Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies (Starz)

My favorite moment on Outlander thus far happens in the last five minutes of “The Garrison Commander,” but it’s so tonally different from the rest of the episode—the bloodiest and most harrowing to date—that it’ll have to wait until the end. For now, let’s jump into the super scary shit that goes down this week.

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“The Garrison Commander” follows the usual pattern Outlander has fallen into in recent episodes: introducing a glimmer of hope for Claire, only to snatch it away and cast her back into the throes of this perilous world. The hope, this time, comes in the form of the British army, who apprehend Claire along with the MacKenzie men she’s traveling with. Claire notes the difference in the way these men look at and treat her: like she isn’t a sassenach, like she’s one of them.

But in a classic Claire move, she becomes a tad too comfortable. Speaking her mind by telling Dougal and a British lieutenant that they’re acting like children earns her the respect of the redcoats. But speaking her mind to say the highlands belong to the Scots and not to the King earns her nothing but instant distrust and suspicion.

I’ve noted before that Outlander avoids making a damsel of Claire. Sure, she’s constantly in danger and often bailed out by men, but the sticky situations she finds herself in aren’t the result of stupidity or naiveté. Claire’s fiercely smart, but above all else, she’s confident. It’s a quality not usually afforded to female characters, who get to sometimes be intelligent and good at what they do, but never too loud about it. Arrogance is associated with normative constructions of masculinity; most of the MacKenzie’s bafflement at Claire stems not just from the fact that she’s brazen, but that she’s a brazen woman. So yes, Claire gets a little too self-assured sometimes. She doesn’t hold her tongue and she sometimes forgets where—and when—she is, letting forth the unfiltered thoughts of the 20th-century woman we met in the pilot, and those thoughts get her into trouble. She’s no damsel; she’s like the proud, fearless knight of storybooks.

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And highlanders and redcoats alike don’t like it one bit. The longer she stays in this time and place, the more dangerous it becomes for Claire to be herself. Her survival instincts are strong, but her enemies are becoming more and more formidable. This week’s Outlander sees the return of Captain Jack Randall, and the episode ends up belonging mostly to Tobias Menzies and his bone-chilling performance.

The meat of the episode all takes place in the same room, as Randall divulges in slicing detail exactly how he publicly punished Jamie, leading to the scars that have become so defining of the character. Outlander takes us into the dark depths of Randall’s fucked up mind, and it quickly becomes clear that Randall doesn’t just possess the run-of-the-mill violent and patriarchal tendencies of the other men in Claire’s new life. He’s a monster who believes he’s a god. The show again succeeds in putting us right in the shoes of our protagonist; I felt trapped there with Claire, lured in by Randall’s eerily calm tone as he relays his horrifying tale.

This of course isn’t the first time television has taken us deep into the psyche of a monster: Dexter gave us eight seasons of it; Game of Thrones took us behind the curtain of young psychopath Joffrey Baratheon’s most twisted atrocities; over the course of Breaking Bad, we watched Walter White slip further and further into his violent megalomania. But there’s something striking about the way Outlander’s writers—and Menzies’s nuanced performance—build the tension of this character exposé. It’s not necessarily the images of Randall brutalizing Jamie that terrifies but the way Randall recalls it: relaxed, almost fondly, so that when he sharply turns on Claire, we’re as taken off guard as she is. It again highlights Outlander’s success at relying on character work and dialogue over action and gore to excite. Don’t get me wrong: It’s an undeniably bloody and hard-to-watch episode, but the writers never sacrifice the writing for the sake of violent spectacle.

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“The Garrison Commander” is without a doubt the darkest episode of Outlander thus far, and now that we’ve waded through the serious stuff, let’s talk about those last five minutes which, as I said up top, contain my personal favorite Outlander reveal. In an admittedly uncharacteristic move, Claire tells Jamie she isn’t a virgin. She worries about how he might view her now that they are to be wed (a plot Dougal has cooked up in order to provide Claire with legal protections). Jamie replies that he does not mind that she’s not a virgin, so long as she doesn’t mind that he is. Jamie, our romantic lead, is a virgin!

Virginity, of course, shouldn’t be such a big deal, but in this particular context, the reveal further supports my theory that Outlander gender-fucks assumptions about the romance and adventure genres. How many virginal young maidens have we met—on television, in movies, in books—who must be “corrupted” and taught the ways of carnal pleasure by their confident counterparts? A lot. But Jamie and Claire continue to subvert expectations.

Stray observations:

  • It must be noted that this episode is perfectly acted from start to finish, and not only by Menzies. Caitriona Balfe has significantly less dialogue than usual but nails every subtle expression of fear and uncertainty.
  • Okay, seriously though. Would Claire really care if Jamie cares whether she’s a virgin or not? That kind of goes against everything we know about her. But it sets up Jamie for the amazing reveal, so I’ll let it slide.
  • How do we think Frank would react to knowing his ancestor is a terrible, murderous, merciless villain?
  • The attention to detail in the costuming of this show continues to impress me.
  • When is Geillis coming back?!

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