Irony, thy name is Outlander.
You also have several other middle names, some of which are Gaelic, some the Latin names for various flora and some, just wonderfully original curse words. Spoilers ahead for the season 4 premiere.
It’s a Round, Round, Round World
The episode opens in 2000 B. C., with unnamed tribes dancing in a stone circle and Claire speaking about the symbolism attributed to them, of which she is intimately aware. When we rejoin the Frasers in 1767 North Carolina, the brutality of English justice calls back to Jamie’s original capture, and he visits Hayes to offer him the same kindness Dougal once offered him: escape. He and Claire end this episode on their way to ask for a MacKenzie’s aid, same as Jamie once did after his escape from Randall. Jamie offers help to Stephen Bonnet in the same spirit it was offered to him, and it is Bonnet that breaks the circle of trust by stealing and killing those who once helped him. Claire and Jamie lose a friend, but their bond still holds them together and Claire’s knowledge of history will help shape their future choices, even if it doesn’t guarantee their success. Still, from the infinity symbol created by Claire’s twin wedding bands moments before she swallows them to Marsali and Fergus’s happy surprise, we are reminded that circles by their very nature continue spinning, and this is only the beginning of their second chance.
Of Thee I Sing
Season 4 has been framed over and over again as the Frasers’ immigration story, and as any first-generation immigrant will tell you, it’s no bed of roses. Their current situation in Scotland might not be as deadly as it once was, but it certainly isn’t as promising as it could be in the Carolinas, the wee issue of loyalty notwithstanding. Jamie, Claire, and their family differ from the standard immigrant to the Americas not only in their beliefs (Catholic vs. Protestant) and nationality (Scottish/Scottish-by-marriage vs. English), but in their morality and belief systems. I didn’t find the last scene as upsetting as searingly, terribly honest. The jazzy, upbeat version of America the Beautiful playing over the violence at the end is disturbing only to those who haven’t experienced this version of America…and the Frasers aren’t part of the population that will ultimately suffer the most from the realization of the American Dream. They are about to experience, maybe for the first time, what it is to be part of the victor’s side of an equation where victory can at times ring hollow. From the natives that we have heard about (but have yet to see) to the slave trade, Jamie and Claire will face every immigrant’s dilemma: how to carve out a space for themselves and their family that holds on to the dearest parts of their identity while learning what to let go in order to survive in a new world.
The Bakra and the Sea
The question of good and evil is never a black-and-white issue in Outlander, and we are reminded of this three times this episode. First, when Hayes bravely accepts his fate as his due for laying with a married woman and killing her husband in a panic. Jamie knows him to be a good man, and reaffirms that goodness well past the man’s death, ensuring Bonnet’s safety in his name. Although these were actions taken in good faith, they ultimately enable the escape of a man who will come to be a great thorn in the Frasers’ side. Second, when Ian experiences a flashback of his time as Geillis’ captive while digging Hayes’ grave. He confesses to Jamie his shame at the pleasure of it, despite the “unspeakable things” she made him do. Jamie encourages him to speak of it to him the way he once spoke of it to Claire, and reduces it to a simple yet brutal truth that Ian can accept. “What it comes down to is your cock doesna have a conscience, but you have.” Third and perhaps most poignantly, when Bonnet tells Claire his dream of dying at sea, and she empathizes with him as a healer and human being only to have him later violate that trust by taking her most cherished possession, the iron circle, made from Lallybroch’s key, that Jamie gave her on their wedding day 24 years ago.
Suck It, Science
Ultimately we are left with the central, circular truth in this show: Love holds everything together. Marsali, despite Claire’s contraceptive, is happily carrying her first child, the first generation of Frasers in America. Jamie, thinking of America as his daughter’s future home, once again considers pledging an allegiance he will eventually need to break when the revolutionary war breaks out in eight years. Fergus, Marsali and Ian choose to remain with Jamie and Claire rather than go back to Scotland. Lesley honors his friend by singing a caithris in his honor, and dies protecting his leader’s wife. Ian finds comfort in the unconditional love of a selfless companion. Claire and Jamie meditate on the fragility of life and the importance of whatever moments they have together, even if they don’t last forever. Jamie pledges a love that lasts beyond death. “Nothing is lost, Sassenach. Only changed.” When Claire replies that it’s the first law of thermodynamics, he replies that no, it’s faith. That belief in things unseen, in the eventual harmony of all things, in the closing of circles and the ability of good to overcome evil as long as good people hold on tight to each other and stand against it.