‘Outlander’ Review: A Format Twist Tells the Tale of a Hanged Man in Episode 8

In “Famous Last Words,” two brooding men help each other find a flicker of light.

Roger Mackenzie (Richard Rankin), and his treatment in the televised world of “Outlander” has been controversial among fans, but the show has been working for weeks now towards a huge emotional payoff that came to fruition with Sunday night’s “Famous Last Words.” By hitting viewers over the head just how important Roger’s voice is — both as a scholar in the 1960s and as a musician in the past — learning he lost that voice following his hanging at the Battle of Alamance was the worst thing next to death. Without the ability to fight or acclimatize to other masculine jobs of the time, Roger’s voice has been the one consistent in maintaining some kind of contribution to society. Without it, as the episode showed, he was lost.

Although fans of the books knew what was coming, there was plenty of lead-up towards the moment Jamie (Sam Heughan) cut the character down from that tree and learned he was still breathing. Roger’s famous last song to Jemmy, “Oh, My Darling Clementine,” was certainly foreshadowing. As was the entire exchange at the top of the episode when a 1969 Roger explained the importance of last words to a small class before exiting to take in a silent film marathon with Bree (Sophie Skelton).

Enter the clever transition to the episode’s silent film device. In retelling what happened in the moments following the discovery of Roger by that tree, the format switched to a black-and-white silent film reel. It’s always jarring when the show plays with storytelling devices because period pieces as a rule need viewers immersed in the world they’re creating. But “Outlander” is known for taking risks with its devices, and by using the silent film flashbacks sparingly (and relegating them to Roger’s vantage point) it worked. At least to a certain degree.

Most of the episode, which picked up three months following those harrowing events, focused on Roger’s recovery and inability to speak despite nothing being physically wrong with him. (In the novels he loses his voice permanently as a result of damaged vocal chords, so that was a twist for all viewers). That story shift meant the focus became about Roger overcoming his shell shock and returning to Bree, who tried to remain patient as she felt her husband slip further and further away.

It was an all-around dark episode, filled with horrific flashbacks that filled viewers in on what had happened to Roger in between his kin knocking him out and the Red Coats hanging him. Those moments were made even more tragic when viewers learned Roger never even had a chance to speak up for himself before that noose went around his neck, and that he was one of only three men who were randomly selected to be hanged from a larger group. The one light moment of the episode came with the return of Ian Murray (John Bell), who was last seen living with the Mohawks. But even that joy was short-lived as it soon became apparent he was also struggling with some dark passengers.

With not one but two men at Fraser’s Ridge so full of joy the episode quickly turned into a brooding group of men, topped off by a drink-happy Jamie who was still in mourning over Murtagh’s death. Given the respective storylines you can’t expect the trio to feel anything less, but it certainly gave the episode a dour tone. Luckily, episodic writer Danielle Berrow and director Stephen Woolfenden had a payoff in store for that too.

When Ian accompanied Roger to survey the 5,000 acres of backland granted to him by Tryon (Tim Downie) as compensation for the hanging (what would they have given had Roger not slipped his hand underneath that noose?) viewers were led to believe Roger was the suicidal one. Which, given the way he looked down at the cliff and had been acting, was a fair assumption. But it was Ian who, after the loss of a mysterious loved one, was ready to end it all. When Roger realized as much he snapped out of it in order to stop Ian from drinking the poison he’d brewed with stolen herbs and to find his voice again. Or, as he called it, his “weapon.” In that moment Roger went from not speaking to uttering full-on sentences, which he continued to do much to Bree’s amazement upon his return.

Was it a quick recovery? Well, yes. It’s surprising Roger could say so much without a single sip of water. It’s also slightly disappointing, if only because what Rankin did with a mute Roger was so gripping. But it also let the episode end on a happy note, one that was sorely needed after so much heartbreak following the battle and Murtagh’s death. How Roger and the rest of the clan at Fraser’s Ridge recover now remains to be seen, but at least now viewers know that Roger will be all right. Changed, and slightly darker to be sure, but still all right.

Grade: A

“Outlander” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

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