At the end of last season, Jamie and Claire had a crazy idea. Well, Claire had it, and then she convinced Jamie to join her. They were going to change the future. Claire knew Jamie’s people and culture would be wiped out after the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion. She was determined to stop it. Season two has largely been centered on that plan. But Jamie and Claire have become so consumed with trying to stop the rebellion that they haven’t really paused to contemplate what any of it means. On paper, changing the future does sound like a noble cause. But what gives them the right to do so? When is altering history moral and when is it not? In “Untimely Resurrection,” Outlander finally starts teasing out those questions.

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Time travel is a tricky business. Even the slightest changes Claire and Jamie try to make on history could spark a cataclysmic chain of events. Their cause at the moment is not entirely selfless nor not fully selfish. They do believe they’re doing something for the greater good. Of course, there’s some dramatic irony to the fact that we know they ultimately won’t be successful. But one has to believe that all their meddling will have an impact. What makes “Untimely Resurrection” so powerful when it comes to a meditation on the morality of changing the future is that it roots that meditation entirely in character-driven drama and in the emotional stakes for Jamie and Claire. Claire doesn’t literally wonder aloud what the limits are to their meddling. That would have been the easy route for the writers to go. The use of voiceover on this show is something I’ve complained about in the past, but overall in season two, it has been used sparingly and effectively. So no, the episode’s untangling of the tricky issues that arise from changing the future doesn’t happen in voiceover. It happens very organically in the story, eventually culminating with a gutting scene between Jamie and Claire.

The more Claire insists on ensuring Frank’s existence, the more she slips into the morally gray. Early on in “Untimely Resurrection,” she contemplates burning Mary’s statement exonerating Alex Randall. Mary intends to wed Alex, but in Claire’s mind, that’ll preclude Mary from conceiving with Jonathan Randall and carrying on Frank’s lineage. She wonders, in voiceover, if she holds the key to Frank’s existence in her hands as she clutches the letter. Ultimately, she doesn’t condemn Alex to a life in prison, but she does convince the boy not to marry Mary. Claire expresses regret in her voiceover, but that hardly makes her actions forgivable. By trying to change the future as it pertains to the Jacobite rebellion, Claire’s potentially saving thousands of lives. But by trying to play god in the union of Mary and Randall, she’s only fulfilling a purpose that’s, in the long-run, pretty narrow. Of course Frank deserves to live. But at what cost? Is protecting one family line the same as changing a major historical event?

Of course it isn’t, but Claire has a very personal investment in saving Frank. She loves him. And it’s affecting her judgement. Claire visits Mary to care for her after the attack. She assures Mary, whose bleeding has stopped but whose psychological wounds will not be healing any time soon, that what happened to her wasn’t her fault. It’s a moving moment, and I’m happy to see that the writers are giving attention to Mary’s feelings and to how the attack affects her instead of just focusing on other characters who weren’t the victim. But how can Claire claim to want what’s best for Mary while also working so hard to ensure that Mary eventually marries Randall? Claire has to know that marrying Randall is far from what’s best for Mary. She couldn’t possibly be naive enough to believe that Randall’s sadistic behavior somehow wouldn’t come into play in his relationship with Mary. She’s trying to ensure that a survivor of rape marries a serial rapist. And it’s all in the name of guaranteeing Frank’s existence. Claire’s tampering with history is starting to cross a very serious moral line.

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And that dilemma is only exacerbated once Captain Jonathan Black Jack Randall makes his titular untimely resurrection. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is solid throughout, but it’s particularly affecting in the scenes where both Claire and Jamie see and engage with Randall for the first time. The music, the camerawork, and the blocking all effectively add to the unnerving feel of the scenes—without being too over-the-top. There’s a certain satisfaction for Claire and Jamie—but also for us—as we watch the king and his men mock and demean Randall. It’s hardly the revenge Jamie seeks, but it feels good nonetheless. On the yard of the French court, Randall is temporarily stripped of his power. Claire and Jamie emerge looking like the dominant forces, both in good standing with the king of France, who has an immediate distaste for Randall and throws a delicious amount of shade at both the captain and his country. Just as they’re about to depart, Jamie turns and hurries back to Randall as Claire looks on in horror. The scene unfolds from her perspective, and it so effectively captures all the tension and wrought emotions of the resurrection. Claire watches Jamie and Randall exchange words, sees Randall’s hand touch his chest for a second. It’s hard to watch. Then Jamie gleefully tells her what they were discussing. Randall has agreed to a duel.

Claire not only breaks up lovers Mary and Alex in the name of saving Frank. She also asks the impossible of Jamie, who returns home giddy with the possibility of taking Randall’s life in a duel. But Claire can’t let that happen. Initially, she tries to just make it about herself and the baby, telling Jamie that he can’t duel Randall because dueling is outlawed in France. Risking life in prison isn’t worth it, she tells him, especially when they are about to start a family. But her reasons for wanting to stop the duel are much thornier than just that. Again, she’s trying to make sure Randall lives long enough to carry on his bloodline. So she finally confesses to Jamie. Randall must live at least another year for Frank to exist. “He must exist, she tells him. He’s part of the future.” Jamie sharply counters: “I thought we were here to change the future.” It’s within this emotional scene, so deeply rooted in the characters and their histories with one another, that Outlander finally gets to the heart of what changing the future really means. “Must I bear everyone’s weakness?” Jamie asks. In his mind, the only way to keep on living is to make sure Randall no longer does. To put it simply: He doesn’t give a shit about Frank.

But Claire knows Jamie all too well. She knows that he is an honorable man who always repays his debts. So she uses an ugly tactic to get him to do what she wishes. She reminds him that she has saved his life twice and that he owes her a debt. In a twisted turn of fate, Claire asks for Randall’s life to be spared as Jamie’s debt payment. Jamie reminds Claire of the atrocities Randall committed, of the fact that he wanted to take his own life because of them, of how his trauma still sneaks up on him, often when he’s in bed with her. He piles on all of the reasons he wants Randall to die as soon as possible. And then he tells her he’ll wait. He’ll give her the year she’s asking for. Jamie always pays his debts. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are so compelling in the scene, which lives and breathes in so many contradictions and complications: Jamie and Claire seem intimate and disconnected all at once. There’s anger, guilt, despondence. With her latest choices, Claire has made changing the future incredibly personal. At the end of the day, Outlander is about so much more than war and politics. It’s about sacrifice for the ones we love. And that becomes all the trickier when the needs of one person you love directly contradict the needs of another you love. Jamie asks Claire to choose. If she will not let him kill Randall, then she must kill him. Claire obviously doesn’t stab Jamie in the heart. She asks for one year. For Jamie, that’s nearly as painful as being physically stabbed in the heart.

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Stray observations

  • So if you couldn’t tell, I’m sort of Team Stop Trying To Save Frank. BUT if Frank never exists, does that also mean Claire never travels back in time and never meets Jamie? Okay, this is why I hate stories that rely on time-travel.
  • The Duke of Sandringham remarks that “life can be harsh,” and the scene promptly cuts to a shot of a decadent tray of sweets.
  • The Duke is onto Jamie. He observes that Jamie is very good at discerning the quality of a horse but seems to have poor judgement when it comes to men (the prince).
  • Jamie explains to Claire that the attackers mistook her for La Dame Blanche, because he once referred to her as such while trying to keep up pretenses at the brothel.
  • Jamie gives Claire a christening gift for their baby: a set of apostle spoons.
  • Balfe’s delivery of “fuck the king” is full of fire.

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