Generally speaking, By the Pricking of My Thumbs was a return to form for Outlander. The show seemed more than happy to forget that last week’s episode ever happened — Claire and Jamie are happy once more, we’re back to Claire’s narration, and the plot barrels onwards with the focus, once again, on Claire’s experience of the past.
Claire even managed to hatch her own schemes and assert her own agency without facing a single threat of rape this week, which is another breath of fresh air. Claire gets into some considerable danger, but it’s almost all based on the clash between understand of the world and the realities of the 18th century, and although some of that threat is very gender-based, it’s not sexual at least. If anything, there’s a considerable amount of female sexual autonomy in this episode, ranging from the opening scene with Jamie to Geillis’s summoning, both of which focus on female pleasure and power.
But there is a sticking point with the current story. Laoghaire. Originally introduced as a somewhat naive young girl with a crush on Jamie, she’s rapidly spiralled into a spurned woman with murderous intentions. That would be a pretty intense escalation under the best of circumstances, but Laoghaire’s development is also hampered by lazy writing, falling back on tired old tropes of female rivalry and “hell hath no fury” to move the plot forward.
Laoghaire’s vendetta against Claire certainly has the potential to be interesting. Witch accusations are common fare in historical fiction, but these stories usually result from men wishing to punish female characters for getting in their way. The idea of a female character attempting to destroy another female character through such a gender-based accusation could create an intriguing dynamic, especially if there’s the possibility that the accuser believes the accusations, or if the accusation spins out of the accuser’s control and causes far more damage than intended.
But Outlander doesn’t live up to this potential. Laoghaire clearly intends to destroy Claire, and although the actress has said that Laoghaire does believe that Claire is a witch, this possibility isn’t emphasized in the show. Laoghaire hates Claire because Claire “stole” Jamie from her, and that old trope of deadly female rivalry is laid out very clearly. Laoghaire has feelings for Jamie. She cries when she finds out that he’s married. She tries to seduce him anyway, and then leaves an ill wish under Claire’s bed. She shouts at Claire that Jamie belongs to her and that she must save him from a loveless marriage, and then the episode ends with that far too familiar shot of a scheming woman smiling wickedly as her rival/victim is dragged away. There’s no sense that Laoghaire genuinely fears Claire’s witchcraft, or even that she considers witchcraft to be a bad thing, considering all the times she’s tried to use it herself. It’s a pure tale of a delusional scorned woman.
Of course, the Laoghaire plotline does appear in the books. But the show had many options for interpreting it, and instead of developing Laoghaire’s motivations or focusing on the witchcraft element, it doubled down on the “scheming scorned woman” trope and turned her into a one-dimensional villain. And “it happens that way in the books” is no excuse for poor plotting in the show. In adapting the books, the show-writers have an opportunity to tweak the story, to further develop characters and plotlines and rethink problematic material. Even Game of Thrones, which commits many adaptation sins, developed some secondary female characters, like Shae and Margaery, to give them a more compelling and complex presence on-screen. Yet, despite its supposedly female perspective, Outlander only emphasizes Laoghaire’s cliched pursuit of Jamie and destruction of Claire, without rounding it out or exploring it in any way.
And sure, women can be jealous, like men can be jealous. Sure, a girl could blame another for taking the man she loved away from her. But the trope is so tired. Can’t someone have a different reason for wanting to destroy Claire? Couldn’t the series just focus on all the ways she might genuinely seem like a witch and have her arrested for that? Or couldn’t it at least delve deeper into this “possessive, jealous Laoghaire” trope to make her reasoning somewhat understandable?
Meanwhile, this week’s episode further developed the friendship between Claire and Geillis. I’m going to leave most of the discussion of this friendship, and of the witchcraft plotline in general, until a later week, since I think there’ll be a lot more to say about it soon. But the contrast between the presentation of Laoghaire and the presentation of Geillis is stark. Both of them do evil things for love, and Geillis remains incredibly mysterious, but Geillis is not simply an “evil” woman, and she certainly doesn’t fit into any trope that I can recall. Her relationship with Claire is complicated and ever-shifting, and if the show can do this for Geillis, despite her putting Claire’s life at risk and being a literal murderer, it should be able to do it for Laoghaire too. We need some thread of sympathy with her, some way of understanding her actions, something that elevates her beyond tired sexist tropes, or we won’t believe in her, and so the entire plotline falls apart. And that’s a shame, because the witch storyline is one of my favorites in the book, and it needs a more believable cause to give all that follows proper weight.
Still, a stereotypical scorned girl plotline is much preferable to last week’s rape threat and beatings. The show can only work as both a romance and as historical fiction if Jamie is on Claire’s side, if the 18th century threats come from somebody, anybody, other than him, and so the show once again found solid ground by having Jamie warn Claire about other threats, like interfering with the Changeling and getting too close to Geillis, and then removing him to allow Claire to stumble on and face the consequences of her cultural ignorance herself. It’s just frustrating that this very female-centric plotline mostly happens because of Jamie, and the writers decided to ground it in the old trope of women destroying each other over a man.