In The Devil’s Mark, Outlander upped its game once again, redeeming a couple of weeks of questionable choices and patchy character development with a stunning episode of persecution, desperation and self-determination. After getting arrested for witchcraft, Claire and Geillis face their trial, knowing that no one is coming to help them, and knowing that the people have already decided they must burn.
I’m always conflicted by Actual Witch plotlines. On the one hand, they allow the writers to explore fear of female power in a very evocative way, but on the other hand, they transform hysterical persecution into something justified — after all, they are witches. So it’s intriguing that Outlander leaves Geillis’s status unclear. Considering the supernatural powers we’ve seen in the show, and the fact that Geillis seemed to travel back in time on purpose, it is possible that she considers herself a witch. But it’s also possible that she played up the “witch” element because she had knowledge from the future and so that’s what people expected her to be.
Either way, she is a murderer, so there’s definite moral complexity to Geillis’s persecution this week. And regardless of Claire and Geillis’s actual status, Outlander did a fantastic job of presenting both the hysteria in the community and the way that, once an accusation is thrown, the women literally cannot win. As the villagers themselves admit, many women came to Geillis’s door asking for her help — they were more than happy to believe she was a witch and use her services until the hysteria of a witch hunt took over.
Despite Geillis’s more witch-like activities, most of the evidence against them is based around harmless activities — singing in the house, gathering herbs together, things that most of the women in the village probably do, but which can be twisted simply through the fact that it’s women who are doing them.
Similarly, any negative emotions that Claire shows in the trial are used against her. If she tries to defend herself from being burned to death, she’s “an embarrassment to herself.” If she fights all the attacks on her, she is first berated — “you will not speak before this court in that manner, woman” — and then humiliated and whipped. The entire trial is an exercise in making sure that women know their place, where they will take their punishment with meek acceptance, and where any kind of strength or self-preservation is presented as yet more proof of witch-ness to discourage others in the village from acting that way in the future. It’s an attack on the female world of the village, on friendships and singing and knowledge of herbs and any kind of independence, and it’s an attack that is instigated by a woman herself.
In fact, most of the witnesses in the trial are women, providing evidence against Geillis and Claire either out of spite or out of grief. The judges, of course, are men, but their most effective way of keeping the women under control is by using them to punish each other, either by inspiring genuine fear of witchcraft or by taking even the flimsiest of accusations seriously to make an example out of the outspoken.
It’s also fascinating how the use of magic isn’t punished. Laoghaire can freely say that she wanted a love potion to use on Jamie, and only Claire is punished for providing it. In fact, Claire is further condemned for using the potion herself, when Laoghaire apparently could without blame. Again, it feels like the issue of female power — whether or not anyone on the court believes in this potion, Claire is punished because people think she might be able to provide one. She had apparent authority and power, and that is ultimately what she is punished for.
And the episode doesn’t shy away from the brutality of all this. Although it provides some levity and hope through Ned’s lawyering, the misogyny and horror that Geillis and Claire face is not underplayed. We see the entire thing from Claire’s perspective, and it is brutal to watch. The show doesn’t flinch as it shows Claire’s whipping, it doesn’t hesitate to show a close up of Claire’s pained face, or to show Geillis crying as she watches. And unlike some shows that might show, for example, a whipping scene, there’s nothing sexualized about it, no sense of pleasure through the camera’s lens. It’s purely from the female perspective.
In contrast to all the women of the village turning against them, of course, the show also focusses on the relationship between Claire and Geillis, and their loyalty to one another. Geillis is a murderer, but the show continues to portray her with a lot of depth, allowing her to be complicated and mysterious. Although the court scenes were gripping and horrifying to watch, the episode’s real strength came from the quieter moments between Claire and Geillis, their heart-to-hearts and struggles and support for one another.
The key moment in the episode was when Ned told Claire that she could potentially save herself… if she betrays Geillis. Geillis is already dead, regardless of what happens, but Claire could escape the same fate by claiming she was bewitched. And despite the fact that she will die otherwise, Claire refuses to do it. She refuses to help put her friend on the pyre to protect herself, even if that pyre is already guaranteed.
And Geillis, in turn, refuses to let Claire refuse. She puts on a melodramatic show of being a witch, denouncing Claire, saying that she’s only her innocent victim, both to help pardon Claire and to create the distraction that allows her to escape. In the context of all this hysteria and betrayal, these two female character stick up for one another, despite their differences, despite the trouble they’ve caused for each other, despite the fact that loyalty will mean death. It’s the sort of female friendship we rarely get to see — complicated, imperfect, but fiercely loyal to the end — made even more striking when contrasted with the betrayal and hatred around them.
It’s also, strangely enough, a bold story of making choices even when all choice seems to be taken away. Claire chooses to die over betraying her friend, and Geillis chooses to announce that she is truly a witch in order to protect Claire in turn. They’re obviously both “choices” made in very difficult circumstances, where there isn’t really a choice at all, but the characters manage to wrestle some control of the situation, despite everything. And though I’m sure many people will discuss the significance of Claire’s choice at the end of this episode, where she steps away from the stones and returns to Jamie, Geillis and Claire’s sacrifices for one another were the choices that really spoke to me. Claire can always return to the stones again if she wishes. Her and Geillis’s choices here were much greater sacrifices.