Image: Outlander (Starz)

Outlander is a show largely made up of dramatic reunions and coincidences. And damn, it does them well. One would think the show might have run out of ways to make an unexpected run-in with someone from the past exciting and emotional, but here we are, well into the fourth season, and the show drums up a tearjerker of a reunion between Jamie and Murtagh. As with several of the show’s reunions, this one leans into the dramatics, Murtagh’s back to us for a long stretch before the big reveal. And then Sam Heughan places us right in Jamie’s emotional reaction to seeing an old friend again.

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Though coincidences abound and improbable run-ins happen all the time on this show, it doesn’t usually feel like merely convenient storytelling tactics. Running into people from your past almost seems foundational to this show and its ethos. There’s an underlying message that an invisible thread forms between us and the people we touch—whether in good or bad ways—and remains through time. Claire and Jamie never really lose each other, and they never really shed anyone else either.

On that note, “Savages” also does a superb job of making Brianna’s impending arrival a subtle but palpable presence in the episode. She doesn’t pass through the stones until episode’s end, but the hum of her sudden proximity reverberates, starting in the beginning when Adawehi tells Claire that her daughter is here. Claire thinks she means here figuratively, that Brianna is present within Claire’s heart. And maybe that is partially what she means, but it feels like something more, especially once followed by Jamie sharing that he had such a vivid dream about Brianna that he even saw her birthmark that he hadn’t previously known about. Outlander is taking its time with merging its two timelines, but the tension it builds is captivating. And that last shot of Brianna disappearing through the stones is lovely.

Claire runs into some trouble this week in Jamie’s absence. She delivers a baby for a German settler family who are very grateful to her but suddenly become vicious when a group of Cherokee stop by the creek near their cabin to collect water for their horses. The family’s patriarch, Gerhard Mueller, rants about them “stealing” “his water.” He feels entitled to the water and the land and later reveals that he believes the Native people deserve to die because they do not believe in his God. Claire must play the peacemaker, begging Mueller not to shoot at the Cherokee, throwing herself between them.

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She keeps the peace but only briefly. When Mueller’s family dies of measles, he blames the Cherokee, claiming they placed a curse on his family. A pastor warns Claire that Mueller might come seeking revenge, and Pioneer Claire readys her rifle for protection. But Claire probably should have realized she wouldn’t be the target of Mueller’s deranged thirst for revenge. He does show up eventually, but not to harm her, to deliver horrifying evidence of his monstrosity: Adawehi’s scalp.

Given last episode’s ending at the start of this one, it seemed like Outlander might be making some important strides in terms of Native representation in American television. But alas, it’s just falling into the same conventions that so much media does by relegating these indigenous characters to mostly background roles and also viewing them through a white lens instead of giving them their own narrative. Most of the Cherokee on the show so far have been non-speaking roles, extras filling out the background of Claire and Jamie’s story. Adawehi initially hinted at something more, the potential for a fully realized Native character. She was given a name, a profession, a clear and meaningful relationship with the protagonist, and she was played by a Native actor. But those details are all a pretty low bar for strong representation.

Killing Adawehi off in “Savages” reinforces the bad tropes media so often employs with indigenous characters and women of color in general. She’s killed as a way to spur a change in character for Claire, to develop the white protagonist. She’s killed as a way to show the violence of white settlers’ racism in this part of history. But that all makes Adawehi seem more like a prop than a fully realized character with an arc and narrative of her own. The bonding between Claire and Adawehi at the beginning of the episode is genuinely beautiful, a believable friendship forged by their shared knowledge of medicine and their calling to heal. But in retrospect, that all just feels incredibly manipulative. Outlander introduces this new relationship only to then very quickly destroy it and give Caitriona Balfe her big acting moment.

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I’m not saying that characters can never die. On a series like Outlander, characters should die in order to keep the stakes high and sell the action-adventure side of the story. But the way Adawehi’s arc plays out—making it more about Claire and developing the character solely for the purpose of making her death dramatic—is just lazy writing, made even lazier by the ways it perpetuates the historical confinement of indigenous characters to background roles. Outlander seems desperate to tell a story about race and colonialism and yet can’t quite get a strong grasp on the conflict. It sends mixed messages, attempting to humanize the Cherokee as a contrast to the way Mueller sees them but only doing so through the eyes of Claire, once again positioning her as a white savior. Adawehi deserved better. Outlander should strive for better if it’s going to take on the really serious and important themes this season seems steeped in and yet not quite equipped to handle. Watching Claire go about her day as Pioneer Claire might be fun little filler, but it also serves to play down what the real implications of Fraser’s Ridge are.


Stray observations

  • Maybe Adawehi’s death will have continued ripple effects in the show’s plot and for Claire emotionally. I certainly hope so, especially since Outlander is very much a show that doesn’t forget about people. It would be especially troubling if this character just died and then was never really thought of again.
  • Um what’s up with that silversmith’s wife who is so horny for Jamie? Was the purpose of that just to remind us that Jamie is hot?
  • Ian just still feels like unnecessary baggage. I miss Fergus.
  • Rolo is the true hero of season four.
  • The way Brianna’s hair is styled at the end of the episode really does make her look like such a mix of Claire and Jamie.

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