What makes a good TV show great? There has been a lot of debate about the calling signs of “prestige” television, and tiers of greatness. But when I ask friends and, sometimes, strangers what TV they are watching, the primary concern is not (of course) what shows are considered prestigious viewing, or which shows are draped with awards because they’ve caught onto whatever zeitgeist. It’s simply about enjoying something, and wanting to see more.
Throughout this first season, Outlander has had its ups and downs. It’s gorgeously shot and perfectly cast, but it hasn’t always connected well narratively. The show’s greatest strength, though, is that it has created characters in Claire and Jamie that we truly care about. It has been easy to get emotionally invested in their stories, but as “The Devil’s Mark” proved, that circle may be even wider than we think.
“The Devil’s Mark” was an excellent episode that even managed to best “By the Pricking of My Thumb.” As disappointed as I was by “The Reckoning,” “By the Pricking of My Thumb” really seemed to course-correct, incorporating so many elements in one episode that are each things that have made Outlander great. But “The Devil’s Mark” had Outlander reaching new heights, both emotionally and narratively.
One of things that makes a good show great is the concept of dramatic stakes. At not point did I think Claire was going to be burned at the stake, but I genuinely didn’t think Gellis would, either. Outlander also found a new way to approach the almost tired scene of witch trials by calling back to things we as viewers have witnessed throughout the series. Some of the witnesses against Gellis and Claire were fantastical in their retellings, or interpretations, of what they saw, but ultimately most of their facts were true. It was a reminder, once again, that freedoms and actions we take for granted in modern times were — if the climate was right — tantamount to witchcraft, and due for the stake.
There were several great surprises throughout the trial, though, including Ned as a spectacular defense attorney, and the priest who seemed to be eternally condemning the women, but in fact, praised Claire for her ability to see what he could not. Still, the horde wanted a burning, and they ultimately received one.
The far more important moments of the trial, though, were about Gellis and Claire’s relationship. At fist, Gellis had no remorse for anything she had done, and even blamed Claire for their incarceration. But slowly, seeing the writing on the wall, Gellis began to explain that she was content with her sacrifice because of what she was trying to do — change history. Her squirreling away money for the cause and linking up with Dougal were just two elements to her plan. But she was careless and brazen, and ultimately, it brought her down. Hoping Claire would pick up the torch, she hints to her about time traveling ways, but when Claire calls her being there an “accident,” Gellis is frightened for the first time. Perhaps this all meant nothing.
With her death approaching, Gellis needed somebody else to know her time-traveling secret, to unburden herself just as Claire later did to Jamie. In a series of powerful moments, Claire refused to renounce Gellis to save herself, and was flogged for it. That scene, of course, mirrored Jamie’s own flogging at the hands of Black Jack Randall, and it was the perfect time for him to appear to rescue her. Gellis, then, realized the truth — she was doomed. Jamie had come, but Dougal had not. Her plan was falling down around her, so she sacrificed herself for Claire. When Gellis screamed that she was a witch and carrying the devil’s child, it was impossible not to get caught up in a tornado emotions: anger at the injustice, sadness at her fate, fear for her and for Claire, and an astonishment at her bravery.
Kudos, too, to Outlander for not going so far as to show the burning or any further harm to Gellis. It was clear enough. Instead, “The Devil’s Mark” allowed Claire and Jamie to share the rest of the episode and figure out what was next for them. Claire told Jamie everything, and Jamie believed her. Not because he understood, but because he trusted her.
So then, after those beautiful moments that also included Jamie’s talk of plans for their future together at Lallybroch (and a very, very steamy fire-side bit of sexiness), it was such a heartbreaking moment when Jamie told Claire she was home … at the stones.
I’m going to need a moment.
This, more than Jamie’s words, proved that he believed Claire. More than that, like Gellis, he was willing to sacrifice everything for her. As much as he loved her, if she wanted to return home, he was ready to let her. Well, not ready at first (which, again, I need my fainting couch handy), but ultimately, yes.
Even though it seemed unlikely that Claire would choose to return to 1945 (not knowing the mechanics of the book, I didn’t know fully if she could end up going back and forth), her struggle to choose felt believable. Jamie was right that this side of the rock had nothing but violence and danger in store for her. And yet, there was Jamie himself, and the chance (as Gellis encouraged her) to be an agent of real change. Her returning to him was a beautiful moment, augmented by his smile as he woke up and understood. He told her his home was with her. And now, she knows hers is with him. That is compelling television.
Episode Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Musings and Miscellanea:
— This episode was excellent. I was so emotionally invested in it from start to finish that I was practically shaking by the end. Such a massive leap from where the second half of this season started.
— Claire quoting “my only regret is that I have one life to lose for my country” was a clue to Gellis that she may not be from that time, though I think Gellis already knew (but wasn’t ready, herself, to reveal the same).
— Although her saying, “looks like I’m going to a fucking barbecue” should have tipped Claire off!
— I have never hated Laoghaire more, and cannot wait until she and Claire meet again!
— Ned is the best.
— “1968” – Gellis. RIP, you will be missed!
— “I don’t understand it, not yet, but I trust your word, your heart, and I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me, I will believe you” – Jamie.
— Poor Jamie though, I could just about see his mind exploding! I loved the fact that he then wanted to know more, though.
— I had no idea that smallpox vaccinations used to leave such scars.
— “Though it would have been a good deal easier if you’d only been a witch!” – Jamie.