Warning: This Outlander review contains spoilers.
“The Ballad of Roger Mac” may initially lead people to believe they’re in for an hour of Roger singing folk songs, but the battle against the Regulators steals the thunder. This fakeout, combined with some rich symbolism surrounding Jamie’s faith, is the ideal setup for one of the most tragic moments in Outlander so far. Governor Tryon’s militia and professional Redcoat soldiers really did meet the Regulator forces at Alamance Creek in 1771. The episode delivers not only a faithful to history reenactment of the battle but also plenty of surprises and tears for the audience.
The very first scene shows Roger fearful for the battle, but Jamie is established as the true focus of the episode. We see his extended reflection on turning 50, and how that means living longer than his father. Claire’s 18th-century remix of Marilyn Monroe’s birthday wishes to President Kennedy gives a humorous touch, as well as a reminder of the strength he draws from their marriage. The Celtic prayers he offers to Dougal’s spirit represents the last time he fought on the opposite side of his family, as Jamie carries the burden of trying to protect his militia men and the Highlanders on the other side of the woods.
Meanwhile, Bree figures out the significance of Alamance Creek in the Revolutionary War timeline. Although the Regulators lose this battle, they end up winning the eventual war between the American colonists and the crown over taxation. Bree’s dramatic ride across the fields sets in motion the true meaning of Roger’s ballad: the warning to Murtagh and the rest of the Regulators that they are going to lose the battle. The first stanza in the song of warning actually comes from Governor Tryon himself, asking for surrender of the Regulator leaders to avoid the battle. Roger believes he can convince Murtagh to give up, leading him to hide his militia affiliation and blend into the Regulator camp.
Roger finds Murtagh more resolute than ever in the Regulator cause. He can’t forget all of the harm Tryon’s army has caused. Murtagh is also too honorable to slip away while the men become cannon fodder. The only person who listens to Roger’s warning ballad is his ancestor Morag Mackenzie.
For viewers who did not read the books, this seems to be the wrong time to pick up a thread from Season 4, but Roger saving Morag on the Gloriana in the novel plays a role in Roger’s eventual 18th century career decision. Buck believes Roger is up to no good—a wife stealer and Regulator traitor. His beating turns Roger’s ballad into one of silence.
Throughout the scenes of the Regulators preparing for battle and the views of Governor Tryon’s camp, Stephen Woolfenden’s direction seamlessly captures the descent from organized military tactics to all-out guerilla warfare. The scene begins with wide shots of the militia formations. As the militia and Redcoats advance, the camera and staging moves to closeups and focus on hand to hand combat. In the chaos, the audience fears for their favorite characters as you see Regulators crushing Redcoat skulls, but not specific faces. Most importantly, the wooded forest in the afternoon light elicits a very different mood from Culloden’s open fields: the Regulators desperation and deprivation of weapons and military education can be seen every time one pops out from under a bush. Woolfenden’s cinematic approach, where the camera alternates between wide lens shots and closeups on one or a small group of actors, is one of the many reasons this is the best episode of the season.
Along with the cinematography, the costume details in this episode deliver historical details about the battle of Alamance Creek. The yellow cockades on the militia members really were used during the Revolution to indicate which side non-professional troops were fighting on. Jamie’s redcoat, which seems sacrilegious, represents how often only the officer class on either side wore official uniforms. Jamie, of course, resents every second of the supposed authority the uniform confers.
The weakest subplot in the episode is easily forgiven as it eventually reconciles the book and show canon. Isaiah Morton returns to the militia with the Brown family, ready to fight him for “living in sin” with Alicia. Jamie coaches Isaiah on how to be an effective soldier. Of course that promise turns out to be for naught, as someone shoots Morton at close range during the battle. One of the Brown men smash the penicillin needle Claire uses in retaliation for her attempts to heal Morton’s injury. In the books, Claire loses the needles during the trip to Jamaica. The somewhat sloppy resolution to “The Company We Keep” delivers a heartbreaking twist for the audience, as Isaiah Morton cluelessly fires the shot that hits Murtagh.
Duncan Lacroix made Murtagh into an enduring fan favorite and his last scene on the show was wonderfully poignant. Murtagh falls into Jamie’s arms after he is shot, a figurative mirror to the first scene in Season 5, which flashed back to Jamie’s childhood. Murtagh survives Culloden only to pass away on Claire’s operating table. Adding to the drama is the fact that not only did Jamie train Morton to kill Murtagh, his decision also possibly cut off a cure for his injuries as the penicillin was destroyed as a direct result of Morton’s involvement in the battle. Jamie’s downward spiral into guilt and PTSD is wonderfully portrayed by Sam Heughan. Even though many viewers likely predicted Murtagh’s death, they share in Jamie’s pain. The long-awaited resignation speech turned rant at Governor Tryon is another hint that the usually stoic Jamie is falling apart, devastated by the loss of the greatest hero in his life. Jamie throws the uniform on the ground, signaling to the audience and to Tryon he will always be a Highlander.
“The Battle of Roger Mac”’ ends with scenes guaranteed to sicken viewers’ stomachs. Tryon’s troops ignore Jamie’s call for taking prisoners and jump right ahead to brutally executing the Regulators. Redcoat horsemen dragging prisoners to their deaths was true to history. Roger is confused for a Regulator in the aftermath and is sentenced without trial to hanging. The Regulators silence him and Tryon makes sure to injure his vocal cords. Will Claire be able to heal Roger without her penicillin?
Morag’s husband, Buck Mackenzie, is sneakily played by Graham Mackenzie, a dual purpose easter egg and genealogy link. Buck is Dougal’s son in the books.