This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 4, Episode 1
Claire and Jamie have very often been strangers in a strange land, but Outlander fully commits to the framework of an immigration tale in its Outlander Season 4 opener, one I hope continues as the season does. When we catch back up with Claire and Jamie in “America the Beautiful,” the wife and husband have been in Colonial America for four months now, and they have found happiness, but they have also found pain.
For one, their friend Gavin Hayes is about to be hanged for killing a man in self-defense. Jamie isn’t able to save Gavin from the noose, but he does save a man who was meant to hang beside him: Stephen Bonnet, an Irish pirate who clearly appeals to Jamie’s grief and sense of powerlessness over having just lost a close friend. Claire and Jamie risk their lives (or at least their freedom) to bring Bonnet to safety and, when a soldier injures Bonnet with his bayonet, Claire uses her medical knowledge to heal the vulnerable stranger.
In one of the most interesting and later ironically tragic scenes of the episode, Claire and Bonnet bond over their fear of drowning, one that Claire has felt since she almost drowned last season and that Bonnet says has haunted him for his entire life. No doubt that fear is a metaphor for something larger (though, yeah, the sea is frakking scary): a fear of drowning in this new land with its often unkind rules, so far away from the support systems of community and family that can cushion so much of that potential pain in an ideal situation.
But, if we’ve learned anything from Outlander, it’s that even love and family and support can only go so far in a cruel world. Loved ones can help you move on from traumatic experiences, but they can’t completely shield you from pain. We’ve seen these characters tormented again and again, as often if not more so than they have been able to live happily and with some semblance of peace. One such example is brought up early in the premiere: the rape of Young Ian, and Jamie’s own history of sexual assualt.
When “The Bakra” aired last year, I criticized the lack of critical context around Geillis’ rape of Young Ian. (I also, more recently, criticized the cast and creators’ response to a question about representation of sexual violence at this fall’s New York Comic Con.) Now, Outlander finally brings the context this event so desperately needed: in a conversation between Jamie and Young Ian in which the two talk about their respective sexual trauma. For me, it’s the best scene of the entire episode, and one that not only subverts the idea that boys and men aren’t victims of sexual assault, but also gives both male characters a chance to be vulnerable with one another in a way that male characters (and men in real life) so rarely are.
“Some ghosts can only be banished by speaking their names and foul deeds aloud,” Jamie tells Ian in one of several nurturing, fatherly moments in the episode. He straight-up cuddles a sobbing Ian, and it is a thing of beauty — one we don’t normally get to see from our strapping male protagonists. Strength is far too often equated with emotional stoicism, but Jamie knows the truth: There are few things scarier and therefore braver than being emotionally vulnerable. And he’s passing that lesson on to Young Ian, as well, in a moment when he needs that kind of positive reinforcement of sharing his pain more than ever.
Thematically, this episode is very much about what the dream of America can and will mean for Jamie, Claire, and the little family they’ve created. Plot-wise, it is very much about trying to find a buyer for a gemstone Team Sassenach salvaged. It’s the kind of heavy-handed, ludicrous plot point that probably won’t matter in a few episodes and that Outlander endearingly makes use of all the time. (There’s a reason why the term MacGuffin is Scottish, amirite?)
In the process of showing off the gem to potential buyers, Jamie and Claire inadvertently sell something else: their status as white Europeans with friends they can convince to come settle and an aunt, Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta, in a position of power. The local governor offers Jamie a land grant in exchange for his loyalty to the crown and the promise that he will encourage more white Europeans like himself to come over.
Already, the fine print on the “American dream” Claire explained to Jamie is beginning to reveal itself. There are the indigenous people, who Claire tells Jamie will be slaughtered or, their ancestral homes taken from them and made to live in reservations. There are the many slaves who have no say in their own fates. There are the unconnected poor who cannot afford to pay the fees that come along with making their way to the New World and who don’t have rich and/or powerful relatives to make the deal possible. And there is anyone who isn’t “white,” by whatever definition those in power deem that to be in this time period.
“A dream for some can be a nightmare for others,” Jamie says wisely, understanding that the Jacobite cause is just one example of the powerful elite controlling, killing, and using the vulnerable masses to sustain and grow their own power and wealth. It doesn’t stop Jamie from wanting to stay in America, however, and try to have a positive influence on this land that will one day be his daughter’s home, but Jamie and Claire are going to have to get a lot more radical if they want to make a difference as white landowners in Colonial-era North Carolina. I await their community organizing subplot…
Jamie and Claire’s illusion of the American dream is also tainted by Stephen Bonnet, who comes back into their lives in a blaze of cold-blooded villainy. Boarding Claire and Jamie’s boat set for River Run (Jamie’s aunt’s place), Bonnet and his band of pirates slit the throat of the boat captain, beat up Jamie and Ian, and steal everything of value they have on them, including one of Claire’s wedding rings. Perhaps worst of all, they remind this family that the misuse of power is not something specific to the English or to Europe or even to institution. It can be anywhere, even in this new land of hope.
“It’s not your fault, lad. You did what you must, and survived. That’s all that matters.” – Jamie, to Ian
“I won’t bother you again. You have my word.” Stephen Bonnet is the worst, and proof that not all lives should be weighed evenly.
“The sea herself is pulling at me.” Wish it would pull a little faster.
“When my body dies, my soul will be yours. Nothing is lost, Sassenach. Only changed.” You better not go dying on me ever, Jamie Fraser.
“That’s the first law of thermodynamics.” “No, that’s faith.” These two and their romantic banter!
“What about those already here, the natives. What becomes of them?” Oh, sweet Jamie!
“There is the law, and there is what is done.” Those in power know how they misuse it.
“Bees that have money in their mouth have a sting in their tail.” Can we get a whole page-a-day calendar with Jamie’s aphorisms?
It weirds me out that Fergus still calls Jamie “m’lord.”
Speaking of Fergus, he and Marsali are expecting! I hope these two get more screen time than the premiere suggested this season.
Jocasta’s third husband, Hector, died of a “morbid sore throat,” which, coincidentally, is what I almost died of this past week.
“Shouldn’t have elderly slaves on their feet all day.” There’s a lot to unpack in this sentence, Claire.
Jamie buys Claire a medical kit, complete with microscope. #giftgoals
Good thing Brianna has the pearls!
“24 years ago I married you, Sassenach, I hope I haven’t ever given you case to regret it.” “Not for a single day.”