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?
It feels like just yesterday that I was complimenting some the adaptation’s changes to the novels, so it seems karmically fair that this week I should be slapped in the face by how deeply the tiny shifts from the novels affected one of the episodes to which I was most looking forward. Drums of Autumn, the novel upon which this season is based, prominently features Roger and Brianna as individuals and as a couple, setting up the second great love of the novels. It had been hinted the show would give these characters a romantic hour of their own that would cement the emotional connections between them upon which rest several future plot points. I’m not sure that happened. As for Jamie and Claire, Murtagh’s leadership of the regulators manifested into a side plot that seemed to leave his relationship with Jamie weaker than we found it. Let’s revisit what was, for me at least, a pretty challenging hour. Spoilers ahead for episode 408, “Wilmington”.
All The World’s a Stage After a visit to Fergus and Marsali that establishes that Bree and her parents are in the same place as well as the same time, Jamie and Claire attend the theater with Governor Tryon and his wife. There they meet the Governor’s Public Registrar of Deeds, Assemblyman and Judge Edmund Fanning, a man suffering from what Claire immediately recognizes as an inguinal hernia…and a young Colonel George Washington and his wife, Martha. Jamie is playing the part of loyal English subject, cultivating a cordial relationship with the man who is responsible for his land bequest while still trying to protect his godfather, Murtagh, from the ambush Tryon has set for him. It ends up not only cementing Tryon’s view of Jamie as a loyal subject, but also his opinion of Claire as a qualified surgeon. At the end, though Jamie stops Murtagh from committing “a hanging offense,” it’s not by showing up himself but rather returning to the theater with the Governor and sending Fergus in his stead, an act which Murtagh interprets somewhat disdainfully. Jamie, once again walking a fine line between loyalty and sedition, proves Roger’s assertion that it is dangerous to decide who lives and who dies. His actions have alerted his godfather to a traitor in his camp, but Tryon has also guessed the same about his own side, and now blames an innocent General Washington. The outcome of the Revolutionary War is a foregone conclusion, but it was by no means an overnight occurrence. With four years to go before the Boston Tea Party and six before the “Shot Heard Around the World,” it sets the stage for a long-term conflict which seems inconsistent with the level of focus Murtagh’s activities are occupying in the current narrative. It’ll be interesting to see how this plot line is resolved.
I Plight Thee My Troth Just a few minutes into the episode, a tired Roger overhears a tired Brianna inquire about Cross Creek and the two are reunited. Their affection for each other is obvious, but by the time they take their conversation outside they are back to bickering that would appear, to a casual observer like Lizzie, that they are angry with each other. I understand that the TV version of Roger/Brianna rests largely on this dynamic, but it’s problematic for many reasons and this episode saw several of those rear their head. At first, things go well. During the course of their argument, Brianna confesses that she loves Roger, and the resulting make-out session has Bree agreeing to marry him. It’s a bit sudden but still believable, and their ceremony is sweet, a mashup of the older and newer wedding traditions that ends with them plighting their “troth” to one another, i.e. their faith and loyalty. It’s here where things begin to fall apart. The same comfort that allows them both to be swept away by grand gestures and romance causes them both not to think before they speak. Brianna discovers that Roger knew about the obituary, and she accuses him of being domineering. Roger retaliates by pointing out her recklessness, both in assuming she can change the past and in risking her life, and by extension his own, in trying. Once again, they both say things they don’t mean and care less about listening to each other than they do about getting their own point across. A prime example is when Roger says that, now they’re married, she should start listening to him, and Brianna interprets that as doing what he says. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch a couple that loves each other repeatedly stall in the growth of their relationship, withdraw from each other, and fight unfairly. For example, in the novel, Brianna leaves Roger after she discovers he knew about her mother’s death. Here, it’s Roger that leaves her, and what was empowering for her and motivating for him now looks like an unfeeling abandonment by a man who just swore to take care of her. Taken together with their post-proposal fight and how this incredibly sensitive character has been portrayed as a thoughtless misogynist, it leaves me with a feeling of alienation from Roger, and for Brianna for choosing him. Perhaps the intent is to make the television audience feel closer to Brianna, who was a somewhat polarizing character in the novels, but it ends up making me question why I should be excited about a relationship where two people are so careless with each other’s feelings. I want to cheer for Roger and Brianna, but when they keep being set against each other in these maladaptive ways, it’s incredibly difficult to keep overlooking.
You Can’t Protect Them Still ringing from an argument with Roger in which she assures him that she and Lizzie have done “quite well” alone, Brianna comes back to the inn where she is staying, only to run into Stephen Bonnet and his possession of her mother’s ring. Her attempt to retrieve it unlocks Bonnet’s casual cruelty once more, to devastating effect. The resulting scene is not only traumatic for the fact that the real-time audio means you can close your eyes and see it in your mind’s eye, but because it’s heartbreaking proof of how very alone Brianna is, and how vulnerable despite the courage and fire in her heart. Outlander has never been a series that hesitates when it comes to the use of rape as a plot device, but the placement of this particular scene, directly after a loving first time, feels particularly traumatic because it happens the same night, not two days later and told as a flashback, like in the novels. Several meanings could be assigned to it. Maybe it was meant to evoke the horror of what is happening in those who watch it. Maybe it was meant as a contrast between the loving interlude with Roger, Bonnet’s relaxed violence making Roger’s careful reverence more tender and tragic by comparison. Or maybe it was simply one of those meaningless acts of violence to which reason simply doesn’t apply, presented without comment and without comfort. Brianna’s body is shown less care than her boots, stacked up carefully by the doorway. She walks back through the tavern —slowly, painfully, but upright.
By now, I should know that Claire or Jamie telling the other that they won’t be separated again ends with them being separated again, but what can I say? If loving this show is wrong, I don’t want to be right. We finally arrive in Jamaica, and get to revisit characters, outfits and plot points that went a bit MIA for a while. We also got to check back in with everyone’s favorite Scottish Regina George, and their favorite Lovelorn English Lord, and our first-ever (if brief) POV from a character other than Jamie and Claire. In truth, Young Ian’s time with Geillis represents a kind of Wentworth in his life, and these experiences cause the character to grow in ways that will be very exciting to see onscreen. Finally, the introduction of the prophecy of the Brahan Seer (referred to as The Fraser Prophecy in the books) marks the beginning of the story’s shift past Claire and Jamie as a couple, to encompass their entire dynasty and what it potentially means to the future of Scotland. One more episode to go!
Spoilers ahead for episode 312.
Here are four takeaways:
Return of the Mack. The Mackenzie plotline we last revisited in the 1960s with descendant Roger Wakefield picks up once more with the re-appearance of his five-times great grandmother Geillis. Geillis is now an Abernathy, having black-widowed her way into what I can only assume is a goat plantation on Jamaica and being referred to by the Jamaican patois nickname of “Bakra,” which means slave driver (literally ‘back raw’). It’s a thrill to see her, mostly because Outlander excels at the Morally Irreverent Villain, and the story overall is better when our heroes are, well, being heroes. I know Geillis is evil and probably a sociopath, but I just love her. I didn’t even get angry when Claire basically provided her a plot outline at the Governor’s reception, because there was a true closeness and friendship between these women. The seminal difference is that Claire values human life, and Geillis doesn’t (it’s a small distinction, but pretty important). Geillis’s #1 concern is still putting a Scottish ruler on the throne, and the fact that she speaks more affectionately of Dougal’s testicles than their child should probably tell Claire something. That, and all the husband-killing.
More Things on Heaven and Earth. It’s been hinted at for a while now, but this week Outlander slides feet-first into the religious cultural collision of the Caribbean. A rich native culture fused with African traditions from the slave trade and European religions to create spiritual practices that fascinate people even today. The first hint came back in 306, when we first met Margaret Campbell and she prophesied about Abandawe, the cave that Father Fogden would later tell Claire was used for sacred rites. The alligator skeleton last episode was a callback to the one that hung in Master Raymond’s shop. Jamie himself heard talk of a “white lady,” equating her to Claire, and not an actual witch. For all that they are 200 years apart, Claire and Jamie are both highly pragmatic, and except for the stones, have yet to experience the collision of magic and spirituality that so vividly color the Caribbean experience of spirituality. It’s an entirely new worldview, and it’ll be interesting to see how each character processes and interacts with this new take on spirituality.
The Importance of Being Other. The slave market was as hard to watch as I anticipated, but I didn’t anticipate the line that would make my head snap back. The slave merchant’s disdainful “What do you take me for,” in response to Jamie’s inquiry about selling a white youth was so matter-of-fact and time-appropriate that it instantly set the scene. It was, like the men and women lined up like so much window dressing, a ruthlessly effective way to make a point about these people’s standing and significance in the world at that time. So, too, is the way that Yi Tien Cho is first addressed at the Governor’s reception, the young woman marveling that “Goodness, he even speaks English” when the ‘he’ in question is standing right in front of her. The show slightly alters the circumstances of both characters, but there are lovely allusions to both Yi Tien Cho’s and Temeraire’s humanity that are doled out with respectful kindness. Temeraire’s assistance is requested, not demanded. Terms are set up that he is free to accept or reject. Jamie and Claire refer to people as “enslaved,” and to him as a manservant. Yi Tien Cho is given a formal, respectful introduction by Jamie at the ball, and, despite his claim that he came to a place where women reject him, he finds a mutual admiration and understanding in fellow outsider Margaret Campbell.
The Jamie Fraser Fan Club. I wallowed in Lord John’s return like a pig in mud. Beautifully embroidered, sapphire-accented mud. Not only is the chemistry between Sam Heughan and David Berry electric, but add Caitriona Balfe to the mix and it’s like I’m back in high school and someone just shouted “Fight” down the hall. I am desperately craning my neck trying to find every nuance of expression and hear everything that is being said. The warmth between Jamie and John is so gratifying to see, because it is obvious that Jamie appreciates this man not only for the care he gives his son, but knows of his feelings for him and is tenderly solicitous of him. There is a true bond there, and while Claire is at first as warm as Jamie, it doesn’t take her long to notice that John’s attachment to her husband is more than friendship. When John speaks to her and very subtly attempts to test her relationship with Jamie by alluding to their great shared secret…and finding out Claire knows everything. Claire in turn gently but pointedly asks for clarification on the ‘gift’ of the sapphire, and John admits Jamie surrendered it after he went searching for her, thinking she had come back, “And now you have.” Claire’s smile is kind, but her eyes are solemn, and her words, an unmistakable warning. “Yes. I have.”
Claire’s streak of improbably surviving things that would kill the rest of us continues. This time she lands on modern-day Haiti, her clothes intact and her hair looking way better than it should and narrowly misses the three-day survival deadline. Because she’s Claire, she finds a nutty priest (he literally uses a coconut as a life coach), swans about in a fly robe and manages to be called a whore by an older woman whose only daughter ran away with a priest. That’s right, Mamacita. GLASS HOUSES. While the first half had some of the comedy that I always love to see, the second half was an emotionally satisfying dessert. I would watch the hell out of a Fersali spinoff.
Spoilers ahead for episode 311.
Here are four takeaways:
A quarter hour is way longer than you think. I understand the need to impress Claire’s peril upon the audience, but that’s about ten minutes more than I wanted to spend watching her wander around the island. Just for comparison’s sake, that’s about two more minutes’ more screen time than was spent on Culloden, which was much more of a big deal in my mind. I get that it was to illustrate the passage of time and call back to the peril she was in due to hitting her third day sans water, but I wish we had spent more time with Jamie and Fergus, maybe gotten a hint of the storm that broke the Artemis’ main mast. Instead we got an extremely aversive introduction to the flora and fauna of Hispaniola. I’m not even talking about the snake. It was the ants that made me want to bathe myself in a cloud of Raid. And how is it that it took Claire about two days to find Father Fogden, but only a few hours to run back to shore to find Jamie? Of course, running to meet your sexy gingersnap puts wings on your heels, but I don’t think it adds an engine. Ah, Outlander. You are a time-travel show in more ways than one.
Geography is hard. I can’t tell you the number of maps I looked at to figure out where who was when, or how teensy the Turks portion of Turks and Caicos is when you’re desperately hunting for Cockburn Town. That strugglebus was on a circuitous route. It was nice to see the Americas featured, however, and to recognize and lust after fried plantains. I was, however, confused by the Spanish subtitles. Following the idea that the show doesn’t subtitle Gaelic or Chinese because Claire wouldn’t understand them, but did subtitle the French in Season 2, does that mean Claire speaks Spanish? Why then does Fogden translate for her? (An aside: I must congratulate the actress that played Mamacita for her very convincing Cuban accent. I could tell it wasn’t native, but I couldn’t identify what colored it until I saw she was Spanish and had lived in the U.S. Good job, Vivi.) In any case, because I had to make a visual for my own visual reference, here’s my super highbrow map of this episode, for the map dunces like me.
Eat your heart out, Jenny Fraser. There is a new HBIC in town, and her married name rhymes with “Taser.” Marsali is adaptable and practical, which is a necessity for joining the Fraser clan, but she also is a girl who, as Fergus says, “speaks her mind.” Fiercely loyal, she repeatedly speaks up in Fergus’s defense, first to Jamie, and now to Father Fogden. She is a Jenny Fraser for the next generation, imbued with all the grim shrewdness of a country girl and the genetic bull-headedness and managing nature to see her plans through. What is especially endearing about Marsali, and especially this episode, is her perceptiveness. Sheh alone, in Claire’s absence had the stones to tell Jamie to snap out of it and trust in Fergus’s love for him last episode, and this episode she finally comes clean to Claire about the real status of the Jamie/Laoghaire marriage, and her fears for her own. Claire and Marsali connect on the very deep level of headstrong women who value their agency, and it did my heart good to see Fergus get what he has long wanted, a woman like madame.
More Frasers than you can stab with a branch. Oddly enough, Jamie and Claire’s reunion wasn’t the emotional high point of this episode. That was reserved for the funny, touching, memorable wedding of Marsali and Fergus. From Fergus’s untidy ponytail to Marsali’s sweet shawl and earrings, to the candlelight in the reverend’s garden are meant to evoke an aura of intimacy and ease. A wedding is a simple thing, really. It’s the building of a relationship that is difficult, and the maintenance of the ties that keep a family together. Marsali’s tart admonishments for Father Fogden are more than a girl mouthing off: they are the impatient nudges of a woman set on getting her heart’s desire, and the fact that this desire is a bastard boy with no last name and only hand speaks to the worth of her character and the love she can give. The fact that Fergus can’t even finish chastising her for her outspokenness before claiming that it is one of the things he loves about her shows the same for him. Jamie and Claire’s exchange of wry glances also tells the audience that Fergus isn’t the only one who appreciates an outspoken female. Finally, Fergus’s quiet admission that he has no last name, and Jamie’s assertive claim that he is a Fraser brought me to tears. Marsali turns immediately, startled. In contrast, her husband-to-be stills, then turns with shining eyes to regard his father before saying his full name proudly for the first time. So the Frasers grow, having lost both a son and daughters, to claim Fergus and Marsali for their own. In turn Fergus, who once sacrificed a hand to keep Jamie safe, now receives the final portion of the lifetime of care he was promised as a boy: the protection of Jamie’s name.