While I remove my jaw from the floor here, let me take this opportunity to remind you that there will be ******SPOILERS BELOW****** for Outlander Season 4, Episode 1.
…which episode is called…America the Beautiful.
That ending. Wow.
I would love, love love to know when the cinematic decisions that led to that ending were made. Was this the plan from the beginning? Was it suggested by Bear McCreary? (Surely not, as one assumes the non-inconsequential licensing fees to the Ray Charles estate cut into a score’s contract.) Was this decision made when the air date of the show was determined (two days before Election Day)? Was it made at any of the multitudinous points after the season being confirmed for renewal where the America of today was showcasing how very easily it is to exhume the atrocities of the past and keep enacting them? To never, in fact, have stopped?
Those scenes were filmed with sound. They were acted with sound. When was it decided to kill the sound entirely and replace it with Ray Charles’ rendition of America the Beautiful? Because that was goddamn powerful. That was brutal violence after a palpably too-comfortable view of race and expansionism in America, set as the backdrop to love all but announced to be settled-into and true and full of promise in a future both our characters know is filled, historically, with blood. And that brutal violence plays out on mute, underneath, well…that.
I recall from, I think, the first season, a moment where the music from the 40s leaked into the storyline back in Jamie’s Scotland, and reviewers raised eyebrows. Whatever the cinematic intent behind that decision — whether to remind us of the connection or of the disconnect between the two worlds — the effect here, in season four, with that song, is monumental. And this is coming from someone who is traditionally turned off by full-mute music gimmicks, particularly of the variety where brutality occurs: where there is tinny happy music playing from a car radio or a diner speaker as someone shoots the place up or beats someone to death inside. I am so, so tired of that brand of jauntily cruel dissonance.
However, here, it is a dissonance just as much political as it is jarring, which makes its contrivance serve a purpose other than just to shock. And that is why it remains so powerful to me, and gets none of the sneers that I reserve for Tarantino-type musical violence.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, right? Everything was set up too perfectly. We saw eagles, a white person’s self-righteous effort to stick up for a black man turn out to be unfounded (he was free, and didn’t appear to particularly appreciate her assumption that he was a slave), a tremendous amount of convivial group-feeling that gave birth to full-tavern heartfelt singalongs. Even the intro song — which changes season to season based on the content of the show — swelled with more voices than usual this time, carried there by the warm chords of various folksy stringed instruments. And we had already had the obligatory sex scene, peppered with many assertions of undying love. (Or, more specifically, that “nothing is lost” re: love and also the first law of thermodynamics, which exchange I did recall bittersweetly from the books, as I know it was something my mom would have found endearing, and Drums of Autumn was the last Outlander book I remember seeing her reading.) You don’t get a feel-good setup like that without sure assurance that things are about to go horribly, catastrophically wrong.
And of course, they did. The story called for it, so they did. But they went wrong to the musical accompaniment of a black man singing the praises of America, in a show that aired two days before the election in 2018, a year where black men among so many, many others are damnably aware that the violence playing out under this ballad never stopped.
When the piano started up, over that sleeping sprawl (I read Drums of Autumn three years ago so no, I did not recall the particulars of this scene), I experienced a moment of confusion. Had there been a piano at River Run? How had they drifted there all asleep? Was Jocasta welcoming them in advance? And then in a second or two as the notes continued and it became clear that no, the music was not from this time and not meant to be situated within the scene, I wracked my brain trying to remember what song it was. Keep in mind that I grew up near a military base; each grade got assigned a different patriotic song and each class had to be recorded singing it, so every morning began with a group of us singing one of five of the anthems over the PA system. America the Beautiful was one of the easier ones, given to second or third graders. Which I mention because I know that song mostly as a dolorous chant droned by eight-year-olds. I don’t know the Ray Charles version well enough to recognize its introductory notes (or any introductory notes, really — it was just us on the speakers; the music teacher was too busy instructing us to play accompaniment) and I didn’t see this coming.
So when it became clear that all this was happening under that song, I actually swore out loud. Because that was an extremely powerful and poignant choice. And as the scene continued I felt a twisting, writhing sense of guilty relief, because I didn’t want to hear the sounds of Claire pleading for her life, of bodies hitting wood, of snot gurgling in her nose as she tries to sob-scream a last line of defense against a man who can and will take what he wants from any part of her he sees fit to. I didn’t want to hear any of that, because it makes me sad and scared.
And yet so does America the Beautiful. Which is, bitingly, as it should be.