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.

Book Review: Rose in a Storm

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

I’m ambivalent about this one.

The novel Rose in a Storm uses an omniscient third-person narrator to switch back and forth between the farmer Sam’s and his border collie Rose’s viewpoint, but most of the story is Rose’s. The novel is better than the few non-fiction books I’ve read that attempt to convey the canine perspective, and the descriptions of farm life and tasks ring true.

Taking a scientific outlook, though, I found it difficult to settle on what I thought of Katz’s portrayal of the dog’s thought processes and feelings. The depiction straddles anthropomorphism and restrained observational reporting of animal behavior, though still through her eyes. Although most of the book succeeds in avoiding implausible sentimentality in the dog, focusing instead on her straightforward efforts to adapt to and navigate her changing world, there are some sappy tropes involved. The notion of the dog’s spiritual vision is the most blatant of these.

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As a story, this is a fine read–simple, fluid, plot driven. It’s suspenseful, interesting, descriptive, and engaging. The book also refrains from tying things up in a neat little bow, preserving some of the realism of imagined canine perceptions, if one can call such a thing realism.

I have read no other Katz books to compare it to, but I think I detect his non-fiction roots coming across in this try at a novel. His style lends both a dryness that bored me and a grounded feel that I appreciated. Katz seems to overextend his anthropomorphism with his portrayal of other farm animals’ viewpoints, and some explanations of Rose’s behavior become repetitious in the book’s latter half.

Where the author succeeds is in communicating the complex relationship between Sam and his working farm dog. Rose is not in any way a pet, as she shares no affection with him, though she did with Sam’s late wife Katie. Nor is she strictly a regular working dog. The reader comes to know Rose as extraordinary among herding dogs–obedient and focused on her specific management role when Sam’s in charge and able to take the initiative to care for the farm’s animals in a devastating blizzard when Sam is unable to guide her.

Yet, Rose does not ascend to superdog status and escapes being made ridiculous in the process. Katz portrays her limitations as fairly as he demonstrates the stretching of her giftedness into innovation when faced with new challenges. This is a difficult balance, and he struck it well.

Full of description, the novel uses little dialogue, which both limits its interest for the reader and seats it fittingly within the speechless realm of the dog. The simplicity of the book, however, leaves little room for other layers to admire. There’s no underlying symbolism, no literary boosts of irony or genre bending or a greater lesson, and I saw no transcendent merit in it. It’s just a largely plausible story of a great dog’s experiences, which dog lovers will likely enjoy.

Overall, I liked Rose in a Storm, loved some parts but not many, and was not sorry to have read it. It helped that the book was not very long at a little over 200 pages. It was a pleasant if underwhelming experience, good but not great. 3 stars.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.


In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.

3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager

While doing some housekeeping the other day, I unearthed my brief, off-the-cuff reviews of the first three books in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, originally posted on LinkedIn. Clearly, my enthusiasm persists.

Outlander_coverICYMI: Last week, I shared a longer, more formal Outlander book review posted on Goodreads.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I’m a little at a loss for words on this one. Despite its 850-ish pages, I found myself wanting to re-read most of it right away. Stunning! Historical fiction, romance, rich detail of the Scottish Highlands culture and landscapes of the mid-18th century, excellent writing, complicated but thoroughly absorbing characters, first in a series. I’m finding it very hard to move on to anything new. Love it, love it, love it!


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Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

The fastest read for me so far of any book ever–950 pages in less than a week! The saga continues mainly in France with political intrigue, grave misfortunes, triumphant rescues, secrets revealed, ultimate heartbreak, and enduring questions leading to the next books. War-torn love, time travel, and the mysteries of existence. Details so vivid, characters so real, a complex story worth re-reading. It’s hard to believe it took me 20 years to hear about this series! Thanks so much, recommending friends! The best advice I’ve had in ages.


Voyager by Diana GabaldonBookCover_Voyager

Well, I just HAD to know what happens next to Jamie and Claire, especially with Dragonfly in Amber ending on a note of despair, if also of questioning. In this third installment–adding another hundred pages beyond the second book’s length–Gabaldon enriches the traditional swashbuckling Caribbean adventure tale with her own fate-twists and interesting new and well-established characters, and the ending is a more hopeful one. But mixed emotions are a standard part of the ride with this series, and the emotional roller coaster keeps the pages turning through the end and on to the next. . . . Yet, at this point, there’s still something about that first book, Outlander, that keeps calling me back to it. . . .

Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect

Qualification: I really am one of those “rabid” Outlander fans of both books and TV show (see the links to other Outlander posts at the bottom of this one), but I call it as I see it. I took most of the adaptation’s departures from the book in stride and appreciated the season finale’s brilliant aspects at face value. It was lovingly deep thinking about this last episode and the season as a whole that made me aware of the issue I discuss here. Since everyone else is talking about character journeys and actor performances, which I, too, find fascinating and impressive, I thought I’d approach from a different angle: the show’s story structure. Spoilers ahead.


Pained, visceral reactions to the horrors of the Outlander Starz season 1 finale testify to Black Jack Randall’s icy impact on Claire and Jamie’s relationship. That is as the story and the show intended. Unintentionally, Jamie’s oddly rapid recovery from fever and mental anguish further cools the blood.

But it’s the beginning of Claire’s confession in the chapel that drops a treacherous icicle spear into the structure of the show’s first season. For such an engaging, steamy, now-classic story and its vastly entertaining TV adaptation, the resulting damage saddens me–though not quite as much as do Claire’s attempts “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” with tearful pleas to Jamie not to give up on their life and love.

But the source of this cold stab may not be what you think.

During the season finale of Outlander, protagonist “Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser” begins her story to Father Anselm at the monastery by saying she arrived in the eighteenth century from 1945 “eight months ago.” Not “several,” not “last fall,” not simply “months ago.” Exactly eight. Hearing this immediately struck me with surprise and confusion, and I don’t think I’m alone here.

How did seven weeks of the first half of the season suddenly hurtle forward into another six months in the second half? Hearing Claire say “eight months ago” became an unwelcome distraction that raised unfortunate questions.

It almost made me wonder if this surge is meant to be the infusion of a new time-travelling element, but that’s definitely not it. Chalk this rationalization up to human nature: “When confronted with the impossible, the rational mind will grope for the logical,” Claire says in episode 101, “Sassenach.”

The time scale imbalance itself could be forgiven if the storyline somehow survived unaffected, but it doesn’t. Instead, the plausibility of outdoor actions and events strains against its crippling entrapment at the cold point of the spear, undercutting the immense care taken in the construction of historical and narrative realism in the season’s first half.

Although the starting time of year in the book differs from that in the show, surely there were ways production could be true to the story without removing major organs from the time line, even in the modified seasonal arc. The results unfortunately fail to manifest any of those presumed possibilities. Let’s examine the evidence.

In the show, Claire time-travels through the stones on the eve of Samhain, October 30. During episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” Jamie tells Claire it will be “Yuletide by the time [they] get back to Leoch.” True enough: In episode 109, “The Reckoning,” observant viewers will notice that evergreen swags with white flowers and red berries newly bedeck Castle Leoch’s thresholds, hearths, and bed posts.

Also during episode 108, Frank Randall provides a more specific indication of timing as he challenges Reverend Wakefield’s theory of Claire’s getting lost near Craigh Na Dun, being swept down a river by the current to a cave, and “living on fish and frogs—for seven weeks.” At seven weeks past Samhain, with the parallel promise of Yuletide’s approach, late December has arrived.

Then, during “The Reckoning,” episode 109, while it snows when Jamie and Murtagh relieve themselves against the castle wall, Jamie resists Murtagh’s suggestion that they escape the MacKenzie clan’s tensions and live off the land. His line gives another sign of intended, or at least written, timing: “Ye’d have me sleeping under a tree, come winter, with my wife?”

With three distinct pieces of evidence, winter has not yet arrived and Christmas still approaches as of episode 109.

Early in 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” Claire deals with Laoghaire’s episode 109 attempt to seduce Jamie as well as her placement of an ill wish under their bed. Based on the scenes done in the castle, along with the winter coats, shawls, hoods, and cape-like plaid layers worn by the cast, it’s clear that it is still Christmastime or, at the latest, early January.

The problem is–although only days pass between Claire and Geillis’ capture (ep. 110) and trial for witchcraft (ep. 111), and between the trial and Claire’s rescue by Jamie–the outdoor scenery during the last twenty minutes of episode 111, “The Devil’s Mark,” shifts dramatically from early winter to early if not mid-spring.

The tiny leaves on the trees of the hill where Jamie surprises Claire with a view of Craigh Na Dun speckle the frame around the characters in a bright, budding green. Even in Scotland’s rapidly changing diurnal weather conditions, this is spring behavior for deciduous trees. To echo Claire’s voice-over in “Both Sides Now” (ep. 108), when she first realizes her nearness to Craigh Na Dun after the redcoat deserters’ attack, “There was no mistaking it”:

The Outlander TV adaptation has skipped winter altogether.

On one hand, as a native Ohioan who has endured two abnormally brutal winters in the past two years, I can empathize with the impulse to create a more hospitable fictional world to dwell in.

On the other, Outlander‘s actors are steadfast, adventurous players. The crew consist largely of hardy Scots. A clan of unflinching producers and writers have repeatedly claimed efforts to be as authentic as possible in adapting this violent action-adventure, historical romance with sci-fi elements. Combining all these factors, one would think this TV team, if any, could withstand a single Scottish winter, especially if an out-of-season shooting schedule were to necessitate a manufactured one.

Winter’s omission marks a surprising sloppiness not evident in other aspects of the production.

Its absence might not have been as noticeable had the writers refrained from exact time references in dialogue. “Eight months ago” could simply have been “several months ago” with less negative impact, though story incongruities of seasonal climate and daylight pose a larger production dilemma.

Climate-wise, skipping ahead in the story is evident because winter conditions are just as missing from the show as the time span itself is. Another prime example: If it really were winter in episode 111, Claire and Geillis would have been much colder than they appear to be while coatlessly awaiting their fate in the outdoor, underground thieves’ hole.

To rule out the possibility of later compensations for mid-season time warping, let’s take the viewer’s perspective of the time line in reverse from the announced endpoint. A closer look at the sequence and duration of events helps to illustrate how the time problem–like Jamie’s lingering psychosexual conflation of Claire and Black Jack–remains unsolved through episode 116’s final credits.

Eight months after October 30 means the story resolves in late June, early July, come the finale. It is then, just after Jamie’s rescue from prison, when Claire tells her story to Father Anselm. Only a few days pass between the start of the rescuers’ efforts in episode 115, “Wentworth Prison,” and the success of that rescue in episode 116.

Only about two or three days from the end of episode 114, “The Search,” through episode 115 stand between Claire and Murtagh’s recruitment of men for Jamie’s rescue and Claire’s ejection from Wentworth by Randall.

After Jenny gives birth during episode 113, “The Watch,” the next opportunity for a significant passage of time is in episode 114, “The Search.” Here, the story clearly takes at least a couple of weeks, if not a full month. But even if it took as many as two months, there would still be far more than a month’s gap in time unaccounted for.

Prior to these events, only “several days” (ep. 111) pass between Claire and Jamie’s departure from Cranesmuir and their arrival at his home estate of Lallybroch, just as only a few days mark the span between their arrival home and Jamie’s capture by the British after joining the Watch on a raid. Two weeks maximum, all told.

In sum, we established earlier that episode 109 resolves in December, and now we also know that no more than eight weeks track back from the season finale to episode 110, which exists within 109’s Christmas time frame.

Thus, the approximate math from season finale back to episode 111:

1 day at the monastery (since it’s on the second morning that Claire declares her eight months’ saga) + 3 days maximum at Wentworth (surveillance plus searching plus confrontation and return to rescue) + 1 day maximum between recruitment and arrival at Wentworth + an indeterminate number of weeks searching for Jamie after his escape from British custody following their ambush of the Watch (at least two weeks, possibly as much as a month or more = say, max 40 days) + 5 days at Lallybroch (day of arrival, followed by Quarter Day, then Jamie’s next-day hangover and attempt to repair the mill, Jamie and Jenny’s reconciliation one day later, and the arrival of the Watch the next morning) + 8 days or so (4-5 days’ fleeing from Cranesmuir to Craigh Na Dun and another few days to Lallybroch) + 2 days of a witch trial =

A total of about 60 days between Christmas and early July. And I believe this estimate gives the show writers and producers the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Ouch.

Ironically, the truncated year of 1744 mirrors the two-month interval of the season’s first half, the end of 1743. It’s simply not possible to skip four full months of a year without accounting for the story’s arc across the gap, which the Outlander Starz writing and production team have not done.

In order to make sense of the total amount of time between episodes 111 and 116–stated by the characters as around “Yuletide” (Jamie, costumes of castle and cast) and “eight months” since October 30 (Claire), respectively–it would have to be more like early May in episode 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” Again, the second half of the season represents a total of six narrative months.

It does indeed start to look like spring as early as episode 108, especially in the woods where Claire and Willie await the return from Jamie’s meeting with Horrocks. But since the whole group has yet to return to Leoch for Christmas, according to Jamie, we know it can’t yet be spring.

Therefore, the viewer’s expectations of approximate time passage for a TV show’s seasonal arc are grossly violated in the Outlander Starz series’ first season. For one thing, the imbalance is stark: less than two months’ time for the first eight episodes, and a minimum of six months—three times the number in the first half—for the second eight episodes. But, for another, bypassing the winter season is a more egregious error.

And why make it? Writing adjustments alone could have minimized the impact, so it shouldn’t have been much of a budget issue. In production terms, because the creators made no apparent attempt to pretend winter occurs by their use of Scottish scenery in the season’s second half, noticing the lack of winter is easy for the audience to do. They must have known we would notice, and somehow the choice was still approved. Budgetary constraints might, in part, explain this fact.

Of all the issues with the book’s first adaptation, a Scotland without winter may not be the worst, but it certainly bothered me when I first saw episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” and it continued to disrupt my suspension of disbelief over the next several episodes. Add to this that, when we’re supposed to be focusing so intently on the emotional roller coaster and unprecedented drama of the final episodes, our main character Claire plainly states the exact passage of time.

The result? Any sense of a carefully woven TV plot structure–which means viewers wouldn’t notice the structure at all–freezes up, a hardening quickened by Jamie’s miraculous recovery from Randall’s twisted form of aversion therapy on him toward Claire, and by the mysterious disappearance of Jamie’s physical fever. But it is winter’s loss that leads us into the cold.

For fans of the book, and even of the show despite these flaws, let’s hope Ronald D. Moore and company find a way not only to translate Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander book into sound plot structure and story pacing, but also to maintain the depth, complexity, and beauty of season 1 in a completely new setting. Perhaps with much of France being filmed inside Scottish studios, the hurdle of suspending our disbelief about climate and timing will prove more surmountable.

As Claire replies in season 1’s second episode, “Castle Leoch,” to Colum’s query as to whether her journey to France involves “a joyous occasion,” so we the viewers must echo: “One can only hope.” And perhaps the northern hemisphere’s imminent entry into summer will dilute a lost winter’s ironic chilling effect.

That won’t relieve us of Droughtlander’s irksome symptoms, unfortunately. Let us be industrious, then, in seeking solutions. Perhaps our resourcefulness can inspire the making of a season 2 Dragonfly in Amber encased in a more smoothly formed and comfortable home. All of its inhabitants deserve it.

Claire holds Munro's wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Claire holds Hugh Munro’s wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber, ep. 108, “Both Sides Now”
Image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Note: Filming for season 1 began October 2013 and concluded September 2014. Filming of season 2 is under way as of early May 2015, and the plan is to air the first episode in spring of 2016.


Other Outlander posts on this blog include the following (the first two are closely related):


Response to Outlander post “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”

The following response (spoilers included) comments on a fine post from a welcome, in-depth Outlander blog, Outlandish Observations, which has been praised by book series author Diana Gabaldon herself. I especially enjoy the detail involved in the book-to-show comparisons by this Outlander expert. Although I’ve only begun to explore the site, I already found keen insights on story elements and plenty of helpful book-related reminders. Check it out.

Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS).

I disagreed with only one thing about this thorough episode response: the notion that adding the two search-party soldiers to the show (as this feature is absent from the book), to catch up with Claire in the dungeon cell, should decrease the chances of Black Jack Randall’s (BJR) “interrogation” being interrupted by other officers and possibly a superior of his.

Note: Granting that focusing on this element carries with it a chain of possibly unfounded assumptions and burrows into supposition that could rightly be seen as moot or nit-picky, bear with me if you wish. One of the aspects I so prize in this cross-genre book and TV series is the historical realism created by Gabaldon’s incredibly thorough and well-applied research. It is thus the question of authenticity and plausibility that brings me to this review.

So, what of these two soldiers?

Once Randall lets them know he’s there at all (by leaving the cell door open), let alone with a now high-profile woman and the captain’s assistant, he has drawn unwelcome additional attention to himself, which alone would risk exposing his later sadistic perversions to his superiors.

Boisterously crashing the execution yard on his mount to save Jamie Fraser from the noose, and for himself, makes at least an initial splash. The captain has saved Jamie from immediate hanging, which is entered into official record, as we know from Sir Fletcher’s reference to at least a temporary “stay of execution” when Claire inquires after Jamie, posing as a friend of his family in Fletcher’s office.

Otherwise, for all we know, up until the raised alarm brings the two soldiers to the dungeon cell, BJR’s purpose to use that space expressly to brutalize convicted murder suspect Jamie Fraser could be quite clandestine. Though I suppose this depends on, among other things, the accepted interrogation practices at a British jail in 1740s Scotland.

Among those in the know are the two jailers who bring Jamie food “compliments of Captain Jonathan Randall” early in the episode. However, at least one of them seems in full awareness of, if not collusion with, the captain’s sexual proclivities involving Scottish prisoners, given the jailer’s line to Jamie as they leave: “…have a wash, and your luck could change any minute, boyo!” Their tacit acceptance clearly poses no threat to Randall’s plans, and the only other person with any notion of the disturbing details is the literal numbskull Marley who accompanies BJR as his weapon of pure muscle.

By sending the pursuing soldiers back to their commander with the message that Randall has “the situation well in hand,” the captain might rather increase the likelihood that prison warden Sir Fletcher may subsequently send someone to check in on that situation. Any number of reasons to do so emerge, particularly considering Fletcher’s status in the prison and his recent contact with the woman involved (Claire). Here are a few possibilities:

(1) Sir Fletcher wishes to check on the interrogation’s progress, either out of curiosity or due to indignation that someone he thought was doing a good Christian deed has instead had the audacity to infiltrate his prison.

(2) To verify the facts of Claire’s involvement to his own satisfaction, perhaps to answer his doubts, Sir Fletcher inquires after the welfare of the woman who left such a positive initial impression on him as a “Christian woman.” After all, he himself has not directly witnessed any suspicious behavior on her part.

(3) Knowing even a modicum of Randall’s true character might alarm the warden enough to be concerned for Claire’s welfare even if he believes she is guilty.

So I felt the appearance of the two soldiers posed a new and special problem, but I acknowledge that perhaps this disagreement rests on a minor point regarding storyline plausibility.

Of greater concern to me in this scene is the fact that Claire–this bold, intelligent woman desperately fighting for her husband’s life and safety, as well as her own–misses an opportunity to show the two soldiers exactly “what’s going on in here.” Those words comprise the vague reality she pleads with them to help her share with Sir Fletcher, by requesting they take her to him.

Why doesn’t she ask the soldiers, and with a greater sense of urgency and horror, to look at “the prisoner’s” ruined hand for themselves? (Jamie lies unconscious on the floor at this point.) Why doesn’t she make a specific accusation against BJR while she has the chance?

Claire_gettingto_Jamie_Wentworth_dungeon

Claire finds Jamie beaten in a dungeon cell. Image by Starz and Sony Pictures Television

Why doesn’t she at least try to appeal to the humanity of these young men? Although Randall forbids them to take her into custody and back to Sir Fletcher, Claire could still make an impression, some kind of play for their empathy, which could translate into adding just enough detail to the report BJR commands they deliver to bring about some form of merciful intervention.

That she does not do any of this elicits my grave disappointment in the Claire of Outlander‘s TV adaptation and, thus, in its writers and producers.

And yet, what difference would it make? Randall could simply take that moment to say what he says momentarily anyway about Claire’s being a rebel plotting against the king. Either way, no matter what she says or however much they’re likely to believe a woman they’ve been searching for under suspicion of aiding an escape attempt, the soldiers must obey the captain. And like Corporal Hawkins of episodes 106 and 108, and presumably most of his subordinates, they’re probably (rightly) terrified of Captain Jonathan Wolverton “Black Jack” Randall.

Still, Claire has never before allowed futility to prevent her from trying. Why start now, at the most critical moment yet?

If we could stop Randall, though, what would such merciful intervention look like? Involving Sir Fletcher yet again may spare Jamie further sadistic victimization by BJR, but it may well simply ensure his death sentence, perhaps by increasing security at his cell. What a choice! A more peaceful hanging or a soul-tortured one.

I suppose at the root of this discussion is the hope-against-hope that, with the onset of another departure from the plot of the book, we as book and show fans could possibly change the inevitable horror we know is about to unfold. There’s no way out; the alternative would, with Jamie’s execution, only spell the end of the saga as we know it.

While my frustration with Claire’s reaction to the soldiers’ presence lingers, perhaps introducing them is a wise choice after all. It adds plausibility by representing the likely fact of a raised alarm, a representation absent from the book. It toys with the audience’s emotions by casting a flicker of hope into Jamie and Claire’s dark, hopeless situation. Then, rendering that hope impotent reinforces the overwhelming sense of doom and Black Jack’s absolute supremacy.

Our poor hero and heroine face their ultimate tests of survival so far–yet again for both their lives and their marriage–as we head into the season finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” After escaping death but being completely broken in mind, body, and spirit, what of Jamie Fraser can be salvaged to make his life worth living again?

Episode 116 is set to air May 30, 9:00pm EDT, on Starz. Until then, all 15 episodes to date will run over Memorial Day weekend as a build-up to the end of this fascinating TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s first book of the series Outlander. Enjoy the marathon, and stay tuned!


Other Outlander posts on my blog include the following (the first two are closely related):