This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 5 Episode 8
“Famous Last Words” may feel like a letdown from the height of the season, but this episode gives the characters most impacted by the battle time to mourn and to heal following last week’s gutting episode. The return of a long-forgotten plot thread (Young Ian’s departure last season to go live with the Mohawk people) not only sets up future conflicts but also contributes to the deep introspection of the episode, as Roger finds someone he can confide in about the trauma he has suffered.
PTSD or, as Bree calls it, shell shock, is a recurring theme in Outlander‘s plot. The challenge for this Season 5 episode is to present flashbacks and triggers in a way that is different from how earlier episodes have handled the sensitive and difficult-to-depict experience. Using a black-and-white silent movie (and tying it to Roger and Bree’s 20th century date) as a way to tie together Roger’s physical injuries, his mental state of entrapment, and how much he values his singing, is a brilliant structure on which to rest the whole episode.
Viewers who may be stuck on the juxtaposition of 1920s Hollywood and death would do well to remember that this isn’t the first time the time-traveling characters have used modern pop culture references to relay emotions. Also, these visual effects are designed to help people who have never read the books, which have an interiority that the visual medium is perhaps less equipped for.
This silent nightmare might have been completely unbelievable if it wasn’t for Stephen Woolfenden’s direction and the physicality of Richard Rankin’s (Roger) performance. Some fans may want to dismiss these scenes as a gimmick, but this is an absolute insult to the painstaking technical work which went into the episode. Staging for silent film goes against everything most industry professionals are used to.
Some of this work can be seen in the previous episode, as it is highly likely all of the hanging shots were filmed at the same time. During this episode, the audience sees behind the burlap bag and can see Roger’s pained eyes and his labored breathing. Both of these elements are key to making even the most devoted Roger critic feel empathy towards his plight.
Three months following the traumatic events, Roger still can’t speak or sing despite Claire’s immediate medical attention. The moments of hanging play constantly in his head. Even minor things, such as Marsali jokingly playing with tarot cards, lead to nightmares. In earlier episodes, Bree’s flashbacks appeared quite gratuitous, but this episode is clearly the payoff for those earlier scenes. Her speech to Roger about fighting for their family may appear border on selfishness, but Roger needs a reminder of what he values most in life.
Sophie Skelton’s best scenes often come when she can tap into Bree’s pain, and this episode proves it. Bree also knows that her struggle out of the darkness was made slightly harder because she didn’t totally believe Roger had the same level of faith in her as she does in him. In the same way that Jemmy crying snapped Bree out of Bonnet flashbacks, Roger first’s words are telling Jemmy not to touch the hot pan on the fire.
Although Bree does her best to try to help Roger, a surprise cameo from past seasons reappears to provide the therapy he really needs. Ian surprises Jamie and Claire, with a tattooed face and a historically-accurate mohawk, while they’re babysitting Jemmy. His appearance in the woods may have been the reason why the show decided to add an air of mystery around this episode.
Outlander has had multiple characters undergo similar experiences at different points in their lives before, but rarely in the same episode. Young Ian’s return is marked by a severe unease for British colonial life and the depression he tries to mask, but conversations with Jamie and Marsali uncover pieces of his past with the Mohawk. Jamie suggests Young Ian help assist Roger in surveying the land Governor Tryon gave as compensation for Roger’s injury.
Roger and Ian’s communication as they measure the terrain starts with strained, mutual hypocrisy but eventually leads to mutual therapy. Young Ian slowly opens up while Roger begins to speak again in a strained voice. Roger finds a steep cliff and contemplates jumping because he can’t stop replaying the memories. Young Ian stops him and Roger returns the favor by stopping Ian from boiling up Claire’s hemlock.
Both characters open up about their current mental ordeal, but Ian’s story clearly has more detail that will be explored in future episodes. So far, he has revealed a severe case of culture shock, a vague recollection of war, and that he lost a wife to death or forced separation. Ian’s confessions are enough of a reminder for Roger that seeing Bree in his mind was what led him to keep breathing. This thought process breaks the figurative reel replay.
The weakness in this episode is not so much in folding Ian back into the story but in a lack of flashbacks that show the precise moments that distress Ian. So far, Season 5 has largely avoided depicting any indigenous people, a contrast not only to history but also to the novels. Whether this is due to time/budget constraints or a larger avoidance of racial issues, this lack of detail means the current world of the show falls somewhat flat. Jocasta’s memorial for Murtagh, although compelling in expression, once again brings up the unspoken and repeated avoidance of slavery this season.
Roger returns to Bree and Jemmy a changed man but one who refuses to be silenced. “Famous Last Words” leaves viewers with a partial roadmap for the rest of the season. Will Ian settle on the ridge, camp out on Roger’s backcountry claim or will he return to the Mohawk? Will Roger finally settle on an 18th century occupation? Perhaps most urgently, when will Bonnet strike? With several episodes left before the season finale, Bree, Roger, and Jemmy may have a little more time before their lives are upended yet again.
- This may be a tough watch for fans who have a history of severe depression or suicidal thoughts, however, completely sidestepping these issues would have made little narrative sense, given the cliffhanger. Unfortunately, there was not an advance warning on these triggering themes.
- The cold open brings us back to the 20th century, and sees Bree sitting in one of Roger’s university classes before their date (a silent film marathon). This feels like a scene that should have been in Seasons 3 or 4. Fans who didn’t read the novels rarely get a glimpse into Roger and Bree’s earlier days, but there is an important hint of what’s to come.
- Some fans of the book are angry Jemmy in this episode now has blonde hair instead of red hair like Bree and Jamie in the books. Child actors frequently age quickly out of the role or they have to be replaced because they’re not able to follow blocking. Until the cast and crew say they changed Jemmy to be blonde on purpose to look more like Bonnet, this is one more instance of fandom reading too much into things.
- Some fans may question why Young Ian had an extended cameo in this Roger-centric episode. Young Ian’s journey with the Mohawks takes place over months, even years in the book timeline, and is simultaneous to the main timeline. All of these chapters could be their own miniseries if filmed linear fashion.
- The seed for Ian’s cameo were planted in the cold open when there was a quick mention of burying the hatchet.