Outlander – Season 4 Episode 11
“If Not for Hope”
Outlander splits up the characters between the search for Roger and Brianna dealing with Jocasta’s attempts to find her a husband.
There seems to be two types of Outlander episode at this point. The first -and most effective- is the character driven outings that let plot progression take a back seat to meaningful relationship building with the world building around those characters. Naturally the other episode type is one that compromises those characters to move plot forward. This show is at its worst when it tries to be about something. Look no further than the handling of slavery earlier this season for a clear example of that.
This episode acts as something of a hybrid of the two and the distinct elements feel as if they are in opposition to one another. The main focus is on Brianna and her stay at River Run where Jocasta is fixated on finding her a husband. Being back at River Run is problematic in itself as the slavery Elephant in the room begs to be addressed. Brianna problematically seems to simply go along with it and not think about the fact that those who serve her are slaves owned by Jocasta. Whether they are treated well or not is irrelevant as the issue very much exists and Brianna is perpetuating it by doing absolutely nothing to oppose it.
Of course there is an attempt to absolve her of accountability by showing her being kind to Phaedra while also basically ordering her to pose while Brianna draws her. Phaedra is clearly somewhat afraid that there will be consequences if she doesn’t complete the work expected of her but Brianna is all set to defend her by telling her that she’ll deal with anything that comes of it. It may seem generous but she’s basically taking advantage of her station in life to ensure Phaedra’s owner doesn’t punish her because of something Brianna wanted her to do. Whatever way this is presented it’s still clear that there is no choice in the matter for Phaedra and that is absolutely the problem. It’s hard to truly understand what the intended angle is here though it’s clear that her public admission that she drew Phaedra is meant to be some sort of profound message of tolerance in an intolerant time though it comes across more as rebellious compliance. In terms of the drawing I wonder if this is leading up to Brianna finding her calling.
Brianna’s character is problematic throughout this episode. Exploring her experience of the reality of being a pregnant woman unmarried in that time period is really interesting as it helps to firmly establish just how different things are compared to the time she comes from and having Brianna have to navigate that in some way is a great source of drama. In essence she’s an independent person in a time where female independence was actively discouraged. Her position in this episode is actively contrasted by Jocasta’s story of her grandmother who held out and married for love rather than convenience. For Brianna the story was seen as inspiring but for everyone else it is deemed impractical.
The entire dinner party was orchestrated by Jocasta in order to find Brianna a suitable husband so that her baby is cared for and receives the support it needs. A handfast marriage to a man who may well be dead won’t be enough for acceptance in the eyes of society so Brianna has to deal with the prospect of being little more than a potential property acquisition for a group of men in the market for a new wife. Brianna’s display of intelligence and use of psychology is enough to endear to her to every man in the room and she easily has her pick of husbands but she doesn’t feel comfortable with the loss of agency associated with being married off to a man she knows nothing about. Of those in attendance Gerald Forbes (Billy Boyd) seems the most agreeable with a natural enough bond being created between them but it’s not enough for Brianna to take him as her husband.
Thankfully there is an alternative facilitated by the arrival of Lord John Grey who has been asked by Jamie to look in on Brianna to make sure she’s alright. It’s probably not worth questioning how Jamie managed to get in touch with John so easily given that he can’t exactly pick up the phone. Their shared connection gives Brianna comfort despite her issues with Jamie at this point in time. John represents a link to something familiar and that’s enough to make her feel a little more safe around all the men vying for her attention. The strongest moment between them is when her psychological game clues her into John’s more than platonic interest in Jamie as it shows that Brianna has an ability to read people with a great deal of accuracy.
From here the choices made are nothing short of baffling. Brianna catches John in the act of sex with another man which she sees as leverage to be used against him. She asks him to marry her in order to protect her baby and when he refuses she instantly resorts to blackmail by threatening to report his homosexual behaviour to the relevant officials even though she knows his life will be destroyed by this. This comes out of nowhere and makes Brianna look entirely selfish even if she says that she would never actually carry out her threat. It’s unclear whether she would or not but that’s beside the point as she still tried to manipulate John into doing what she wants by exploiting private information. That’s not the mark of a good person no matter how desperate they may be. It also doesn’t work that they immediately have an open conversation about the hardships in their lives. It all feels rushed and is another example of the unfortunate tendency this show has to shoehorn underdeveloped conflicts into the narrative with very few choices making sense for the characters they belong to.
John ultimately agrees to marry Brianna because he genuinely wants to help her and is motivated by his feelings for Jamie. This renders the blackmail entirely worthless because it doesn’t motivate John in the slightest. It’s admirable to see John bite back against it and refuse to accept Brianna’s behaviour though the implication that he could rape her is a bit much. There are absolutely no consequences to this which just makes it feel like manufactured drama for the sake of itself rather than leading to anything. All it basically does is kill time before the inevitable declaration that they are to be married.
That’s not to say that nothing good comes of this. Brianna gains a different perspective on Jamie from John who tells her a few things about him that give her a better idea of how others see him and the things he does for others. John also hands her a note written by Jamie that will likely contain some words of wisdom that will help her contextualise how she feels. Her current state of animosity towards Jamie is interesting enough and the fact that her mind is being opened is fascinating to see.
The other main plot follows Jamie, Claire and Ian who are on the trail of Roger but are weeks behind him even at a brisk pace. There’s a lot of blame flying around whether it be Claire not telling him what Stephen Bonnet did to Brianna or Jamie impulsively attacking Roger without clarifying his facts first. The blame is almost irrelevant as far as Jamie is concerned as he feels that his actions have irreparably damaged his chances at having a relationship with Brianna because of what she said to him. It seems that he took “go to Hell” almost literally and thinks Brianna would like him to suffer eternal damnation for what he did but Claire is there to offer a more balanced viewpoint. She sees how similar Brianna and Jamie are in terms of temperament and believes that Brianna didn’t really mean what she said as she was reacting emotionally to the situation in the heat of the moment. All Jamie has to do is set things right and give her time then they will be able to concentrate on building a father/daughter connection once again. Moment like this are great and resonate strongly because it takes stock of how the characters have been developed and acts as a further reminder of how strong the Claire/Jamie relationship is.
This works so well because of how complex it is and how much it relies on everything that has been previously established about them as a couple. Claire is angry at Jamie but that doesn’t prevent her from understanding his current emotional state and showing empathy. She forgives him while acknowledging that she isn’t blameless herself considering her secrets played a part in it. There’s even a measure of jealousy over Frank in Jamie’s emotional cocktail because he is Brianna’s father in her eyes. It’s great to watch thanks to the lived in relationship that exists between these characters though it does serve as a reminder of how ill developed the Roger/Brianna connection is and how difficult it is for that relationship to inform the lion’s share of the current stakes.
Jamie’s plan to have Bonnet brought to him in order to kill him hits a snag when Murtagh is caught and recognised right after incapacitating him. Thankfully Bonnet is also wanted for murder so it looks like it’s off to the Hangman’s noose for him. Good news to an extent even if Jamie doesn’t get that revenge he so desperately wants but not so good for Murtagh who finds himself on the wrong side of the law after being caught out in public. The episode doesn’t grant it enough attention to be considered a big problem but it’s clearly setup for something else as is Fergus’ decision not to work with Murtagh against the authorities for the sake of Marsali and his child. He will likely face a choice in the coming episodes that tests his views there.
This episode further shows the writer’s ability to be entirely unaware of how insensitive they can be. Claire makes reference to all of her knowledge of Native American culture coming from movies and acknowledges how skewed that viewpoint would be. The natural progression from this would be for this show to demonstrate a deeper understanding of those cultures and portray them in a way that showcases their complexity. Instead the opposite happens with the Mohawk Tribe having no character of their own with only the perception through the eyes of “our” characters showcasing them. They aren’t robbed of any definable traits beyond brutality and seen entirely as antagonists bereft of any depth. In short, every mistake that Claire warns against is made.
A problematic episode that can’t be saved by pockets of engaging characterisation. The episode chooses not to directly address Brianna’s stance on Slavery but showcases it through her lack of objection to it. The plot surrounding Jocasta’s attempt to fix her up with a husband is interesting enough especially since it allows Brianna to realise how difficult being an unmarried pregnant woman is in this time period compared to her own. The showcase of her intelligence through using her knowledge of psychology makes for engaging scenes and her interactions with Lord John Grey work well enough at first. Her attempt to blackmail him comes out of nowhere, makes Brianna seem selfish and ultimately has no consequence as John’s reasons for agreeing to marry her have nothing to do with this. If it had been cut then the movement of the plot wouldn’t have been affected.
Claire and Jamie’s relationship receives a strong showing by leaning into the complexity of their connection by having Claire be angry with him yet understanding of his feelings and ultimately figuring after acknowledging her share of the blame. This makes for a stark contrast to the Roger/Brianna relationship that informs the stakes despite being nowhere near as well developed. Attention given to the other plots moves the pieces into a place rife for development with Bonnet and Murtagh’s capture as well as Fergus’ refusal to get involved in Murtagh’s anti-government stance for the sake of Marsali and his child. The portrayal of Native Americans through the Mohawk Tribe is really badly done in this episode as they are robbed of any nuance to their culture despite Claire pointing out that their side isn’t represented in fiction. Outlander makes the very mistake it warns against.
- Brianna gaining a different perspective on Jamie through Lord John Grey
- Brianna’s use of her intelligence and psychology
- the showcase of the Claire and Jamie relationship with its complexity intact
- failing to have Brianna take a position on Slavery and having her be complicit through inaction
- Brianna’s attempt to blackmail John coming from nowhere and having no consequences
- the portrayal of the Mohawk Tribe proving rather than countering Claire’s point about Native Americans are presented in fiction
- Brianna and Roger’s underdeveloped connection not being enough to carry the show
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