Leave it to Outlander to follow one of its most idle episodes with one so full of fun, emotion, and action that every act delivers more and more excitement. “The Search” builds in a way that an episode near the end of a season should,
Jamie never appears in the episode, but he’s at its heart, the sole reason why so many characters put their lives on the line in this action-packed hour. Central to “The Search”—and to Outlander in general—is the idea that love conquers all. Love has convinced both Jamie and Claire to make life-altering decisions. Jamie doesn’t freak out when Claire tells him she’s from the future, because he loves and trusts her, and it’s enough to make him believe in a little bit of magic. Claire’s love for Jamie leads her to make the most life-altering choice she has made all season.
It might be tempting to write off Outlander’s love of love as cheesy, but why? Prestige dramas are so devoid of romance that Outlander feels refreshing, revolutionary even. Part of my problem with How To Get Away With Murder was the series’s repeated insistence that romance isn’t real, that relationships are only built on lies and manipulations. Marriages never last on Mad Men. Scandal certainly acknowledges the power of love, repeatedly, with one character even comparing Olivia Pope to Helen of Troy: the face that launched a thousand ships. But the romance on Scandal is much more toxic than what we see on Outlander. Olivia and Fitz bring out the worst in one another—not unlike Peter and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife—and even though Claire and Jamie are often blinded by their love for each other, which leads them to make very rash and dangerous decisions, their love isn’t poisonous. So many antiheroes of prestige television are driven by power, money, control. Outlander’s two heroes are driven by love, and that’s as convincing of a motivation as anything else, especially when Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are so steadfastly committed to capturing their characters’ passion for one another, whether it’s in the sex scenes or in an episode like “The Search,” where Balfe does all the work on her own.
Outlander doesn’t just give power to romantic love. Jenny and Murtagh help Claire on her seemingly impossible quest to save Jamie because of their love for him, too. Murtagh, it turns out, was in love with Jamie and Jenny’s mother and considers Jamie a son. Both Murtagh and Jenny are as fiercely committed to the mission as Claire, their love of Jamie propelling them onward. The episode’s first act unfolds as a quasi-buddy-cop adventure between Claire and Jenny, and their bonding here stands on firmer foundation than their plot together last week since they’re united by the shared goal of saving Jamie. Jenny plays bad cop to Claire’s good cop as they capture a Redcoat courier. Jenny and Claire play the role of rescuers, effectively gender-fucking assumptions about who saves who in the typical adventure tale. I’ve always maintained that Outlander is best when it doesn’t draw gendered lines between heroes, victims, and villains. By episode’s end, Claire is leading a team of men to storm the walls of Wentworth prison, which is almost exactly what Jamie did for her only a few episodes ago.
But before that even happens, she and Jenny make fine outlaws according to Murtagh’s observations. The British courier they capture is so hung up on gender roles that he hardly takes his own peril seriously, degrading Claire and Jenny even as he’s tied up and powerless. He doesn’t see women as a viable threat, even when they’re the ones holding the guns. But Claire and Jenny are self-assured knights with a mission. Disagreement arises once they get their information from him, as Claire prepares to bandage his wounds. Jenny tells Claire they can’t let him live, but as they argue, Murtagh makes the call for them, slitting the man’s throat. Later, Claire reveals to Jenny that she wasn’t judging her decision to kill him; she was just scared by her own instincts, as she knew she would have done it herself if Murtagh hadn’t arrived when he did. Even though she doesn’t end up crossing that line, the writers make it very clear that she would have, and that gives us a powerful understanding of just how far Claire is willing to go. “Love forces a person to choose,” Jenny says. It is, unfortunately, a bit of a cop out that Claire doesn’t end up having to make that difficult choice of whether to kill the courier or not. But Claire becoming a murderer might have changed the character, and the show, too irrevocably.
“The Search” is also just one of the most fun episodes Outlander has had in a while. Normally with this show, fun would mean something along the lines of cunnilingus in a castle, but here it means making Caitriona Balfe sing and dance. Specifically, she sings and dances in drag, as Claire and Murtagh realize the key to spicing up Murtagh’s act is adding in the Sassenach, dressed as a lad, singing crude Scottish tunes. Balfe’s “oh fuck” just before Claire’s first performance comes out so naturally that if it wasn’t ad libbed, it was certainly the finest reading of the line she could possibly give. I’ve always enjoyed Outlander’s slice-of-life scenes, like the women’s washing song from “Rent,” and “The Search” offers a lot of glimpses into cultural specificities as Claire and Murtagh move between villages. Claire’s palm readings are a nice, subtle callback to the show’s pilot.
Claire has played the hero before, but “The Search” is the most explicit Outlander has ever been in positioning her as the story’s knight. Whether she’s dealing with Murtagh or the men who steal their act or even with Dougal, it remains clear that she’s the one in charge. She rewrites the terms of Dougal’s offer to suit her and her need to try to save Jamie. In her show with Murtagh, Claire plays a man, and in “The Search,” she plays the roguish outlaw, a character type usually gendered as male, and she does so with a natural ease. The men of this world look at her like she’s somewhere she doesn’t belong, doing things she shouldn’t be allowed to do, but Claire doesn’t let that stop her from carrying on as is. Young Jenny was just the same, finding her own stealthy ways to gain equal footing with Ian and Jamie when they were all kids. She and Claire are convincing, formidable heroes in this tale, and that’s a lot more fun and subversive than Jamie swooping in to save the day.
- As much as I love the dresses Claire wears, I would like to petition for her to only wear her drag getup for the rest of time…or, at the very least, the hat:
- Ever since Claire came clean to Jamie about being from the future, she has gotten pretty sloppy about her secret. Tonight, she accidentally alludes to telephones, uses the word “jazz,” and single “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
- “We won’t talk about Geillis today.” Why, Dougal?! I need to know what happened to Geillis!
- Claire is also finally playing the role of prophet, telling Jenny all about the impending famine and war.