This Outlander article contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 2, Episode 9
Outlanderis notable for the ways in which it subverts traditional storytelling archetypes — firstly, in its unique mash-up of genre and, secondly, in its status as a prestige drama with a complex, female-centric protagonist.
Claire Fraser is unlike any other heroine on television. She is a romance heroine driven by her love for Jamie (and, to a lesser degree, Frank), but she has many needs and desires outside of her love life. Jamie, on the other hand, while a well-written character, is not so unique within the world of pop culture. Sure, he is a a refreshingly secondary pop culture boyfriend in the vein of “movie girlfriend” Peeta Mallark, but mainstream media isn’t in need of complex heroes as it is in need of complex heroines.
Why am I going on this rant? Because “Je Suis Prest” was very much a Jamie-centric episode and, by and large, Jamie-centric episodes of Outlanderare just not as interesting as the ones that put our time traveling war nurse heroine at the center of the narrative. In conclusion: Ruggedly handsome dude-heroes trying to prove their manliness and honor in a time of war? Dime a dozen. Time travelling romance heroines with their own TV show? There is only one.
It didn’t help that “Je Suis Prest” was also a stage-setting episode on top of that. The French phrase that composes the title literally means “I am ready,” and this episode was devoted to getting Jamie’s would-be troops trained up enough to join Charles’ army. Becaue of this, we spent most of the time in the Scottish highlands, watching Jamie and Collum MacKenzie try to out-masculine each other while pretty much everyone in Jamie’s ragtag band of future soldiers failed at sentry duty. Thing is: if I wanted to watch a show about dudes trying to out-masculine each other, I would watch pretty much any other show on TV.
“Je Suis Prest” wasn’t without its merits, of course. It was nice to be back in Scotland, and to be reunited with several familiar, Scottish faces. Outlandermusic composer Bear McCreary also went above and beyond what is always a consistently remarkable job with this episode’s soundtrack, scoring several training sequences with what I imagine were traditional Scottish ditties revamped for optimal montage use. There are also some beautiful, eery shots of the Highlander camp at night.
There is also a lovely, tense scene between Claire and Collum when Claire makes it clear just how much she doesn’t like Collum. She calls him a narcissist, and makes a point of explaining exactly what that means. For his part, Collum doesn’t deny that he has narcissistic tendencies, but he refutes her point that he loves himself more than he loves Scotland — and I, for one, believe him. Presumably, this is a thematic set-up for a later moment when Collum will be forced to prove his love for Scotland (or, if Claire is correct in her character assessment, not), but, for now, it is a great thematic follow-up to this relationship from season 1 — if not a little rushed in the context of the second season, where we have only just been reintroduced to Collum.
Unfortunately, “Je Suis Prest” also tries to shoehorn a Claire has PTSD back to her days as a nurse in World War II storyline, and it doesn’t quite work. This probably should have been the “A” plot, given that it was a) about Claire, who we have already discussed is more interesting, b) had very little lead-up, and c) would have given us even more insight into Claire’s pre-time jump persona.
Instead, we only get a handful of short scenes flashing back to Claire’s time on the front. Being back in a training camp has triggered memories of the time she had to listen to the dying screams of an American soldier, and did nothing to try to save him. It’s a nice thematic moment when Jamie finally confronts her about her obvious discomfort. Claire not only name-drops the title of the novel season 2 is based on (Dragonfly in the Amber), but vows that she will never be paralyzed in fear like that again. If she is to die, then she will go down fighting.
This moment would have been a lot more effective if we could have spent more time in Claire’s flashbacks, or if this PTSD subplot was delivered over the course of several episodes. As it is, it’s a bit jarring, given that we just spent a whole episode dealing with Claire’s depression following the stillborn death of her child, and, from the way the episode ends, we will presumably not spend any more time delving into Claire’s war-related PTSD. I wish the episode had either more fully devoted itself to Claire’s flashbacks or used that narrative time for something else altogether.
The only big plot development in “Je Suis Prest” came with the introduction of William Grey, a young English soldier who sneaks into the Scottish camp and tries to slit Jamie’s throat. He recognizes Jamie as “Red Jamie.” Jamie plans to torture information about the English army out of Will, but, instead, Claire undertakes a ruse in which she pretends to be at the mercy of the Scottish soldiers. Jamie quickly catches on and Will trades information in exchange for Jamie not raping Claire.
It’s played as a lighthearted moment, a decision that is uncomfortable not only on any show, but especially on one where multiple characters have been sexually assaulted. Jamie uses Will’s information to sneak into the English camp, slitting the throat of the soldier guarding the canons and stealing and burning the wheels.
Again, this raid is oddly played for laughs, which isn’t entirely without prescendent on this show, but highlights just how inconsistent Outlander‘s depiction of violence and danger can be. Some scenes, it treats war like a game of camp capture the flag. Other scenes, it wants us to feel the horrible weight of violence and its effects. Usually, Outlanderis pretty good at balancing these tones, but, in episodes like “Je Suis Prest,” the show is less successful.
Jamie lets Will go, which inspires the young soldier to grant Jamie a life debt. Basically, Will Grey feels as though he owes Jamie his life. Presumably, this will come up at a later date (perhaps, this is who Jamie survives the Jacobite rebellion?). For now, the encounter with Will Grey is another awkward plot point shoved into an unfocused, somewhat dull episode.
It might seem like I am coming down too hard on “Je Suis Prest.” After all, there are bound to be quasi-filler episodes when working with such high stakes and such large narrative pieces. However, Outlanderhas proven in the past that it is able to move its characters into place in much mofe fluid, entertaining ways than was demonstrated in tonight’s episode.
I suspect this is the cost of setting one half of the season in Paris and one half in Scotland, with a 20th century kicker. This kind of transition would normally happen between seasons and has, therefore, not had the benefit of months off in real time to create a sense of the passage of time within the narrative. I have not doubt that, now that Jamie, Claire, and company have joined Prince Charles’ troops, this storyline won’t drag as much, but, for this one, brief episode, Outlanderhad a case of the mid-season doldrums.