Warning: This contains spoilers.
Claire Fraser just might be the worst person ever. Not only is she happy to change the entire history of the world just to save her lover, she’s also willing to ruin a friend’s love life to boot, just to save the life of her other bloke from the future.
Claire’s likeability has often been a challenge for Ron D. Moore’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novels – while on the page, interior monologues can help bring to life the internal conflicts driving these crazed, self-centred decisions, on the screen, we’re treated to unsubtle voice-overs spelling stuff out. And often, that’s not enough stuff that need to be – Untimely Resurrection, for example, begins with what is effectively a recap of Episode 4’s final act, telling us what we’ve already soon for little reason at all. At best, it’s sloppy. At worst, it suggests the show doesn’t trust its audience to remember things that happened only a week ago.
It’s not the first time Outlander has been guilty of less-than-impressive writing, particularly when it comes to Claire’s speech (whether to us, or to other people), but fortunately, Caitriona Balfe has been the one delivering it – she manages to make Mrs. Fraser sympathetic when she needs to be and appallingly selfish when that’s required too. Here, the show smartly follows her lead, allowing us the distance to judge her actions.
“Mary is fortunate to have a friend so caring,” Alex Randall tells Claire, with the kind of timid niceness that marks him out as a far better man than his brother, Black Jack. Claire smiles, then promptly convinces him that he’s too sick to look after Mary, so he can break it off – paving the way for Jonathan Randall to shack up with Mary and, eventually, birth a line of descendants that leads to Claire’s future hubby, Frank.
It’s a despicable thing to do, after both Rosie Day’s Mary and Laurence Dobiesz’s have won us over with the reveal of the depth of their affection for one other, always presented with that same, shy sentiment.
The casting once again shines as we jump back to the world’s least shy person: Andrew Gower’s Prince Charles. Not since George Osborne has there been someone so creepily boy-faced and so unnervingly prone to staring into thin air with a look of glee. In this episode, he’s happier than ever, as he tells Jamie about his new plan with Comte St. Germain, who will team up with him to get some wine for Jamie to flog. The plan? Sell the booze, invest the profits in the revolution and prove to the king that he’s a serious cause worth backing.
Sam Heughan is even better in these scenes, as he pretends to be loyal and excited, but interrupts every word with a despairing or suspicious glance from increasingly boggled eyes. If he was speaking French at the same time, our lives would be complete. Simon Callow, too, gets another chance to strut his entertainingly snobby stuff as Sandringham bumps into Claire at Versailles – as you do – and wastes no time in describing Charles as an “arse”. The Frasers’ dinner to discredit the prince wasn’t a total waste of time, then.
Again, it’s a smart piece of positioning from the programme, which is getting better at knowing which side of the fence to put us and when (compare it Season 1, when we were placed on Jamie’s side, while he decided to punish Claire for being disobedient). And who should walk into this nicely composed chess board than Black Jack himself. Tobias Menzies is as loathsome as ever, but constrained by social etiquette from doing anything truly foul – instead, he finds himself being mocked by King Louis, who turns up at the same time, promptly mocking Randall’s accent, outfit and desire to free his brother, Alex, from prison. Here, the show allows us to share in Louis’ laughter, and enjoy the smug silence from Jamie and Claire, as they watch Menzies’ Randall squirm.
When it comes to Randall’s private reunion with our couple, though, the scriptwriters make sure they’re kept apart – a subtle reinforcement of how big the gap between Jamie and Claire has become, despite the sweet gift from Jamie of some apostle spoons as a christening gift (fetched from hissister) to Claire. And so we see one conversation, as Black Jack waffles on about fate and destiny with a worryingly happy look on his face – and we’re not party to what’s said between Jamie and Jack, as they briefly chat in the distance, while Claire looks on, worried.
The result is a one-two punch of revelations, not just to us but to each partner in the show’s central relationship – Claire learns that Jamie has challenged Randall to a duel, but then Jamie discovers that Claire has accused Randall of raping Mary and attacking her, getting him locked up in the Bastille for long enough to talk Jamie out of the fight. Sure enough, she gets Jamie to promise to let Randall live for one year longer, for the sake of Frank’s future family line, but all is not well in Chez Fraser. “Do not touch me,” he snaps, when she goes to hug him. Yep, Claire Fraser might be the worst person in the world. To Outlander’s credit, though, it’s not afraid to admit it.
Outlander Season 2 is available to watch in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Sunday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.
Spoilers and further consideration
– We’ve finally got an explanation for “La Dame Blance” – it’s a rumour Jamie made up in the Paris brothels, pretending Claire’s a witch so that the women don’t keep on trying to woo him. Charles has heard of it, and throws it back in Jamie’s face, after he questions the Comte’s reputation. In a society where face and status is so important, just how much will that joke come back to bite our couple?