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Illustration for article titled iOutlander/i gives Jamie and Claire an urgent, scary side-quest
Image: Outlander (Starz)
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Though it started with a wedding, season five of Outlander wastes no time mounting several sources of conflict at the edges of Fraser’s Ridge. The most pressing, at the moment, seems to be the increasing tension between the Regulators and the government. Jamie finds himself on both sides of the war: the Regulators are led by his friends, and he’s legally bound in allegiance to the government because of his land deal. “Free Will” finally entwines Jamie and Claire’s storylines, which makes for a less fractured episode than last. Claire joins Jamie and the other men as they set forth to confront the Regulators, leaving behind Brianna to look over Fraser’s Ridge and Marsali to make and observe mold in Claire’s ongoing quest to defy history and invent penicillin.

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Merely watching Jamie, Claire, and the others travel to Hillsborough wouldn’t, however, make a particularly exciting episode, so Outlander instead interrupts the journey with a side-quest for Jamie and Claire that makes “Free Will” pretty much a bottle episode by Outlander standards. It all starts with Josiah, the former thief and current hunter introduced at the beginning of the season. Turns out he’s got an identical twin who became deaf after being repeatedly beaten by Mr. Beardsley, the man they’re indentured to. Josiah escaped and has now returned to help his twin Kezzie escape. All of this lead up makes for some of the slowest parts of the episode, but once Jamie and Claire arrive at the Beardsley home, the real meat of the episode begins.

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It starts as a Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark-meets-Outlander interlude. Indoor goats, an awful stench that leads to a body in the attic, lots of strange and unsettling details that plop Claire and Jamie into an uncertain and foreboding tale. Once the full picture comes into focus, it is indeed a very haunting story that, while seeming like a tangent on a story level, engages with a lot of Outlander’s most pressing themes. Beardsley’s wife—his fifth it turns out—has been torturing him in the attic after he had a stroke, repeatedly burning his feet and providing him with just enough food to live. She doesn’t want Claire to save him; she doesn’t want to kill him. She wants him to die slowly. As a doctor, Claire feels compelled to help. But she also knows that this is an evil man.

Outlander has often seen Jamie and Claire through specific moral quandaries, complicated by Claire’s convictions as a doctor. The issue of Beardsley’s fate touches on the notion of revenge and what revenge can truly accomplish for someone. Jamie once obsessed over revenge against Black Jack, a contentious point in his relationship with Claire. That history comes up in “Free Will” when Jamie reveals to Claire that Bonnet is indeed alive. She appears concerned that Jamie will once again become obsessed with revenge, this time on the behalf of Brianna. Bonnet is not seen in the episode, but the threat of his presence is fully felt and is one of the most terrifying conflicts brewing this season.

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Brianna’s sidelined for now, too, so we also don’t get more of her emotional processing, and it’s frustrating that Outlander often centers Jamie and Roger’s reactions to Bonnet’s violence over Brianna’s. But in any case, the suspense of how Bonnet might eventually burst back into their lives is fully felt, seeping into this episode. And that particular threat is much more interesting on a character and story level than the ongoing Regulators stuff.

The Beardsley side-quest also brings to the surface another pressing personal issue between Jamie and Claire. She wants Roger and Brianna to return to their own time as soon as they know Jemmy can time-travel, and Jamie wants them to stay. Jamie tries to say that this is the only world to exist in, but even he on some level knows that isn’t true. Penicillin isn’t the only thing that makes the future safer. There’s only so much Claire can do in the past. There are too many cultural, societal, structural differences that make these two timelines disparate. Keeping the family together comes with the consequence of making life harder on so many levels, especially in terms of raising a kid. “Free Will,” as its name suggests, concerns so many difficult questions like this.

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It’s a rather psychologically driven episode of Outlander. There’s little action, but it still crafts suspense and tension in visceral ways. The Beardsleys do feel like characters that stand on their own, but they also represent larger ideas of violence, trauma, punishment, revenge, sacrifice. Jamie and Claire so often have to decide what is right on this show, facing obstacles that create paradoxes. “Free Will” zooms in on a very specific scenario that pushes and pulls them in these ways, and while it does indeed feel like a tangent, it’s one that allows for a lot of zoomed-in, layered character moments instead of getting too bogged down in plot as some of the more sprawling episodes of this show do. There’s a clear and satisfying arc here, more short story than a chapter of the narrative.


Stray observations

  • Was anyone else completely taken off guard by the sheer amount of birds in the dramatic shot after Jamie’s gun fires? Outlander loves a dramatic image, but that was just far too many birds! An obscene amount of birds! And then we see them again in the final shot! Symbolism, yes. But that’s just too many birds.
  • “I feel like Scarlett O’Hara.” Brianna over-romanticizes the details of her life a lot, which is especially annoying in terms of her relative chillness about plantations.
  • Would Claire and Jamie give the same considerations to Bonnet that they afford Mr. Beardsley? Probably not!
  • Marsali is becoming one of my favorite characters. More Marsali!
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