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.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

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: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

count-monte-cristo-cast-into-the-sea

“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)

Nothing I Own: Original Poetry

And your deep thought from Philosofishal today? An anti-Thanksgiving sort of excerpt from my poem “Nothing I Own” (2010). Inclusion neither constitutes nor forbids endorsement.

And she said to me,
“I would give nothing
That I own, if asked.”
Appalled, I then realized,
Mine is worse, or no better, 
for I would own nothing
So as not to feel obliged.

copyright © C. L. Tangenberg

Looking at just this part of the poem with fresh eyes and new cultural context, I think I’ll file it under Nativism–in all senses of the word. Or Socialism or Communism. Or just re-title it. Or maybe False Freedom. Relativity? Solipsism? Extremism? Bald-faced Sin? Excuses? Seeds of Evil?

But, well . . . how to choose?

Does the first speaker mean she would give only when NOT asked? I.e., it has to be her choice, her original idea? Or, does she really mean she’s keeping it all to herself always?

Is the second speaker, because she is the “I,” the person whose perspective the poem is most squarely about? That would seem to indicate which title fits best.

And yet, can we trust her statement? Are the motivations we claim to have really those we hold? Are the ones we actively claim really the most active among our reasons? How much does social pressure shape our response?

Can there be light, as in true enlightenment, without closely examining the darkness?

Not recalling the rest, can I really analyze only part of a poem, even my own poem, with any authority? How much does context matter? Some say it’s everything. I don’t go quite that far, but it is significant.

So, in order to know what’s at the heart of the art, what message might emerge from the words, you really have to read the whole thing and, in so doing, seek to learn things like:

  • What else was said? What was happening? What is their history? Who are they?
  • Are they both speaking freely or under duress, or is one dominating the other?
  • Is the speech itself merely an instrument of a different, hidden purpose? Is that better or worse? Does she like or dislike her audience?
  • Is it a contest to see who is worse? Americans are generally pretty attached to those.
  • Do they mean what they say, or are they just afraid somehow to be honest?
  • Which is speaking–the authentic self or the wounded inner child?
  • How mistreated do you have to be to feel the need to avoid others at all costs or reap punishment for self-absorption?
  • Is this their way to ensure they get nothing themselves, a sign of self-hatred?

I know. You’ll say I’m reading too much into it, but I’m not really seeing one conclusion or another at all. It’s been too long since I read the whole poem. I’m asking. Because I don’t have the answers. It’s an examination of a small corner of the possibilities of human psychology, social morality, and subjective truths.

So how can I judge? How can you? What can we really know?

If we don’t know what to conclude, there seem to be two active responses open to us. (I’ll get to the passive ones farther down.)

  1. Find out more in order to judge properly, if possible, or
  2. Simply be more open to revelations and to getting it wrong, more tolerant of the lives we are not living in the skins that are not ours, and withhold judgment, learning from the outcomes in the process.

This second option may seem passive, but it is active when it takes skill in self-control to achieve openness, humility, tolerance, and restraint, greater skill than it takes to shout our precipitous verdict from on high.

I try to do the first–investigate–when I can and when I feel it is important to, but I know the effort is often fruitless, takes a lot of time and thought, and rarely aligns with the personal goals that matter more to me, where my energy is better spent. Which leaves the second way.

The active withholding of a decision when you know you’re missing vital information to make it wisely is actually rather wise.

So if it’s not our literal job (yes, literal meaning actual earning of an income to feed oneself and one’s family) to judge something, or if it is our job to know what the heck we’re doing, then what legitimate basis (let alone right) do we have to label someone, to declare a just course, to say what should or should not be done, when knowledge is nowhere to be found?

True freedom is to be measured by what we allow other people in our midst to be and do, not by how free the judging of them makes us feel. A free society must evolve from citizens freeing one another. But do we love liberty or each other enough to evolve into that society? Or, do too many of us prefer the hollow promise of equality and the illusion of government protection to a freedom that demands more individual responsibility?

People seem to love to claim they are holier than thou, which belies any claim to love equality. All claims require basis in fact to be true. And what fact do you know about yourself that cannot be legitimately disputed by those who know you relatively well?

Think about it. All the things we’re most sure of about ourselves–the ones that aren’t patently obvious and therefore unimportant–are often the most objectively questionable. So “Let he among us without sin be the first to condemn” actually means “How dare you condemn, you hypocrite!” There should be no “first” because there is none without sin.

A passive response to not knowing what to make of things, whether it takes the form of forever ignoring a fundamental life question or choosing an arbitrary answer, is more unconscionable to me than the highly visible sins being judged in the first place.

So it has to be either judge wisely or don’t judge, but can such a non-judgmental approach work for everyone, in every role in life?

Can a president, for instance, afford to suspend judgment or be uncertain–ever?

Sure, they have to project a strong front to ward off threats to the country. Frankly, though, and yes, in ironic judgment, I find a publicized persona of sustained high confidence–along with rote, platitudinous rhetoric–in political leaders to be a sign of idiocy and incompetence, not to mention dishonesty. Verdict read. So apparently, the only people I judge harshly and permanently are the judgmental, or those who seem to have more confidence than I. 😉

But in all seriousness: However covertly or discreetly displayed, without actual humility and openness, meaning the capacity to learn, improve, and course-correct, a leader is lost. And what does that make the leader’s country?

Your thoughts?

 

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.

0_Jamie_ill_sohealthy_Sandringham_ep202_final_scene

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.

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.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

The third post in this series shared an earnest celebration of nature’s boundless beauty. Now we shift from Wordsworth in early nineteenth-century England to America’s Plath in the mid-twentieth century. As summer ends and the harvest season looms, my fourth feature in this series of nature verse by famous poets examines a far from Romantic attitude toward nature’s evident abundance.


The Poet: Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry operates with turbulent incisiveness that often deftly exposes the true nature of life, poetry, relationships, and death, consistently with an intense gaze through the lens and at the subject of self. This biographical article at the Poetry Foundation website draws upon many literary voices observant of her life, work and legacy to demonstrate poet-human Plath as an invigorating, tragic, and ultimately fascinating figure.

Style and Subject: Although written in the midst of her struggles with mental health like most of her poems, “Blackberrying” is one of her more docile ventures into nature both experienced and hoped for. Plath selects details that speak to a clash, or perhaps a dance, between the not-so-charming wild and an even more dulling civilization. In the process, she shares her half-hearted, reluctant, and doubtful anticipation of encountering a grand natural scene.

Story: The narrative arc of the poem reveals a perspective teetering on the fence–or blackberry alley–between hope and despair, in which the speaker tries to shield herself from imminent disappointment by lowering her gaze and her expectations.

Form: The poem’s free verse with irregular but predominantly long lines conveys the speaker’s vacillating emotional journey as she describes her forward movement among the blackberries.

The Poem: Excerpts of the 27-line poem “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath (1961):

Lines 1-7:
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. 

Lines 14-16:
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

Lines 20-22:
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. . . .

To read the entire poem, go here.

Theme: Whatever the subject or setting (this one is probably the English coast), common threads in Plath’s work are the circumlocutions of the mind and the meanderings of the heart. But the lines in “Blackberrying” are no less charming for the contradictions and ambivalence they portray. In fact, in Plath’s and other writers’ works, such tensions often add a kind of freshness that further engages the reader.

Figurative Devices: She personifies the blackberries, the flies (lines not shown), the wind, and the hills, a choice which at once signifies her human loneliness and suggests the power and value she sees in natural elements. On the flip side, Plath points out the absurdity of nature’s abundance in her description of the blackberries’ attributes–“big,” “dumb,” “fat” things that “squander” their resources.

Language and Sound: The poem’s simple diction delivers a direct but subdued tone, creating a sad mood. Alliterative phrasing (“bush of berries,” “bluegreen bellies”) and internal rhyme (“thumb” and “dumb”; “green,” “screen,” “between,” and back to “green”) then elevate the spirit by infusing the poem with wry humor and mild amusement, which I envision as the speaker’s half-smile.

Plath’s use of echoing repetition builds reader suspense (repeated words like “nothing,” “blackberries,” “bush,” and “hills”) and conveys both an insistent plea and its futility. Like a fist loudly banging on the door of a locked and empty house, she will not be let in.

Plath’s plural nouns communicate abundance, but their repeated final “z” sound also calls attention to the buzzing of flies (which also suggests death) and the hum of the speaker’s anticipation of something more.

Your turn. After reading the above excerpts or the whole poem, consider:

What else do you notice about the poem? Are there: Surprising images? Sensory details? Subtle hints of things? Stark revelations? Simile? Metaphor? Oxymoron? Other devices?

What feelings does this poem seem to express or stir in you?

Which lines or phrases make you smile or gasp or wonder?

Does the poem show its age, or is it timeless?

Since poetry is usually best read aloud, here is a series of audio recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems. Although these do not include “Blackberrying,” you may still be able to hear her intense mind and emotions coming across. Listen and see!

Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem? Which one?

Comments are welcome.


ICYMI: See the starting point of this series on nature poetry by famous poets here.

Would you like to recommend a sample of nature poetry for future posts? Let me know about it. I’m considering poems by W. B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, and others, but you can help me choose!

I’ve noticed a trend of all-white, western European-descendent people in my series, so I’m also looking for nature poems by American and global Blacks (Rita Dove? Derek Walcott?), Hispanics, eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern ethnic groups (Rumi anyone?), and Asians (Indian, Chinese, Japanese–haiku is all about nature–etc.), and surely I should be able to find some Native American nature poetry, perhaps in the form of songs. Many cultures have wildlife-based creation myths.

Help dispel my ignorance!

Note: Poets writing in English or poems translated into English only, please. Thanks.