Image: Outlander (Starz)
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Outlander without Jamie and Claire is, unsurprisingly, a bit like a ship without its captain. They drive the show, fuel its emotional core. Now four seasons in, Outlander has a sprawling cast of characters, and this episode focuses on several of them, all with their ties to Claire and Jamie but all with motivations of their own, too. So even though “Down The Rabbit Hole” feels off given Claire and Jamie’s absence, it’s a well written episode that further develops this world and allows other characters to step into the spotlight. The results, however, are mixed.

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Brianna passes through the stones and stumbles her way around the highlands, apparently not quite prepared for the journey. She falls within minutes, spraining her ankle. But much like her mother, she’s determined. “Down The Rabbit Hole” takes its time in its first act, setting up the harrowing, isolating nature of Brianna’s adventure with its score and great direction from Jennifer Getzinger. Sophie Skelton is increasingly a commanding presence, and while the opening of this episode is grueling, it works, underscoring just how serious of a decision the character made by traveling through time.

Then she just happens to be found by Laoghaire. I’m honestly fine with Outlander’s many coincidences. In fact, I generally like when old characters turn up out of the blue. It makes those characters feel like more than set dressing. That said, Laoghaire in particular is a character that Outlander has never quite figured out what to do with. She’s inconsistent in her villainy and simultaneously far too one-note. Characters shouldn’t necessarily fall into hero or villain categories; it’s more interesting when they can’t be confined to either. But that kind of nuance not really what’s going on with Laoghaire. As far as character motivation goes, she seems purely driven by her obsessive love for Jamie.

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Even now, actual decades later, she still has the same old axe to grind. There’s some fun dramatic irony to Laoghaire finding Brianna and taking her in, complaining about the man who ruined her life because he loved another woman when we as the audience know that she’s actually talking about Jamie but both characters remain in the dark. But things don’t really pick up steam until Laoghaire connects the dots. She first tries to manipulate Brianna, trying to convince her that Jamie sent Claire away because he didn’t want to father a child. It’s petty behavior and, ultimately, doesn’t really seem to have an end game. She wants to hurt Brianna because of the way Jamie hurt her? Sure, but that plays into the same weirdly childish characterization that renders Laoghaire a flat, unconvincing character. We see that she’s a good mother to her youngest daughter Joan and that she is also a generally kind and maternal person, taking Brianna in without question.

But the second she finds out Brianna is the daughter of Jamie, that all flies out the window. She once wanted to kill Claire for being a witch, and she wants to sentence Brianna to the same fate. When it comes down to it, what Jamie put Laoghaire through really wasn’t kind. It makes sense that she would be angry. But to have this anger be the one thing that drives her above all else, especially after so much time has passed, isn’t particularly compelling character motivation. Even Brianna acts somewhat out of character here, unnecessarily rubbing salt in Laoghaire’s wounds by telling her that Jamie never loved her. It’s the same catty behavior that Laoghaire brought out in Claire, and it just doesn’t make for a very interesting or nuanced character dynamic. It’s melodrama for the sake of melodrama.

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Brianna, however, does command the strongest features of “Down The Rabbit Hole,” particularly when it comes to the thematic throughline of father-daughter love. On the one hand, there’s Frank, the father who raised her and with whom she shared a special connection that not even Claire really had with her. Flashbacks to Brianna’s relationship with Frank throughout the episode verge on overly sentimental but still add a strong emotional backbone to the episode. Tobias Menzies has always been a standout performer on the show, and he’s great here, portraying Frank’s inner turmoil without doing too much.

The bond between Frank and Brianna is convincing, and all of the flashbacks except for the graveyard one—which crosses that sentimentality line—deepen that dynamic, complicating Brianna’s arc. Yes, she longs to meet Jamie, the father she never knew, but she also had a father. And there’s some dark truth to Laoghaire’s cruel words, too. Claire lost her husband and then decided to go back to her old love, leaving her daughter behind. It’s easy for Laoghaire to exploit Brianna’s insecurities about her parents. And Frank and Laoghaire’s anguish has its own parallels, too. Despite how much Frank loved Claire, he always felt inferior to Jamie. And Laoghaire, of course, blames Claire for stealing Jamie from her, jealous to the point of only being able to see Claire as a villain. But Frank’s anguish is portrayed with much more nuance.

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The parallel drawn between Brianna and the newly introduced character Lizzie, however, is made way too quickly to really carry much weight. “Down The Rabbit Hole” is a crucial episode for moving the story forward, but it packs a lot in, sometimes to its detriment. Lizzie, we learn in a very short scene, is a girl whose freedom is threatened by a debt her father owes. He either has to turn her over to a man who intends to keep her as a concubine or find a way to get her on the ship Brianna’s boarding for the Americas. Even though it means he’ll never see her again, he wants to do it to protect her, reiterating the episode’s message about Frank wanting the best for Brianna even if it meant making personal sacrifices. That parallel is heavy-handed in its extremities and then laid on even thicker when Brianna literally imagines waving to Frank as she waves to the girl’s father. It just feels rushed and obvious to the point of lessening its actual emotional value.

Roger meanwhile followed Brianna back in time and finds himself in Inverness, where he hopes to board a ship captained by none other than the slimy Stephen Bonnet. Yes, Outlander indeed loves a chance encounter. And Bonnet turns out to be even more evil than his double-crossing of Jamie and Claire revealed. Once Roger secures passage on his ship, he learns that Bonnet has no issue throwing anyone, including children, overboard if they show signs of smallpox. Bonnet is the kind of villain Outlander hasn’t seen since the death of Black Jack. His cruelty seems to have no limits, and he has a bit of a god complex, too, deciding people’s fates with the flip of a coin.

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Roger is in way over his head, and the implication of course is that he’s willing to do anything to find Brianna. But does Brianna even want to be found? There’s something still missing from Roger and Brianna’s arc, which doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as Claire and Jamie’s love story. Brianna’s dynamic with Jamie, the father she has never met, is far more compelling at the moment than Roger’s desperation to be with Brianna. Roger’s side of the story here has some adventure excitement to it, but “Down The Rabbit Hole” doesn’t really serve to develop him beyond just being a nice guy. Brianna’s arc stands on its own, but Roger seems a bit disconnected from the narrative, even as he’s technically embarking on the kind of love-driven quest that typically fuels this show.


Stray observations

  • Did either Roger or Brianna think to bring anything useful back in time with them like Claire bringing the smallpox vaccinations?
  • Jenny’s absence from this episode is a bummer. She would make a lot more sense as someone guiding Brianna through this tense arc about her two fathers than Laoghaire.
  • Brianna should be smarter than to just start rambling about preventing a fire happening in the future a whole continent away...I don’t really blame Laoghaire for thinking she’s a witch.

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