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Illustration for article titled Outlander goes all in on romance but keeps over-relying on one-off characters
Image: Outlander (Starz)
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Week to week, Outlander decides what kind of show it’s going to be. It’s an impressive and occasionally overwhelming smashing together of many genres. Last week presented some sort of medical-horror parable. This week, we’re thrown pretty all-in on a period romance, tapping into the show’s persistent, stubborn belief in love.

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Claire and Jamie continue the voyage to meet the Regulators, breaking for a bit in a town called Brownsville. By the time they meet up with their militia there, Roger has already bungled a snag with the locals, who accuse one of the militia’s men, Morton, of sleeping with a young woman and therefore messing up the arranged marriage prepared for her. Roger is confronted with about a million things he isn’t equipped to deal with. The cultural expectations are foreign to him, and most of his conflict resolution skills have been confined to the classroom previously.

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Underneath this scuffle in Brownsville is a more compelling family drama. Roger and Jamie do not like each other. Jamie wears this pretty plainly, practically rolling his eyes when Roger launches into a speech that begins with the phrase “when I was a professor at Oxford.” Tension between father-in-law and son-in-law is much more interesting than tension between a colonel and his captain. There are real stakes here, especially since Roger seems so desperate for approval.

While the overarching narrative is still sprawling on this show, Outlander has been providing little thematic vignettes by way of new minor characters and mini conflicts within the larger ones. We might still be on our way to face-off with the Regulators, and there is suspense to that uncertainty, since Brianna and Claire aren’t aware of any major battles that historically took place between these factions in this time and yet every choice Claire and Jamie make could in fact alter history. But that concern is in the distance. For now, we’re positioned more firmly in the condensed saga of Morton and Ally, and Outlander is pretty explicit about the fact that these two characters—like the Beardsleys last week—are symbolic devices for the episode’s central message. Which is essentially that love conquers all.

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It hits this message with rather overwrought force. Morton literally spells it all out, saying that he knows Jamie and Roger would do the same in his shoes if they were told they couldn’t be with the women they love. Outlander has long been about the risks and sacrifices people make for romance, and while it’s absolutely schmaltzy at times, this glowy, gushing heart it has is an endearing part of the show. It has, since the start, ultimately been an epic romance, tapping into several other genres along the way. We don’t know Morton and Ally enough to really be that invested in their own story, but it’s clear what they represent.

Still, it’s a little odd that Outlander isn’t as focused on telling these stories through characters who have deeper histories and stakes on the show. Morton and Ally are steeped in cliche and surface-level writing. The twist of Morton’s marriage gets paved over pretty quickly when he insists that he and his previous wife were unhappy and not sleeping together. Ally becomes a flatly rendered damsel who tries to take her own life because she has tied her entire worth to this man. It would be one thing if Outlander actually grappled with the cultural forces at play here, like the fact that society rooms young women who have sex out of wedlock but not men. It’s positioned well to deal with some of these gendered expectations, since that’s the role Claire usually plays, calling out certain norms and behaviors that seem antiquated to her. Claire indeed shows a lot of empathy to Ally, but Outlander fails to go too deep into the cultural constraints at play in the conflict between Ally and Morton, instead settling for a simple love story that’s pretty uncomplicated in the end.

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As a result of telling this specific side story, the episode also doesn’t spend very much time with Brianna back at the Ridge. We pop in a bit to see that she’s very much dealing with the trauma of knowing Bonnett is still alive and could show up to hurt her or claim Jemmy. There’s a lovely scene between Marsali and Brianna that touches on both of their histories with depth and empathy. But it’s almost like the writers still aren’t quite sure what to do with either Brianna or Roger. This season keeps shifting focus from them to tell stories about one-off characters.

Even the season’s grasp on Jamie and Claire has been a little loose. A standout scene in the episode involves them and their complicated history together. They’ve had an unconventional relationship, to say the least. And whenever the show confronts that head on, unspooling their emotions surrounding all the forces that have gotten in their way over the years, it makes for very compelling character work that does indeed sell the romance of their love story. Jamie laments that he never got to see Claire with a baby before. Claire laments that they never parented together. A cute drunken conversation becomes a chance for them to talk about grief and longing in a way that reinforces their intimacy and all the obstacles that they’ve jumped through to be together. It also further contextualizes Jamie’s attachment to Brianna and his fears of losing her and Jemmy so soon. Jamie and Claire missed so many milestones during their time apart. Their relationship is marked with gaps and loss. And that’s all more captivating storytelling than the interlude of Morton and Ally, even if the latter does examine similar themes and feel at place within the show’s romantic ethos.

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Stray observations

  • When Morton says that Roger or Jamie would do the same as him, I kind of wonder if that’s actually true for Roger...when Jamie sends him back to the Ridge, he doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to reunite with his love. He’s dismayed at having not proven himself to Jamie, and that seems more tied up in some of his insecurities rather than having to do with his love for Brianna. It’s often difficult to parse out whether Roger and Brianna are supposed to parallel Claire and Jamie or be a contrasting juxtaposition to them.
  • Roger sings so much now that I’m almost ready to start calling this a musical in addition to its other 75 different genres.
  • Jamie can dance! Even Claire didn’t know!
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