Outlander – Season 4 Episode 1
“America The Beautiful”
Outlander returns for a fourth season with a change in location, different problems and reflections on the consequences of the previous season.
This show is always at its best in the quieter character driven moments. The characters are so richly developed that any time they spend being introspective is a joy to watch.A lot of big things happened in the finale of last season that weren’t dealt with as such which created a lot of potential for this season.
Claire and Jamie find themselves in North Carolina and bring a lot of emotional baggage with them that starts to be explored here. Claire’s opening voiceover about the significance of circles and the hidden meaning that they hold brings the viewer back into the emotionally philosophical mindset of Outlander as a show. For Claire circles have special significance because she hasn’t lived her life in a linear way chronologically speaking plus the circle of stones that allow her to travel through time has more obvious and literal significance to her.
The circle narration ends with the striking visual of the noose that is due to claim the life of Claire and Jamie’s friend Gavin Hayes (James Allenby-Kirk). Even though this isn’t a direct consequence of anything that has been previously established it establishes that consequences will be a central theme explored in the episode.
Gavin and Jamie’s conversation is the first of a number of strong scenes featuring Jamie in this episode. Gavin’s fate is sealed and there’s nothing that Jamie can do about it so he does what he can to be supportive and make acceptance of the inevitable a little easier. Adding Rum to the equation helps in some ways but Gavin takes a great deal of comfort from knowing that his friend will be there as he makes his journey to the next world. His only request is that his friend’s smiling face is the last thing he sees and Jamie grants that request despite how distressing the situation is.
Jamie as a beacon of support for others carries through the episode with the most effective example being his candid conversation with Ian about sexual assault. Burying Gavin stirs up those painful memories and Jamie recognises what Ian is going through having been there himself. This conversation is excellent because Jamie is open, honest and comforting about his own experiences as well as what it took to begin the healing process. Jamie assures him that there’s nothing to be ashamed of and things like this need to be confronted rather than ignored. It’s a great reminder that Jamie will carry around the emotional scars of that experience for the rest of his life as well as a primer for Ian that he won’t be able to shake this experience while also giving hope that life can go on provided he embrace the support system that he has. Sexual assault plots where a man is the victim are pretty rare so it’s great to see this handled with such sophistication.
This episode also boasts an excellent Claire and Jamie scene where they have a tender conversation alone together in their tent. The claustrophobic setting of the tent keeping the horrors of the outside world at bay establishes it as something of an oasis for them in a turbulent time. Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe both deliver excellent performances as a married couple completely comfortable together. This provides an opportunity for Claire to confide in Jamie about her near death experience and reflect on what she has learned from it. She now sees life as something fragile and fleeting which seems to have opened her mind to a deeper understanding of what she has in live as well as what little she actually needs.
Once again Jamie is the supportive figure who tries to reassure her that there is always hope even in those darkest moments. He recounts the time he thought he had lost her and how he was able to carry on with his life because he never stopped loving her. The basic underlying message is that even if they are apart they will always have each other and that they are unstoppable when they are together. Naturally this conversation ends with passionate lovemaking further cementing how much they mean to one another without making the sex scene itself gratuitous.
The change in setting is providing interesting storytelling possibilities. For one thing America in this time period was a completely different animal in a political sense to Scotland so there’s a lot to unpack here. This episode takes place 8 years before the American Revolution so things are obviously tense and the Frasers are naturally due to be right in the middle of it. Stylistically it’s a lot like season 2 with Jamie positioning himself in the midst of a historic political situation and trying to maneuver his way around it. He is offered land from the British in exchange for his loyalty to the crown which puts him on the losing side of the conflict as Claire explains to him but Jamie doesn’t necessarily fight wars to win them as belief in the cause is more important to him. In this case America will one day be home for his daughter so if he can play his part in making it even slightly better then that helps him feel more connected to Brianna,
Claire’s explanation of the American Dream and what that actually meant for the Native Americans is interesting because it shows that perspective can radically alter how positive something appears. A land where someone can arrive with nothing and rise to great success is all well and good for them but the other side of that is the Native Americans are forced out of their homes, killed and made to live on reservations which is inarguably morally repugnant. Jamie’s take on it summarises it perfectly when he says “a dream for some can be a nightmare for others”. How this will play into the upcoming episodes is unclear but this show will always try to frame Claire and Jamie as having morally upright values so it’s likely they will try to help where possible.
The American Dream happens to come true for Claire and Jamie as they both arrive in America with nothing before finding themselves with enough money to be more than comfortable for the next few years. This is all through the sale of a necklace containing a valuable jewel which changes their circumstances completely. This acts as an example of how easy it can be while still being something that has to be earned as they have to engineer a scenario where the jewel would be noticed. Hard work and good fortune are often hallmarks of the American Dream so this works really well as examples go. It also foreshadows the good luck turning bad in an obvious yet effective way.
The episode falls apart somewhat in the handling of how Claire’s morality is portrayed.. True moral superiority is hard to do without seeming preachy and Claire’s observation about the man she believed to be a slave crosses the line. Slavery is a fact of life in America of this time which means that this show has to address that if it is to embrace this setting. Claire points out that it’s cruel for an elderly black man to spend hours rowing the raft without a break and assumes that he’s being mistreated as a slave. She takes it upon herself to call that out some way into the long journey rather than at the beginning where it would have been more appropriate for her to signal her discomfort.
Claire has also made an incorrect assumption that the man is a slave in full earshot of everyone. It’s a reasonable assumption to make in this time period but she could have handled it more tactfully which would have allowed her to understand the situation rather than falsely accusing the captain of keeping slaves. If she learns from this and applies this in future then this could be a well written character flaw but the execution is lacking as it’s unclear who she means when she assumes that someone must be grateful. Her reaction is almost but not quite an example of white privilege though it isn’t framed as a flaw which makes it stand out.
Consequences come into play in a big way through the end sequence where Stephen Bonnet (Edward Speelers) stages a brutal attack on them. From a purely stylistic outlook this sequence is striking with the sound muted as the song “America The Beautiful” plays over the carnage. It’s a great way to add irony to the lyrics as the reality of Claire and Jamie’s experience of America is pretty much the opposite of the sweeping optimism and grandeur suggested by the song. Stephen Bonnet attacking them was a genuine shock as the episode spends enough time making him trustworthy through the scene where he bonds with Claire after they help him to escape. In this case their kindness was repaid with malice which was unexpected given the setup. As an unexpected moment it works differently and the betrayal cuts deep because Jamie and Claire risked so much to help him. Having him take the wedding ring after establishing how much it means to Claire was especially harrowing as well.
Another thing that lends the end sequence the required shock value is the visuals themselves. A lot of time is spent showing how scenic America can be which combines nicely with the run of good luck Jamie and Claire seem to be having early on. Of course it’s clear that this won’t last forever but there’s a serene tone to much of this episode that makes the attack feel all the more jarring. The scenic beauty takes on a more sinister edge when it’s clear that there are dangers lurking just beneath the surface.
An excellent opening to the season that sets up the new world while dealing with the consequences left over from last season. There are a number of scenes where Jamie is shown to be a beacon of support whether it be helping a friend accept the inevitability of his death with dignity, encouraging Ian to open up about his sexual assault so that he can begin healing or reassuring Claire that together they can face any problem. There’s a lot of sincerity in these scenes with each of them being distinctly memorable and excellently handled in their own right. Claire starts to deal with her near death experience by appreciating what she has in live and coming to the realisation of what she actually needs in life.
The change in setting has provided many storytelling opportunities around the upcoming American Revolution. Claire knows the future but Jamie doesn’t want to avoid the fight just because he knows the side he is being offered to represent will lose. Doing his part to make America a little better is his way of connecting to his daughter. The exploration of the concept of the American Dream as an idea that benefits some and harms others works well as does the realisation of the concept through Jamie and Claire’s good fortune brought on by working to achieve a goal. One thing that could have been handled better in this space was the slavery angle as the execution of this doesn’t paint Claire in a particularly good light. The end sequence was really well done with the muted sounds and song playing to lend some irony to the lyrics. Revealing the attacker to be the man they helped earlier in the episode was a genuine shock as the episode does a great job of framing him as trustworthy but he makes for another example of the dangers lurking beneath the scenic beauty of America.
- the extensive exploration of Jamie as a beacon of support
- Claire and Jamie’s tender quiet moment together
- scenic beauty hiding dangers
- the exploration of the American Dream
- a new setting with new opportunities
- the execution of Claire’s views on slavery being somewhat clumsy
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