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Image: Outlander (Starz)
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We’re now six episodes into season five of Outlander, and I’m struggling to grasp at exactly what the season is about. A single season of television doesn’t need to be about one single thing, but a clear throughline on a thematic or plot level provides urgency, purpose, a path for us to follow as viewers. Outlander has always entwined many things at once to form its rich tapestry of war and medical and relationship drama, period piece aesthetics, romance, and time-travel. Love and trauma have consistently been some of its central themes. But occasionally the show gets to a point where it has thrown so many subplots at a board that none of them really find the target. That’s the point we seem to be at with “Better to Marry Than Burn,” an episode that splits its time between Fraser’s Ridge, newly plagued by locusts, and Jocasta’s wedding at River Run. In both places, things technically happen, but it all feels disparate.

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Claire and Jamie spend little of the episode together even though they’re both at the wedding. Instead, Claire ambles down a bizarre diversion with the suddenly reappeared Phillip Wylie, whose entire personality has always just been “is very into Claire.” Claire spending time with Wylie here isn’t completely random: She figures out that he knows Bonnet and hopes to get some information out of him. But this plan is interrupted when Wylie leads her into a stable and assaults her with a nonconsensual kiss. It’s yet another instance of the show throwing Claire into a violent situation for no real discernible reason. Flat characters like Wylie are a sore spot for the show, which is so strong in the character development of its two leads that it’s almost like there isn’t room for character development anywhere else.

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Because on that note, Roger and Brianna continue to seem like different people from episode to episode. On top of that, their relationship dynamic changes wildly all the time. Things are pretty dire when one of the most exciting parts of an episode is “Roger vs. locusts,” but indeed that does feel like the highest stakes moment of the episode, and it all serves to just build Roger up as a competent leader. I’ve written about this a few times now, but Roger is a perplexing character in the sense that he rarely faces consequences for his flaws and gets the hero treatment time after time despite being a kind of shitty dude. Here’s Brianna dutifully standing by his side as he leads the Ridge in the war on the locusts, and it’s like all his sins are forgiven completely. Just last episode, he lashed out at her because of all those Bonnet secrets in a way that downplayed the violence done to her and centered his own feelings. But sure, let him save the day at Fraser’s Ridge because he remembers a story from his childhood.

We don’t get to the meat of Claire and Jamie’s story here until a little over halfway through the episode when she expresses something that has seemingly been weighing on her. Jamie rather casually asks her to hand over Frank’s wedding ring in exchange for Wylie’s horse. It’s all part of his plan to get revenge on Bonnet, but Claire asks the pressing question: Does he want revenge in the name of Brianna’s honor or in the name of his own? She hates that Jamie’s hatred of Bonnet and Wylie comes between them. Claire’s attachment to the ring and Jamie’s relative lack of understanding underscores some of the unconventional aspects of their relationship. Holding onto the ring is meaningful Claire, and that makes sense.

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The episode does provide some Jocasta backstory, so at least there is a bit of development for the show’s tertiary characters embedded. It opens with the death of her daughter, accidentally shot by her ex-husband in an altercation with the Redcoats during the Jacobite uprising back in Scotland. She recounts the story again near the end of the episode to Murtagh, and it provides some meaningful context for her hesitations about marrying him even though he’s her true love. She knows that he has a cause that he prioritizes above all else, and that’s exactly what put her and her daughter in danger before. She has settled for something more simple and safe.

Unsurprisingly, the best part of the episode comes in a sex scene. Claire slaps Jamie across the face for reminding her that she is a vulnerable woman in this time, and it turns into sex in a stable, which is pretty par for the course for these two. It’s a genuinely well done sex scene though, one that taps into power play and certain sexual dynamics that are hard to capture with nuance and authenticity. There’s even a lovely aftercare scene where Jamie kisses Claire’s bruise. These scenes in the stable between Jamie and Claire brim with nuanced character work, pathos, and sensuality. It’s hot and realistic and frank about desire and the messy forms it can take.

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“Better to Marry Than Burn” ends on an ominous note that does give a bit of momentum to the season. Bonnet knows now that River Run will be left to Jemmy, suggesting that he’s going to make a play for claiming the baby as his own. Bonnet has loomed on the sidelines all season, and Outlander is definitely playing the long game here. It’s effective in its suspense. But there has been a persistent pacing problem this season when it comes to the other storylines. “Better to Marry Than Burn” nestles some compelling Jamie and Claire relationship stuff amid its plotlines, but there’s a general lack of cohesion and urgency.


Stray observations

  • I promise I do not have a personal vendetta against Roger. There have been plenty of characters in television history who I’ve hated but I’ve also thought were well written and well developed characters (Pete from Mad Men immediately comes to mind). I just think there’s a weird disconnect between the way the writing positions Roger as a hero and his actual actions. I also have issues with the inconsistency with which Brianna is written in terms of her agency and her relationship to Roger.
  • As much as I hate that there is yet another scene of Claire being assaulted, the scene has the best line of the episode: “Are you really going to kill someone at your aunt’s wedding?”
  • I like Tryon’s wife.
  • As for the Regulator business, Jamie finds out the real reason Tryon eased up is because of new legislation that bans gatherings of ten or more men.
  • Claire overhears people gossiping about her physician alter ego again. This could definitely cause some trouble for her.
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