This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 2, Episode 5
The past finally caught up with Jamie and Claire in tonight’s Outlanderand, even though we all knew Jack Randall’s nefarious return was coming (right?), that only added to the tension of his reunion with the Frasers in “Untimely Resurrection.” Outlanderwas clever in how it handled this major moment. Rather than have the Frasers and Jack face off in an openly hostile encounter, it bowed to one of the major thematic throughlines of the season: the understated negotiation.
Claire and Jamie’s time in France has been all about subtle, behind-the-scenes signals and manipulations. Their reunion with Jack Randall is no different, as they are forced to play nice in front of the French king. Therapeutically for both them and us, Randall is laughed at by the king and members of the French court for his Englishness while Claire and Jamie are doted over. No doubt their socially-won upperhand will eventually be challenged — this show is so much about the ever-shifting weight of power — but, for now, Jack is mostly powerless in a strange land that Claire and Jamie have managed to make a home for themselves in. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts, eh?
Prior to Jack’s third-act return, “Untimely Resurrection” picks up almost immediately following the events of last week’s episode, with Claire waiting for Jamie to return from the jail he was thrown into following the kerfuffle during their dinner party. Outlanderisn’t structured like most shows on television. It doesn’t have the same kind of pacing or limits to its episodes. (Almost like it is being adapted from a novel…)
This overlapping story structure from episode-to-episode makes the episodes themselves feel less like self-contained parts of a larger story so much as one large story almost arbitrarily divided into installments. Outlanderis a show that doesn’t have to court its viewers in the same ways other shows do. It has an audience. It is on a premium cable channel. People are either going to tune in or not. Mostly, they are. They are committed to this ongoing story.
Jamie eventually comes home, to a concerned Claire and a sleeping Fergus (which is adorable). He and the others were released because of their friends in high places and once it became clear that they hadn’t caused any real harm. Alex Randall is a different story, however. Mary’s uncle is still convinced that he raped her.
When Claire goes to check on Mary, the young woman asks her friend to deliver a letter to the police explaining that it was not Alex, but rather masked men on the street who had earlier attacked she and Claire. Mary not only wants an innocent man free, but she wants Alex out of jail because they plan to marry. They love each other and want to be together.
In any other circumstance, Claire would certainly be happy for her friend. However, Claire is burdened with knowledge of the future (or at least a future), and that future — Frank Randall’s very existence — relies on Mary marrying Jack Randall and having a child together. Claire considers never delivering Mary’s letter, and letting Alex rot in jail. Instead, she helps ensure Alex’s freedom and then convinces him that he should let Mary go rather than marrying her into a life of playing nurse to a sick man.
Though Claire feels she has no choice in the matter, it is hard to cheer for a protagonist who puts her own version of the future so far ahead other’s happiness. Manipulating the situation so that Mary doesn’t marry Alex may ensure that she will marry Jack, someone she knows to be a cruel, manipulative, and sexually abusive man.
We don’t know what kind of time travel exists in this universe — if it’s the kind that creates new universes every time a different decision is made — but Claire is actively trying to change the future by stopping the Jacobite rebellion, so she must believe it is possible. That makes it difficult for her to hide behind reasons of temporal rigidity when it comes to Frank’s life.
Later in the episode, Jamie calls Claire out on this hypocrisy when she asks him to spare Jack’s life for a year so that he and Mary can have a child — presumably Frank’s ancestor — and ensure Frank’s future existence. This may imply that Claire will further manipulate Mary and Jack into getting together, and sooner rather than later. If Claire believes in self-determination, then she can’t hide behind the excuse of predetermination when actively manipulating her friends and husband.
This moral dilemma that Claire (and all time travellers) must face is what makes this episode so darn good. For Claire, her life has turned into a series of negotiations: A negotation between the present and the future, a negotiation between Jamie and Frank (and the lives they represent), and a negotiation between the many roles she must play everyday. She is a wife and an individual, a friend and an enemy, a nurse and a person who plays god with the lives of so many through her time travelling machinations.
Having to wear so many hats, it makes sense that she is so nervous about becoming a mother. Claire’s life is being pulled in so many different directions, she flits between roles as her context demands it. She mostly makes it look easy, probably because she cares more about some of these roles than others, but it is not. And the role of mother is something she prioritizes perhaps over all else. We get a reminder of her own unconventional childhood when she tells Jamie that she can barely remember her own mother.
Jamie’s reminder that they will do this together is another example of one of those tragically wonderful moments Outlandermanages to pull off on a nearly weekly basis. It’s bittersweet because we know these two are about to be torn apart. (Temporarily, by the end of the episode, when Claire asks Jamie to spare Jack’s life. Later, by the centuries that will be between them.) We know that, should Claire have this baby, he or she does not make the trip back to the future with his or her mother. That means that Jamie, at least for a little while, will be tasked with raising the child by himself (or, at least, not with Claire).
Claire is constantly negotiating the roles she must play, but we know this constant juggling of priorities is unsustainable. Eventually, she will lose control of her life, as we all do, and end up she does not want to be: back in the future. In that way, the viewer’s judgment of Claire’s machinations is somewhat softened. She may be ruining her friend’s happiness for the sake of her own, but Frank will be one of the only things she has to hold onto when she is thrust back to her original time. In that way, Claire’s time traveling decisions may be selfish, but they most certainly pay off.