Fittingly for a time-traveling love story, Outlander opens its fifth season with a lovely travel back in time. This opening flashback isn’t about the kind of romance that Claire and Jamie share—that pulsating thing at the core of the series—but rather about the tender intimacy between Jamie and Murtagh, who very much do love each other, somewhere between a parental bond, a friendship, at times, a brotherly love. We see Murtagh promise to care for young Jamie, a promise he made to Jamie’s dying mother Ellen. Here on this sprawling, open field, Murtagh and Jamie share something close and focused. Outlander thrives in these quiet, meaningful moments between characters. At the heart of this series is much love and care, even when wild threats and violence abound.
“The Fiery Cross” brims with such tenderness, because it’s set mostly at Brianna and Roger’s wedding. Now, I have mixed feelings about Roger and Brianna getting married given a lot of Roger’s actions last season, but those mixed feelings are reflected well in Jamie’s general sentiments about his daughter’s marriage. At the surface, there’s his discomfort with Roger’s Protestant faith, which results in a ceremony distinctly not-Catholic. There’s also the issue of Jamie feeling like he has only just recently met his daughter and not being ready to “give her away,” and this honestly comes off as something much sweeter than it sounds. Jamie’s not possessive of Brianna here but just worried about her committing herself to a man who had to take a chunk of time to decide if he really loved her or not.
As a reminder, some of Roger’s doubts last season seem to be rooted in the fact that she was carrying another man’s son, which as another reminder, was absolutely not her choice! Roger’s reaction to Brianna’s rape is baffling, and this relationship has been confusingly plotted ever since it was first introduced. Underneath all Jamie’s hand-wringing about religion and tradition, the real source of his hesitation lives. He doesn’t fully trust Roger. Which leaves me wondering: Why do Brianna and, especially, Claire? It’s difficult to root for Roger, but it’s also not like he’s an all-out villain. Instead, he lives in some sort of wishy-washy place.
Even the show humorously points at Roger’s uselessness. Ahead of the wedding ceremony, there are two very strong scenes, one between Claire and Jamie as the mother hems her daughter’s beautifully embroidered dress and one between Jamie and Roger, who do not have the same kind of closeness as Claire and Brianna do but are trying their best. Jamie has to help Roger shave since he doesn’t know how to use a straight razor, and when Roger suggests he might build a loft in the cabin Jamie built for him, Jamie has visible doubts about his skillset here. It tracks that Roger feels so flung out of time and space here. But while that sense of displacement does make sense on a story level, there’s the more structural issue of Roger seeming out of place on the show in general. Are Brianna and Roger supposed to be a parallel to Claire and Jamie or their inverse? The character development and dynamic between Murtagh and Jamie is so much richer, layered, and intimate than that of Roger and Brianna. So in a way, despite being about the latter’s actual wedding, the real love story in “The Fiery Cross” concerns the former.
It would not be an Outlander wedding without sex, and “The Fiery Cross” indeed has a lot of it. There’s a whole sex montage that couples Jamie and Claire, who have to bang quietly since they’re also babysitting for Roger and Brianna; the newleyweds; and also Jocasta and Murtagh, who’s hiding out in a shack in the woods. I had almost forgotten about the sudden union of Jocasta and Murtagh, because it’s a very random plot development, and “The Fiery Cross” tries to up the ante of their unlikely love by introducing a proposal: not from Murtagh but rather from Duncan Innes. Here, Outlander sets Murtagh and Jocasta up to be star-crossed lovers, but it’s hard to be too invested in any of it considering how underdeveloped it is and also the fact that Jocasta is a slave-owning demon, but the show has never fully confronted that.
It also wouldn’t be Outlander without those wild threats and violence piercing through all the romance. A few dark interruptions break up the pomp and circumstance of the wedding, including a message from Lord Tryon that Jamie is not doing enough to make good on his orders to hunt down Murtagh. This debt looms heavy over Jamie. That opening flashback reiterates how high the stakes are. Murtagh swore fealty to Jamie all those years ago and helped raise him. Jamie certainly has not forgotten that history between them, but maintaining Fraser’s Ridge, which has come to be his and Claire’s true home, comes with serious sacrifices, including loyalty to the governor.
Another bit of unwelcome news arrives during the wedding when John Grey reports that Bonnet did not die in the prison explosion. Brianna overhears the news that her rapist lives on what is supposed to be her happy day, and she is struck by it. Here’s, though, where Outlander repeats some of its errors when it comes to depicting sexual violence. The show is often too gratuitous in how it depicts assault and rape, and there’s no real reason there needs to be actual flashbacks to Brianna’s assault in this scene, especially given that it’s also shown in the recap at the top of the episode. Brianna’s face shows us clearly enough that she’s remembering something she wishes to forget. Flashbacks should always be employed thoughtfully, but especially ones as difficult-to-watch as this. When flashbacks don’t feel entirely necessary, they just come off as lazy writing. On the more successful side of things, the flashback to Jamie and Claire saying their wedding vows as they watch Roger and Brianna say theirs works. It’s a powerful moment rather than being a gratuitous one.
With the Revolutionary War afoot, Jamie knows he has many more difficult decisions to make, and the episode ends with the simultaneous grief and relief of releasing Murtagh from his vow of protection. Jamie knows that to have a fighting chance at saving Murtagh, he has to let him go. “Be hard to find,” he urges as he tells his friend to run. Like the flashback that opens the season, this final scene carries a lot of emotional weight and reflects the show’s intensity when it comes to love and loyalty. The Jamie/Murtagh scenes bookend a pretty solid premiere...that has one glaring crack in it: Where is Claire?
Technically, she’s there, and we’re treated to a bit of her voiceover at the beginning of the episode as she muses on the meaning of home and the ways Fraser Ridge has been built up to be a real community. But outside of her doting on Brianna and telling Jamie to hush now with his doubts about Roger (which I simply don’t buy!), we get very little of her or her perspective. So despite having a lot of moments that feel very much in-line for this show, this overt absence of Claire doesn’t feel like this show at all. That’s not to say that this show hasn’t turned in magnificent episodes that focus more on Jamie, but a season premiere usually sets the course for the season as a whole, and it’s unclear where Claire is on this course at all.
- Marsali is very good at the raunchy drinking game played at the reception, and it’s almost delightful enough to make me forget about all the issues with how Marsali has been written across the seasons.
- The little pops of Brianna’s attachment to the time and place where she came from are great character moments, like when she stuffs cake in Roger’s mouth, laments that she can’t do the twist and the mashed potato on the dance floor, and is disappointed that cameras don’t exist yet to commemorate any of this.
- Jamie meticulously assembling his “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is very sweet.
- Love how horny Claire and Jamie are for each other after all these years.