This was a hard watch by any estimation (and political AF for a production that claims not to be) but especially watching it through my personal lens: female, immigrant, person of color with 43.9% native DNA (top 20th percentile for Neanderthal variants, what what). As a rule Outlander is part inspiration, part escapism and part brutal truth but this episode, for me, was a truth hammer with no escapism and little romance to cut through it. I was reminded, inescapably so, that I would not be in a pretty dress in that grand house, should I travel back in time. My humor and my thoughts were trapped, days after I watched, in a terrible sense of mourning. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recap it. It was too painful. And I mean painful in the sense of a pain that my parents and grandparents carried, whispered to them furtively by their parents, who learned of the Spanish arrival in Peru not as the fulfillment of a Great Spanish Dream of personal independence but rather the beginning of a genocide that would eradicate the great Inca empire, rob them of unheard-of wealth, kill their men and rape their women. Our side of the story, the brown side, isn’t romantic. It is a poignant reminder to me that I stand on the bones of my ancestors and if I do nothing else, I must endure. This is the central tenet of the underprivileged: survive, endure, wait. Maybe you don’t see the end of it, but your children might. Bide your time. No hay mal que dure cien años, ni cuerpo que lo aguante, my mother would tell me in times of pain: There is no ill that lasts a hundred years, nor a body that will bear it.
That said, this was an excellent hour of storytelling and a lyrical examination of and homage to the heartbreaking, difficult work of doing good in bad times. It’s a hero’s story. A martyr’s story, and one which forces us to ask timeless ethical questions. What would I do? What should I do? What can good people do in bad times? Spoilers ahead for episode 402, “Do No Harm”.
All Men, Created Equal
From the beginning of the hour, the Frasers and the highland culture are paralleled to the native and slave populations in several ways. Claire’s objections to slavery are rooted in her 20th-century life experiences and inherent respect of all life. Jamie and Ian’s empathy with the Native Americans springs from the Highland clearances and other post-Culloden laws meant to subjugate the Scots. Claire’s previous brush with slavery was an isolated event where she and Jamie retained a large level of control over the outcome. In the colony of North Carolina, however, slavery has existed for at least a century, and colonialism for twice as long. That’s anywhere from four to eight generations’ worth of struggles and stories passed on from fathers and mothers and neighbors about the horrors of trying to peacefully erect a house while an Indian scalped you and the inability of black people to think for themselves. Sure there would be people who were free-thinkers and questioned the prevailing narratives, but they, along with the natives and slaves, lived in a time where this prevalent paternalistic thinking was supported by laws, social mores and an economy dependent on zero-cost labor. Jamie and Claire are coming from Scotland, where Jacobite “Red Jamie” was a second-class citizen to his English overlords, a savage who needed ‘civilizing’ much as the North Carolina tribes were viewed by English colonialists. Unlike the slaves, however, Jamie’s indentured servitude had an end date and he was still, legally speaking, a person. However much the Fraser’s life experiences to-date allow them to empathize and however much they long for the American Dream, they are unprepared for the American Experience. It’s a cultural minefield in the way only our country can be — created by and for immigrants, and yet a melting pot that fights the melting, every time.
A Woman’s Work
Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron Cameron Cameron is worth a mention. Much like her niece Jenny, she’s an outspoken alpha female. Unlike Jenny, she has no living children, and she’s surrounded by wealth and comfort. Jocasta made not one but two strategic marriages to successful businessmen, and not for love. This is a woman who enjoys having a hand in the decision-making, and being an 18th-century southern belle (and a wily MacKenzie), she married men who were willing to give her a seat at the table. As a widow, she charms a series of officers and local gentry, using their influence and power for the benefit of River Run. Jocasta welcomes Jamie as her heir, proxy and mouthpiece…until he, through Claire, threatens her stability. She genuinely loves her family, but River Run is her life’s work, and when Claire takes a stand by refusing to let Rufus be hung it’s not only frustrating to her but at a very basic level, incomprehensible. Jocasta is not a woman that is looking to the larger ethical issues in life. She’s carved out an island, and she’ll fight tooth and nail to defend it. As far as being admirable or brave, she’s neither. As far as understanding the psychology of the women and landowners of the time, she’s a pretty flawless character study.
Prevention is Preferable to Cure
It surprised me not at all that Claire is the kind of person that rushes to fix a problem and is empathetic to the point of self-harm. That’s just Claire 101. Claire will always try to do the right thing (unlike canny Jamie, who will do the right thing if it’s also convenient unless it’s family), but this was a paradigm-altering experience she won’t soon forget. No one can divorce their identity from their perception, and it’s important to remember what Claire brings to the table at the beginning of 402. She is a woman who has experienced sexism and objectification, been both dependent and a person who calls the shots, seen the consequences of ethnocide and culture loss, but also witnessed man’s attempt to rectify the same: the integration of the public school system, the end of segregation and the Civil Rights Act. This is a woman whose best friend is black, and whose child would have brought home black children that she would have seen grow up. This is a woman who became a surgeon, so that no avenue for healing would be closed to her. This is not a woman used to standing down, and because of this, it takes almost the entirety of the episode for Claire to do so. Unlike his wound, the construct of the inferior race isn’t something she can cut away from Rufus’s body or from the hearts of the people of Cross Creek. A system like slavery doesn’t thrive unless there are supports in place to protect it, and Jocasta’s economy, social standing and even health depend upon her complying with the societal norm. Claire, an indigent, new arrival dependent on her in-law’s goodwill who has never complied with the societal norm now attempts to make people see Rufus as a human by sheer bent of will. But as Ulysses points out, colorblindness is not an asset when trying to understand the entirety of the slave experience and the tools by which hopeless people limit and defer their harm. Claire is, by her insistence in healing Rufus’s objectification along with his wound, poking a finger into the slave population’s ethnocultural allodynia. Claire is passing through River Run, but the people she will leave behind will have to deal with the fallout of her defiance. None of this is to say that nothing should be done, but that sometimes, there is no good choice and all you can do short of doing no harm, is to limit the harm you do.
A Grave Error in Judgment
It is hard to pinpoint the spark that lit the fuse of Rufus’s tragic end. Certainly someone who falls on the lawful good side of the alignment system would say his decision to hit his overseer set off a chain of events that justly ended in his punishment. Looking to the circumstances which caused him, a previously free man, to be at the mercy of an obviously immoral abuser well….it’s a bit murkier, isn’t it? The truth of the matter is that the chain of events that led him to this moment is complex, with doors slammed shut and torn open that Rufus, due to his current standing in the society which he lives, is unable to affect or change. Rufus can’t walk away from slavery, even as he struggles to hold on to his sense of identity, his connection to his family and his honor as a man. Claire and Jamie arrive at River Run still smarting from an intellectual, physical and economic beating. Jamie is very conscious of his standing as a poor relation, but he tells Jocasta he shares Claire’s views on slavery as a means of supporting his wife, just as he might perceive the cause to be. In the urgent, frantic moments after Claire discovers Rufus and sees his wound, she is powered not only by outrage, but the bright, hard kernel of hubris that makes any surgeon tick. Rufus’s survival is her focus to the exclusion of all else: the other River Run slaves, Jocasta, her neighbors, even Rufus himself. Her focus on healing him and her refusal to think past it for once, are ultimately selfish, providing the means by which she could emotionally distance herself from the reality of the situation. At the end of the day it’s Jamie who gently manages to get her to accept what she wouldn’t hear from anyone else. It’s heartbreaking to watch for many reasons, but one of them is that earlier in the episode, Ulysses took a much greater risk than Jamie to convey the same message and was patronized and ignored. Here was a man who had lived in that skin, on that path, who recognized what was meant as a kindness and tried to give it context…and he wasn’t seen as an authority of the subject of his own experience. It was a searing reminder that the best, kindest thing we can do to truly advocate for people that we wish to raise up is to take our lead from them, to be good listeners, to check our egos. In the end, Rufus died the way you would euthanize a cat, without even an honest explanation that he would have understood: I am sorry. I can’t give you freedom, or a prayer in your language, but I can give you a choice, authority over your own body, autonomy over your end. Jamie and Claire’s sad faces were the final frame of the episode, but they will move on next week, free to leave what little imposition Jocasta has made on them while having, however unwittingly, added to the already unbearable burden of those they leave behind.