This Outlander review contains spoilers. The episode has been released early exclusively to Starz subscribers on the Starz app and Starz On Demand. It will air on Starz on Sunday at 8pm ET.
Outlander Season 5, Episode 1
“The Fiery Cross” kicks off Season 5 by successfully building the contrast between settled family life on Frasers’ Ridge and the troubles of colonial politics just beyond the ridge, threatening the peace of mind for the characters as we head into Season 5. The episode succeeds in resetting the narrative from the chaotic and uneven Season 4 finale, which overemphasised action sequences and didn’t develop characters enough.
This episode’s scenes focus on establishing each character’s arc in effective ways. Stephen Woolfenden, who also directed the Season 4 finale, is back and key to the success of the episode. His directing style brings the blocking and staging of a big-budget movie onto the small screen. Woolfenden uses closeups to deliver the intimacy key to the most romantic scenes from the episode while not taking away the scope from the crowd scenes on the Ridge.
Brianna and Roger’s wedding largely avoids heavy parallels to Jamie and Claire’s Season 1 wedding. The set design and the bright scenery of Frasier’s Ridge is completely different from the dark aesthetic of Castle Leoch. Roger’s anxiety about being a good provider by Colonial American standards and Brianna’s enduring healing from her trauma keep the mood entirely different in sentiment yet still full of love. The costumes incorporate elements, such as the thistle embroidery on Brianna’s dress and the patchwork shoulder on Roger’s frock coat, which would be plausible if the Mackenzies were married in 1960’s America, further creating a distinction from Claire and Jamie’s distinctly 18th century ceremony.
Little moments in the dialogue also go a long way toward establishing a contrasting mood: Jamie and others call out Roger’s Presbyterianism as “heresy.” The wedding reception scenes focus on the Ridge residents, and the extended family gives the supporting cast plenty of time in the spotlight. Fergus and Marsali provide absolutely delightful comic relief missing from the earlier wedding. This appears to be a move calculated towards appeasing the viewers who actively despise Brianna and Roger rather than a decision to give them their own trajectory. This decision during this episode was a good choice but it may backfire later on in the season if their entire book timeline is altered.
The L.O.V.E. montage, which features so many of the show’s couples, risks splitting the audience attention and character focus but it pays off. Claire and Jamie fans are reassured that their enduring love is what the entire plot revolves around, for better and worse. Bree and Roger’s wedding night has an element of tension not seen in Claire and Jamie’s own wedding night. Fergus and Marsali are growing their family while Jocasta and Murtagh are finally admitting there’s more than mutual admiration between them. No matter what ‘ship is your fave on Outlander this scene makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Managing this complicated sequence is another credit to the cast and Woolfenden’s directing.
Along with giving Roger a romantic streak, showrunner Matthew B. Roberts also presses the reset button on Roger’s problematic characterization from earlier seasons. His arc in this episode sets the stage for addressing critiques from book readers about inconsistent characterization and show-only viewers who want to punch him through the screen last season. Some may argue it’s necessary to see the process of progress more explicitly on screen, but there may be more scenes along those lines later on. The question of if Roger deserves redemption unfortunately cannot be answered until we see Roger being forced to make tough choices later on in the season.
Well before Jocasta dropped the bombshell that she changed her mind on leaving Jemmy all of her money, Roger in this episode is actively committing to be a better man for Bree and Jemmy. He finally claims Jemmy as his own, finally laying to rest the worst part of his actions last season. In addition, he promises to be Jamie’s right hand man when the time comes for battle. He is showing that he has earned Brianna’s love and trust. As someone who spent most of last season despising Roger, all of these developments are a welcome change.
Governor Tryon interrupting the festivities to order Jamie to find and arrest Murtagh, a reminder of the stakes first set in the final moments of the Season 4 finale, is a perfect setup for the main conflict of the season. Not only does this reveal make the opening flashback to Murtagh swearing to protect young Jamie an extra punch to the gut, it makes the viewers rightfully fear that Murtagh’s days are numbered. This plot is the one element not even the book readers can predict and it’s the one that will keep fans invested in Jamie’s plot.
On the other hand, Bree overhearing Lord John Grey and Jamie discussing how Stephen Bonnet has been seen in the county completely disrupts the flow of the story. While Sophie Skelton continues to elicit deep empathy from fans with her realistic portrayal of PTSD, flashbacks to the most visually disturbing parts of that incident are salt on the wounds of those viewers who believe Outlander relies too much on rape storylines.
In addition, dropping this reveal turns focus away from the mounting political tensions, as Bonnet has no affiliation with the Regulators. It would have been more impactful and less triggering for viewers to see Jamie having to pretend to Bree that he didn’t just hear bad news. (Can’t Bree have a break from the trauma?!) This reveal would have been better placed in a later episode, when it could be more intentionally explored, with the focus of suspense for this episode staying on the Murtagh situation.
Another element that has strong negative potential is the use of the Fiery Cross itself in the narrative. Jamie’s speech makes it clear the tradition of the Fiery Cross was borne from Highland chiefs rallying their men for battle, but the show so far has not acknowledged how racially-problematic this tradition is. The KKK co-opted this and other Scottish clan rituals in order to terrorize African-Americans and other minorities in North Carolina and elsewhere. Redesigning the cross to include the Celtic circle isn’t going to be enough to satisfy concerned viewers of color. The use of the cross in future episodes will be worth keeping an eye on.
In general, “The Fiery Cross” successfully avoids the pitfalls of the Season 4 finale. No matter which character is your favorite, there is an iconic moment for you to enjoy. The Fiery Cross, the book this season is based on, is considered the densest of the series, so the writers have a difficult road ahead. Will they be able to successfully balance all of the characters and storylines, maintaining compelling developments for each character? We’ll have to wait and see.
I liked Brianna’s wedding dress but Claire’s gown has a confusing shape not consistent at all with 1770’s styles. This is the first season without Terry Dresbach as costume designer so it will be interesting to track how the new designer sticks or deviates from era accurate fashion.
Outlander Season 5 airs on Starz Sundays at 8pm ET. Find out more about the season here.
Amanda-Rae Prescott is a long time Outlander fan, period drama enthusiast and cosplayer. Her previous season Outlander commentary can be found at Blacklanderz and Nerdeek Life. When she’s not live-tweeting Masterpiece shows or attending Doctor Who conventions, she is a social media manager for a major news organization. Her Twitter page is @amandarprescott.