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Scorching hot take: Outlander would not be a success without Black Jack Randall.
What makes Tobias Menzies’ Black Jack Randall so special and vital to Outlander? Is it his sharp performance? Or is there a larger story explanation for how Randall benefits the narrative? Let’s dive in and talk about the function of an antagonist in a story, and why BJR is the perfect antagonist for our main protagonist: Claire Fraser.
There are three major reasons why Black Jack Randall is the perfect antagonist: 1. BJR attacks Claire’s greatest weaknesses. 2. Randall forces Claire to make harder and harder choices. 3. Both Claire and Black Jack compete for the same goal.
1. BJR attacks Claire’s greatest weaknesses.
In his book, STORY, Robert McKee suggests the following:
The protagonist and his (or her) story can only be as intellectually and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
In other words, our protagonist, Claire, and her story, can only stand out as far as our antagonist, Black Jack, pushes her. Logically then, the harder they fight, the more personal the story becomes, which results in more drama, and so we feel more attachment to either side. More attachment means a more compelling struggle, and if we have a highly compelling struggle, then we are privy to a highly entertaining show.
So how does BJR fight Claire? How does he push her? How do they create a compelling struggle?
From the moment we see her in France in 1945, we recognize Claire as a strong, intellectually capable, fiercely independent, sexually driven, and modern woman. She’s quick on her feet, self-reliant, and she loves the idea of control over her patients with the knowledge she can heal them. But most of all – she loves the idea of a home. She stares at that blue vase in the shop window yearning for the moment when she feels like she belongs. These are all admirable traits and we are proud of Claire for achieving them.
It is with great pleasure, however, that BJR takes these traits and turns them against Claire to make them her greatest weaknesses.
When Randall sees Claire for the first time, he witnesses a woman that he has not quite seen before. He takes her confidence and self-reliance, and transforms them into insecurity and desperation because he, too, is a dominating force. She is physically weaker than he, so he forces himself on her both mentally and physically.
In Outlander episode 1.06, “The Garrison Commander,” Randall allows Claire all of her inherent traits. He even goes as far as to apologize for his actions when they first met to set her at ease, giving the guise of control back to Claire. His trap was set when her independent streak pushes Dougal outside of the meeting, and when her confidence in healing is stoked by a conversation to convert BJR to the light. She thinks she’s using her wits to describe her long-lost husband, all while Randall crafts a portrait of the “beautiful liar” in her visage. Then, as he will do so for the remainder of their time together, he physically dominates her, allowing a stranger to even beat her to a pulp.
This reason alone is why Garrison Commander works so well, because all we know and like about Claire – wits, independence, control, even sexual confidence – are completely turned asunder, and set against her. Essentially, Randall’s prerogative, as well as delight, is to make Claire feel out of control and small. In just one single scene, we get to see almost everything we need to know about the two going forward in the story, without actually having to tell you.
They are opposites, whose very nature creates a fundamental and built-in conflict without the need of exposition. They exist and, thereby, oppose.
And while this is all well and good for a few scenes, the next bit BJR accomplishes is where things become truly interesting for he and Claire.
2. Randall forces Claire to make harder and harder choices.
To further build on her strengths turning against her, Claire, despite her independence and wit, is finally devalued to the point where Dougal must rescue her from Black Jack’s clutches. As bad as that may be for our heroine, and for our confidence in her ability to fend off her foes, it’s at this point Outlander finally kicks into high gear because Randall demands Claire be delivered to Fort William the next day.
From here on out, because of this interrogation and subsequent rescue, Claire and Randall become inexorably linked, and Claire knows she cannot escape him unless she has help. She wants to go to her original home in the forties, but it’s BJR that pushes her to make decisions that will affect the rest of her life in immeasurable ways.
Claire’s independence, her self-preservation, her confidence, all become her enemies – enemies that push her helplessly into the arms of a reluctant Scottish clan. And if she has any intent to stay alive in her harsh setting, she must succumb to those enemies and marry Jamie Fraser to stay alive.
While we all like to think that this decision is for the better, think of it in terms of Claire at that very moment in time – she has to abandon her actual husband, she has to go further away from what she believes to be her home in the forties, and she also has to succumb to the foreign world around her.
Everything she is, was, and what we believe her to be as viewers, is gone. By virtue of BJR’s threat, and each choice she makes therein, she separates herself from the character we originally met in post-war France. She loses herself. We lose our protagonist. This is when the relationship between BJR and Claire becomes most interesting.
As McKee points out in STORY
“true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
Claire’s true nature is revealed by her choices that Jonathan Randall forces on her.
Every time Claire reacts, Black Jack has a counter move, and for the most part, he is always ahead of her. When he realizes she is married to Jamie, then his plans become more personal than ever. The man he created a masterpiece with, the man who got away, the man he so lusts after, is now Claire’s greatest weakness. He uses her, degrades her, and minimizes her – just to attract Jamie on multiple occasions. And when he has Jamie in Wentworth, he makes Jamie choose his own life, or Claire’s –further diminishing Claire’s independence, and thus splitting apart the relationship in which we, and she, have finally harbored our collective comfort.
Here is why this choice is so vitally important – because BJR forces Jamie to choose and pits our lovers against each other’s self interests. He takes the intrinsic characteristics of our title couple we love, and turns them inside out – once again, making them weaknesses. He knows Jamie cannot sacrifice Claire, and Claire isn’t strong enough to force Jamie out of Wentworth alone.
In essence, Randall allows Claire to live because he takes away her love. He takes away Jamie and, consequently, in one final act of using her choices against her, Randall manipulates the most sensitive of all Claire’s weaknesses – he eradicates the home she finally uncovered in a time to which she doesn’t belong.
As fate has it, Jamie is rescued but, like her home, he is not the same. They have been ravaged by Randall, and Jamie is humiliated to the point of near suicide. In order to flee Randall’s grasp, and motivated to change their own fortune, Claire is forced out of Scotland into the clutches of an even more foreign environment: France.
But this is not the end of Randall’s influence. In fact, his reach becomes ever more apparent while the Frasers reside in France. Yes, Jamie is ruined physically and mentally which, of course, stresses our title couple’s relationship. But, yet again, Claire’s strength of wits obstruct her overall vision when she tries to out-think history by forcing Mary Hawkins away from Alex Randall only to serve her up to his brother, Jonathan Randall. Claire knowingly pushes a helpless little girl into her enemy’s arms. But as bad as that is, Claire’s choices become even more convoluted when Black Jack arrives at her doorstep.
Of course, one would think that Claire could allow Jamie to seek out his well-due revenge on Randall from Wentworth when they meet in France. But as if it were a cruel joke, Black Jack inadvertently strikes again because Claire cannot allow his lineage to be extinguished due to her love of Frank, the man to whom she was originally married and who also just happens (she thinks) to be related to BJR.
She chooses Frank over Jamie, her home. She chooses Black Jack Randall over Jamie, her home. She chooses herself over Jamie, her home. Yes, our Claire we know and love has also knowingly chosen the very antithesis of what makes her herself – she chooses against home. Jonathan Randall forces Claire to make these choices, and it shows who she really is on the inside.
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Is Claire tough, resilient and independent? Or is she selfish and helpless? Does she have a home in Scotland, or does she belong in he forties? What does this say about a woman whose original trajectory as a character was was to find a home? What is her motivation in the show at this point? Or is she rudderless, going where the tidal forces of Black Jack and Jamie take her?
What’s worse about it all is that Randall also forces Jamie to choose him over Claire at the duel. In spite of his promise not to fight Black Jack, Jamie goes against his word to Claire further denigrating their trust in each other. Additionally, it prevents Jamie from being at her side during the tragic birth of Faith, and it starts eroding the satisfaction, as well as excitement, we have in a rescued Jamie. Not only does Claire question her relationship – now Randall has forced us to question it too.
Here’s another thought – do the choices Randall forces Claire to make, and resulting pressures she is subjected to, help contribute to the tragedy of Faith? There may not be a correlation, but there is enough there, I believe, to make one at least consider the possibility – especially due to the fragility of pregnancy and birth during the 18th century.
While I don’t think we can answer the aforementioned questions fully quite yet (based on what’s transpired in the television show), I do believe that these questions are what makes Claire’s conflict so compelling. This strong, independent character is now drifting without ANY of her traits, or husband, that made her the protagonist to begin with. Her choices make her strengths weaknesses.
We see Claire’s resolve in trying to rescue Jamie, but we also see the limit to her resolve in what it takes to rid herself completely of Black Jack Randall. Her true character, as dictated by the choices she’s made, namely preventing Jamie from killing Randall, are still very much up for debate – which makes her experience, pressure, revelation, and character so fascinating.
3. BJR and Claire actually compete for the same thing.
They both compete for James Fraser.
As John Truby states in his book, The Anatomy of Story:
“it is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and the opponent are forced to come into direct conflict and to do so again and again throughout the story.”
Whether it be in Scotland, England, or even France, they will always compete over Jamie.
But it’s not exactly what you think. Yes, Jamie is Claire’s husband and she wants him. She tries to protect him from Black Jack who lusts after the boy that got away all those years ago in Fort William.
For Claire, Jamie is far more than her partner in marriage – he is Claire’s purpose in life now. He is her love, her home. Jamie represents everything that Claire has longed for during the entirety of her life dating back to her time with her uncle in Egypt, all the way to being with Frank in Inverness: stability. Jamie challenges her, takes care of her and, most of all, loves her the way she needs.
For Black Jack, Jamie is the culmination of his domination. Jamie’s capitulation and near death are the tangible examples of how Black Jack chooses to operate his life. Why brand him? Why vow to kill him after he’s had his way? Why, in his own way, honor Jamie? Jamie signifies control to Black Jack Randall, and he will stop at nothing to have his control. What’s worse is that this control has allowed Randall to see Jamie in a way that Claire will NEVER see him. Broken, battered, and in his “last” moments of life.
It’s at this point Jamie shows who he truly is – a man willing to do anything for Claire. But Claire never saw it, and can never see it. No matter what, Randall has seen something in Jamie that Claire never will. He has something on her that she cannot take away.
Black Jack Randall, because of this very reasoning, is the perfect antagonist for Outlander.
The struggle between control, dominance, love, and recognition from Jamie pushes the story FORWARD. Without BJR, Claire never has to be rescued by the MacKenzies, never has to marry Jamie, never has to rescue Jamie, never has to go to France, never feels the need to change history so the Scots win the battle of Culloden, never kills Dougal, and never has to go BACK to the forties with an unborn child.
But would any of this work with another antagonist or protagonist? Could you, perhaps, trade Jason Isaacs’ Colonel Tavington in The Patriot for BJR? No, because Tavington was a careerist who only cared about himself. He had no time for dominating other men. Could you trade Claire for, let’s say, Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? The obvious answer is no.
The two work for each other because the stakes are personally tailored for each other.
This is also why the second season is, inherently, a less effective season than the first. In season 1, we are forced to bear witness to what it takes to survive a man like Black Jack Randall. We witness love, hate, disgust and disappointment. All human and raw emotions to which we can all relate. And when the finale airs, it’s not about a huge battle – its driving force is to rescue one man. One life. One love.
Whereas in the second season, Claire and Jamie are pitted against cartoonish villains like the Duke of Sandringham and the Comte. The Duke was a means to an end, and the Comte had no personal conflict with Claire – he was just mad that she ruined a shipment of his goods. What were the choices they made Claire undergo? How did they effectively change her? There’s no challenge there. There was also another odd villain. Time. Yes, there was a literal race against time itself.
In season 2, Jamie and Claire struggle to change the future – something we know as an audience cannot happen. Otherwise, the future from which Claire came cannot exist and, thus, we wouldn’t have a story.
Season 2 of Outlander had faults, whether it was paced oddly, or it set up its many characters with very little payoff. But season two’s most egregious offense? It was impersonal. We simply CANNOT relate to someone trying to kill us with poison because of a bad shipment of goods… or a goofy British Duke… or trying to literally change the course of time. It is impossible. So we’re not invested.
As we learned earlier, “the more personal it becomes, [this] results in more drama, and so we feel more attachment to either side. More attachment means a more compelling struggle. If we have a highly compelling struggle, then we are privy to a highly entertaining show.” So if we’re not invested, there’s no drama. If there’s no drama, there’s no show.
So what is the function of Black Jack Randall within the context of this story?
Everything he does, whether it’s forcing himself on both men and women, forcing Claire to get married, pushing her to leave Scotland, or to come back to Scotland, or nudging her to change history,BJR forces Claire to see her true character.
Whether we like it or not, BJR sets Claire on a course to fall in love with James Fraser and change the very fabric of her life. As such, we see her grow from being the fierce, independent woman who needs no man in her life, to a woman who finds her home, who cherishes her love, who becomes a mother and allows herself to be greater than just HERSELF. Eventually.
And through all these actions and choices that are made because of Black Jack Randall, we see a specific effect on Claire and the momentum of the story. This is As such, Claire loses herself and we lose our antagonist. Here, though, is the most important facet Black Jack brings to the Outlander story: he forces Claire to become something else entirely. In other words, Claire Randall transforms into Claire Fraser.
In fact, Claire even references her own transformation herself when she exclaims to Randall in episode 2.10 “…the woman I now is note the woman I once was.” This is a character arc.
Ultimately, this transition for Claire, and how that defines her character, is why the show would not be successful without Black Jack. Our protagonist, Claire, the one we love and for whom we watch this show, isn’t our protagonist without him.
Without Black Jack, there is no arc and, thus, no story.