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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iOutlander /isoars with setting but falters with character when Brianna and Bonnet collide
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Outlander’s set pieces and landscapes are a huge part of its visual appeal. Like any period piece, it’s driven heavily by aesthetics. Outlander has had the opportunity to take its characters all over the world at this point, setting specific moods in each place, using the landscape to detail and interplay with the story. Much of the drama of “Mercy Shall Follow Me” unfolds on the seaside. It’s a departure from the rolling hills and relative containment of Fraser’s Ridge. The sea is vast, the gray sky ominous and smothering. The views are breathtaking, but there’s also a hint of danger. And danger indeed abounds.

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But first, some sweetness. We don’t get to see a lot of intimate moments between Claire and Brianna. Their relationship has often been strained in the past, especially since Brianna was so close to Frank when they were in their own time and Claire was so distant following her separation from Jamie. Watching Claire and Brianna reminisce and connect on the beach here is touching. It’s a nice break from the otherwise plot-heavy, high-stakes suspense of the episode.

The early beach scenes do a lot at once, deepening this mother-daughter relationship and imbuing it with specificity. Brianna and Claire race on the beach in the same way they did on Cape Cod in their own time. The scene also provides a brief reflection on the differences between the natural world in their new time and their old time. Claire and Brianna watch whales here, noting that by the end of the 19th century, whalers will have wiped out most of the population. It’s a special moment, and scenes that directly acknowledge the time-travel aspect of the show help ground it, giving deeper meaning to the overall premise.

It’s an idyllic scene, but it’s also undercut by the hints that Claire and Brianna are being watched. As Bonnet says later in the episode: “The sea is a treacherous place where creatures prey on one another.” These sweeping seascapes are in equal measure beautiful and haunting. And the second a group of different men show up to meet Ian, Roger, and Jamie, the stakes immediately spike. Their plan unravels, and soon Bonnet reveals himself at Wylie’s Landing where Brianna and Claire are.

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The episode sharply transitions to the house where Bonnet takes Brianna, making her his prisoner. The setting is effective here, too. The dissonance between the beauty and openness of this house and the fact that Brianna is trapped by her rapist is sharp. The physical effects of Brianna’s trauma are immediately apparent, Sophie Skelton giving one of her best performances to date. Brianna bristles when Bonnet says anything about Jemmy. She carries herself cautiously, unsure what might set off his rage. Their dinner together is terrifying. The sense that he could snap at any point is fully felt in every interaction.

But here’s where the episode also breaks down a bit, some of the cracks in the character development of Bonnet widening. Bonnet has been depicted as a violent psychopath since his introduction to the series, and this episode reaches a little too far to humanize aspects of him. He shares with Brianna that he suffers what sound like panic attacks, and he details a trauma from his past. At times, he’s shown as someone who just doesn’t know how to behave properly, Bonnet asking Brianna to teach him manners and how to act like a gentleman. The episode flits between infantilizing him and then re-establishing that he’s a total monster. When he detects that Brianna isn’t invested in their kiss, he forces her to watch him have sex with a prostitute. And he also arranges to sell her to another violent captain. It’s never made explicitly clear if Bonnet asking to be taught to love is all an act or if it’s supposed to be an attempt to hint at something deeper and more human in him.

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If it’s the latter, it’s certainly a clumsy attempt. Brianna muses on character motives: love, revenge, money. She rightfully accuses him of being driven by money—he wants River Run after all. But Bonnet also tries to insist there’s more to it, expressing interest in Jemmy and how to comfort him. It ends up being a muddled rendering of Bonnet’s motives. In attempting to make the character more complex, the writing is weak and confusing. “There are two sides to every story; you don’t know mine,” Bonnet says. And yet, we never fully learn his supposed side to the story? And even if we did, there’s nothing that could make this character empathetic. He’s a habitual rapist.

Bonnet meets his poetic fate though, sentenced to death by drowning—proof that his nightmares of the sea really were a premonition. And then, at last, Brianna gets the final say. Sort of. I have long lamented the fact that Brianna seems to have little agency in this part of her arc, Roger and Jamie positioned as her avengers. Watching Brianna re-traumatized in this episode is tough. Seeing her shoot Bonnet in the head is genuinely cathartic. But then Roger has to interject and suggest that maybe she was showing him mercy by doing it, which brings us back around to the men in Brianna’s life making assumptions and trying to seize control of her narrative. Suggesting that Brianna could be showing her abuser mercy undercuts the moment and plays into gendered notions of victimhood. Hopefully with Bonnet gone, the show will find new ways to incorporate Brianna into the bigger picture of the show that doesn’t constantly involve sexual assault.

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Stray observations

  • Excuse me, does Brianna have Moby Dick...memorized?!
  • Bonnet supposedly not being able to figure out how to act like a good and caring person but then also having the emotional intelligence to discern that Brianna is faking that kiss is yet another example of the inconsistency with which this character is written!
  • Wylie is such a piece of shit.
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