After a summer hiatus, I am back to The Fandomentals to review Outlander, and after a ridiculously long hiatus, it’s back too! Thankfully. Just in time, with that other epic fantasy show on TV still fresh in our minds, along comes this juggernaut of quality to remind us that there’s more to this TV game that spectacle—though spectacle can count for a lot.
I will say that the first 10 minutes absolutely gutted me, and they reminded me of the importance of world-building. While you can certainly start watching here, with season 3 episode 1, many of the things that happen, especially in those first few minutes, are a culmination of 2 seasons’ worth of character arcs, and they ran the gamut from satisfying, to humorous, to tragic as hell. It looks like Starz is letting people play catch-up for free, so please, if you haven’t already? Do it.
Content Warning: This review discusses violence, rape, a past miscarriage, and sexist behavior, including forced medication during childbirth, as depicted on the show.
Oh man. Whew, that a first 10 minutes!
We open with long, lingering shots of the dead and wounded in the aftermath of Culloden Moore. It was, as we know from history, a route for our Scottish heroes, and these scenes really bring home the brutality of it. I mean, when that idiot fop Bonnie Prince Charlie is there (in flashback) in his wig drinking his booze proclaiming their certain victory, you wanna punch him in the face. More so than usual.
Their strategy was, to say the least, flawed, and sending starving, sword-armed men into heavy artillery and musket fire seems like a quick path to defeat.
Scenes of Jamie lying near-death are intercut with flashbacks to the battle: the charge, the volleys of English musket fire dropping waves of Scots, and, most important for us Outlander fans, Jamie and Black Jack Randall’s long-awaited showdown.
As I’m sure you remember, Claire promised Black Jack that he would die at Culloden Moore, a fact she knew from her husband Frank’s genealogical research. After Jack spent weeks torturing and raping Jamie, our hero was more than willing to do the deed. He owed him one, you might say.
Their fight was split across several flashbacks. It wasn’t in order (as Jamie himself might remember it in his dazed and wounded state), but the climax of it was spectacular. The English had set parts of the battlefield on fire, so everything was bathed in a hot, flickering light. Smoke curled around them. As they fought, the battle moved on, so it was just the two of them in a sea of dead.
They’re both wounded; Jack bayoneted Jamie in the leg and Jamie stabbed him in the stomach. They can barely stand, but they’re still going at each other. Suddenly Jack’s face changes. He knows he’s dying, and his expression becomes one of longing and compassion, which is kinda gross but also brilliant, and as he falls against Jamie it almost turns into an embrace.
They tumble to the ground, Jack’s body draped over Jamie’s, and it’s probably the dead redcoat on top of him that saved him from the roaming English soldiers finishing off the wounded.
While lying there, snow slowly drifting down onto his upturned face, Jamie has a vision of Claire walking across the field toward him. She’s in full La Dame Blanche mode, and he grips the dragonfly in amber tightly in his hand.
Claire’s face turns into Rupert’s, and he gets Jamie to a hovel where the Scots are collecting their wounded, but it isn’t long before the English find them. An officer arrives with some men and explains that he’s been ordered to execute any traitors to the Crown they find. Are any men here innocent of treason?
Rupert says nope, they’re guilty to a man, so the executions begin. I mean, like, they’re all very gentlemanly about it, but I think it’s a form of psychological torture to make everyone wait while you shoot these guys one by one.
So we lose Rupert, and the rest of the Scottish Gang from seasons 1 and 2, but Murtagh (who Jamie saw on the battlefield) is unaccounted for. Y’all know that ol’ cuss made it through. *fingers crossed*
All of the able-bodied men are executed, so the commander orders stretchers to be brought so the wounded can be carried outside for their executions. Jamie volunteers to be shot next, but when he gives his name, the commander recognizes it. If you remember from last season, Jamie at one point encountered a young English soldier, John Grey. Instead of killing him when he had the chance, he let him go, and the boy vowed to save his life one day.
As luck would have it, the English commander is Lord Hal Melton, the kid’s older brother. He can’t kill Jamie as a point of honor (despite how much Jamie begs), so he has him smuggled out in a hay cart to Lallybroch. He believes Jamie will die on the way (I mean, they’ve never met, so he DOESN’T KNOW JAMES FRASER), but duh of course he survives. Jamie’s arc ends with Jenny bending over him crying and thankful that he’s home.
Okay, so, that was a lot, but it was only half the episode! All the Jamie stuff was intercut with Claire in 1948 Boston. She and Frank moved there when he was offered a position at Harvard. She’s pregnant, of course, with Jamie’s child, but Frank has offered to raise it as his own. He wants a fresh start with his wife, who, after all, he still loves very much.
Claire agrees, but she’s struggling. She doesn’t like the gas stove in their (amazing) house, and instead cooks over the fireplace. Frank’s boss is incredibly rude and condescending to her, basically dismissing her as a “little woman” who should be happy with the domestic life of motherhood and stop trying to actually think!
And, of course, she misses Jamie. Frank grows frustrated because she’s so distant; she won’t let him touch her, and she can’t seem to settle into their life in Boston. They fight, and she throws an ashtray at his head. He tells her she has to make a choice: either stay there with him, or leave, but do what makes her happy.
That night, he’s sleeping on the couch when she comes downstairs to tell him her water’s broken. He rushes her to the hospital where the doctor is (once again) a condescending prig. She admits to having a past miscarriage, which Frank didn’t know about, but when she tries to apologize he tells her not to worry about it. It doesn’t matter.
She’s taken into the delivery room, and despite her protests she’s given ether to knock her out through the delivery process. God that seems so barbaric to me! Especially because the doctor’s attitude was “we can’t have any messy WOMEN involved in this process. Just go to sleep and let us MEN handle it.” Ugh.
Anyway, she’s terrified when she wakes up because clearly she isn’t pregnant anymore, but there’s no baby. Then Frank comes in carrying her, and they have a beautiful moment bonding over their daughter. They agree that this can be a fresh start, and they kiss and cry and fuss over how gorgeous their baby is.
You start to think that maybe this can all work out for them, after all, but then the nurse comes in and asks where the baby got her red hair. Frank’s face falls and the music changes. Just before the credits roll, you get the instant understanding that no, it won’t work. It can’t.
That made it sound like very little happened on Claire’s side, and while it’s true most of the action was in 18th century Scotland, Claire’s arc this episode was about her general “fish out of water” feeling in not only Boston, but also 1948 and her marriage with Frank.
When you look back at how incredibly hard she struggled to get back to him and her time, it makes the rift in their relationship even sadder. She never meant to fall in love with Jamie. She loved Frank deeply, but she did fall for Jamie, and now she has to figure out how to put her life back together after.
At one point her neighbor tells her how lucky she is, because she’ll never find a man like Frank again. That’s true, but she has found a man like Frank before, and now nothing compares to him. Frank loves her, and he’s trying, but how can their marriage work when most of Claire is still back in the 18th century with Jamie?
I feel so awful for Frank. He’s a good man who really never did anything wrong. It’s not his fault he looks exactly like Jamie’s rapist and Claire’s tormentor. It’s not his fault his wife got sucked back in time and fell in love with a strapping Highlander. Obviously Jamie and Claire are the OTP to end all OTPs, but Frank is a good man caught in a bad situation. I can’t help but wish that Claire could find room in her heart for him again.
Don’t think I’m blaming Claire for any of this. Again, she didn’t ask to marry Jamie, and she certainly never planned on loving him. Unfortunately circumstances dictated the marriage had to happen, and well whoops. Who wouldn’t fall in love with Jamie Fraser??
I’ve seen people this season asking what happened to Edmure Tully, and, well, now y’all now: he escaped to a better show! Black Jack Randall is dead, but Frank’s still truckin’ on, being the long-suffering husband with carefully controlled anger issues. Good on you, Tobias. Upgrade.
As I said in the intro, what made this episode so effective (besides the spectacular use of color and lighting, and Bear McCreary’s always exceptional score) was all the payoff. We’d been falling for the ridiculous Scottish gang for 2 seasons; Rupert’s loss hurt, and it brought to mind Angus’s death last season. Rupert’s touching call out to Angus only made it that much more poignant.
Of course we finally got to see Jack Randall meet his fate, and I’m glad it wasn’t done in a super gratuitous way. Jamie is a good man with a strong sense of honor and vengeance, not cruel like Jack; so if he had enjoyed it or reveled in it, it would’ve been gross and out of character. As it was, they were two men with a bloody history meeting on the battlefield, and the better man won. The fact that Jamie probably owes his continued life to Jack’s death is an irony that likely isn’t lost on Jamie.
Claire’s storyline was less about endings and more about beginnings. She floated the idea of becoming an American citizen, but Frank didn’t like it. We see her chafe at the “little woman” role imposed on her by Frank’s colleagues and society in general. She’s clearly bored and annoyed by being a housewife. She also mentions that women have recently been accepted to Harvard Medical School. Hmmm, methinks Mrs. Randall is plotting something.
Isn’t she always?
Outlander is back, dear readers, and if you haven’t watched it before, now is the time. Everything you hate about certain other shows, everything those shows get wrong, Outlander gets right. There is nothing cheap or melodramatic here. Every beat is earned, every character is a real person, and the beauty and the spectacle are just icing on the cake.
Episode Grade: A. Get used to it, because this show is setting the bar.