Image: Outlander (Starz)
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Outlander doesn’t often put its time-travel conceit at the forefront of the show, but every once in a while it imparts messages on history and time. Claire and Jamie have tried and failed to change history before. And the season four finale reiterates the notion that it’s not so easy to change the course of history, that systems of power are hard to overcome.

Claire and Jamie finally arrive at the camp where Roger is being held by the Mohawk tribe. Their attempts to make a trade for Roger are quickly thwarted when Claire reveals the necklace she’s wearing, the one she took off a corpse of a fellow time traveler. We learn, through a lengthy though elegantly shot sequence, that the necklace belonged to Otter Tooth, a time traveler who tried to warn the Mohawk people that they would be wiped out by the white man. He warns that they will be forgotten, that no one will tell their stories, and that everything they are will be lost. His warnings of genocide go unheeded, and his people in fact became convinced he was possessed with a demon and cast him out of their tribe, eventually killing him. It’s a bleak message to send: even armed with the knowledge of impending genocide, little can be done to stop it.

In the present, the storyline all falls apart pretty quickly. Claire and Jamie swear to help the Mohawk people who agree to assist them in saving Roger. But when they’re all caught and those members of the tribe are banished forever, they do little to speak up. Throughout the finale, the pieces are moved a lot in clunky ways, the pacing lagging. This season has been sprawling and unfocused, and it unsurprisingly culminates in a sprawling and unfocused finale. There’s so much moving around before we get to the real heart of this particular storyline: Ian exchanging places with Roger.

Jamie, of course, first volunteers to stay behind, and Claire barely has time to protest. But in a fairly predictable move, Ian stays behind instead, and our lovers don’t have to be separated yet again. Ian’s main storyline this season has been “intrigued by Native people,” so it’s fitting that he’s willing to make this choice. And he swiftly proves more worthy of place within the community than Roger did by making his way through the gauntlet capably. That sequence unfolds in tandem with an equally violent scene of Roger beating the crap out of Jamie as payback. The priorities of this finale are confusing. Way too much time and gravitas is provided to this sequence of cutting between two violent scenes that don’t really lend that much to the story. It’s a rare centering of violence for the sake of violence that this show usually doesn’t dabble in.

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Meanwhile, the conclusion of Brianna’s arc this season barely gets any time at all. There’s one standout scene where she talks with Murtagh about meeting with Bonnet. He asks Brianna if she forgave him, and she says as close as she could come to it. When he asks if it brought her peace, she says “some, enough.” Sophie Skelton delivers these sparse short but powerful lines very well, conveying the complexity of Brianna’s catharsis. But we don’t spend very much time in these feelings at all or even in Brianna’s perspective of anything.

Instead, there’s much more of a focus on Roger’s reaction to learning about Brianna’s assault. Claire tells him everything, and when Roger admits to knowing Bonnet, Jamie yet again reacts violently, blaming Roger for leaving her alone and for not doing more to prevent this. The two men fight back and forth, Roger having the same blood thirsty reaction as Jamie did when he first found out about Brianna’s rape. This is Brianna’s story, and yet she’s barely in it. Instead, we just watch Roger react to it, watch Jamie and Roger take their frustration out on each other. Instead of showing gentle concern for the woman they both love in different ways, they only want revenge. Jamie and Roger seem caught up in a game of macho defense mechanisms.

And on top of everything, Outlander still never really engages with the race issues it has danced around all season. Brianna’s friendship with Phaedra is a weak stab at justifying Brianna’s unchallenged presence at River Run. Outlander never really affords the Mohawk people the nuanced understanding and control over the narrative that it occasionally preaches about, and Claire and Jamie again never really lend their help to the people who risk their own lives to help them.

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By the time we get to Roger and Brianna running toward each other in an open field for their big reunion, it feels like so much and yet nothing at all has happened. Much of the narrative this season has been disparate and broad. The political conflict surrounding the Regulators never became a full fledged idea, so to end on a cliffhanger that hinges on it is strange. There have been compelling threads throughout, and Jamie and Claire’s relationship does often anchor the story even in its most chaotic moments.

But as a whole, the season has struggled to bring its many threads together into a cohesive piece, and the stakes often just aren’t there, especially when it comes to Brianna and Roger, whose relationship has not unfolded with the same kind of natural ease as Jamie and Claire’s has. That’s not to say that their relationship should be without problems, but even the conflict often felt unnatural. And their big romantic ending is a bit empty. The finale reinforces a lot of the season’s ongoing problems to really bring its central stories to life, stalled by pacing and distracted by a sprawling narrative that never allows for enough character development. In America, Outlander became scattered and lost.


Stray observations

  • What a strange but not entirely bad season of Outlander this has been. On my wish list for next season is a lot more focus, more character development for Brianna, less sexual assault, and more Claire? Is it just me or was this season bizarrely light on Claire?
  • Jamie saying “I will return to you Sassenach” almost feels like a catchphrase at this point.
  • Jocasta and Murtagh getting together seems just so random?

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