Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 4 of Outlander Season 3. Not caught up? Read our reviews here.
Last episode of Outlander’s fourth season left Claire without Frank and Jamie without, well, anyone, as he was led to Helwater by Lord Grey. It was the kind of cliffhanger that made clear the potential for each character’s individual narratives, although the prospect of not seeing our couple together again wasn’t hugely thrilling, especially if it left the show feeling increasingly disjointed. But any fears we might have had are swiftly brushed away by this excellently structured chapter, which manages to find a way to bring the two halves of the narrative together while still letting each breathe.
The answer, as ever, involves a time-jump, as we leap forwards to the late 1960s, where Claire is in Scotland with Brianna and Roger (the son of Rev. Wakefield) – a hugely likely trio whom we first met in the latter stages of Season 2. Brianna, wonderfully, believes her mum’s story of her real father, which helps to bring them closer – and, of course, there’s still that chemistry between her and Roger, as they get closer too.
The Outlander equivalent of the Scooby gang spend their days trying to track Jamie through history, to see whether he survived Culloden – and, lo and behold, they come across James Fraser in a book listing prisoner names. It’s a deft little bit of scripting, because when we head back to Jamie’s post-prison journey, we do so partly from that perspective: Claire might not be there, but we’re carrying her emotional attachment with us.
And so to Scotland we go, and Jamie is now going by the name Alex Mackenzie, a footman on the estate of Helwater, in service to Lord and Lady Dunsany and their daughters, Geneva and Isobel. It turns out to be an estate that lives up to every possible costume drama cliche you could think of, which means lavish costumes, horses and scandals galore – think the French court shenanigans of Season 2, but with fewer wigs.
Shenanigans, as your parents will tell you, are something that belong in the bedroom, and Outlander certainly serves up some bedroom action this episode, although it’s the kind of bedroom action that, in typical Outlander tradition, is troubling and far from simple.
This time, it’s down to Geneva, the demanding daughter of the Helwater estate, who is used to having everything her own way. And so she toys with Jamie, as he accompanies her on her rides, taunting him, bossing him about and getting him to pick her up off the ground, after she pretends to faint. Hannah James is fantastic in the role, just haughty and just playful enough to strike up an entertaining, vaguely disdainful chemistry with Sam Heughan’s strapping Scottish lad – when he realises he’s been tricked during their ride, he dumps her back in the mud so unceremoniously it’s laugh-out-loud funny. For Geneva, it’s a thrilling demonstration of someone doing the rare thing of standing up to her – and, naturally, their sparky interactions are disapproved of heavily by Lord Grey’s brother, Lord Melton, not least because Melton knows who “Alex Mackenzie” really is.
And so when she announces she’s been betrothed to the Earl of Ellesmere, she asks of him a naughty favour: to take her virginity so that she loses her flower to someone who isn’t an old man to whom she’s been promised like a belonging. Well, we say favour: she insists upon it, to the point where she threatens to reverse his parole, and even brings his family into it. And so he agrees, resulting in the kind of consensual sex scene that isn’t 100 per cent consensual. Even as he treats her gently and asks her permission, and she’s clearly enamoured with him, we’re aware that this isn’t the first time that Jamie has been placed in a position of exploitation in the bedroom – it’s faintly uncomfortable, no matter how beautifully presented their intimate congress is or how strong the sense of her liberating herself from society’s confines is.
It’s echoed by a similarly awkward exchange between Jamie and John Grey, as Jamie asks this old friend and former warden to promise to look after his son in exchange for his body – and Grey’s dismayed reaction is telling. There’s something commendable in the way Outlander refuses to paint things in anything fewer than several complex shades of grey, but you wonder how much it’s a chance to continue the series’ treatment of Jamie as a sad figure. (As they lay in bed afterwards, she says she loves him, but he replies with a characteristically downbeat explanation that love is only love when you give your heart to someone else – in case you forgot that he’s still heartbroken and pining for Claire.)
Speaking of the trials of Jamie, there’s the small matter of that son we mentioned. Because yes, Geneva gets pregnant from their encounter – and Jamie, of course, can’t help but be involved, even when Geneva dies in childbirth. It’s entirely ridiculous that the family never seem to guess that Jamie is the boy’s father – it says a lot that this is what strikes as us ludicrous in a series about a time-travelling nurse who falls in love with a man from another century – but let’s just put that to one side and admire the fact that Jamie really isn’t shying away from his duties: when the Earl of Ellesmere tries to kill the boy in anger about his wife’s infidelity, Jamie pops up and, using Lord Dunsany’s pistol, kills him dead to save the child. The family, naturally, accept all this without questions. And, as a bonus, Jamie repeatedly wastes no time in taking his top off.
Fast forward several years and Jamie’s son, William, is now a grown boy, and Jamie is teaching him to ride horses. Lady Dunsany remarks that they spend so much time together that they look alike – and it’s only then that people maybe start to suspect something. And so Jamie heads back home, leaving William with Grey and Isobel, who are going to get hitched and raise Willy as their own. The result is, sex scene aside, a really rather superb hour of period drama, a time-jumping, character-driven tale that that proves Outlander is best when its scale is tiny and its scope huge: in one episode, we become fully engaged in a father-son relationship that spans years, all the while still thinking back to the 1960s, where Claire is trying to track what Jamie did after the prison was closed. Heughan’s performance, Oscar Kennedy’s turn as William and David Berry’s presence all help to build up a convincing slice of Jamie’s ever-complicated life story – a story that, don’t forget, has many more years and miles to go. If they can all be as good as this episode, what a treat that will be.
Season 3 of Outlander is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription.
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