(Editor’s note: Again, in light of “Down the Rabbit Hole”, these appreciation posts are worth revisiting. This piece was originally published April 8, 2016.)
“Through a Glass Darkly,” the first episode of Outlander‘s long-anticipated second season premiere, really surprised me. But before we continue, here’s your requisite ***Spoiler Warning: This post contains Mild Outlander Spoilers through this episode*** though I’ll keep it on the light side.
Tobias Menzies aka Frank Randall, aka Black Jack Randall (and who many of you also know as Game of Thrones‘ Edmure Tully, and The Night Manager‘s Jeoffrey Dromgoole) is a sublime actor who in Outlander‘s first season managed to completely blow my mind. His quick transition from GoT — Tully was immediately banished from my brain — was only a hint at what Menzies is truly capable of; never mind that he’s playing what (thus far) seem to be two completely different personalities. Since toward the end of Season 1 we spent so much and such intimate time with Black Jack, the memory of Frank was nearly wiped away as well and when Starz debuted the new season trailer, I’ll admit I was rather crushed at the idea of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) being sent back to him.
Indeed, as Season 2 opens, Claire is inexplicably transported back to the late 40s; Frank later mentions she’s been gone from his world two years. For those of us non-readers (I started the first book, but am considering jumping to Dragonfly in Amber) it’s a confusing time. The intimation has always been that the stones at Craigh na Dun, or merely the area itself had something to do with Claire’s involuntary time travel, so when and where does she disappear from the 1700s? Are we yet to see her purposeful return, or did she vanish from the ship she and Jamie (Sam Heughan) were taking to France; are we flashed-forward to the 1940s, and then flashed back to see the France storyline play out? Perhaps that’s a question the series will answer (if you’re a reader and you’d like to comment, please add Spoiler tags). Regardless of how she gets there, Claire is likewise confused and finds herself reunited with her first husband, just as unhappy as most viewers probably are. After all she and we have been through, one thing is perfectly clear: the past is Claire’s more exciting and adventurous timeline, and as Jack Shephard would say, “We have to go back!”
Sitting across from each other in the same room, Frank and Claire are most uncomfortably awkward and in dissimilar circumstances, and as they struggle to explain what they’ve experienced to each other, all we can wonder is how this union could ever work again. Why would either of the pair even want to try? For Frank it feels like he’s on the other end of an unintended extramarital affair; Claire is completely committed to another husband. After a period spent trying to come to terms with where and when she is, Claire manages to convey the story to Frank, aware that she must sound like a lunatic…and in those quiet moments, tears quietly escaping despite both their tightly held emotions, Menzies takes us somewhere we never thought we could go — to a place of empathy. Where we, like Claire, couldn’t help but flinch at the sight of Black Jack’s face up close, Frank’s vulnerability takes over. Menzies’ somehow physically-expressed duality pushes past all those dark places in our minds. That an actor can, with barely a word, overcome the absolute psychological trauma anyone who watched “Wentworth Prison” has felt seems impossible. In those moments where our minds are inexplicably moved by Frank, Menzies gives the audience as close an experience as we can possibly have to standing directly in Claire’s shoes. When we can look at Frank and think to ourselves, “I actually do feel sympathy for him,” despite knowing we’re looking right into Black Jack’s eyes, that is a feat beyond reason, beyond acting. It doesn’t matter that we rationally know he’s not the same person; as Jack, Menzies evokes an instinctive reaction. It does matter that Frank has a moment of barely contained rage, our initial response is emotional — visceral — that is, until Menzies plays with our psyche like warmed putty in his hands. It should be impossible. It is impossible. Yet, there is no denying the pangs of Frank’s heart pounding inside our own when he swallows his pain and his pride and tells Claire his intentions. His pain is palpable. Somehow, Frank believes he can will Claire to move on. We feel his desperation as he burns Claire’s old clothing; if only he can rid her of the physical reminders, surely his wife will forget the past.
And, just as we get used to where we think we are…Without getting into more detail about the goings-on (if you haven’t watched, you’ll want to stay in this unknowing state), suffice to say that popping back into Outlander‘s new season is like that wonderful feeling of crawling back into dreamland, when after waking you peek at the clock and still have many hours left to sleep ahead. It’s so easy to pull the soft warm covers back up to your neck, settle your head into that squishy pillow cradle, and to feel yourself drifting just to where Claire and Jamie, Claire and Frank, and Gabaldon and Moore’s story left off.