This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 4 Episode 4
Outlander has always been at its best when it embraces the emotion and consequence of its time travel structure. This is why, after an uneven start to Season 4, “Common Ground” is a return to form for the prestige TV show—probably at least partially because it avoids casting Jamie and Claire as white saviors for a hot second.
Like many of the best episodes of Outlander, “Common Ground” takes place partially in the 20th century—specifically, in 1971—and partially in the far past—specifically, the late 1760s. The juxtaposition, as well as the dramatic irony that eventually comes with Roger’s realization that Claire and Jamie are doomed, makes for a riveting, emotionally-complex episode that works in both time periods.
In the 18th century, Claire and Jamie have mostly untangled themselves from the clutches of Colonial rule, or at least superficially, as they themselves represent Colonial rule in many ways, especially to the native people who live in the area. When Jamie signs a contract getting 10,000 acres in exchange for the promise of settling the land with as many reputable folks (read: white, loyal to the crown) as possible, he, Claire, and Ian set out to begin building their home on Fraser Ridge.
It’s not easy. Building something out of nothing in the middle of the wilderness never is, but the family takes on the challenge with joy, a sense of purpose, and free from the terrible factors that have defined their respective existences for so long. They have one another and their freedom and that is more than enough, even if they have to work hard to survive.
It’s all complicated when the a group of local Cherokee ride up, understandable suspicious of the group of white people who are currently planting stakes that represent a claim to the English rulers who have deemed the land available throughout the countryside. The several interactions the Frasers have with the local Cherokee are tense, weapons always at the ready, but also defined by a desire on both sides not to have this whole thing erupt into violence. Of course, the two sides don’t know that of the other, separated by both language and cultural barriers.
Jamie goes to John Quincy Myers, a local mountain man they first met at Jocasta’s who has a relationship with the local Cherokee, for advice. Myers is more than willing to help, not only offering to gift some of his tobacco to the tribe as a peace offering on behalf of the Frasers, but also giving Jamie, Claire, and Ian some meat when theirs is taken by what appears to be a bear roaming the woods.
The peace offering seemingly doesn’t have a chance to take place as, in a twist this non-book-reader, the bear is not actually a bear, but rather a Cherokee man exiled from his tribe after he raped his partner. Driven crazy by the isolation, the man took on the fur and claws of a bear and began to terrorize the countryside. His latest victim is Myers, who comes to Jamie and Claire after he is attacked. If not for Claire’s medical knowledge and care, he surely would have died.
Jamie kills the man masquerading as a bear in a legitimately frightening sequence (a man who aims to murder is much scarier than a bear) and drags his corpse to the Cherokee encampment, which, frankly, is a bold move considering the dude used to be one of the Cherokee and Jamie doesn’t know the story before he chats with the Cherokee about it and we learn of the now dead man’s backstory.
Lucky for the Frasers, the tribe sees Jamie’s slaying of the man as a service: they didn’t feel about to kill this man, but Jamie could and did, ridding the countryside of the problem. I would have liked to see the Frasers have to work a bit harder to comminicate with, understand, and learn from the Cherokee, but, given Outlander’s track record of representing marginalized peoples, maybe it’s for the best they kept things relatively simple. Still, I’d love to read some reaction from indigenous writers, so if anyone knows of any, please link in the comments below or come find me on Twitter!
While Jamie and Claire were making it work in 18th century North Carolina, Roger was sulking in 1971 Oxford. Following Brianna’s decision not to accept his proposal in the previous episode (I didn’t get to review that episode, but I had some very strong, disappointing feelings surrounding Roger’s reaction), Roger is sulking back in his ivory tower. When he opens up the book Bree gifted him about early Scottish settlers in North Carolina and finds evidence that her parents settled Fraser Ridge, he calls Bree to assure her that her mother found Jamie.
It’s a touching scene, and I wish we could have lingered a bit more with Bree to see just how much this confirmation affected her (but perhaps we will get that in a future episode?). Still, the reminder of how much Roger and Bree have been through is not enough to bridge the hurt feelings and difference in values that still exist between Roger and Bree. Although they both obviously care for and miss one another, they hang up the phone in a very final way, neither willing to take a step towards reconciliation.
It’s very possible that Roger and Bree might have moved on with their lives separate from one another if not for something Roger discovers: Fiona shows him historical records claiming that Jamie and Claire will die in a fire sometime during the 1770s. They may never live to see America become a country, Roger muses outloud, which is such a time traveler thing to say. He wavers about whether or not to tell Bree and, earning some viewer points back from this critic, eventually decides to do so.
There’s nothing more annoying than when a character (usually a man) chooses not to tell another character (usually a woman) something they deserve to know out of a desire to “protect” them, and I am unbelievably glad Outlander does not fall into this trope that should die a quick, painful death, especially in the age of superhero dominance. Anyhow, Roger doesn’t actually get a chance to clue Bree in as, when he calls her home in Boston, her roommate informs him she left for Scotland weeks ago… to visit her mother.
Oh my god, yes. We’re in for some more time travel! It’s a great way to drop the vital information that Bree plans to or has already traveled back in time. It’s also a great way to keep these two characters together and to force Roger to time travel. To be clear, Roger is under no obligation whatsoever to follow Brianna back in time—that is above and beyond what any relationship should demand—but this is a romance, dammit, and you better believe Roger will do anything for the woman he loves (except listen to her reasoning for not wanting to get married this second and respect her decision, but I digress…)
If Roger doesn’t follow Bree back, she won’t know to warn her parents. Your move, Wakefield, and well-executed, Outlander. This episode leaves us viewers with so many questions, ones that can be answered by the books or by the Wiki page, but feel delightful to experience as part of this TV journey nonetheless: Will Roger choose to follow Bree? Can the timeline even be changed? And, if not, was that historical record correct? What will happen with the Frasers’ relationship with the Cherokee, especially as more settlers under the Frasers’ blessing move onto the land?
That’s only a few of the questions driving this plot forward and reminding us what it feels like when Outlander is firing on all narrative cylinders.
Outlander Season 4 airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz. Stay up-to-date on all things Outlander Season 4 here!