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Outlander dances around the dark parts of America's history instead of tackling them head on

Illustration for article titled iOutlander/i dances around the dark parts of Americas history instead of tackling them head on
Image: Outlander (Starz)
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If there’s one thing we can consistently count on Claire and Jamie Fraser for, it’s the fact that they will always and forever be extremely horny for each other. They can barely get through the process of marking the boundaries of the 10,000 acres of land parceled out to Jamie by the governor of North Carolina—a deal with the devil that Claire did a rather brisk 180 on after initially warning Jamie it would mean eventually fighting on the wrong side of history again—without putting their hands all over each other and nearly banging against a tree. Even the tedious business of colonizing the Blue Ridge Mountains can’t stop these lovebirds!

On that colonizing note...Outlander once again finds itself in a pickle when it comes to Claire and Jamie’s place in history. This season is attempting to open up the show’s world and to acknowledge some of the very real racism, politics, and tensions of the time. In “Common Ground,” that means finally actually introducing Native American characters instead of just having them be a concept other characters on the show talk about. But that introduction is rife with stereotypes and, more troublingly, odd undertones that position Claire and Jamie as victims and the Cherokee tribe they now share this land with as a threat. Everything from the music cues to the way the scenes are shot frame this narrative in very stark terms, centering Jamie and Claire’s fear and viewing the Cherokee through their white, colonialist eyes.


The Cherokee return the stakes Jamie used to mark “his” new land as a message, and Claire suggests that they settle elsewhere, but Jamie is determined. He goes on about how the mountains have spoken to him, which, sure. But wasn’t it Jamie himself mere episodes ago who lambasted the displacement of Native Americans when Claire first explained to him how British settlers pushed tribes out of their lands? Didn’t he, on some level, relate to that plight as a Highlander? And sure, he vows to coexist peacefully, believes there’s compromise to be made, but he’s still actively participating in the colonization of these mountains. Outlander seems, once again, to want to have things both ways, bending over backwards to establish Jamie and Claire as the good guys, even as they actively participate in evils of history.

The “Common Ground” the episode’s title refers to ends up being more of a common threat. Jamie and Claire’s makeshift new home in the woods gets ransacked by what they initially presume to be a bear but turns out to be a man who was exiled from the tribe for committing rape and now attacks people throughout the mountain range dressed as a bear. He mauls their new pal John Quincy Myers, forcing Jamie out into the woods to kill the attacker, which earns him some trust from the Cherokee as well as a new nickname: Bear Killer. Once again, Jamie is the savior.

The whole plot is full of very conventional tropes, and the conflict is never really fully dealt with. Jamie and Claire never really have to grapple with what it means that they’re now European settlers on Cherokee land. And the Native American characters aren’t really developed beyond broad strokes. We don’t see personalities or distinct attributes but rather just decontextualized cultural traditions. We’re introduced to Adawehi, a healer like Claire who prophesies darkness in Claire’s future (more on that in a bit). But again, she seems here mostly just to add some mystical color to the story rather than function as a fully realized character.

Perhaps Claire and Jamie won’t even have to worry about the logistics of fighting in the Revolutionary War, because according to a document Fiona suddenly chooses to pull out of a random drawer, Claire and Jamie die by fire in an unspecified year some time in the 1770s (they first start settling Fraser’s Ridge in 1768). That’s a pretty significant piece of information that adds some genuine suspense to the story, and Outlander reveals it fairly late in the episode, making for a solid cliffhanger, especially given the dramatic irony of watching Jamie and Claire plan a blissful future of watching sunrises together at Fraser’s Ridge.


It’s easily the most thrilling part of “Common Ground,” suddenly providing an even more explicit bridge between the two timelines. Presumably, someone’s going to have to save Claire and Jamie and alter history. And as we know, both Roger and Brianna have the ability to travel through the stones, portended in season two when they can hear the stones buzz. Sure enough, Brianna is already on her way to the stones, which Roger learns when he finally makes the right decision to call up Brianna and tell her what he has learned about her mother’s fate (at least, we’re led to believe that’s what he decides, though it’s hard to know for sure since he isn’t able to reach her).

Brianna and Roger’s storyline in particular needs this jolt of energy. As charming as the two characters are, and as good as Outlander is at romance, their relationship doesn’t quite carry the same invigorating weight as Claire and Jamie’s, and the stakes have never felt quite as high for them either. But a race back in time to save Claire and Jamie certainly lights a fire underneath them. Their scenes in “Common Ground” admittedly drag. When Roger first calls up Brianna to tell her about Fraser’s Ridge, we spend a lot of time on a phone call that doesn’t necessarily reveal new information to us. But it’s the silences in between Roger’s words that are meant to be the real focus, that lingering tension between two people who clearly care about each other but aren’t really sure how to proceed in the wake of a bungled marriage proposal. But Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin don’t quite have the command to really drive that tension home. Outlander always takes at least a few episodes to really find its footing, but even just the hint at a lining up of the two storylines is exciting and could give the season the focus it needs.


Stray observations

  • Everyone in this show’s universe is so chill about time travel, which I kind of love.
  • Claire’s mountain outfits have been so good, and I always love when she wears pants.
  • Good thing Ian won that wolf, otherwise none of them would ever know when danger was present!
  • Claire seems tickled by thinking of Jamie knitting.
  • How lowkey pissed do you think Claire and Jamie are to be sharing their mountain shack with Ian and therefore unable to have hot forest sex?
  • On that note, is Ian really servicing the story in any way right now?
  • Claire talking about missing Brianna early on in the episode is a nice little moment.

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