The final few minutes of tonight’s episode of Outlander are the most thrilling, overwhelming, and emotionally charged of the season so far. “Best Laid Schemes” tells several stories at once, and it does so capably, without ever feeling overstuffed or unfocused. It’s a damn good episode of Outlander, one that combines all of the show’s strengths and reflects all the different genres it manages to be at once: romance, sci-fi, medical drama, period piece, action-adventure. And at the end of the day, all those genre elements are driven by what matters most: the characters.

There is, however, one glaring hole in the narrative of “Best Laid Schemes.” In a way, the beginning of the episode undoes some of the potent emotional beats of last week’s “Untimely Resurrection.” Jamie’s reaction to Claire asking him not to duel Randall so that Frank could live seemed to signal a huge chasm in their relationship. Jamie broke down, angry and hurt that Claire could ever possibly ask him to do such a thing. He told her he can’t live in this world so long as Randall is alive. He told her that what Randall did to him was worse than death, and he repeats that sentiment tonight. And yet, things seem to be more-or-less fine between Claire and Jamie in “Best Laid Schemes.” Their argument in “Untimely Resurrection”—which really was even more complicated and deep-seated than an average “argument”—is suddenly just a blip. I was taken pretty off guard by seeing Jamie rubbing Claire’s sore feet and then even more so when the couple has sex later in the episode. I thought the events of last episode would put distance between the two. And shouldn’t they have? The final scene of last week suggest irrevocable damage had been done, seen both in the writing and in how Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe performed.

As he’s rubbing her feet in tonight’s episode, Jamie explains to Claire that he did not indeed agree to her terms because he owes her a debt. The crux of his words last week vanish as he reminds her that he has already saved her life on multiple occasions. Rather, his real reason behind calling off the duel is so that Claire has something should their increasingly futile plan to stop the rebellion go awry. Jamie makes Claire promise that if something bad happens, if they cannot stop the rebellion, she will return to the stones and whence she came. She will return to Frank. Claire promises. It’s not an entirely unbelievable moment for either character, especially if merely considered in the context of this episode, but given Jamie’s feelings last week, this just sort of comes out of nowhere. Jamie begged for Claire to let him listen to his own heart for once, and instead, he’s back to shouldering other people’s pain, back to selflessly letting Claire have her selfish wish of preserving Frank’s life.

Ultimately, it just seems like the writers walked back on the tension between Claire and Jamie suddenly in this episode in order to make the ending hit harder. Because Claire and Jamie are seemingly back on very good terms, with Jamie reminding Claire that they’ll always find a way back to each other, it’s all the more devastating when they’re torn apart at episode’s end. It’s almost like the writers rapidly repaired the relationship just to break it open again. It’s hasty and sloppy character development on a show that is typically brilliant in its character development, especially when it comes to the two protagonists. It’s just sort of cheap to depict Claire and Jamie as suddenly happy in their marriage, bonding over their unborn child, only to have that all ripped away from them in the final seconds. Shouldn’t there be more palpable consequences of everything that was said and done last week? Jamie’s switch from self-preservation and anguish to just wanting what’s best for Claire again just isn’t convincing.

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That strange inconsistency aside, it really is a crackling, immersive episode of Outlander. A lot happens. Claire warns her pal at the apothecary to get the hell out of Paris, where the king is suddenly launching a crusade against those accused of dark magic. I think, and hope, we will soon learn more about Master Raymond, because all of his scenes drip with suspense and mystery. He often hints at knowing more than he lets on. And his role in tonight’s episode is brief but adds to that sense of mystery.

The episode also acts as part-heist thriller, with Jamie, Murtagh, Fergus, and Claire all combining their useful skill sets to become a sort of 18th-century France version of the Ocean’s team. Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the feel of those movies, but there’s certainly some Outlander-specific excitement to the scheme, especially when Jamie has to convincingly make it look like he didn’t orchestrate the roadside attack and Murtagh has to knock him clean out. Their initial smallpox plot seemed to be too easy, like something that would only work in a heist movie. It fails, and they’re onto plan B pretty swiftly. It’s an action-heavy episode of Outlander, but the action remains pretty firmly grounded in the wants and feelings of its characters. Tea time with the mean girls of Paris overwhelms Claire with frustration, and she ends up working overtime at the hospital, which leads to some initially small complications with her pregnancy. The sharp juxtaposition of Jamie’s night on the road and the upper-class women gossiping and ignoring Claire’s pleas to care about the poor of their city is a strong direction choice. This season has very effectively teased out some of the societal factors of Claire and Jamie’s new surroundings, portraying the class stratification and the frivolities of the noble class.

The action-heavy episode ends, of course, with a duel. It’s the duel Jamie promised he wouldn’t he wouldn’t pursue, but the stakes have changed. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, because this does require a small amount of speculation as it’s never explicitly stated, but I think we’re meant to believe that Jamie ultimately went through with dueling Randall because Randall abused Fergus. The episode does a pretty solid job of conveying that without ever showing anything, which admittedly further complicated my feelings about how the show has gruesomely depicted rape and abuse in past episodes. There’s a line Outlander does not cross since the victim here is a child, but I think this only further proves that it’s possible to tell convincing, unnerving, and horrifying stories without having to explicitly show the horrors. Network television often does a very good job with that because of all the rules they have to adhere to. But just because you can show deeply disturbing imagery doesn’t mean you should. In any case, the storytelling at the end of the episode is very successful in how it unsettles in subtle but affecting ways. As Fergus enters a room in the brothel, the camera pans to a hung British uniform. That imagery alone is enough to signal danger. And when an unseen person enters the room, frightening Fergus, and the scene fades to black with ominous strings scoring the otherwise silent moment, doom is certain.

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This is, of course, exactly why I thought Claire was making an irreversibly immoral decision in sparing Randall’s life. So long as he walks the earth, he will continue to torture and abuse just about everyone he encounters. I hope the show capably handles the emotional consequences of her actions. It’s time that Claire face the reality of her wrongdoings. Claire and Jamie are trying to play God, but as the season progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that changing the future isn’t simple and that some of their personal interests are becoming too selfish. She takes it personally when she finds out Jamie has gone to the woods to carry out an illegal duel with Randall. In actuality, it has nothing to do with her. It has everything to do with Jamie’s enduring pain and with his empathy for the pain inflicted upon Fergus.

When Claire arrives in the woods, shit hits the fan in the most devastating of ways. Well, there is one bit of good that comes of it. Jamie stabs Randall in the groin as the duel comes to a close. I have my doubts that Randall is going to die from this injury…he is the cockroach of Outlander, always finding his way back into Claire and Jamie’s life despite near-death encounters. Plus, we know that Frank exists when Claire returns through the stones. But it’s a fitting punishment for the sadist. It all comes at a cost though. The French authorities arrive to break up the duel and likely take Jamie to prison. At that exact moment, Claire appears to miscarry, overcome with the fatigue of the past couple days’ events. Jamie can barely see her through the blurry, bright hues of the French uniforms. They call for each other, but there’s chaos between them. They may have (somehow) been able to overcome their tension in “Untimely Resurrection,” but there are too many forces now driving a wedge between Claire and Jamie. They’re now faced with far more issues than just stopping a rebellion. Outlander has always been a story about survival and sacrifice, and “Best Laid Schemes” sharpens the scope of that theme, making it more personal and intimate.

Stray observations

  • Ever since Claire’s baby bump started to show, I was very confused about why she wasn’t showing any signs of pregnancy in the scenes with Frank that open the season. The second I saw blood in this episode, I realized she must lose the baby. But…she also tells Frank when she returns to the future that she’s pregnant, so she and Jamie must conceive again?
  • I love that Murtagh has absolutely zero doubts that Jamie is telling the truth when he finally explains to him that Claire’s from the future. Jamie believed it when Claire told him right away, too. I’m not sure it’s entirely realistic, but I accept it, because Outlander grounds their willingness to believe in the well developed and meaningful relationships between the characters. Jamie believes Claire because he loves her. Murtagh believes Jamie because he loves him. It’s the good kind of idealistic. I’ve always loved Outlander’s faith in the power of love. It sharply distinguishes it from other prestige dramas.
  • The only scene that felt extraneous to me was the drawn-out meditation on the different ways to execute people…it does add to the ominous mood of the whole episode, but I just didn’t care enough about that character to really be invested.
  • The prince is as petulant as ever.
  • Jamie: “Hungry?” Fergus: “Always.” Same, Fergus, same.

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