This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 4 Episode 2
Wow, there’s a lot to unpack about this episode. Watching as a white viewer, some of the images shown in “Do No Harm” were deeply unsettling—I can only imagine what watching an episode like this might feel like for those who have been prejudiced against and persecuted for the color of their skin.
There are moments when the faithfulness of Outlander‘s TV adaptation work to make this series even stronger, and there are moments when the 1996-ness of the Drums of Autumn source material falls short of where our mainstream conversations about race and gender and imperialism fall short of where we are today. “Do No Harm” is one of those moments.
The episode starts off slow, especially considering the high-intensity trauma that ended the season premiere. We’re not given a lot of space as viewers to process that trauma, but it’s not swept under the rug, either, with the Stephen Bonnet attack obviously influencing Claire and Jamie’s decision-making throughout “Do No Harm.”
Our unlucky duo is given a bit of a reprieve upon their arrival at River Run, the plantation owned by Jamie’s aunt Jocasta, who he hasn’t seen since he was a baby. She is overjoyed to see that her sister’s son has grown up to be so strong and tall and good. You can feel the presence of the loved one they’ve lost between them, and it’s a nice reminder of this woman who helped make Jamie the loving man he is today.
While Jocasta may be kind to both Jamie and Claire, the relief of their arrival is quickly undercut by the realization that Jocasta has many slaves who work her plantation. When she makes a very public, quick announcement that she plans to leave River Run to Jamie, and for him to begin taking over leadership of the plantation almost immediately, Claire and Jamie have a decision to make.
“I can’t own slaves,” Claire tells her husband, which feels like a good low bar line to draw, even if one is not a time traveler. (And I like that the episode recognizes that there were contemporary white Colonists who were against slavery, most famously the Quakers.) Jamie is less black-and-white on the issue. He is against slavery, but wonders if they couldn’t make working conditions better for those at the plantation, or even eventually buy their freedom.
The question is forced when one of Jocasta’s slaves, a man named Rufus, is tortured for attacking a white man. The gaggle of white dudes plans to kill him, but make him suffer first, but Jamie and Claire use their privilege to get him to safety. Claire patches Rufus up, a kindness Ulysses says is no kindness at all. The laws of the land, made by the white men and women who are so desperate to hold onto their wealth and power, are strict in this matter: hand over Rufus to be made an example of or pay the consequences, in this case: the raizing of River Run.
It’s the kind of example that feels all too relevant to today’s current political situation in which gaggles of white men (and, sometimes, women) are becoming more and more comfortable expressing their racist values and acting on them in increasingly extreme ways. It is also the kind of example that lets Claire and Jamie off the hook a bit in making a more complex decision about River Run. They don’t have to be the bad guys in this situation because there are far more extreme racists ready to take on that role.
Instead, Claire and Jamie comfortably and complicatedly and unproblematically occupy the white savior position, a role that, in this episode, results in Claire killing Rufus with some poison tea to spare him the pain and trauma of being beat and lynched by the mob outside. It’s a great dramatic moment for the show, and one that does a good job trapping Claire and Jamie into it, but I would have liked to see the show challenge Claire and Jamie a bit more.
How did Rufus feel about the mercy killing? I don’t know. Because Claire and Jamie never asked him, a glaring flaw in an episode that is trying to make us empathize with Claire and Jamie’s plight as white people who some, but not unlimited power, but never goes to much trouble creating any real black characters. Outlander wants us to believe that Claire cares about the sin of slavery and the plight of the slaves in Jocasta’s “possession,” but the show doesn’t care about those characters enough to give them any real plot or character. Instead, they are background, allowed to tell their stories how and when Claire’s narrative calls for it, and never so much that those stories or voices call Claire out on anything.
She is guilty, yes. She is torn, of course. But that’s not enough anymore. It never was; we’re just getting better at talking about it in mainstream discourse.
The events leave Claire and Jamie knowing that they can’t live in River Run. They turn down Jocasta’s offer, pack their bags, and set off to make a home for their own, free from the horrors of slavery. Unlike the slaves themselves, they have the privilege of ignoring this harsh reality of the times. As someone with white privilege, I can relate to this experience, and I do think there is value in telling this kind of story: one that looks at the complications and limits of relative power. I just don’t think Outlander was well-equipped or totally committed to telling that story, especially in the space of only one episode.
This episode left me with a lot of complicated emotions—about the struggles of adaptation, about the hard limits of telling a story about slavery that centers white characters. Outlander never feels more like the adaptation of a 15-year-old book series than it does in episodes like this one, but it’s not the book’s fault that this show falls short on dealing with issues of race, colonialism, and whiteness again and again. Adaptations need to succeed and/or fail on their own merits. Right now, it is the Outlander TV show that needs to do better.