On Proper Representation: ‘Outlander’ vs. Tarantino and ‘Watchmen’

One of the benefits of having a murderous-sounding locational Highland surname like mine is you know exactly where you come from. But ‘Killough’ only sounds bloodthirsty to English-speaking ears; if you spoke Gaelic, you would know it’s actually quaint and perhaps a little ghoulish. You would hear ‘Cill’ (pronounced “kill” because there is no K in the Gaelic alphabet) and understand it to mean ‘church’ or ‘graveyard’, and the ‘lough’ clearly means ‘loch’; after all, you pronounce both the same way, never as the Americanized ‘low’. In other words, you know ‘Killough’ means “church-and-graveyard on a lake.” On further inquiry, you might determine that my father’s family is a sept of Clan Donald, specifically from Lochaber, and even more precisely from Glen Coe on Loch Leven in Ballaculish (there is another Loch Leven in Perthshire, for some reason).

Then you might ask, “Would the name be referring to Eilean Munde, that wee auld kirk on an isle on the loch that’s the ancient burial ground for the clan?”

“Aye,” I’d reply. “It would.”

Despite the strong cultural association — both of my parents are of Scottish descent, both worship in Presbyterian ‘kirks’ — I didn’t get around to watching ‘Outlander’ until this past month. That’s a deep-frozen cold shoulder I gave it; it’s coming up on its fifth season. I’ll admit that ignoring it was an act of pure macho misogyny: Having watched the pilot when it first aired in 2014, I determined it was a chick’s show based on a series of historical novels that were nothing but some clichéd wish fulfillment about being being swept off your feet and boned senseless by the biggest, best-looking Scottish hunk they could find — and, boy, did they find him in Sam Heughan. Once again, we Highlanders were being stereotyped and fetishized for our large sporrans and low-hanging kilts. I wanted no part of it. 

Even when my boyfriend highly recommended it, I sniffed into my porridge and ignored him; a Danish Canadian should only comment on ‘Vikings’, not ‘Outlander’. What sealed my disgust and cemented my misogyny was they changed the gender in the lyrics of the Skye Boat Song in the title sequence from ‘lad’ to ‘lass’. It didn’t matter that the lyrics are the later Robert Louis Stevenson version, not the original Highland lullaby: It’s about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight to the Isle of Skye after the Battle of Culloden, an event pivotal to the entire series, so it made even less sense to change it a woman’s point of view just for the sake of a female protagonist. #MeToo was going #TooFar! (Having said that, it’s the best rendition of that rousing, emotional song I’ve ever heard, beautifully sung and orchestrated.)

Even though ‘Outlander’ is indeed a steamy female-oriented action-romance period drama, once I was firmly binging it I had to admit I was wronger than I’ve been in a long time. My biggest disgrace is that the first season takes place almost entirely in the Lochaber region, where my father’s people were from; it’s painstakingly authentic — entire scenes mostly in Gaelic with no subtitles — and historically accurate; and of the three clans featured in the story one is my mother’s, MacKenzie, and the other my father’s. I even had a wee chuckle when the MacKenzies kicked the shit out of a pack of Donalds in a post-duel skirmish; only the perpetually quarrelsome Scots could have post-duel skirmishes. It was like watching my parents’ divorce all over again, but speeded up to under a minute.

My clan certification.

In fairness to me, there’s a reason it took me a while to figure out that it’s meant to take place in Lochaber, where I’ve spent some time with the family digging into our roots; the one failing of the show is that it isn’t actually shot in that region. No director would film there for an entire season and not have the mirror-surface lochs and mountains framing every exterior shot; her cinematographer would quit and change profession from the trauma. I’m not sure it would be possible to get a loch-less shot if you tried. The decision not to shoot on location is clearly for budget reasons: it would be very difficult and costly to accommodate cast and crew in such a remote, sparsely populated place for such a long period, sending main cast and crew home for the weekends, moving everyone around, building and warehousing the sets, and so forth. It wasn’t until the action moved to Fort William that I asked my phone, “Isn’t that just up the road from our wee auld kirk on the loch, from whence we get our murderous surname?” 

“Aye,” Lord Google the Omniscient replied, “exactly twenty-eight minutes under normal traffic conditions.” Another search revealed that, indeed, the show is shot in and around Edinburgh, which has enough filmmaking infrastructure to support a few shows at once.

The best way to describe Lochaber and Glen Coe in particular is an anecdote. I was passing an Indian-American colleague’s desk once and noticed his computer wallpaper: a craggy, snow-capped hill perfectly reflected in the still, polished-ebony waters of a loch, a ray of sunshine bursting through the majestic nebulous clouds like an archangel’s trumpet heralding God’s imminent arrival. “Is that Scotland?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“Yeah. It’s Glen Coe,” my friend replied. “I think it looks like heaven on earth. It soothes me when I’m stressed,” which is a lot coming from a devout Sufi.

“That’s where my family’s from! But imagine trying to make a living off that land,” I said, throttling back pride that swelled with wailing bagpipes and the feel of my kilt’s heavy pleated hem brushing against the back of my knees. “Sheep, sheep, and more sheep. It’s no wonder we had to leave.”

‘Outlander’ follows the story of a preternaturally long-necked English army nurse, Claire, in the months just after the end of World War II, who visits the Highlands with her English husband, Frank, to research and ancestor of his, an English captain garrisoned in Fort William during the Jacobite risings of the 1740s. On a visit to a druidic Stonehenge-like formation, she falls through time to 1743, into the hands of Clan MacKenzie, who suspect she’s a spy; they are soon seduced by her noble grace and astounding healing powers. She also meets Frank’s ancestor, the brutal sadist Jack Randall, who creates a crisis that is only solved if Claire marries a young, six-foot-three, physically perfect, redhead Highland laird named Jamie, poor woman. But if you’re going to do time-travel bigamy, might as well do it with a Highland god.

Pap of Glencoe (photo by Gav Clark)

I’m only partly through the second season, but for most of season one the MacGuffin — not a real clan; a plotting device — of the story is Claire’s need to get back to the Stonehenge-like place and return to Frank and the time she was born in. After she falls ever more deeply in love with Jamie and her new Highland lifestyle, her MacGuffin switches from trying to get back home to stopping the ill-fated, ill-advised Battle of Culloden in 1746, which she knows her new clansmen will lose to the English. Culloden will prompt the English “to destroy Highland culture for good in retribution,” as Claire frets in almost every episode to remind viewers of the consequences if she doesn’t force a change the course of history by sabotaging the Jacobite rebellion.

This single culture-changing event, combined with being tired of trying to eke out a living on a brutal, unforgiving slice of “heaven on earth,” is why I speak with an American accent, not a Scottish brogue. This is even more reason why ‘Outlander’ represents me and the culture I am descended from so fully and appropriately, despite being at times a standard corset-ripping premium cable soap opera. When my father, my siblings and I began our Highland journey “home” to Glen Coe, we began it by driving to Culloden from Edinburgh and paying our respects to the battlefield, conveniently ignoring the fact that Clan Donald was partly responsible for the defeat by refusing to charge because they’d been given the left flank rather than the right, which was their position per tradition.

What can I say? We love our details and traditions. We also love our constant infighting, another accurate representation that I deeply appreciate; it’s a characteristic that I feel I’ve failed to properly convey to my therapist when I’m ascribing my family’s deep dysfunction to inherited cultural traits. (After almost twenty years of trying to explain to my kind, gentle, non-confrontational Brahmin Indian brother-in-law why we Killoughs behave the way we do, I settled on, “We’re a combination of jats (farmer caste) and kshatriyas (warriors), with a heavier portion of the latter.”)

The Killoughs had actually begun leaving the Highlands well over a century before Culloden, to become gentlemen farmers during the “Plantation” of the wilds of Northern Ireland, the reason we’re also categorized as Ulster Scots. But we remained attached to our details and traditions: our children were brought back to Lochaber to be “properly baptized,” as one family historian put it; it’s a short distance between the western Highlands and the northeast coast of Ireland, twelve miles at its narrowest. That tradition faded when we migrated to the New World. First we tried Pennsylvania, which was more hospitable to Presbyterians than Puritan New England, “where we fought with everyone, per usual,” as Dad puts it. Then we branched off, the greater portion to slash their way through the wilds of Texas and Oklahoma, and be slashed and scalped themselves by Cherokees in the Killough Massacre of 1838 in East Texas. A smattering went north to New York State, which would be our very thin line of the family. Mum’s MacKenzie lot stayed in Scotland and Ulster longer, then migrated to Australia to herd “sheep, sheep, and more sheep” over the Blue Mountains from New South Wales to Victoria, where Cousin Pete still has a sheep station. 

Eilean Munde in Scotland by Rob Dando

Eilean Munde (photo Rob Dando)

As amply and accurately as my family’s stories and socio-cultural characteristics have been represented on screen in ‘Outlander’, similar pivotal historical events in were not given the same respect and introspection in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ and Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’. (While his inglorious ‘Inglourious Basterds’ also rewrote World War II, there wasn’t one particular event on a level of Culloden that he chose to trivialize with ultra-violent parody, so I’m leaving it out, even though I was mildly outraged by that film’s utter puerility and pretentiousness, too.) 

I not only didn’t take to HBO’s ‘Watchmen’, based on a cult 80s DC comic by Alan Moore, I outright hated it. But I felt I had to sit through the whole season because… 97% fresh from critics on Rotten Tomatoes! Wow. There had to be something wrong with me that could only be worked out if I gave the whole season a chance. I thought I might be having a sub-sub-conscious racist reaction to the hyper-woke messaging, if you can call that garbled, incoherent mess “messaging” at all. I was so concerned that I not only turned to Lord Google the Omniscient to find out what might be wrong with me — “personality disorder when you don’t like something everyone else loves” — I brought it up with my therapist to ask if this might be some new wrinkle in my diagnosis we need to attack. He assured me I was fine, but he’s also a gringo who watches telenovelas, so I’m still uncertain. 

Then there was the problem of the 46% rating from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, a huge discrepancy between critics and audiences that has been blamed in the press on alt-right trolls spamming the reviews. But I know of only two people, both in the entertainment business, who loved it; another producer sort of liked it because it was “weird.” Other friends disliked it as much as I did and didn’t make it past a few episodes. And, of course, there is the fact that the comic’s original creator, Alan Moore, took his name off it and didn’t want anything to do with it, which prompted an inanely arrogant reaction from the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, whose ‘The Leftovers’ I did truly love; unlike ‘Watchmen’, it was actually about something: loss and longing, the Rapture, loss of faith, mental illness, parenting, cults, and on and on.

‘Watchmen’ seemed to me to be a very long ‘crazy draft’, as my mentor Jack Lechner — one of the two people I know who absolutely loved the show — calls a draft that you write “as if from a parallel universe,” where nothing makes sense and the impossible is now possible. You write a crazy draft when you’re stuck and nothing else is working; even if you only use five or ten percent of it, the process will have been worth it just to break the deadlock. I’ve never needed to write one, although I have had to rewrite other people’s screenplays that are delirious enough to be called crazy drafts. It’s akin to a ‘vomit draft’, when you write whatever the fuck you please just to get it out of you quickly, knowing it’s a straw man that everyone will pull apart with notes. It’s another thing I’ve never had to do in my scripting process. ‘Watchmen’ seemed like nine episodes of vomit drafts. 

It did hook me briefly in the pilot episode, when I learned for the first time about the Black Wall Street massacre of 1921, known as the “single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” I was appalled enough to read more about it, but even more shocked that I never heard of it. But Wikipedia excuses my ignorance: “Black and white residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The riot was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.” 

However, this Culloden-level event for black Americans was presented in ‘Watchmen’ in a matter of a few rapidly edited images of destruction, and then revisited in a later episode through equally hurried, confusing flashbacks in hallucinatory black-and-white, which explained nothing unless you paused the show and took to Wikipedia, as I did. I’m going to take a guess that the majority of Americans didn’t do that, and merely assumed this was another invention of the ultra-woke, anti-white-supremacist theme, when in fact it’s the only real historical event portrayed in the show.

The old joke is that “inside every gay man there is a black woman screaming to be free.” Well, mine happens to look and behave like Grace Jones, and she was like, What the fuck…? 

Bear in mind this is a show in which other historical events are completely fictionalized: the US wins the Vietnam War, makes it our fifty-first state; Nixon isn’t impeached, and stays in office long enough to be replaced by Robert Redford in 1985, who continues to president to this day, having implemented such strict gun-control laws that it impedes police from doing their jobs, but only for the pilot — that conceit is never resolved, serves no dramatic purpose in later episodes, like just about everything else. Again, I’m just talking about historical events in ‘Watchmen’, because that relates to my argument; I’m not even touching giant psychic squid and blue gods on Europa. The point is, given that the Black Wall Street massacre was “largely omitted… from national histories,” why would the average viewer not assume that it’s also a complete fabrication? I’m sorry, but knowing how Hollywood producers think about audiences, I think it’s incredibly arrogant and disingenuous to assume that viewers would be educated enough to parse the one true event sitting amidst nine hourlong episodes of absolute bullshit.

If ‘Watchmen’ is a commentary about race relations in America, as so many laudatory critics have said, the message is that it’s nonsense that is best represented by Alice in Wonderland-like hallucinatory satire. Even as a member of the most vilified, discriminated-against minority on the planet — American homophobes of every race might only beat us to death, or shame us into killing ourselves, but we are still lynched regularly in Iran, and thrown off buildings, often with our boyfriends — I would actually agree that we make way too much of our differences, that most of it is self-serving, self-righteous nonsense in 2020 America and Europe. But I doubt HBO or Damon Lindelof have evolved to that line of reasoning quite yet.

This would be my heaven-on-earth computer wallpaper.

On the extreme other hand, ‘Outlander’ isn’t just an overt, forthright comment on race relations — keeping in mind that the English back then saw themselves as a superior race and culture to the Scots, which constitutes racism — it’s a relentless meditation on it; they literally don’t stop commenting on it in the dialogue, thereby keeping the white-on-white bigotry subtext constantly in play. Covertly, the racial theme is symbolized by the epic, layered, nuanced psychological and physical struggle between the sadistic English Captain Jack Randall and the heroic Highland hunk Jamie, who carries the marks of the scourge of British oppression in the form of a mass of crisscrossing scars on his back, the result of two hundred lashes with a cat o’ nine tails dealt to him by Randall himself. 

Lest anyone think that white-on-white racism isn’t possible, it’s actually far more common and aggressive than white-on-POC; humans tend to hate most the people most like them: the tribes that border us are a much greater threat to our survival than those far away. I was raised with my Ulster Scots mother saying about my patrician, English-descended paternal grandmother — whose family settled in New England during the Great Puritan Migration — “She married beneath her” by getting hitched with my Ulster Scots grandfather. Having been raised in a strictly pro-British culture in Melbourne, part of the first generation in well-to-do Australia not to adopt a “cut-glass” English RP accent, Mum still took it as par for the course that English blood is superior to Celtic, even if it meant that she herself was lesser. 

Where the Scots lay in the scheme of early British history is easily understood by the dynamics in ‘Game of Thrones’. The Scots were so bellicose and pesky that the Romans built a wall to contain them, which is transformed in GoT to become the colossal ice Wall that separates the North from the Lands of Always Winter. The Wildlings/Free Folk who live beyond the Wall are the equivalent of Scots; the redhead Wildling Tormund Giantsbane in GoT is a stereotype represented in ‘Outlander’ by both hunky redhead Jamie and his ever-grumpy, constantly combative wingman Murthagh Fraser. How Westerosians feel about Wildlings is how the English felt about the Scots until Queen Victoria elevated them to her favorite pet people and restored Highland culture, which was indeed destroyed in retribution after Culloden; even clan tartans were banned.

I believe that Black Wall Street deserves its own series. Yes, it’s called ‘Tulsa’, as it must be. I’d like to know about the African-American families, their loves and losses, their remarkable achievements and financial successes despite living in what I as a white person think of as racism hell: I would feel uncomfortable going to Oklahoma, much less living there; I don’t even like changing planes in Texas. Why? Because places with that much God and those many guns make me nervous as a gay man. The law might prevent lynchings of black folk, but the Bible permits all kinds of things to be done to gays — just ask the three hundred thousand-plus of us who have been sent for rehabilitation therapy. 

I’ll take a limited series for ‘Tulsa’ if that’s all that’s deemed necessary, although if ‘Outlander’ can stretch to five seasons around Culloden, then we can do better than a single season devoted to Black Wall Street. Yes, I expect Donald Glover and Ava DuVernay to collaborate.

As for Tarantino’s overvalued homage to 1970s Hollywood (if they call him “homie” it’s short for ‘homage’ not ‘homeboy’), I’m shaking my head with regret as I type this that a huge majority of people who saw the movie probably thinks that Sharon Tate still lives, maybe up near Santa Barbara with her fourth husband, a retired surgeon. Most people know that Hitler killed himself in a bunker, not in a terrorist attack on a theater as he is in ‘Inglourious Basterds’, but Sharon Tate’s brutal murder is by now, two generations later, a highly localized and film-industry-specific event. To assume that most of the viewers worldwide that propelled the film to a $141-million-and-counting box office know what actually happened, and understood Tarantino’s motivation in rewriting such a heart-wrenching, traumatizing event into a false comic-book punchline is again making presumptions about movie audiences that no Hollywood producer would make with a straight face.

If we accept that completely reinventing events as we are absolutely sure they happened, as opposed to subjectively interpreting them from a different point of view but keeping the core facts intact, is not only valid but a commentary on the nature and dynamics of what caused those events in the first place, then it stands to reason that we must accept Trump’s “alternate facts” as valid commentaries on the presidency and the state of bipartisan relations in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. I suppose even I could argue the validity of that, but not passionately enough to pitch it as a show to über-woke Hollywood. 

While it might be argued that ‘Outlander’ uses a magical device to fuel its premise just as ‘Watchmen’ does, or as fantastically as ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, it is the only impossible element of the series, and once it happens, it’s over and the rest is entirely plausible and accurate. Also, ‘Outlander’s’ only magical device serves a purpose by riffing on a question I’ve pondered since I was introduced to history as a boy, one that many others obviously share: What would happen if somehow I found myself living in the past with all I know as someone living in the here and now? How would I adapt and survive? How would people living in the past perceive me? That is the very definition of a premise. I’m not sure ‘Watchmen’ has a premise at all.

As with all entertainment, so much of this is personal taste and point of view; the intellectual merits, however, I feel are less subjective and debatable. I consider ‘Outlander’ to be a good show with moments of greatness. If I were a woman into period dramas I would consider it to be outstanding — the writing and performances alone are deeply satisfying. I am particularly enjoying the little lessons in 18th-century medicine compared to mid-20th century’s. This is another effective theme: being more medically advanced than the best doctors of the Jacobite era creates the constant threat that Claire might be accused of sorcery and executed. I’m also intrigued with what seems to me to be a female take on male sexuality; while I have encountered it throughout my life as a gay man trying to explain it to puzzled women who make certain assumptions based on their impulses and desires, I have never seen it explored in such detail on screen. 

Having broken it down like this, I have to say that ‘Outlander’ is an even more plentiful smorgasbord of intellectual delights that I thought when I started writing this.

I don’t see nearly as much merit in ‘Watchmen’ or Tarantino’s work, even if they are hipper than ‘Outlander’. However, my issues with Tarantino could fill a book I’d never be inclined to write because it would mean spending way too much time with him and his work, so he’s handicapped right out of the gate in my view. The only message I can see in ‘Watchmen’ is a willful but misguided attempt at provocation, of trying to surf our nation’s chronic outrage, to thumb its nose at white supremacy/privilege, and that is so very tired at this point. I must have moved so far beyond the current woke cultural moment that the only thing that provokes me is how generally ugly and shabby the production is. I admit to having an ultra-short list of parent-conditioned prejudices, all of them white-on-white. At the top of that list is white Southerners — I’m also descended from Union Civil War heroes; Dad’s living room is a shrine to them — so I don’t identify with them enough to feel that those provocations are addressed to me.

And that’s what sums up representation: what and whom you identify with. Even if you aren’t from the same socio-cultural background as the heroes represented on screen, you should be able to pin your hopes and aspirations on them. The only hope I felt was that Regina King, the protagonist of ‘Watchmen’, should quit the show and go back to doing the sort of meaningful, less-silly dramas that have rightfully earned her so much acclaim and success over the past few years. Yeah, maybe the lead role in ‘Tulsa’.

James Killough

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