Deep Thoughts Outlander 412: “Providence”

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This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell for that heavenly cause
– From “The Impossible Dream” by Mitch Leigh

I yam what I yam & dats all what I yam. -Popeye

What an episode. Beards, Lord John, a multi-faceted Mohawk culture and the Fraser womenfolk kicking tail and taking names. I almost lit up a cigarette after, and I don’t smoke. It was that satisfying. When Outlander does emotion best, it’s a tide that sweeps you away into fear and empathy. There is no real room for the brain, for noticing the beats or lulls in the script or a soft accent here or there, it’s all heart, all gasps of recognition and the communion of souls. That last bit lends itself quite easily to religion, which on the surface, is a theme woven throughout this hour.  I’d like to push out a bit and say that, more so than Catholicism (or Protestantism), the hour revolved around morality, ethics (encompassed here in the cultural systems of religious practice) and what makes a person ‘good’ versus ‘bad.’

Cultural relativism, also known as descriptive moral relativism, says that morality is culturally defined, excepting a few universally held beliefs (“Thou shalt not kill”) and that these moral truths are based on beliefs and practices unique to that culture. On the other end of the continuum is moral absolutism, which holds that right and wrong are universal and so all can be judged under the same standard. The truth, as with so many things, is likely in the middle. While laws and standards likely need to take into account the cultures in which they are being practiced, there needs to be a commonality to them in order to make the enforcement acceptable to the population, lest the entire thing fall apart and anarchy prevail. Part of our unspoken social contract is that we acknowledge and accept living by these standards, but what do we do when the goalposts move? On the scale from relative to absolute, what makes us good people? In a world that sometimes seems that chaos takes the wheel, is goodness more important than survival?

Spoilers ahead for 412 and all that.

The Other Fraser Outlaws

Continuing her cavalcade of awesome, Marsali jumps on board the SS SaveMurtagh with almost no hesitation. While their love story is a song played much quieter than the Ridge Frasers or the MacKenzies, Marsali and Fergus are dedicated to each other above all, and Milady and Milord right after. Both adopted by Jamie, they grew up during the turbulent days of the Clearances and have seen more than their share of the subterfuge of the unfairly persecuted. In short, while they hold certain religious truths sacrosanct, their morality is relative. She doesn’t feel that Murtagh’s imprisonment is right, so she not only encourages Fergus to follow through with a rescue plan, but she actively aids him. Fergus isn’t put off by this, but rather admires her gumption and loyalty. For his part, Fergus’s soft-spoken tones and soulful eyes bely the core of steel of the cunning boy who once joked that getting his hand cut off made him “most lucky”.  The same men who questioned his presence at a Regulator’s meeting earlier now not only include him in their plans, but quietly accept his leadership in Murtagh’s place.  Even Murtagh, upon his rescue, defers to Fergus’s suggestion that John escort Brianna back to River Run, and dives under the tarp of Marsali’s getaway wagon with no hesitation whatsoever.  Now that they’re headed up to the Ridge, they’re likely to take on safer roles within the greater Fraser family— but only until they need to be, because Fergus and Marsali won’t ever hesitate to take a risk. It might not make them the best neighbors, but every society benefits from people who routinely challenge boundaries, and their shared perspective certainly bodes well for their union. Fergus and Marsali’s world begins and ends with loyalty to family, for better or worse, “against the Devil himself,” and as long as that like-mindedness holds, it will hold them together.

Freedom is Hard-Won

On paper, John and Bree are great together. There is a real affinity to their friendship that is lovely to watch. John is patient, protective without being stifling, and has a history for insightful support of independent-thinking women. Brianna values John’s judgement, and she knows how to listen to him without shutting him out when they disagree. All of this points to a pretty great couple, but aside from the pesky issue of John being in love with her father, there’s the unspoken subtext that it would never work. Brianna, much like her mother, could never and will never settle for anyone but the man she loves. Her morality centers, first and foremost, around truth. Even when it’s difficult, she wants to hear it, and when it’s denied her, it’s a sin that is difficult to forget.  Part of honesty, as John found out, is accepting the truth of the heart. John can’t think of Jamie without thinking also of Claire, and Brianna, much as she might be making plans to stave off her aunt’s matchmaking, knows she is meant to be with Roger.  Because of this, and how John had to make peace with the room that he’s allowed to occupy in Jamie’s heart, he understands that Bree needs to clear her heart of the hate and anger she’s feeling if there is any chance of making room for Roger and her very “real” child.

When John refuses to take her to the jail to see Bonnet, she hands him the letter from the man who said he couldn’t be a father to her last episode, which ends with with “Your loving father, James Fraser (Da)”. Jamie’s letter touches a chord within Bree, but not because she feels any great pity for Bonnet.  Brianna is powerless against the truth of her father’s words, and the love that guided them. There is a choice for her, and once she analyzes her options, it’s no choice at all: continue to hate the man who harmed her, who could have contributed half the genetic material for a child she already loves, or face him, forgive him, and attempt to move on.  John, who recognizes and admires her bravery, gives her several chances to change her mind but ultimately allows her to take the lead, going in alone.

In a development that is jarring for Brianna, at first Bonnet doesn’t seem to recognize her. One of the seminal events of her life was an afterthought to this man, who has done so much harm in the world that her particular hurt is a drop in the ocean to him. What impacts Bonnet about Brianna is that he is instinctively tuned into cunning, and he understands that she has no reason to lie and every reason, as a good person, to do something kind. His belief of her claim shines in his eyes, and the fact that he repays this kindness in currency is just who he is. Special nod to Ed Speelers, whose overflowing eyes made me forget just what an ass Bonnet is, and to Sophie Skelton, whose dread and righteous motherly anger I felt alternately hollow and burn my gut.

To me, at least, the conversation with Bonnet was somewhat secondary to the real purpose of Bree’s visit to the jail. Pregnant, husband and parents away, living with a squirrely great-aunt, accompanied only by a recently made friend, the act of stumbling across Fergus’s rescue of Murtagh enables her to have a tangible reminder of just how loved and supported she is by her extended family, and the lengths they will go to in loyalty to her. Purely at her behest, John arranges the visit through the Governor, Fergus intercedes to stop an argument between her fiancé and her great-uncle, Redcoat-hating Murtagh drags an English soldier from certain death, and ultimately even John proves that his allegiance isn’t to Tryon, but to her, when he lies and says he didn’t see anything that could aid the investigation. The little smile she wears as he leads her away is a sweet takeaway. She might bow, she may have forgiven Bonnet, accepted his possible paternity of her child and that spit-covered garnet, but Brianna Ellen Randall Fraser has been true to herself, and her virtue glows in her face as she exits the shot.


The Idiot Hut

In an unpromising start, Roger fails the gauntlet and, instead of being adopted into the tribe, is told he will stay on as a slave. Aside from not being good at basic labor, he’s injured and sad, counting the knots on a long, patched-together string that hints at how many months he’s been gone. Roger is a man who thinks about Virtue in capital letters. As the son of a man who died in service to his country and another who lived in service to the Lord and his fellow man, he’s conditioned by his upbringing to think of himself as a part of a greater whole and to act on behalf of the greater good. It certainly hasn’t done him a lot of good until now. In contrast to Brianna, who has found a strong and extended support network, Roger is surrounded by a community, but alone. Sold by his own kind, he is considered a man without honor, his morality questioned. His brief attempts at connection are clearly rejected, such as when Johiehon, the village healer and mother of a blue-eyed baby he complimented, refuses to help him escape and when Kaheroton, one of the Mohawk men who captured him, tells him not to smile at Johiehon if his loyalty is to another woman. It’s only through a direct appeal to Chief Tehwahsehwkwe  after an argument with jealous Kaheroton that he manages to get himself tossed into a hut to heal, but even this is not a kindness. It’s a calculated move by the Chief to get him away from Johiehon, who is speaking out on his behalf and who the Chief chastises for having “learned nothing.”

Tehwahsehwkwe’s comment becomes clear when we meet the other occupant of the hut, a French priest named Alexandre Ferigault. From him Roger finds out that his nickname means “Dogface” and that he’s currently in the province of New York. Père Ferigault tells Roger he is imprisoned because he fell in love. He tells his story in a quiet, kind voice. The Chief saw him preaching and brought him to the village, where he converted some before falling ill. When he was sick, he fell in love with the woman who nursed him and gave in to sin. The wonder of his eyes when he speaks of the woman’s hands is in stark contrast to the shamed roughness of his voice when he speaks of his desire. Roger understands all of this, telling him it’s one of the oldest stories in the world, but he’s unprepared for the twist: Ferigault and his woman had a child, and though the Mohawk accepted them both, his unpardonable sin in the eyes of the tribe wasn’t breaking his vows, but refusing to baptize his child because he feels unpure, unable to perform the sacrament in the eyes of God. Roger may scoff at the absurdity of holding to the Church’s doctrine when it means giving up his life, but Ferigault holds strong to his ethics.  Roger is unprepared for the poetry of Ferigault’s emotion, and you can see the answering pain in his own eyes as the priest tells him about the unanswered prayers where he asks to stop loving her. Two men come to take Ferigault away, and Roger, witnessing the treatment given to a man of God, starts digging under the walls with his drinking gourd. Ferigault returns, naked and hurt, and Roger’s first impulse is to be kind, covering him, cleaning the wreckage that was once his ear and saying a sudden, fervent prayer for God to comfort him “with a sense of Thy goodness.” Ferigault reveals that he has until morning to decide whether or not to baptize his son, or he will be burned from the feet up in a punishment that he has witnessed last up to three days. Roger urges him to fake a baptism, make it up, anything to live, but Ferigault won’t save his own life if it means further violating his vows. “You’re an idiot,” Roger tells him.

Roger, who has lived a life of doing kindnesses to strangers, isn’t seeing that pay off in kindness returned. The speech that follows, guttural in its self-hate and recrimination, is an indictment of every noble, loving urge he’s had this past season that led him to this captivity. At every turn, Roger put his trust in his fellow man, and at almost every turn, he has been spectacularly let down. He still loves his woman but, beaten by a man he suspects was her father and with no further contact after they (again) exchanged angry words, he feels that no one will come for him and that he will have to save himself. This was hard to hear, but his bitterness is understandable, and likely hiding an immense well of despair. Hope is at the very heart of love, and Roger’s had the hope beat out of him for months. Like Jamie and Brianna, two other MacKenzies, Roger is angry, and saying things he doesn’t mean.

He encourages the priest to save himself, take Johiehon and the baby and make a life for them as a husband and father, but no matter what, he will continue to dig, turn his back on love, and save himself. For a moment it seems that Ferigault is swayed, helping him dig under the south wall of the hut so they can escape, but when the sun comes up the next day and they still need another hour to finish making the hole big enough, Ferigault stays true to his conscience, refuses once more to baptize his son, and allows himself to be taken away to be burned. His last words to Roger are impactful not for their blessing, but for the words, “my friend.”  Although they disagree, these two sad, hurt men have formed a bond not only based in shared understanding, but shared principles. It’s the latter that Roger cannot ignore as he makes his escape and runs into the woods, chased by the agonized sounds of the burning priest’s suffering. Despite his angry self-berating, it’s incredibly satisfying to see him slow down, stop, and eventually, turn around. The slow-motion pan of the camera simultaneously captures his canny MacKenzie mind planning the ultimate mercy, taking in Ferigault’s suffering and Johiehon’s equally agonized murmurs of comfort, crying as she rocks their child in her distress and the dispassionate, casual business of the tribe as a man burns to death before their eyes (a callback to the bar scene from Bree’s rape), which culminates in his dash towards a cask of whisky, hurled into the fire to hasten the priest’s demise.  It is at once a violent and merciful act that merges the warring emotions of Roger’s soul and seems to have a deep effect on Johiehon, who kisses her baby before putting him down and walking over to Ferigault, wrapping her arms around him as their bodies merge together in the flames. Their tragic death is a baptism of fire that cleanses their forbidden love of sin. As Roger stares on in horror, Kaheroton picks up their crying infant and holds him close. When they come to take him away, Roger tiredly asks to be taken back to the idiot hut. It’s comforting to think he’ll be there still when Jamie and Claire show up to get him instead of tromping about the woods, but it’s also deeply rewarding to be reassured of Roger’s innate goodness, and the depth of his feeling for the suffering of his fellow man. It’s another baptism of sorts for this character, who previously did the right thing because it came easy to him and now, like any hero worth the name, will do the right thing even though it may be hard.

Ultimately Roger turns back because, despite his own troubled romantic life, he knows what it is to be loved, guided by emotion, and led by his heart. Outside of his profession, he hasn’t had much cause to tap into the more calculating, analytical aspects of his nature. Bree, in turn, has seen the dangers of loving too much, and she’s safeguarded against it by trying to think before she acts or feels. As such, this episode, and it feels like the season up until this point, is about these two characters growing to appreciate the qualities about each other that previously caused them to clash. Brianna, opening her heart to a new being created in uncertainty, moving past pity, anger and building her faith in love to enable her to move forward. Roger, demoralized, isolated and losing faith, is trying to think before he feels and put himself above emotion. While Bree manages to overcome years of conditioning, Roger struggles. He has loved and lost, and his current pain makes him regret his past sacrifices. It’s Ferigault and Johiehon’s mutual sacrifice that ultimately does for Roger’s moral compass what her pregnancy did for Brianna: goodness isn’t what you get back, but what you give. Love is wonderful, but it is also thinking of another before yourself, accepting the possibility of pain, of loss, of sacrifice. When Roger dully asks to be taken back to the idiot hut, it’s a wry admission that his nature, his ethics and everything he is stand in service to a gift that although freely given, isn’t always a blessing. Love strings together two people, a family, a community, with no expectation of parity or fairness. You make a promise with eyes open, and you strive to keep it, eyes shut tight against the storm. The rest is up to a higher power.