jamie, shoulders elevated, receives the Duke’s greeting:

“Jamie, dear boy, upon my word. I’m delighted to see you looking so healthy.” The last two words stretch in special emphasis.

While not necessarily insincere, this sentiment, finishing with a broad smile and a glint in the Duke’s eye, could imply he must have some degree of knowledge about what Jamie suffered in the prison dungeon with Randall. Jamie may wonder about this while recalling that time when he was definitely not so healthy. Coming from a known associate of Randall’s and a proven betrayer to Jamie and Claire, reference to Jamie’s health undoubtedly makes him feel ill, but Claire soon catches up, which gives him a moment to recover.

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So touched by your concern . . .

Whatever secrets Sandringham may be privy to, the opening comment need be about nothing more than the fact that Jamie recently had been on the verge of death at the hangman’s noose, a matter of public knowledge. He was caught by redcoats in Scotland, tried for murder (Randall had, according to one witness, shot his own sergeant dead before pinning it on Jamie), convicted, and sentenced within a few days while Murtagh and Claire searched the Highlands countryside for him.

The pardon for which Sandringham’s assistance was supposed to pave the way not only did not come in time but was prevented altogether when Randall wrested from Sandringham’s hands their petition document.

More than our shared knowledge of Jamie’s traumatic past, it is the uncertainty in the audience about what exactly Sandringham knows of this not-so-distant history that heightens the suspense and makes his remark to Jamie about his health so unsettling.

Beat 3: Full Reunion. Before Jamie has a chance to respond, the Duke has spotted Claire and begins addressing her with a higher pitch, volume, and degree of intensity. Again in a stretched cadence, he emphasizes her name. “Mrs. Fraser, what a joyful reunion!” he says while reaching slowly for her hands in greeting. Frowning, she withdraws them and notes coldly that she wishes she could share his appraisal of the situation.

Beat 4: Deeply Cut. “You cut me to the quick!” the Duke reacts, straightening in mock offense.

Beat 5: The Wriggling Begins. Then, relaxing, he concedes, “Well, I suppose I deserve it. Let me assure you, I had every intention of delivering that petition of complaint to the Court of Sessions, as I had pledged to do. It was that damned Randall! The brute insisted I give it to him, instead. I had no choice, whatsoever. Will you ever forgive me?”

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Sure, and I’m Queen of France.

As the Duke professes coercion by Randall, Jamie has joined Claire’s side and gives him a sidelong look of severe doubt. Unflappable as always, ironically, it is Sandringham whose daggers most penetrate, though he says he’s been “cut.”

 

Beat 6: “Forgiveness.” Considering the Duke’s apology, Jamie then looks at Claire and Murtagh, who is pacing like a caged animal behind them, before he exhales and declares bygones: “What’s done is done.” Jamie knows the importance of smoothing things over with the influential aristocrat (an invented character rather than a historical one).

Sandringham replies, “How true. What’s passed is passed.” The opening and closing of the line drag out here.

Beat 7: Catching Up. He immediately asks, “What are you both doing here in France?”

Such a casual question under most circumstances, again, this one is loaded. As if he didn’t know Britain is no longer safe for them. As if they could have gone anywhere else after fleeing Britain. As if he didn’t know that simply by asking such a question, he is again putting them in an uncomfortable position. Whatever else he may know, the Duke must know that their going to France was no idle decision, as his impertinent question implies.

When Claire responds by explaining Jamie’s been employed by his cousin Jared, she has interjected for Jamie, whose face becomes clouded with consternation, alarmed at the Duke’s question and likely wondering what answer to make.

Beat 8: Capitalizing. Sandringham wastes no time in snapping up the opportunity to buy them off. “The wine merchant? What a serendipitous surprise. Tomorrow I go back to England, but I shall return shortly, and when I do, I should be very interested to sample some of that rare Belle Rouge port I understand he’s stocking. I must have a case.”

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surprised serendipity

How surprising he truly finds their new status is anyone’s guess, but we’re fairly certain serendipity is not involved. He has fabricated it to meet the demands of the moment.

“How much?” Jamie asks, drawing Claire’s incredulous face to him.

“I’d be willing to pay twenty percent over the asking price,” Sandringham offers.

“Sold,” Jamie says with a brief smile while Claire looks indignant on his behalf.

Beat 9: Apology Not Accepted. After Murtagh surmises the Duke’s purchase method (credit) as a way of implying payment may never come, Claire suggests that Jamie and Murtagh go and have a drink with “our new friend, the Minister of Finance,” and on this last phrase she speaks directly to the Duke, as if to pre-empt Sandringham’s next anticipated attack by emphasizing their powerful friends.

Beat 10: A Woman Scorned. The two Highlanders take their leave after a few moments of tense silence during which the smile has faded from the Duke’s face. Perhaps he dreads being alone with Mrs. Fraser? Jamie forces a smile and bows slightly as he departs with a glance at Claire.

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Oh, crap. The pleasant spouse is leaving.

Head lowered, eyes following Claire, Sandringham’s stare never leaves her as she turns her back, ostensibly to watch her husband leave, and then slowly moves to face the fireplace, not speaking.

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You won’t catch me napping.

Almost 20 seconds of silence pass after Claire sends Jamie and Murtagh away.

Beat 11: The First Mask Falls. The first to speak, Sandringham’s next line arrives in a lower, more ominous tone:

“I see you’re already cultivating important people in high places. How very in keeping with your character.” His remarks and the fact that he speaks first assure us the Duke does not fear her. She says nothing, brooding in the firelight. His accusation betrays his hypocrisy.

Beat 12: A Thinner Mask Applies. Has personal insult not sufficed? Approaching her side, Sandringham pokes Claire again: “Poor Jamie. He must be missing Scotland terribly, but I suppose it’s no longer a safe haven for either of you.” Another broad grin accompanies the last line’s inflection and matching look up at her.

Beat 13: She Speaks. She does not look at him but has fully felt the jab. “Hmph,” and she smiles, entering the game. “Yes, and so here we all are.” She raises her gaze to the mantel and above.

Beat 14: She Aims. A new thought then seems to occur to her as she finally looks at the Duke: “On the same side, no less. All supporters of the Jacobite cause.” The tone in the second line is questioning, but Claire remains fairly certain of Sandringham’s allegiance.

The camera shifts to the Duke’s face, which betrays nothing either way.

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Ah, the question of sides . . .

Beat 15: She Lunges. Claire then turns fully to face him and deliver her best possible thrust: “Of course, you being an English aristocrat, that position makes you a traitor to the crown.” Again, a questioning inflection, but more out of provocation as she stares down into his face from her superior height.

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J’accuse!

Beat 16: The Veil Drops, Another Remains. “I see time has done nothing to dull the sharpness of your tongue, Madame.” Unprovoked, the Duke has chosen to down-shift into a personal response to the trivia of Claire’s impoliteness. He has not answered her accusation, just as she did not answer his earlier one. His secrets remain safely his.

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At least her tongue isn’t forked, Sandy!

Claire slowly smiles in feigned politeness, a smirk the Duke returns. Five seconds tick away as they hold each other’s gaze, neither daring to flinch.

Beat 17: Distraction. Alex then enters, gaining the Duke’s attention, announces the impending fireworks, and proceeds to cough, breaking the spell.

“If you must cough on someone, find a servant.”

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Don’t cough on me, dammit!

Reconsidering his scornful snap, the Duke glances at Claire and asks, “Was that a bit harsh?” Pettiness and irritation at a servant echo His Grace’s behavior during his first meeting with Claire in episode 109, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” It almost seems like a coping mechanism, his way of deflecting Claire’s unfamiliar female aggression, taking his discomfort out on a bystander.

She replies, “Oh, just a little,” and turns her attention to her healing function.

Beat 18: Reprieve: A Pleasant Exchange. Alex and Claire discuss the cough and Mary Hawkins, to whom he had been speaking earlier, while Sandringham listens in silence.

Beat 19: Return to the Game. Then, no doubt sensing a chance to continue the verbal duel, he perks up: “Where are my manners? Mrs. Claire Fraser, may I introduce my new secretary, Alexander Randall.”

Beat 20: Messenger of Menace.Yes, the name is not a coincidence. Alex is the younger brother of Captain Jonathan Randall, Esquire.”

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Another Randall? Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Is anyone not related to Frank?

To Alex he adds in a more subdued volume and pitch what seems like a casual afterthought, but to Claire, it’s another jab: “Mrs. Fraser and your brother are very well acquainted.” Well acquainted but not acquainted well, which Sandringham knows very well. His satisfaction in this otherwise trivial note is palpable.

Beat 21: Unwitting Accomplice. Alex, oblivious to all that has been happening, innocently says he’ll tell “Jonathan” that he has met Mrs. Fraser. My first reaction, as a book fan, was, “Oh, no, no! Don’t tell him!” forgetting that the show prior to this moment had yet to reveal Randall’s still being alive. The idea of addressing a dead man puzzles Claire.

Beat 22: Utter Confusion, in Micro-Beats. “Tell him? I don’t understand.” With pauses between her sentences, she looks from man to man, searching for the clarity they can only guess at. “Your brother, he isn’t . . . dead?”

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What, is this kid crazy?

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The Duke waits patiently for light to dawn

Beat 23: Final Blow: A Virtual Stomach Punch. Alex scoffs and explains he’s heard from his brother by post quite recently. In shock, Claire visibly weakens at the knees, as if Alex were again delivering to her mid-section the fist she received there from Black Jack in episode 106, “The Garrison Commander.”

The Duke and Alex both step forward instinctively in response to a damsel’s distress. Sandringham asks, “Can I be of assistance?” but Claire, clearly shaken, professes to be fine. The Duke slowly and slightly smiles as he backs off. The wrinkle? What must Alex be thinking? How confusing must it be to see someone react so negatively to hearing his brother is alive!

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The Deepest Cut

Beat 24: Reeling in Recovery. Claire recovers her self-possession, declines assistance, and says she must have been mistaken.

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I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it. I don’t.

Beat 25: Revelation and Mockery. Alex concedes Randall was wounded. Then, the camera shifts to Sandringham as Alex mentions the wounds being “not insignificant.” The man is nodding sloppily in glee, a moment of relish for him–now a delighted spectator of Claire’s suffering–and a moment of audience appreciation for Callow’s devilish though humorous head jiggle. It was the first moment when I really started loving to hate the Duke. Alex concludes by remarking on Jonathan’s “stronger constitution than my own” and proceeds to cough again.

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I’ll just let trusty little Al finish you off, maybe join the lads for a wee nip.

Beat 26: Height of Festivity Meets Pit of Anguish. The fireworks quickly take over with a first boom, at which Claire startles. In the ultimate irony of the scene, the men turn to the show while Claire is left to cope with a vastly changed reality. The implications are profound and stand to jeopardize everything, as Claire’s voiceover explains at the end.

“Oh! How lovely!” Sandringham says with a chuckle.

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Why can’t the bastard just die already?

Beat 27: Victorious Withdrawal, Gloating. After a pause, the Duke asks Alex between gritting teeth, “But must they be so thunderous?” Clearly bored already, he says to Alex, “Go and fetch my carriage.”

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Aw, yeah. Boom! Touche, Lady Biotch Tuarach.

After Alex leaves, a swagger, a gradual turn back to see Claire’s face, and the Duke of Sandringham backs toward the doorway with a smug smile, knowing he’s won this round, and a groaning, mouth-wide half laugh as he turns away to exit. Viewer hatred of the Duke resurges. This is that “what an asshole” moment.

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Hee, hee. Yeah, that’s gotta hurt. . .

Sandringham’s dueling opponent is wounded and down, inert and weapon-less. In a stroke of good fortune, his superior knowledge and, thus, readiness have given him the upper hand and assured satisfaction. The Duke exits.

Beat 28: Oh, God. What Now? The scene and episode end with Claire processing the horrible news via voiced-over thoughts and questions, with ominous strings rising. Telling Jamie that Black Jack is alive means risking their efforts to stop the Jacobite rebellion if Jamie insists on revenge. The blue lights of the fireworks flash against the indoor walls and crowd of the French Court, mimicking a thunderstorm.

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Good, he’s gone. I can panic in peace. . .

The camera follows Claire’s worried search to where Jamie and Murtagh chat with Duverney, the Minister of Finance. The fear and uncertainty of what will happen next envelop her.

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. . . cuz here comes my husband, the Viking berserker.

Then, the camera shifts to the outdoor explosions through the windows as the music surges, contrasting luxurious entertainment and Baroque splendor with Claire’s high anxiety and despair, that the Frasers’ Captain Randall nightmare is in fact as alive as he is.


Summary

The expansion of the Duke of Sandringham character’s role in the story from the book version allows Simon Callow this spotlight. Although events transpire differently in the book, the show’s Sandringham experiences the thrill of being the one to help deliver this nasty surprise to Claire.

All of this happens in seven on-screen minutes, and the scene does not feel rushed at all. Nor does it drag, for all the extended silences, stretched syllables, and wordless daggers.

The layers are what make this possible–the indirect allusions, veiled and overt threats, hidden agendas, ironic intentions, secret knowledge, emotional baggage, Sandringham’s two-faced persona, and a complicated lead-up story.

Exposing the layers and what lies beneath them enables the viewer to experience the scene anew, watch it again with added richness, and continue to follow the story with greater edification, entertainment, and intrigue.

Central to this wonderful impact is Simon Callow’s keen invigoration of the material.

Great Elements of Callow’s Craft: Constructing Sandringham

Delivery:

  • Deep voice, gaspy bellowing, snide snapping
  • Slow, drawn-out phrases that make him sound out of breath but mainly old and demanding of patience, especially as he wheedles and whines for absolution
  • Rise and fall of pitch and timbre, a meandering vocalization the highs and lows of which he is able to travel with ease and nonchalance, like a snake slithering
  • Body movement, gesture, posture, tilt, bounce, smile, hand flap, eyebrow action–all inform the flighty persona belying darker motives.

Writing Made Flesh:

  • Long on compliments and flattery, short on sincerity but unapologetic for pettiness born of privilege and its indulgence, he assuages, persuades, puts out fires, stokes them too, and grins and bears it all with grace.
  • Fickle and flippant on the surface but methodical and discerning beneath, he is a flamboyant, self-assured puppeteer who enjoys the game of manipulation.
  • He’s such a presence and a multi-faceted character, he makes you forget he’s gay, a skill which is part and parcel of the character’s wiles.
  • By turns playful and grave, the Duke of Callow’s creation communicates that both states are only ever a mask hiding a more complex inner truth.

As the malevolent jester mastermind, Sandringham mimics Twelfth Night‘s Feste without the truthfulness, or true benevolence. A grand chess master masquerading as a colorful fool, the Duke’s power lies in the convergence of his noble status, self-possession, shrewd calculus, and mercurial behavior. Callow has added distinctive dimensions to the character that are sheer joy to watch.

A Final Note: Shooting of the Scene

Along with Simon Callow’s presence and performance as the Duke of Sandringham, the success of the Outlander series comes down to consistent leadership and dedication that ensure all the right elements fall into place in scenes like this last one of “Not in Scotland Anymore.” The world building alone has been impressive in season one and season two.

The microcosm of ep202’s final scene echoes and augments the larger-scale excellence. Storytelling and screen techniques combine to create a space and context befitting such forces of nature as we find in actors Simon Callow and Caitriona Balfe. The sparks of verbal dueling fly, and the actors utterly fill that space. Here are some (literal and figurative) highlights of those key motifs of scene.

Lighting plays a massive role in this scene’s juxtapositions and ironic effects. Flickering light in two basic forms provides the bulk of the scene’s visual symbolism as both allusion and foreshadowing. The yellow fireplace light dapples up and across the characters’ grim faces, recalling the dungeon lantern at Wentworth that burned the petition of complaint.

Later, the blue flashes of fireworks suggest a lightning storm, an adapted trope of the horror and mystery genres, portending the personal and political conflicts to come. Overall, the wavering light and partnering shadows convey the instability and changing visibility of characters’ circumstances and footing. Danger and fear dominate the emotional landscape.

Fire, both literal and figurative, shares lighting’s importance in the scene’s multiple meanings. The hearth and fireworks displays mirror the heat in these characters’ lives—past, present, and future. Burning anger (Claire, Murtagh), documents (Petition of Complaint), tongues (Claire, Murtagh), lungs (Alex), and a past of burned-out body and soul (Jamie) all clash with the Duke’s arrogant coolness.

Sandringham’s appearance lights the fuse that burns for nearly seven minutes until the literal, external explosions of the festivities and the figurative, internal explosion of Claire’s sense of security. All the bottled anger and restraint leading up to that moment find release not in revenge against the Duke for his treachery but in Claire’s loss of composure and vanquished silence.

The uses of light and fire all culminate in the threat of destruction to our protagonists, and the last shot focusing on the fireworks drives the point home as the music rises in ironic Baroque playfulness.

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One could go so far as to say that the light, the fireworks, and the music all belong to the triumphant villains of the scene—the wily chameleon in the Duke of Sandringham and the specter of a living devil, Captain Jonathan Wolverton “Black Jack” Randall. They emerge untouchable, the Duke with the psychological victory over Claire Fraser and the captain with his affirmed existence yet absence from the scene.

The resulting cliffhanger suspense at the terminus of such a complex, neatly packed, visually delicious, and dramatic episode brings the viewer back for more without hesitation.

Photo credits: All images by STARZ and Sony Pictures Television, accessed at Outlander-Online.


For my full review of episodes 201 and 202, including commentary on other individual performances, visit “Outlander STARZ, Season 2 Review: Episodes 201 and 202.”

Only one of countless examples of TV storytelling the show aces, the final scene of ep202 foreshadows several events in the series. I hope the show continues to follow Sandringham’s pivotal role in the book’s plot, giving Simon Callow yet more air time.

Tune in to Starz at 9pm ET on Saturdays to find out. This week the Highlanders reunite and prepare for battle. You can also watch Outlander on demand online via Starz Play. As a stand-out episode, I highly recommend ep207, “Faith,” which first aired two weeks ago and presents a dramatic turning point in the season, featuring mind-blowing work by Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser.

And there’s so much more to come. This week, World Outlander Day (June 1), the 25th anniversary of the first book’s publication, brought us the gift of the official announcement that not one but two more seasons–3 and 4–will go forward. Hooray!

Long live Outlander. “Je suis pret.”

Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202

Highlights of Episodes 201 and 202

Spoilers imminent (but we’re mid-season, so it’s time to catch up anyway)

Sparkling Overall Performances:

  1. Caitriona Balfe as Claire
  2. Tobias Menzies as Frank
  3. Duncan LaCroix as Murtagh
  4. Andrew Gower as Bonnie Prince Charlie–quite the caricature
  5. (as always) Simon Callow as the Duke of Sandringham

Sparkling Moments of Performance:

  1. Sam Heughan as Jamie battling the Black Jack Randall demon in ep202
  2. Lionel Lingelser as Louis XV in ep202–so funny!

Delightful New Characters:

  1. Jared Fraser, Jamie’s cousin and a wine merchant, resident of Paris
  2. Prince Charles Stuart, presumptive heir to the British throne
  3. Louise de Rohan, Claire’s new friend and a marquess
  4. Mary Hawkins, Louise’s charge and teenager engaged to Le Vicomte Marigny
  5. Fergus, a young French pickpocket at first named Claudel, whom Jamie employs to steal letters to and from Prince Charles
  6. Suzette, Claire’s lady’s maid, an expanded role thanks to Murtagh’s expanded . . . ahem, role
  7. Bouton!, border terrier and diagnostic partner of Mother Hildegarde at l’Hopital des Anges
  8. and, of course, Mother Hildegarde herself

The Look:

Production Design, Set Decoration, and Costume Design all demonstrate their usual attention to beauty, detail, and symbolism, with the vibrant results to leave you oo-ing and ah-ing at the sumptuous subjects of Parisian architecture, interior design, and dress.

Costumes Highlight – Every time Balfe appears in a new costume, the eyes feast and many of us drool, a hazard that men of the 18th century must often have encountered with all those low-cut, corseted busts. While show costume design and decoration seem to represent history well overall, the 1700s costumes in particular purposely blend mid-20th century styles into the look of Claire’s wardrobe in subtle but noticeable ways. One of these is a Dior sample Terry Dresbach used for Claire’s silver-jacketed dress with neat black hat in episode 202. See Terry’s website for details.

Jamie also cleans up nicely in his own velvets, satins, and crisp white jabots, along with that clean-shaven square jaw and dimpled chin framing the piercing blue eyes Heughan sports so expertly. And of course, there’s the flowing, curly red hair. * enamored sigh *

Other Notable Elements:

Cinematography: ep201 multi-scene and ep202 Versailles

Film editing: ep201, mainly

Plot outlining and writing — overall, very good with very few flat or off moments

Book fan pleasures: Continued close following of enjoyable original dialogue and narration

Highlights of Great Scenes 

Numerous scenes in ep201 and ep202 conveyed emotional depth and effective drama in acting and dialogue. For a sample, the following illustrates my experience of ep201’s . . .

. . . Tears (70%) and Laughter (30%): Moment by Moment.

Episode 201

Cries in Ep201 from the opening moments to 45 minutes in (all of 1948)–that is, moments when tears actually fell from my eyes:

Although the opening scene is gut-wrenching, I was too intent on paying attention and too bewildered and horrified by Claire’s screaming for crying to be an option.

Cry #1 – Claire kneeling and sobbing in the road after coming back to the 1940s and hearing from the passerby that the British had won the Battle of Culloden. Whoa.

Cry #2 – Mrs. Graham reaches and grabs Claire’s hands, the strings rise, and she tells Claire to cherish her experience. It just grabbed me so tightly in the chest like.

Cries #3 and #4 – Frank crying and then pleading with Claire to let them be reunited as husband and wife as he professes his love (violins rising). Poor Frank . . .

Cry #5 – Claire’s reaction to Frank’s condition that she conduct “no more research” into her dead husband Jamie. Not only must she mourn his loss, but now she must not “re-member” either. And yet, a reasonable request, really.

Cry #6 – “I will” let him go, she says. “I accept your conditions.” *Heart tears open.*

Cry #7 – When Claire tries to take off her 1740s wedding ring but cannot. It’s a wonder she doesn’t collapse to the floor again right there.

Cry #8 – Putting away love, into her suitcase, in the form of the other ring she brought back with her that is missing its jewel. So much adjusting, so soon, so sad.

Cry #9 – When Claire sees Frank burning the 18th-century Scottish apparel she wore back through the stones (music rising — volume and pitch). All traces being erased.

Cry #10 / Final heartbreak, and this one may surprise some viewers – The visual transition from Claire taking Frank’s hand as she de-boards the plane in New York to Claire taking Jamie’s hand as she disembarks from the Cristabel in Le Havre, France. (Claire and Jamie musical theme surges.) Some saw this as a moment of triumph, but it is at least bitter-sweet, and I found it somewhat hollow after the absolute gutting perpetrated by the first 45 minutes.

Laughs in Ep201 — from the transition point forward, all in the 1700s setting:

See my list at Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ ep201.

The effect of this chosen sequence and emphasis on the 1940s is to propel the audience into a season in which we’re desperate to cling to every positive moment possible between our beloved heroes Claire and Jamie. Although the selections above suggest a tolerable contrast of 70/30 between heartbreak and joy, the experience of it is more like 80/20, or even 85/15.

The darkness and deep sorrow of knowing from the beginning that the Frasers ultimately lose each other at the end of the season invests the viewer more keenly in their 1740s togetherness, and particularly in their luxury and high status, if not quite revelry, as stewards of Cousin Jared’s house and business in Paris while Jared expands his endeavors overseas.

Simultaneously, the heavy weight of the first 45 minutes of Episode 201 brings the audience so low that we’re more than ready for the sex, laughter, diversion, and above all, levity (i.e., frivolity, materialism, beauty, and style) with which Paris is replete.

The hope portrayed in the landing at Le Havre soon gives way, however, to the dark cloud that has followed Jamie and Claire from Scotland into the City of Lights. This shadow hovers ominously as they plunge headlong into political intrigue, double dealing, wariness of whom to trust, and danger amidst new enemies. Their overarching anxiety primarily takes the form of the dual and competing (indeed, conflicting) pressures and strains of Jamie’s recent traumatic past in the hands of Black Jack Randall and of the impending birth of the couple’s first child.

Any normal human being would crack under the weight of it all. Thank goodness this is fiction, and Jamie and Claire are (as Jamie describes Claire to Jared) “sturdy” people.

Good Surprises and Divergences from the Book:

A bold move it was indeed to start season two in the 1940s since the non-book-oriented audience expects to see Jamie and Claire arriving in France after last season’s finale. Bolder still, and risky to some degree, to linger there for so long with the pain and sorrow between Claire and Frank before transitioning back to the past.

Readers of book two, Dragonfly in Amber, may recall that the book also opens in the twentieth century, but 20 years later, when we meet grown-up Brianna and grown-up Roger Wakefield, the Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son. It will be fascinating to see how that time leap element is treated later this season–or next.

Murtagh’s expanded role from book to show honors Duncan LaCroix with well-deserved opportunities to shine.

Episode 202

From start to finish, ep202 is an eye-popping firecracker, ending in literal fireworks. The opening scene of Jamie’s nightmare is disturbing and shocking, particularly when his sure-fire murderous stab-a-thon ends with BJR’s eyes opening, still alive.

The sexual indulgences of the second episode are largely humorous in nature, at times fascinating and at others disturbing, but always of that entertaining levity to counterbalance the nightmares and anxieties that linger.

The ridiculousness of King Louis’ “dressing” comes off splendidly. Lionel Lingelser commands the room whether through melodramatic constipation or royal diffidence and lurid looks. His sizing up of Claire will prove relevant mid-season.

In keeping with a slightly more daringly sexual Claire the show and Balfe have formulated, a nonetheless pregnant Sassenach matches the French women’s sensuality step for step. Between the “third-rib” V-neck red dress she “helped design” that stirs up trouble at Versailles and the more private “honeypot” scandal, Claire’s bold efforts to mesh with Parisian high society prove a shock to Jamie’s more traditional, 18th-century sensibilities.

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Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) in THE red dress with new friend Louise de Rohan (Claire Sermonne), at Versailles. Image credit: STARZ and Sony Pictures/ Left Bank/ Tall Ships

Speaking of shocks and meeting one’s match . . . .

A Grand, uh, Climax:

Toward the end of ep202, the Frasers’ confrontation with the Duke of Sandringham at Versailles presents great suspense and layered implications, thanks mainly to the writing and to Simon Callow’s stunning performance. The exchange between the Duke and Claire after Jamie and Murtagh walk away is so good, subtle, and biting that it deserves a closer look, which I provide in the next post in this series. I didn’t catch several of the layers until I viewed it a second time myself, so stay tuned!

See also Five-Phrase Friday (37) on Simon Callow’s characterization of Sandringham.

A compressed plot, especially in ep202, with overlapping events that are more spread out in the book, works very well. Pacing is on track in the first two episodes, along with the undulation of moods. Overall, the progression of scenes does not feel rushed, and it very easily could have. Kudos to the writers and producers for their care and creativity.

Aspects Somewhat Less Than Stellar

While not quite a detractor, I have been less than impressed with Dominique Pinon’s performance as the apothecary Master Raymond. It may in part be the difficulty I had in understanding his French accent when he speaks English. Perhaps it’s the nature of the role as well, and the fact that I’ve seen Pinon dig into meatier ones, namely, as a jealous womanizer in the quirky, surrealist French film Amelie, starring Audrey Tautou.

Le Comte St. Germain, played by Stanley Weber, provides juicy menace, but by the end of ep202, Weber hasn’t had a chance to shine much yet. It’s been mostly slow striding with his scepter, quiet brooding, and hungry, if subtle, murderous looks of “I will get you” toward Claire and Jamie.

A Lowlight of Episodes 201 and 202

The other time problem, which I wrote about concerning last season, this season turns out to be a mere typographical error in ep201 captioning: “Le Havre, 1745” should have read “Le Havre, 1744.” The effect of this sloppiness? Initial confusion and distress give way to disappointment at its cheapening of the series.

However, it was not until ep203 that I found more to critique, though there is still plenty to praise.


Come back next time for more thoughts on subsequent episodes in season two of Outlander STARZ.

Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start

This month, in addition to reading, writing and revising poetry, I’ve been learning story craft as a way of participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, April’s more relaxed version of the annual National Novel Writing Month program. (Camp is also held in July.) In this post, I explore some of what I’ve been doing and learning as I ponder the mysteries of motivation.


The more relaxed approach that is Camp NaNoWriMo suits me fine since I’m just now fleshing out my story outline, and with less than a week before the “event” technically ends. I count this as an accomplishment for one who has never considered herself much of a storyteller and who is new to the practice of novel writing.

It certainly helped to have fewer of us participating in write-ins in person and to be a host for some of them each week–more pressure to make progress, I guess.

The pace of completion of this detailed outlining step in particular makes me impressed with myself, mainly because I tend to second-guess the value of the stories I think of telling. By outlining my intentions, I’ve given weight and form to a story that has not even been written yet.

Why should such a small step impress me? Why does being “impressed” matter?

It’s true that November’s NaNoWriMo more thoroughly facilitates the steady, somewhat high-paced push of “writing with reckless abandon” for thirty days straight than do her spring and summer cousin events. Camp is also flexible in terms of content, genre, form, purpose, and word count, whereas November’s goal is always 50,000 words by midnight on December 1.

Camp-Nanowrimo-No-Sign-300px-RGB2_400x400In both cases, “winning” is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

No one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

In this way, for me at least, being “impressed” with myself or feeling good about my progress is crucial to furthering it.

My approach to Camp has been to study how stories are formed: brainstorming, researching theories, story structures, tools, and techniques, then outlining, profiling main characters, and then expanding that outline into a full, novel-length set of plot points.

It’s this last step that I was able to start and finish in one four-hour sitting, yesterday during our region’s Sunday write-in at Panera.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone, I am much more excited to move forward with composition of the story itself. I know what story I’m trying to tell, and I know the frame work within which I must work. I even know some of the symbolism, foreshadowing, irony and other literary elements I want to incorporate, and am starting to see exactly how I can accomplish them.

In other words, the fact that Camp NaNoWriMo is ending has less of a subduing effect on me than it has at the end of the last several Novembers. It’s easy to lose steam as the holidays approach, and I felt rather lulled into passivity by the achievement of “winning” NaNoWriMo each time. My stories became less important in themselves, so abandoning them was no great tragedy.

Still, it is a let-down. Some people are “pantsers,” writing by the seat of their pants without much forethought or planning, and certainly no outlining. I have tried that approach and found it unsatisfactory, so this Camp I used as a stepping stone toward becoming a bona fide “planner” of stories (who also happens to write them).

Aided also by regularly blogging and committing to taking my poetry more seriously, I may not even need something like Camp in order to finish this new story. But if I do, July awaits. . . .

I’ve always been better at planning than doing in many ways, so I was reluctant to begin my experience during my first NaNoWriMo in 2011 with too much planning.

Truth be told, I couldn’t help indulging in excessive research on the front end the first year. I found the subject of the Native Americans and particularly the Salish language quite fascinating as I prepared starting in September to write, during November, a story about a white teen raised by ranchers in Montana who comes across a mysterious wolf mask carving on her recently deceased parents’ ranch and begins her adventure. (I wonder what ever happened to that first novel’s protagonist, Emily. Perhaps I’ll return to the text of What the Wolf Knows some day and find out . . . by finishing the story.)

Whichever approach I take, though, I find that it’s practice and experience–and just going for it–that ultimately propel my development as a story writer.

So, although in some ways, my structured approach to a story beginning was rather formulaic, it served as its own kind of “going for it.” I’d never outlined a story so thoroughly before, after all. And it was only after writing a few rough novels, all four of which remain effectively incomplete stories today, that I had the confidence and motivation to teach myself how to plan them well and thoroughly, too.

I’m still in the process of planning the story, but after yesterday, I’m better prepared to write the story I planned. I had already begun some composition of the back story, but now I’m ready to charge ahead to write the main plot.

When you’re not in school formally and you don’t work at, with, or for an organization with a built-in structure for your work, i.e., when you’re a writer out there essentially on your own (albeit with a local support community and the Internet’s bounty), it’s helpful to have events like NaNoWriMo and its Camp cousins to assist with each new aspect of the creative project’s undertaking.

I realize each task can be useful if I know–that is, if I establish for myself–its purpose and see where it can lead me. Because I understand that writing is a multi-part process that is often cyclical in nature, I know that I may alter the plan just as I re-write some of the story.

As I often tell the students I tutor, each phase or step of the writing process holds importance and something to teach, just as each writer has a story inside waiting to be told.

There is hope, then, that eventually I, too, will bring all the pieces together and not only tell but also share my stories.

Every active writer has self-developed approaches, processes, and unique needs to stay motivated and be productive. This has simply been a slice of what mine look like right now.

“Stories matter.”  #CampNaNoWriMo2016

Happy writing.