This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 5 Episode 3
“Free Will” takes Jamie and Claire beyond the Ridge to rally the able-bodied men in the county to join the militia. Along the way, the Frasiers end up on the television equivalent of a side quest in a video game. This side plot is a huge risk in terms of keeping non-book readers invested but the trauma of the Beardsley brothers and Fanny, in particular, improves the relevance of the plot.
Josiah Beardsley, for viewers who did not read the book, can be seen as a potential time-waster in between militia and Regulators developments, but this episode makes a few small changes to bring out the history of the colonial underclass in order to make non-book readers invested in his plotline. In this episode, we learn that Josiah has a twin brother, Keziah, and both of them were orphans who were sold into 30 years of indentured servitude to Mr. Beardsley to cover the costs of immigration to North Carolina. Keziah is now deaf due to beatings and both were branded thieves for stealing cheese and other provisions to eat. Jamie agrees to buy out their indenture terms so they can remain free members of the militia and tenants.
If these scenes are reminding you of any version of Les Miserables, you’re not alone. Part of the reason? The terror in Josiah’s eyes as he recounts the abuse. The costuming department did a great job with Keziah’s raggedy shirt and his makeup. You are completely convinced Jamie’s protection is the only thing saving them from poverty. The Beardsley’s aren’t that far off from the historical record. Indentured servants in colonial America were usually poor Scottish, Irish, or English people who wanted to eventually own their own land or work in a trade. If they survived their term of indenture of 7-30 years depending on age, they were granted money, a few acres or tools to start in the same business depending on what their master did. Indentured minors were a common practice in areas with no orphanages.
Jamie and Claire discover there’s much more to the Beardsley’s past when they arrive at their master’s homestead. At this point, the episode starts to give off vibes of becoming a spin-off in the American Horror Story anthology. The pacing slows down even further but it benefits the unfolding of the mystery around them. Aged wood on the outside disguises the mold and dirt on the inside. Claire covers her nose as she smells something incredibly rancid. Mrs. Fanny Beardsley at first is defiant in denying she knows where the indenture bond papers are, but the Fraiser’s questions wear her down.
As Fanny relates what happens, there’s a distinct call back to last week’s morality debate. Like the Beardsley brothers, she was sold into marriage by her father in Baltimore. She corroborates the boys’ stories of beatings with her own. Mr. Beardsley developed a stroke (what they called apoplexy back then) after chasing her the month before. She says that his other four spouses are buried in the backyard because he killed them all after intense physical and psychological abuse.
Fanny’s revenge was to leave him in the attic with sores, burns, and slurred speech. There’s a question of reporting her to the authorities over the torture and also the question of if Mr. Beardsley can be helped or if he is too close to death to be treated. On top of the issue of Mr. Beardsley’s treatment, Fanny goes into labor and when the little girl is born, Claire realizes the baby’s skin tone indicates the father is black. This fact makes an already sickly Mr. Beardsley even worse as he has been attempting to father a child with Fanny, and his other wives before that. The ethics of cheating during an abusive relationship as well as the dual shame of racism and sex outside of marriage leave Fanny with a tough decision to make.
Bronwyn James as the emotionally-scarred Fanny Beardsley is the clear scene-stealer in this episode. If you’re scratching your head wondering if you’ve seen her before, you may have seen her as Fanny in Harlots (ha!), The ABC Murders miniseries on Amazon Prime, and Wild Bill. She switches from hardscrabble and vengeful to a woman struggling with trauma. Her development in a short space of time from vengeful wife to PTSD suffer to postpartum depression after birth is incredible. All of her expressions and her stances completely convince the viewer that she was waiting for someone to save her from her misery. Spousal abuse in colonial America is an issue rarely touched upon by other productions, and Outlander gets credit for once in this area by only describing the violence with dialogue.
The other standout element in this episode is the incredible set design by John Gary Steele and the special effects. Making a set look like an absolute disaster takes a lot of careful planning. Not only can the goats not get injured, the place still has to be safe for the actors to walk through. The blood and grime dripping from the ceiling and the other elements completely convince the audience that all of the Beardsleys are trapped in hell on earth. All of these details show the audience that mistreatment as an indentured servant left people with little recourse besides running away or murder. Exposure to weather extremes, untreated injuries, stress, and disease could also easily kill an indentured servant. All of these details come through in these scenes.
Jamie spares Claire the burden and asks Mr. Beardsley if he agrees to euthanasia. Fanny chooses to run away and leave the baby and the indenture bond papers behind. The symbolism of hundreds of blackbirds flying above is fantastic cinematography as well and a testament to the end of Mr. Beardsley’s profoundly evil life. Although this happens off-screen the viewer is left satisfied the brothers will also have happier lives ahead of them.
Although this episode touches on some very important issues such as poverty and psychological abuse, it is difficult for show-only viewers to stay invested in the Beardsley’s plotline long term. It may not be until the end of the season that Josiah and Keziah’s role on Frasier’s Ridge makes more sense. For those who have read the books, this episode will leave fans satisfied as the show has streamlined the introduction of the Beardsley’s as prominent secondary characters. The future events in the brother’s plotline also have the potential for more controversy. For viewers who aren’t interested in this plot, there’s solace in watching Jamie and Claire work together to unravel the mystery.
There’s also one more piece of the Bonnet puzzle laid while Roger successfully convinces a widow to sign her teenage sons into the militia. There’s also a small thread about Marsali being left in charge of the penicillin experiment although the notes for it may have been recycled for the recruitment ad.
The end of the episode leaves viewers with an open-ended question about Fanny’s child. Will Claire and Jamie let a couple on the Ridge adopt the baby? Could Fanny or the baby’s father come back? Since the baby is biracial, what kind of life could she lead in a society where she could be sold into slavery? Although many viewers would choose to see more about the Regulators, their favorite couples, or the medical experiments in the next episode, these questions could lead the show to touch upon more rarely discussed colonial history.