Outlander
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“All that work. All that plotting. How the bloody hell did we end up here?” Claire asks, both her and Jamie dripping with cold rain, covered with specks of dirt. A sense of fatalism has weighed heavily on this season of Outlander. The rush of excitement that came with their initial schemes to change history in the beginning of the season was quickly snuffed out by harsh realism. Their flashy Paris lives have been replaced with their new drab and chilly life of war and loss. Now, here they are in “The Hail Mary,” an episode drenched with the desperation implied in its title, days away from the British victory at Culloden that will wipe out the Jacobites and bring an end to the Highland people’s culture for good. Every move Claire and Jamie have made hasn’t seemed to change a thing. Fate remains one step ahead of them. Revising history, especially an event as major as this, has not proven to be easy. Fascinatingly, the fact that their trajectory has unfolded precisely as history would have it has given greater weight and stakes to Claire and Jamie’s journey this season. The lack of historical twists is a powerful twist in and of itself.

Desperation and dread permeate “The Hail Mary.” It’s a tonally affecting episode, even though it hobbles along at an awkward pace and without much by way of charging things up ahead of the supersized finale. Jamie tries throughout to stop Culloden from happening, but Prince Charles relentlessly gets in the way with his seemingly fantastical notions of how war works. A last-minute surprise attack gets canceled for the most mundane and ridiculous of reasons: The troops being led by the prince lost their way in the dark and retreated. It’s action that we don’t even see unfold on screen. Jamie and the Jacobites are Culloden-bound—stomachs empty, bodies aching, heads hanging. Again, it’s palpably poignant, but there isn’t much by way of momentum.

Ultimately, this episode isn’t all that much about Claire and Jamie so much as it’s about two very different, very complicated families. Alex Randall and Colum Mackenzie are both dying at the start of “The Hail Mary,” and both die by the end (there’s that fatalism again). Claire isn’t exactly unconnected to either event. In both cases, she’s asked to help. Colom asks Claire privately to help him end the pain with an assisted suicide, which he times to perfectly coincide with Dougal’s too-long monologue that spells out their fraught brotherly dynamics. In the case of Alex, a cry for help comes from an unexpected source: Captain Black Jack Randall.

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“The Hail Mary” marks the strangest appearance of Black Jack to date, but it isn’t absent of all the usual terror and violence that always comes along with his presence. At first, he appears without his bright red uniform, dressed as a civilian in dark but unopposing clothes. His face is softer. He’s disturbingly humble and gentle, expressing genuine sadness for his brother and kindness toward Mary. His first exchanges with Claire are formal, devoid of his usual twisted language he uses to torment and ridicule. They call each other Mrs. Fraser and Captain Randall, as if they are old coworkers. Claire does so with a hint of fiery sarcasm.

At first, it looks like “The Hail Mary” is trying to humanize Randall and make him a more sympathetic, a more rational character. Alex certainly seems to think he can separate the man he knows—the man he calls Johnny—from the man who has inflicted so much pain and suffering on others. One of the most interesting character moments in the episode is the reveal that Alex is not completely ignorant of his brother’s evils. He knows, but he sees them almost as two different sides of the same man—separable and easily compartmentalized. Even Claire falls victim to this way of thinking, referring to Randall’s sadism as “impulses”—which is a rather lenient euphemism for it. She sees the way he cares for Alex, and she believes that rare kindness and love for his brother will live on even after his inevitable death. But Claire is just buying into that narrative in order to make herself feel better. Even now, even after what happened to Fergus, she’s still set on making sure Mary and Black Jack end up together to ensure Frank’s existence. She’s still actively making sure Mary ends up married to a rapist, and even though Claire believes Randall will soon be dead, even though she believes Randall will be caring with Mary just as he has been caring with his brother, it isn’t right.

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Sure enough, “The Hail Mary” makes it very clear that Randall’s sadism is inextricable from the rest of his self. The episode complicates him by showing how he is so different around his brother, but it does not exonerate him or even buy into Alex and Claire’s idealized notion of Randall as a Jekyll and Hyde type. He may be known as Johnny to some, but he is Black Jack all the time always. The episode overall struggles to really hook, but the greatest exception is a scene nestled in the middle—one that pits Black Jack and Claire against each other once more.

Sam Heughan’s acting has strikingly improved this season—not that it was ever necessarily bad, but in season one, he was more greatly outshined by Caitriona Balfe. But once Black Jack and Claire are in a pub together, no one else in sight, it becomes immediately apparent that the scene is being commanded by the two most magnetic performers on the show. Tobias Menzies’ acting—as both Frank and Randall—is so precise and visceral. It’s sometimes hard to describe exactly what makes him so good, because it’s working on so many levels. The pub scene briefly puts Claire in a position of power, and Balfe is as striking as ever. When she first approaches Randall, already slow and drooping from his drink, the camera looks up at her standing over him, so that she looms high above him, ready to strike.

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But it’s in this scene that the fiction of a more sympathetic Randall crumbles. In bringing up his assault against Jamie with Claire, he might as well be driving a knife into her side. And then he twists the knife, saying that he doesn’t regret any of it. Even Black Jack doesn’t seem to buy that his violent acts are mere “impulses.” They are a part of him, and he tells Claire she’s taking a risk in assuming his love for his brother will live on past his death. Sure enough, the second Alex dies, Randall violently beats his lifeless body with his fists. Mary cries, burying herself in Claire’s arms as Claire looks on in horror. Black Jack will be Black Jack will be Black Jack. Jamie seems to be the only one to realize that, which makes sense given their history.

The Mackenzie family drama isn’t quite as enrapturing. Season two has continually knocked Dougal down, and hey, I’m all here for Dougal being put in his place. But Dougal has never been a particularly compelling character on the show. If anything, he’s actually the most inconsistently characterized character. Sure, he wavers because he’s an opportunist, but sometimes it seems like the writers just plug Dougal into wherever it’s most convenient. He’s a problem when that’s what they need and he’s an ally when that’s what they need. That could potentially make for a more interesting character if there was some sort of larger emotional context for his behavior, but there isn’t really. Colum’s death isn’t all that eventful. It’s shown through the perspective of Dougal, but again, who really cares about Dougal? His character arc has been far from compelling let alone coherent. There is the intriguing development of Colum leaving his son and heir to be raised and guided by Jamie. Even more importantly, Colum reveals to Claire that Geillis had a son who lives. I’m always excited about any reference to Geillis. But hopefully the finale will be a lot more urgent and engaging, because for a penultimate episode of an emotionally tumultuous season, “The Hail Mary” doesn’t focus on the most compelling parts of the story.

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Stray observations

  • I really love how drawn out and real Rupert’s grieving process has been. Outlander tells incredibly human stories in its depiction of war.
  • Starz is re-airing the season over next week, so the finale won’t air until July 9.
  • As some of you may have heard, TV Club has been narrowing the slate of shows that will be covered episodically. Unfortunately, Outlander did not make the cut, so next week’s review of the finale will also mark the final TV Club review of Outlander. I’m sure I will write more sentimental words about the end of this journey in my review of the finale.
  • Claire treats Alex’s cough by essentially shotgunning some sort of medical smoke into his mouth.
  • Murtagh sensibly proposes that he could marry Mary, but Claire pokes holes in the plan. Again, I think this has more to do with Claire holding onto Frank than it does with her actually wanting what’s best for Mary.

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