Image: Outlander (Starz)

“If Not For Hope” fractures the core Outlander group once more, sending Jamie and Claire on a dangerous and—unbeknownst to them—ultimately pointless mission to retrieve Roger from the Mohawk tribe that Young Ian sold him to. Brianna, meanwhile, settles into her temporary new life on a plantation, overseen by Aunt Jocasta who immediately sets forth with trying to find a proper suitor for Brianna so that she doesn’t bring her child into the world as a fatherless bastard. Brianna, of course, is not a fan of this plan. So she resorts, inexplicably, to homophobic blackmail.

As I feared, Outlander doesn’t really engage much with Brianna’s cognitive dissonance of suddenly living on a plantation, surrounded by slaves. Much like the show often does with Jamie and Claire, she’s written in a way that attempts to absolve her of any accountability. She is kind to Phaedra, offers to draw her. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that Phaedra is still a broadly written character who’s more set dressing than fully realized person and seems to exist specifically in order to establish Brianna as a decent human. Brianna causes a bit of a stir when she publicly admits to having drawn Phaedra, but that’s about as much as Outlander touches on the subject.

And then Outlander throws more confounding choices into the mix when it comes to Brianna by suddenly making her capable of really harmful, violent blackmail. After witnessing Lord John Grey (yes, as he tends to do, he shows up out of nowhere, asked by Jamie to check in on Brianna) having sex with one of her potential male suitors, she decides to take her fate into her own hands and ask him to marry her. The arrangement, she insists, will give them both the freedom to do what they want. He first rejects the offer, which is when Brianna then tells him she’ll report his homosexual behaviors to the governor and other officials, knowing full well that this will destroy his entire life.

Uh, what? This season of Outlander has had an ongoing Brianna problem, and it keeps throwing fuel on that fire. It feels almost punishing of the show to strip this character of her agency only to then give it to her in this way. The move establishes her as impulsive and selfish, and while the former might be something we’ve seen from her in the past, the latter certainly is not.

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It comes out of nowhere and then she doesn’t even face any real consequences for it. She tells John she didn’t really mean it and, mere seconds after she has severely threatened him, they have a calm conversation about their personal struggles. It’s just not great character writing, and it’s another stark example of this season forcing inorganic, underdeveloped conflict into its narratives. John ultimately does agree to marry Brianna—not because of the blackmail but because he genuinely wants to help her out and also is still in love with Jamie and would probably do anything for him. So why go through the backbend of the blackmail in the first place? And to make matters even worse, John’s initial response to the blackmail is to imply that he could rape her. To go from that place to a sudden connection between the two is an unsettling tonal whiplash that doesn’t leave much room for convincing character work.

“If Not For Hope” also underscores this season’s pitfalls when it comes to its portrayal of Native cultures and peoples. Here, Claire explains to Jamie that movies in the future will only really present one side of the story, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction and rendering groups like the Mohawk tribe as villainous. But then that’s exactly what this episode does. Outlander presents only one side of the story. The episode’s final scene shows Roger getting beaten by his captors, stripped of any kind of context and framed in a way that indeed does not paint the Native people in a favorable light...exactly the way Claire describes the movies of the future. Outlander is playing into the exact same stereotypes and one-sided writing that it attempts to critique.

Fergus and Murtagh move forward with Jamie’s misguided plan to enact revenge on Bonnet, incapacitating him, but that remains unresolved for now, as does the ongoing political plot that Marsali and Fergus are also swept up in alongside Murtagh. Spreading out the narrative this episode allows Outlander to move forward in some non-Claire/Jamie areas. But undoubtedly the episode’s best bits do concern the central lovers, who have to go through the thorny business of making up in the wake of all the tension created by Jamie’s actions and Claire’s decision to hide something from him.

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Here lie Outlander’s strengths—the nuances, complexities, and very alive emotions that come with long-term romantic partnership. Claire has every right to be mad at Jamie, and Jamie has to work for forgiveness. But she still listens to him, assures him that there is room for that forgiveness, which she does grant. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are marvelous as ever here. The relationship between these characters feels so lived in that these scenes carry a particular weight that has been difficult to replicate in other areas of the show—namely, when it comes to Roger and Brianna. Much of the show hinges on the drama of them finding each other again and yet the stakes don’t feel nearly as high as they should.


Stray observations

  • Is it just me or does Brianna almost seem surprised that the white people of River Run are racist?
  • I love when the show shouts out how good Frank was, because if we’re being honest, Frank was a really, really good guy! He handled his wife longing for someone she met while time traveling incredibly well! Claire admits he had his flaws, too, and that’s probably true. But I do find it interesting that Brianna’s presence suddenly makes Jamie a little more insecure about the ways he doesn’t measure up to Frank. That feels genuine.
  • What would anyone do without Rolo?

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