April 12, 2015

Plot and the Problem of Consequence

Outlander spoilers ahead.

Outlander has picked up again, and the first episode of this second half of the first season (got that??) contained the most controversial scene of the series: the either terribly dreaded or gleefully anticipated spanking scene. It begins when Claire makes an escape attempt and, rather than reaching Craig Na Dun, ends up in the hands of the Redcoats. A brutal scene with Black Jack Randall follows, but Jamie and a handful of buddies rescue her. The clan members in the traveling group are now being pursued by the Redcoats, BJR knows that Jamie is back, and the clan is shunning Claire as a result.

Because severe corporal punishment was the way all justice was handled in 1743, Jamie is expected to punish Claire in private, which he does. It's too complicated a scene to analyze here, but in both the book and the show, the end result is clear: Claire learns that Jamie has insight into this world that she doesn't, and Jamie learns that he better never, ever beat his wife again. 

One week later (not just in the viewing world but the world of the show, more or less), Jamie is forced to travel and has only one request of Claire when he leaves: Stay away from Geillis, a mysterious villager suspected of killing her husband. Claire promises—and a day later goes to Geillis's house, where she is promptly arrested, along with Geillis, as a witch.

The fan pages are aflame with opinions about this: Some think Claire is being both stupid and ornery, and some think she's being independent and noble (for going to help a friend). There may be truth in both these opinions, but her disregard for Jamie's request is problematic for another reason: It nullifies all of the developments and action of the previous episode—which is regarded as one of the pivotal moments of the story. It's as if the entire sequence of her rescue from Black Jack Randall and the "reckoning" that followed, in which she slowly realizes the import of her actions, simply never happened. Claire does exactly what she would have done before the reckoning: ignore Jamie's warning and go see Geillis.

That plot points must have consequences seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how often this is abrogated. A favorite episode of The Big Bang Theory centers around the revelation that nothing Indiana Jones does in Raiders of the Lost Ark matters to the plot. I still remember my frustration at the second Die Hard movie when I realized that nothing that happens in the first four-fifths of the movie has any impact on the outcome, which is determined solely when the plane takes off very near the end.  This is bad for an action movie, where, you know, action should matter. But it's even worse for a character-driven narrative like Outlander, which makes strong claims regarding the development of its characters. If it is the story of two people who change over time yet continue to love each other and grow, what happens when the change and growth are nullified?

Inconsequence is more of a risk with long narratives. You have to keep coming up with problems and mistakes, but if you want your characters to grow, that means leaving behind certain kinds of mistakes. Outlander is a love story at heart, despite the history and action that accompany it. And love means getting to that point where you're on the precipice of an action and you're able to stop yourself because you're thinking of someone else now. Outlander is still the best show on TV, but it will need to tread carefully. Taken to an extreme, there's a term for a show where the characters never grow and the narrative is a never-ending  succession of crises as a result: soap opera.

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