“How many men had I seen killed at war?” Claire asks for a second time in the opening scene of “Prestonpans.” She pauses just long enough for the question to swell into a beast bigger than mere words. “Far, far too many,” she answers herself.
The centerpiece of “Prestonpans” is its titular battle. Philip John, who made his Outlander debut last week, has quite the eye for battle shots, directing the most action-packed parts of the episode with an eerie elegance. The battle is nothing short of spectacular, particularly as the camera follows young Fergus, bewildered by the chaos and gore that surround him—chaos that’s silent and in slow-motion…until it isn’t. As the sound and real-time speed snaps back, we’re thrown into a sonic and visual storm, blades clashing, blood spurting, men crying out in pain and in the fevered rush that comes with battle. The battle lasts just 15 minutes according to Jamie and Murtagh, and those minutes are condensed into even fewer in the episode, and yet the extreme violence and intensity of all the battle scenes make them feel much longer than they are. No doubt, those 15 minutes feel infinitely long to someone like young Fergus, who never could have imagined the bloodshed he was walking toward. Thrown in fog, the battle is disturbingly beautiful. Dougal Mackenzie and the other men—including Jamie—indeed seem to revel in their attack, understanding the horrors of it all but being drawn to it nonetheless. Dougal most of all becomes consumed by his thirst for slaughter. Manic and righteous, he walks amid the carnage when it’s all over, driving his sword into any redcoats who might still be drawing breath. He even mercilessly guts the British soldier who helped him and Claire back in season one. Dougal is not to be fucked with.
In some ways, “Prestonpans” gets too engulfed in the grandeur of these wartime scenes. A scene at the beginning that merely depicts Prince Charles’s leaders arguing over war strategies drags on for far too long. Many times during the episode, I found myself wondering where Claire was and why we weren’t spending more time with her. Outlander has always struggled to make its less Claire-centric episodes click. Jamie is a fierce warrior in battle, but even he seems like a more muted presence than usual. Save for quick moments just before and just after the battle, Claire and Jamie barely interact in the episode. And it’s always difficult for Outlander to hook when its most compelling force gets sidelined.
The writers are a little too transparent in their attempts to build the significance of Angus’s death, to the point where it starts to feel a bit like emotional pandering. The second Claire kissed Angus and not Rupert goodbye, I had the sinking feeling he would die in battle. His death is no doubt a significant part of the story, even if it is easy to see coming. Claire knew the outcome of the battle thanks to her freakishly good memory of historical facts. But she had no way of knowing how many lives would be lost or which lives would be lost. Being from the future gives her knowledge that’s useful on a macro scale, but when it comes to personal details, she knows just as much as anyone else. Angus dies a violent, terrifying death in her arms, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
There are several moments in “Prestonpans” that embody Outlander’s excellence at careful, emotional character work. The way Jamie and Claire treat Fergus leading up to the battle is purely delightful. They have come to love this young boy, and thanks to a brilliant comedic performance from young Romann Berrux, the character really is instantly lovable. Fergus is a kind and hardworking boy who can be a nuisance but undoubtedly loves Claire and Jamie as if they were his parents. Berrux is just as deft with the more serious stuff, too. Fergus telling Claire that he killed a man in the battle is easily the best scene of the episode—even better than the technical masterpiece that is the battle, because it’s so human, so raw, so intimate.
Ultimately, the sweeping, impersonal nature of all the battle scenes rings as thematically relevant for the episode. Murtagh has a bit of an existential crisis on the eve of the battle, remarking to Jamie that it would take thousands of deaths to give meaning to any losses in this war. If he were to die, it would not matter in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, in the battle scenes, there’s a delirium to it all, so that it’s difficult to tell the men apart. Their bodies clash and fall and split open, and it’s disturbingly difficult to see any semblance of humanity in any of it. My issue isn’t with the battle scenes themselves, but with many of the scenes that come before and after—which basically amount to a lot of men talking over each other. Jamie has a literal pissing contest at one point. Again: Where’s Claire? Claire and her team of under-trained but obedient women in the makeshift infirmary don’t get a lot of attention in the episode, even though they represent a different but equally devastating part of war. This episode is a bit more subtle than last week’s when it comes to portraying Claire’s wartime trauma, her experience with these horrors. She gets a very short speech to rally her fellow nurses. But Claire is really just shut out of this episode, which gets too caught up in all the talk of war. There are individual scenes that really drive home the true cost of war, but some scenes are too mechanical and detached for their own good, especially in the scenes that precede the battle.
- Jamie champions Dougal at the same time as exiling him. Jamie is becoming quite the expert leader, isn’t he?
- Does anyone else flinch every time the prince says “mark me?” The prince is just so sniveling and self-righteous, and it’s basically his catchphrase, so I’ve come to dislike it as much as I dislike him.
- The prince is also a terrible leader.
- Claire realizes that being right about this battle means she’s also probably right about Culloden. Despite their best efforts, history seems pretty set in stone.
- Rupert’s face in the final shot is devastating.