Right from the start, the midseason finale of Outlander isn’t like the other episodes we’ve seen so far. Most strikingly, for the first time, we step fully outside of Claire’s perspective to see what has been going on in the timeline she left behind, through the eyes of Frank. As the episode’s title suggests, we get to see both sides now.
Initially, I didn’t love the perspective switching. My favorite part of Outlander so far has been the intimacy we have as viewers with Claire. We feel and experience everything simultaneously with our protagonist, and it’s a powerful storytelling tool, one that makes the emotional work of Outlander effective and the slow pacing not only tolerable but lovely. Checking in with Frank seemed, at first, just like a way to remind us he exists, or even as a bit of fanservice to try to sell the love triangle.
But as the episode progresses, it turns out there’s more to this deviation from the usual narrative. For one, it lends itself to beautiful direction. The scene at Craigh na Dun, where the point of view bounces between Frank and Claire is edited together perfectly and fully brings you into the emotional resonance of the moment for both characters.
What I initially read as a distancing from Claire’s perspective turns out to be quite the opposite. The writers’ reminder to us that Frank exists is completely tied up in Claire’s psyche, because she too confronts the memory of her past life all at once in this episode, as she’s torn from the blissful haze of her wedding day and thrust back into the turmoils of her new world. She might have a new husband and friends (Geillis, I miss you), but Claire’s main motivation is still to find her way home—to Frank, to stability, to the life she had.
When she first sets eyes on Craigh na Dun—her holy grail, basically—Claire reflects on how much has changed in her life. “Last I was here, I was Claire Randall. Then Claire Beauchamp. Then Claire Fraser,” she says. Over the course of the series, we’ve seen her as all these women. Claire Randall, the spirited 1940s war nurse who loves her husband (and also loves sex). Claire Beauchamp, the confused but smart sassenach who adapts to survive. And Claire Fraser, the woman who doesn’t hesitate to kill the man who rapes her. But we also know that despite the different surnames and circumstances she’s thrown into, Claire remains the same woman, grounded by her intuition and refusal to be anyone’s pawn.
It is somewhat disappointing, then, that weeks after shaping my theory that Outlander has reversed the damsel/hero dichotomy, the episode ends with an all too familiar shot: Claire, helpless, stripped, trapped by Captain Jack Randall, and Jamie swooping in at the last minute with all the gusto of a noble knight to save the day. It doesn’t ruin my theory entirely, but I think it’s somewhat cruel that the last image we’re left with is one that’s so dark and disturbing, one that positions our hero as a victim. But it also speaks to the fact that Outlander isn’t just romance novel escapism. The series oscillates tonally from one scene to the next: sexy, fun, feminine fantasy in one moment, only to be followed by terrifying darkness. “Both Sides Now” epitomizes that balance for the series.
And Claire doesn’t need to be invincible to be a hero. Throughout the series so far, she has had great triumphs and colossal setbacks, just like any compelling protagonist. But what makes Claire particularly interesting in this context is how her gender relates to and informs those triumphs and setbacks. Rape has been a continual threat to Claire since the pilot, and in this episode, she’s raped by a rogue redcoat while his friend holds Jamie at gunpoint. It’s a tumultuous, horrifying scene—one that follows a scene of peaceful, intimate romance between Jamie and Claire. And the direction keeps viewers close to Claire the whole time.
It’s a dismal reminder that no matter how hard she tries to blend in and thrive in this unfamiliar time and place, the patriarchy thrives, too. Caitriona Balfe gives her best performance to date, evoking Claire’s pain through a whole range of emotions: shock, sadness, anger, self-doubt. It’s powerful, heartbreaking stuff that leaves you wondering how anyone could still doubt the intelligence and weight of this show.
- One thing that I really liked about the back-and-forth between the two timelines was the sharp contrast between the coloring of each. That one shot that pans from Claire being pulled away by the redcoats (shot with blindingly bright colors) to Frank giving up and walking away (shot in dull, weathered colors) is stunning.
- For a split second, I thought Claire was going to travel back to the 1940s and Frank was going to simultaneously travel to 1743. Then I realized that made no sense and would be very dumb.
- The other thing we learn by way of dipping into Frank’s narrative is that he might not be as different from his sadistic ancestor after all. Frank beating up a guy in an alley certainly isn’t on par with the atrocities Jack Randall has committed, but it was hard to miss those empty eyes and his sudden lack of control.
- And by the way, Tobias Menzies is doing such a great job that I almost forgot for a second there that both men are him.
- Claire learning how to kill someone with a knife was such a genuinely fun scene. I love when Claire is having fun, but it also almost always signals imminent doom. Based on the show’s pattern, I should have known that would also be the case here.
- Well, folks. It has been fun. Unfortunately, Outlander doesn’t come back until April, so we have a long while to wait. I’ll miss Jamie and Claire’s chemistry, drunk Claire, and brooding Frank. But I’ll miss Geillis the most. Our time together seemed far too short.