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Recap on Steroids: Episode 401 America the Beautiful

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Title: America the Beautiful

        Written by Matthew B. Roberts and Toni Graphia

      Directed by Julian Holmes

The podcast for this episode was narrated by executive producers Matt Roberts and Maril Davis.

The title card for the episode was an American bald eagle catching a fish in a lake.

These season 4 Recaps on Steroids incorporate an OLA writers’ opinion on the episode woven in with information from both the official Starz podcasts along with comments from the official episode script including things changed or edited for television.

When we last saw Jamie and Claire at the end of Season 3, they had washed ashore on the (not yet) United States in the colony of Georgia.  We also learned that the ship had run aground with survivors.  We learn in this episode that Young Ian, Fergus, Marsali, Lesley and Hayes all survived the shipwreck.

The episode starts in 2000 BC in North America.  No, Claire has not traveled in time that far back, although the creation of the stone circle in North America is a harbinger of things to come or as Matt noted “a payoff if you’re paying attention”.   This scene was planned well in advance of the season and was admittedly random and not connected to a specific episode.   The voice-over from Claire notes man’s fascination with circles of all kinds.  From this ancient stone circle, we shift to 18th century Georgia and a hangman’s noose.

Jamie is on a mission and pays off a guard to be able to see a friend who is scheduled to hang.  We see that it is Gavin Hayes who looks scared and sad and admits to sleeping with a married woman and then killing her husband in self-defense.  The writers wanted to make sure that the person to be hanged was someone we cared about.  In the book, the hanged Scot is charged with theft but show research showed that this was not a hanging offense during that time period so the writers changed it to something more serious.   Jamie has a plan to help Hayes escape but Hayes is reluctant to have Jamie risk his own safety and that of the others.  (They had to shoot this scene a few times due to the actor’s heavy brogue-the dailies showed that he was hard to understand.)  Hayes instead asks Jamie to grant him the final wish of seeing a smile from a friend.

Jamie has brought rum to help Hayes get drunk and maybe lesson the fear of his imminent death.  Another prisoner asks for the same and thus is the first encounter with the new antagonist for the Fraser family.   He is described in the script as one Stephen Bonnet, late 30’s handsome and Irish.    He is smooth in both charm and the way he moves his body, reminding one of Jack Sparrow or even a snake, but the producers say that was all the choice of new cast member, Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey).

The town of Wilmington was created by Jon Gary Steele and his set crew.  Everything in Scotland was old and stone while everything in the colonies was new and wood.  Much of the town is just a façade with interior scenes shot on set.  As most know by now, all of these scenes were actually shot in Scotland and they even brought in their own mud!

Claire, Lesley, Fergus and Marsali are there to witness the hanging and support Hayes, despite Jamie suggesting that they not watch.  The drums beat out the march of the condemned men and this was deliberate start to associate the episode with Drums of Autumn.  Hayes is first and Jamie pushes his way to the front with a forced smile on his face as Hayes requested.  The floor gives way and Hayes is hanged. (My 7th grade English teacher once told me that pictures are hung, people are hanged.)  The smile leaves Jamie’s face and is replaced with one of sadness and regret that in this new land, he does not have the credibility or knowledge of the laws to help him in a way he might have in Scotland.  A brilliant job of physical acting by Sam Heughan here and Matt was very complimentary about him in the podcast.   Lesley is distraught over the death of his longtime friend and in his grief, he creates the distraction that Jamie had originally planned for Hayes.  The handsome Irishman escapes.   (Producers note-this scene had 150 extras.)

We cut to the Sky Boat song opening credits with this season’s version including a very American southern sound with banjos.  It’s always great to watch the first episode credits, not only for the new song version (although I miss the original) but also to see if you can make out book scenes in the quick glimpses shown.

A deleted scene was next where Jamie and Claire are walking to the tavern and discussing how they should sell the gemstones they salvaged from the wreckage.   This is a famous book scene where Jamie is storing them in his crotch and Claire notes wryly that he’s a walking inducements to Harlots.  I hope they include this in the DVD.

In the tavern, Fergus, Ian and Lesley enter and tell Jamie that the local priest will not bury Gavin in the cemetery since he was a murderer.   They decide they will go there at night to bury him.  Lesley’s grief is still palpable and he is adamant that Hayes will have a proper send-off.  He begins to sing in Gaelic this song of mourning and tribute.  The English translation is below.  Matt noted that Keith Fleming sang this in the table read and had everyone in tears.  She said if they had known he had such a beautiful voice, they would have written more songs into Season 3.

Och na och. We are full of despondency that you left us, Gavin.  

And we are aggrieved, Son of Seamus, Son of Louisa. 

You left the place where your youth was nurtured.

Hear him, hear him, you left us all with sadness, Gavin.

Hear him, hear him, It’s a pity that you are not so very young.

You were raised in Cihl-Mhartainn in the area of Dun Domhull.

You were born in the town of 1727.

Hear him, hear him, you left us all with sadness, Gavin.

Hear him, hear him, It’s a pity that you are not so very young.

Hear him, hear him, you left us all with sadness, Gavin.

Hear him, hear him, It’s a pity that you are not so very young.

 As Lesley sings, Jamie joins in with a low (slightly out of tune) voice and the rest of the family does as well.  Scots in the tavern hear a song of home and also join in.  Music has bound them together as a people, despite being so far from home with so much uncertainty ahead.  But family and culture survive no matter where you are.      Matt commented that Jamie is known to be tone-deaf in the books so there will be no solo for him (although rumor has it that Sam has a nice voice).

In the book, the singing actually drives the British soldiers away but that was cut for time.  As it turns out, there was debate of making this episode into two parts but it was rejected as not a good idea for an opening episode.   I’m very glad because that would have been a waste of an episode when there are only 13 to cover 1000 pages.   And I think it forced them to make the story tighter.

Nightfall and Jamie is driving the wagon and family into the cemetery to bury Hayes.  They discuss what to do with the gemstones while they are in town.  Ian and Jamie begin to dig and Ian has PTSD flashbacks to his time with Geillis, both in his sexual abuse and fear of being killed.  He tells Jamie how Geillis only wanted virgin boys and he was not a virgin (a surprise to Jamie).  Matt noted that this was not necessary plot wise but it was very necessary for character development.  Jamie tells Ian that he’s been in that same situation.    He eases Ian’s guilt by telling him that “your cock does not have a conscience but you do”.  Toni said they fought for that line and I’m glad they did.  It was something that Ian could understand.

Matt loves writing Jamie and Ian together.  Jamie sees himself in Ian-the one son who wanted to see the world.  With Ian in this scene, Jamie shows both his tender side and his warrior side.  And he sees how his memories of own sexual abuse, both violently in the hands of Black Jack and emotionally at the hands of Geneva can be overcome with time and talk.  Claire helped teach him that and he pays that gift forward with Ian.

They return to the wagon and everybody is spooked as the tarp begins to rise in human form.  But it’s that slippery Irishman again.  Jamie does not trust him yet but after hearing his story, he tells him to be on his way.  Bonnet has other plans though because he knows the redcoats will be looking for him.  And here we see why Bonnet is even more dangerous than BJR.  While BJR had power, you never questioned whether he was evil.   He was just layers of evil.  Bonnet is charming, can appear vulnerable and has a distinctive and uncanny ability to find your weakness and use it against you. In this case, he knows they are all grieving and pretends to be a friend of Hayes to stay with them and aid his escape.

Toni Graphia said they discussed his conscience to determine whether he was a psychopath or a sociopath.  I looked up the difference and it seems that while both have a poor inner voice to define the difference between right and wrong, but a psychopath has no conscience about it.   The producers always have a character discussion with a new actor and in this case, they said he should be charming but mimic your emotions and feed on your weakness.  Ed delivered these notes perfectly.

Jamie and Claire agree to drive the wagon forward while the others go back to town.  They are stopped by a group of redcoats looking for the escaped man.  Jamie thinks quickly and admits they have a body but claim it is Hayes.  The British leader still has one of his men stab the “body”.  In the book, Bonnet doesn’t flinch but the writers (and I) thought this was impractical so they added the leg of venison into the story.   Claire attends to Bonnet’s wound (Caitriona Balfe is so natural in these medical scenes) and he uses his ability to bond with his future victims with her.   So, he fools them both but the writers deliberately want to make Jamie and Claire not always right or not always the hero to make them more human.  Matt says Jamie is the hardest character to write, given his few flaws.

The Foreshadow knows:  Bonnet describes his fear of drowning and also comments on Claire’s two rings.

Jamie and Claire camp for the night and in an evening of a mutual sponge-bath, the stress of the day gets to them and they talk about how none of it compares to what they suffered in losing each other for 20 years.  And their love sustained, despite time and centuries apart.  This is the famous First Law of Thermodynamics scene brought forth from later in the book.  Their lovemaking is more urgent, bonding and one ultimately of gratefulness that they are back together.  (And this is the first time they had been alone together in a long time, although I would have wondered if anybody was in the woods.)  And Jamie teachers Claire some physics of his own.  Lovely portrayal by both the leads in this scene.

Matt called writing this the elephant in the room as most book-readers might expect the also famous sex on the river rock scene but it was far too cold in Scotland.  The scene that was actually shot was re-shot at the end of filming because it was so cold the first time that the actors needed to stay dressed and the studio feedback was not sexy enough.  They managed to make it both sexy and tender, despite the fact that I bet it was still not warm when they reshot it.   Matt commented on how their chemistry really made the scene so beautiful.  They did delete the first part of the scripted scene where he walks up to her.

The next morning, Claire is looking out over the mountainside and telling Jamie how all of this will eventually become the United States of America.  (Just loved how they inserted Jamie’s sense of humor into this scene as well.)   At the same time, Jamie learns that life will not be so idyllic for the Native Americans who will suffer some of the same indignities as the Highlanders.  The CGI in this scene was a bit troublesome as you could tell they were staring at a green screen and in one shot from behind, Claire is talking yet you cannot see Caitriona’s mouth moving.

They return to Wilmington and a deleted scene indicates that they were invited to a dinner at the Livingston household.   As they dress, Claire worries her old dress will be appropriate and Jamie assures her it will especially with a beautiful necklace that he had created out of their ruby.  He hopes that it will show off the stone for an attending wealthy Englishman who may buy it and help finance their voyage home to Scotland.   Jamie hugs her from behind as she looks at the ruby (Toni loves this shot) and Jamie bows to her to “invite” her to dinner. (Maril loved that part.)

Dinner party scenes are not my favorite.  In this case, as fellow British citizens, they fit in and yet they don’t fit in.  They don’t wear powdered wigs and they are not pretentious.   Claire manages to catch the eye of the wealthy gentleman who may buy her ruby while Jamie is brought into the library to talk to Governor Tryon.    Several fun facts to include with this scene.

  1. Governor Tryon was a real person and the real governor of North Carolina
  2. Actor Tim Downie (Tryon) used to act in a series of very funny commercials with Sam Heughan for Tennents Ale. You can find several on YouTube
  3. Sam indicated this room was haunted and our Outlander America twitter admin tweeted at Tim about it. Tim replied that every time Jamie said the word Jacobite in filming it, a book fell from the shelf.   I wonder if the poltergeist was a Jacobite or a redcoat!

Tryon mentions land grants that are available for immigrant Scots.  It is a tempting offer and he advises Jamie that even the technically a large sum of money is required but indicates a loophole there.  He asks Jamie to consider it.

Back in their rented room, Claire and Jamie discuss their next steps.  Claire has sold the ruby for 100 pounds.  But there is also Tryon’s offer.  Jamie is smart enough to know that Tryon will want his loyalty in return against the regulators (the early American patriots).  But Claire warns him that this time the British will lose the war when the American Revolution actually happens in about eight years’ time.  The biggest factor here is that Jamie knows this will one day be Brianna’s country and since it is impossible for him to be able to guide her as his father, this is the only way he could have a direct hand in making this a good land for her.   His eyes begin to water at the joy that idea brings to him.  He also sees this as a way to have a fresh start in a new place.   (Later in a scripted but cut scene, we learn that Clare had applied for US citizenship in the 1960’s.)

Jamie and Claire make a decision and head to the Tavern to catch up with the family.  They come upon young Ian who has a rather large furry friend.  He explains he won the dig “dicing” but after receiving a stern warning about continuing to gamble from his aunt and uncle, he turns over some coin as well.  Rollo becomes a new and important member of the family.

Jamie tells the group that they have sold the ruby but have decided to try and make a life in the colonies.  They are not yet sure where they will settle but will decide after visiting Aunt Jocasta in River Run.  Ian is excited about this idea but Uncle Jamie squashes is dreams by telling him that he must return him to Scotland so he can be the man his mother wants him to be.  Fergus and Lesley are given a part of the ruby profits but Lesley asks if he can stay with them for a while.  Fergus and Marsali reveal that they too will stay as Marsali is pregnant.   (This is a change from the books as she finds out she is pregnant in Jamaica and stays there until after giving birth. I’m glad they made this change.)  Jamie is delighted and Claire is tentatively so given her previous talk with Marsali about not wanting a child right away.  Marsali assures her that she is happy and Claire gives her adopted son a hug.  Jamie also stands and hugs him.  I wonder if it occurred to both at that moment that they will soon be grandparents.   

They commission a river boat to take them to Jocasta’s plantation with promise of helping the work (thanks to young Ian and Lesley’s backs).  The boat scenes were filmed separately and unfortunately you can tell because the CGI in the boat scenes are not great.  In some scenes, Jamie’s head seems almost 3D and the CGI is too obvious.   Jamie tells Claire the story of Jocasta Cameron Cameron Cameron-drawing it out like the Scottish storyteller he is.

Claire expresses her concern over the assumed slave steering the boat but she learns that the man was freed after saving his owner’s life.  This will not be the first time I agree with Claire’s position but wishes she acted with a little more finesse.  The man has a beautiful baritone voice and I wonder what he would sound like singing with Lesley.

The next morning Jamie gives Claire a gift for their 24th anniversary. It is a beautiful medical box complete with medicine, tools and a microscope.  This was a lovely scene in the book and brought to life beautifully by Sam and Caitriona (and the antique shop commissioned to make the box).   Matt indicated that they had to make a few versions as the main one was too heavy for Caitriona to carry around.   They edited out the part where she finds the physician’s notes of Dr. Daniel Rawling.  Jamie seems happy that she loves it as he feels somewhat guilty for not being able to give her much.  She assures him that all she needs is the ring he gave her as she passed down his mother’s pearls to their daughter.

That night as they slept, the boat was boarded by Bonnet and his band of thieves.  They hold the crewman at gunpoint on shore and Bonnet entices Jamie to attack him where Jamie is then grabbed by several men who steal the gems.  Bonnet gives them instructions (per the script) not to kill Jamie

Ian is shoved to the ground as is Lesley.  One thief tries to get Claire’s rings but Lesley prevents him.  Bonnet comes into the boat cabin and with complete indifference slits Lesley’s throat.  He then forces Claire to give up both her rings and on instinct she tries to swallow them.   He forces one out and leaves.  As Claire gags and brings up one ring, she is distraught to find that it is Frank’s ring and that she has lost Jamie’s.  The one thing she said was all she needed.  Jamie staggers in to find the horrific scene.  I agree with the producers’ decision to deviate from the book and have her lose Jamie’s ring as it is the more recognizable of the two.   (Book readers will know why this is important.)

As those who have seen the episode know, this last scene was without dialogue (even though there is dialogue in the script) and we hear Ray Charles’ version of America the Beautiful.  Interesting here is that Bear McCreary had written an extremely beautiful version of the same song (per Toni) but they chose to go with the other version.  I understand what they were going for with the choice but I personally did not like it for several reasons.  I didn’t like the choice of the song and especially with the words, it took me out of the scene.  I didn’t like the symbolism.  And Caitriona noted during a promotional panel that she didn’t realize that they were going to do that.   Sometimes I think the writers and/or producers fall in love with one of their own ideas that they stick with it, even knowing that a decent portion of the fans won’t like it.  (You can’t please everybody but when you can safely predict that maybe 40-50% won’t like it, then it seems kind of selfish to hang on to your pet idea.)

The episode was a very good start to the new season and an effective pivot from both Scotland and the Caribbean.  The last scene, music notwithstanding, had me captivated.   The cast did an outstanding job and all the players have gelled nicely.  Welcome to America.

 

Official images from Starz.  Gifs made by OLA.

 

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