Outlander recap: Is it the American Dream or nightmare?
Sassenachs! The moment you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived — the droughtlander is over, and we find ourselves on stranger shores, America in the 1760s to be precise.
But first, we open on a scene of Native Americans building fires and piles of rocks around a standing stone in North America in 2000 B.C. They dance a tribal dance similar to the one we saw at Samhain in Scotland and in Jamaica as Claire’s voice-over waxes poetic about circles. “For centuries, humans have held an endless fascination with circles, attributing meaning where they are found,” she says. “And I more than most know full well just how a circle can affect one’s life or death.”
From this metaphorical opening, we cut to the colony of North Carolina in 1767. Jamie, Claire, Young Ian, Fergus, Marsali, Lesley, and Hayes have been making their way up the coast from Georgia after washing ashore following the wreck of the Artemis in the season 3 finale. Somewhere along the way, they got into trouble as Hayes is now in prison for murder, moments away from being hanged. Jamie has made plans to create a diversion and free Hayes, but Gavin insists he wants to die for his sins and only requests a swig of whiskey (Jamie’s only got rum, sorry pal). He also asks that Jamie be the last face he looks upon when the hangman pulls the lever.
While visiting Hayes in prison, Jamie also encounters Stephen Bonnet, who asks for a sip of the rum. Jamie honors Gavin’s wishes, but when Gavin dies, Lesley, Jamie, and Gavin’s other associate from Ardsmuir run at the soldiers to try to save their friend. All hell breaks loose and in the confusion, many of the other prisoners waiting for their turn at the noose escape — including one Stephen Bonnet. We already very much don’t like this weaselly little man.
Claire and Jamie are planning to set sail for Scotland in three weeks, but they need to accomplish several things first, including selling one of the gemstones they recovered in the wreck. Lesley wants to grant Hayes a proper burial and send-off. They decide they will bury him in a consecrated graveyard that night under the cover of darkness — and Lesley launches into a Scots mourning song, which the rest of the tavern soon joins in on, revealing to Jamie just how many Scots have made a new home in America.
At night in the cemetery, Ian and Jamie dig a grave for Hayes. But Ian is overcome by the ghosts of his past, imagining Geillis Duncan bathing in blood. He and Jamie have a heart-to-heart about their shared trauma as Jamie urges him to speak about his rape and let the pain out, as Claire taught him to do. Before they can bury Gavin, a ghostly figure rises from the wagon — it’s just Stephen Bonnet stowed away. He requests to help bury his “friend” Hayes and that Jamie and Claire convey him to the river safely past the soldiers so he can make his escape.
“I won’t bother you again, you have my word,” he pledges (which is the most hilarious joke of the entire episode as we shall soon see). Jamie agrees to do it for Gavin’s memory and Claire says she’ll go with them to make things seem less suspicious. They are stopped by soldiers who insist on plunging their bayonets into the “corpse” in the wagon to ensure he’s truly dead. Bonnet doesn’t flinch -– largely because the soldiers miss and primarily stab the venison haunch.
Claire tends to Bonnet’s minor leg wound, and Bonnet marvels at the fact that she wears two wedding rings. He says he’s fascinated by the notion of an infinite circle (Bonnet have you been smoking some new American plants or what?). Bonnet opens up about his recurring nightmare that he’s drowning, the water closing over his head before he wakes up. Claire reveals she almost drowned at sea and shares a moment of connection with him. They deposit him safely at the river’s edge and he warns them to be aware of thieves in the woods. Speaking from experience, are we, Mr. Bonnet?
Claire and Jamie make camp in the woods, evaluating their own mortality after the day they’ve had. She fears she could lose Jamie again at any moment. Jamie makes a speech about how he died after she left him at Culloden, but he still went on loving her. “When my body dies, my soul will still be yours. Nothing is lost Sassenach, only changed.” SWOON. Claire points out that’s also the first law of thermodynamics, lol, and the two banish bad thoughts the way they know best — by getting it on for the first time on American soil (or at least the first time we’re aware of). It’s another moment of intense intimacy that is so unique to the series, foregrounding their mutual connection and pleasure over voyeurism.
The next morning they survey the landscape and Claire tells Jamie about what’s to come for America. That North Carolina will only be one of 50 states, and the country will be home to a diverse array of people all seeking the American Dream. It’s a dream she and Jamie share — the chance to live in a place where the only limitations are one’s own abilities and will to succeed. But, wait, stop, lest you think Claire is being lofty and starry-eyed, Jamie is here with a reality check, asking about the dark side of the American Dream and what will become of those who already called the Americas home, the natives. Claire admits it won’t be pretty, that their fate will be akin to what the English did to the Highlanders, driving them from their lands and killing them in great numbers. “A dream for some can be a nightmare others,” Jamie astutely notes, summing up the myth of the American Dream we still grapple with today.
Back in town, Jamie and Claire prepare for a fancy dinner at Mr. Lillington’s home, where Governor Tyron is a guest. They hope to find a buyer for their ruby, which Jamie has had set in a necklace for Claire so as to attract the attention of the wealthy Baron Penzler while they dine. It works, as the Baron practically buries his head in Claire’s chest to get a better look at the jewel. The dinner is also beset by complaints from other guests, including the governor and Phillip Wylie, about high taxes and the native population. It’s the early rumblings of what we know will build to the American Revolution.
The governor pulls Jamie aside after dinner to make him an offer. He wants to give Jamie a large settlement of land in the hopes that Jamie will draw other settlers to the land. He will waive the fee for the land grant if Jamie can attract and oversee more settlers, as well as swear allegiance to the King (which he has already done as a pardoned Jacobite).
Their plan works and the sale of the ruby earns them more than enough for passage back to Scotland, as well as extra funds to re-establish their careers as a printer and healer. But Jamie and Claire are also seriously considering the governor’s offer. Jamie knows there is an ulterior motive, primarily that the local government is having issues with regulators, men in the wilderness stirring up a spirit of resistance. Claire warns Jamie if they take the offer they might find themselves on the wrong side of history again; that is, Loyalists in the American Revolution. But Jamie can only think of Brianna — that they’re in the country where she was born and that he might be able to be a part of making it a good land for her 200 years in the future. Ah, Jamie, always such an idealist.
The next day they meet young Ian outside the tavern. He’s won a dog (who looks decidedly more wolf than dog) in a game of dice, thus dubbing him Rollo. I guess we should be grateful it’s not Dicey or worse, Craps! Claire and Jamie tell Ian, Fergus, Marsali, and Lesley they are going to stay in America — they’ll work out where they might settle while staying at Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta’s plantation known as River Run. Ian wants to stay with them, but Jamie insists they have to send him back to Jenny and his family in Scotland. Lesley asks to stay by Jamie’s side for a bit longer, while Fergus and Marsali have a happy announcement to make. Marsali is pregnant! So they’re staying too and will reside in Wilmington until after Marsali has the baby.
Claire, Jamie, Lesley, and Ian set off on a riverboat for River Run and Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta. Jamie tells Claire (and the audience — lord, this episode has a lot of exposition) a bit more about Jocasta, his mother’s sister. How she married three Cameron men in succession after their deaths and that she and her third husband fled Scotland after the rising. Claire gets high and mighty about the slave on their boat needing a rest, but the captain reveals the sailor is a free man — the captain purchased his freedom after the sailor saved his life. Given the whole riverboat setting, the situation feels a little bit too Huck Finn, i.e. look what this one good white savior did to fight slavery, but this show’s strong suit has never been its handling of race.
During the journey, Jamie gives Claire a present for their 24th wedding anniversary — it’s a doctor’s case, a wooden box full of surgical tools, herbal treatments, and a microscope. Claire is overcome with emotion and tells Jamie she gave Brianna his mother’s pearls because her ring is the only thing she ever needed from him. She touches it meaningfully, and the two have a tearful moment that suggests any hint of Claire’s regrets of returning to the past are left firmly in last season.
All seems well — romantic and idyllic really, as they make camp for the night along the river’s edge. But this is Outlander and Jamie and Claire can’t have peace for long. In the middle of the night, Rollo barks to alert them of intruders as Stephen Bonnet comes aboard with a passel of men. Bonnet’s men take Jamie out and beat him, stealing all the money he earned from selling the ruby. Lesley meets his bitter end before Claire’s eyes as Stephen slits his throat when Lesley tries to protect her. Bonnet wants Claire’s wedding rings — she sobs as she takes them from her fingers, but at the last second claps them to her mouth to swallow them. Bonnet pries her mouth apart and manages to pull one ring out. He leaves after exchanging a look with Jamie, and Claire coughs up the other ring in her mouth. It’s the gold band Frank gave her, not Jamie’s ring. She looks in horror at the ring in her hand and Lesley’s corpse on the ground.
All of this occurs while a bluesy rendition of “America the Beautiful” plays over the sequence. These horrific acts — murder and theft — committed against the soundtrack of a song that is a paean to America’s beauties. It’s the perfect entry point to this season — this notion that America is both beautiful and ugly, a land of opportunity and horrors, a place that giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.
Though what Jamie and Claire face here is terrible, it’s exciting as an audience member to see the introduction of another true villain in the series. While Geillis Duncan haunted portions of season 3, Stephen Bonnet is the natural successor to Black Jack Randall. His is a different brand of evil: a self-serving mercenary with a total lack of remorse, whereas Randall was sadistic and fueled by self-loathing. It’s made all the more delicious by the fact that Jamie and Claire assisted Bonnet, only for him to turn around and betray them for a pocketful of money, a handful of gemstones, and a plain gold band. Fans of the books know what role Bonnet still has to play; everyone else will have to wait to see what the pirate has in store.
Overall, this episode was often bogged down in exposition and catching fans up to speed on what’s happened since everyone washed ashore at the end of season 3 — and explaining who many of the new players are. But there were still several stand-out moments of connection between Jamie and Claire, and Sam Heughan continues to make Jamie Fraser the most compassionate, understanding, swoon-inducing man on television, whether he’s comforting his traumatized nephew or giving his wife a present.
In terms of where this diverges from Drums of Autumn the novel, this marked the end of Lesley, a character not in the book, but who seemed to be a stand-in for Duncan Innes, another Ardsmuir prisoner who plays a central role in this novel. What does Lesley’s death mean for Claire and Jamie? What will they do now that all their money has been stolen and they’ve been beset by a man they offered nothing but kindness too? Hit me in the comments below or @themaureenlee on twitter.
And, don’t forget to tune into EW radio on SiriusXM at 1 pm ET on Mondays for our live Outlander radio show.