Outlander S02E10 “Prestonpans” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video, new episodes every Sunday
Writer: Ira Steven Behr
Director: Philip John
Essential Plot Points:
- At Prestonpans the Jacobite and English armies face each other across a boggy plain.
- The Prince is becoming impatient and his Irish quartermaster, John O’Sullivan, urges an attack. Jamie and Lord Murray advise caution.
- Jamie convinces Dougal to ride into the bog to discover if it’s crossable. Although he dodges redcoat musket fire (more by luck than skill), Dougal and his sinking horse prove that mounting an attack across the bog would be a very bad idea.
- Luckily a local who knows the area approaches the Jacobite army with crucial information: he knows a safe path through the bog.
- The Jacobites immediately launch a raid, crossing the bog at night and attacking the unsuspecting English in the morning mists.
- The Jacobites win the nasty, short and brutal fight, but among their casualties is Angus.
- The Prince commands Claire to tend to wounded English soldiers as well as the Scots.
- When Dougal finds out this is happening he flies into a rage.
- The Princes witnesses Dougal’s racist hissyfit and is not impressed. He demands Dougal be decommissioned.
- But Jamie – who knows the army needs warriors like Dougal if it is to win at Culloden – comes up with a compromise: Dougal is promoted to a Captain of the newly-formed Highlander Dragoons, charged with following the enemy and reporting on troop movements. That way the Prince will never actually have to lay eyes on him while the army maintains his skills.
- Dougal knows he’s being promoted out of harm’s way, but grudgingly goes along with the plan.
Four and a half stars? Well, probably not if you watch Outlander for a bit of Jamie/Claire boffin/bickering action. They barely share the screen for more than a couple of minutes the whole episode, and for most of that time they’re talking strategy and politics rather than slushy stuff. So no, this isn’t a typical episode of Outlander. But is a bloody good one.
Television and film is often criticised for glamourising, or even fetishising violence, and on a surface level, the Battle of Prestonpans could be accused of doing the same. The action sequences are highly stylised; the violent flashes of red – both the blood and English uniforms – against the muted palette of the mist invites comparisons with with the style-over-substance Sin City. Director Philip John has created a battle scene with an immense amount of visual splendour.
And yet, this isn’t just about the spectacle. Rarely has a TV show tackled the subject of going to battle with such effective and raw honesty. And it’s what surrounds the battle – from the opening shot of Claire discovering the rotting body of soldier left forgotten in the forest Rupert’s laconic and blackly comic musical tribute to his fallen mate Angus at the very – that hammers home the horror. The battle itself becomes an almost surreal centrepiece; a maelstrom of dream-like madness so bizarre its true impact can’t be measured in the moment, but only in its contemplation and consequences.
The episode isn’t blinkered about the allure of battle, either. While it doesn’t shy away from the horror, the pain and the anguish, it also shows an army of Scotsmen spoiling for a fight; some of them actively looking forward to it. And we’re not just talking about Dougal, merrily slaughtering anything that dares to twitch on the post-battle field. Even St Jamie, the most liberal Highlander of the 18th century, initially looks past the losses and celebrates the victory like Scotland has just won the World Cup. This is a refreshingly honest portrayal of these men, for whom battle and glory a part of their cultural upbringing.
Meanwhile, other characters are having unexpectedly existential moments. Murtagh wants his death to mean something and worries that it won’t. Angus feels the need to forge a mutual death-pledge with Rupert (after witnessing Ross and Kinkaid from
The Shire… Lallybroch do the same), though Rupert’s having none of it until death becomes a reality. Meanwhile knives – on the battlefield and in the makeshift surgery – are shown to both heal and kill. It all adds up to a rich and moving exploration of what it must have been like prepare for and recover from such a brutal skirmish.
There are clunky moments. The introduction of O’Sullivan and Murray as the angel and devil on Prince Charlie’s shoulders feels like a thuddingly obvious dramatic device, and then the two of them are relegated to “frowning in the background” duties for much of the rest of the episode. Angus’s death becomes increasingly obvious as the episode goes on until – after he’s caught by the cannon blast – all bets are off. Claire’s weekly “can we change time?” monologue feels more like a contractual obligation than ever.
But overall, this is a brave, thought-provoking and visually stunning episode. The violence may not kick you in the gut like Game Of Thrones’ violence does, but its affects linger with you a lot longer.
- Fergus caught in the midst of the battle is powerful enough image but his subsequent post battle trauma when he explains to Claire how he killed a man is harrowing.
- All the battle scenes are very impressive. They ignore the current trend for staccato editing and create something instead that’s more like a nightmarish ballet. The stylised look and the use of slow motion somehow heighten the horror. The real battle may have lasted less than 15 minutes (and onscreen the footage takes up even less time than that) but somehow it feels so much longer… which in a small way probably reflects exactly what it was like to be caught in such a brutal clash.
- Another powerful moment is Ross telling Angus, “We didn’t run.”
- Murtagh’s conversation with Jamie about how his death could be meaningless is a touching and rare moment of self-analysis; but you can totally accept that just being a number on a list of casualties would weigh on his mind.
- Angus’s fanboy moment with the Prince is adorable.
- Dougal going from this…
- …to this…
- … in the space of one episode. Dougal, for all his loathsome traits, is a fascinating character. Plus, his ride through the bog was another the episode’s high points.
- The historical inaccuracy of the battle happening at dawn isn’t a problem; it can be explained away as artistic licence (and besides, night time battles can be a dull spectacle). However the way the footage goes from night to day in one edit is jarringly sudden, and makes you wonder if originally the idea was to grade the film darker in post production, but then someone said, “You won’t be able to see what’s going on.”
- Angus’s “shock” death was less of a shock than it might have been thanks to the script using some tried and trusted dramatic devices that practically signposted it was going to happen: Claire’s kiss; he gets loads more scenes than usual; he’s caught in a cannon blast that wouldn’t have point in the story if it didn’t have some effect; his concern for his mate who pulls through… Your alarms bells must have been ringing, surely?
- Prince Charlie’s readiness to accept Jamie’s diplomatic solution to the Dougal problem feels a tad convenient and out of character. You’d expect him to have a little tantrum at least, and someone like Lord General Murray to have a word in his ear before he’s accept something like that.
- Not so much bad as odd, Claire’s pep talk to her nurses includes the line, “I know what you’re all feeling… I’ve been there myself.” Surely, she’s “there” now? He husband is on the front line too.
And The Random:
- Lieutenant Jeremy Foster (Tom Brittney), the redcoat whom Dougal kills after he claims the English will win this war, previously appeared in the fifth and sixth episodes of season one.
- A lot of the details of the Battle Of Prestonpans are correct; it did take less than 15 minutes and the Jacobites were helped by the fact that one of their Lieutenants, called Amderson, knew of a path through the marshlands. However, the battle took place at 4am in the morning, which in September means it should have still been very dark. Also, the British army was protected on its right flank by the park walls around Preston House, which seems conspicuously absent in the TV battle.
- “Down Among The Dead Men” – the song that Rupert and Ross sing at the close of the episode – is a traditional drinking first officially published in 1728 but believed to have been around much longer. The phrase “down among the dead men” is actually a metaphor for being so drunk you fall unconscious; “dead men” being a euphemism for empty bottles of alcohol.
- Interesting new cod piece Prince Charlie is wearing here. Has his time in France given him illusions about being a “sun king”?
Read our other reviews of Outlander