“This is backwards,” Frank says through the open train window that separates him from Claire, fully uniformed, seconds away from her departure to the bloody battlefields of World War II. In Frank’s mind, it should be him leaving for the frontlines. Not his wife.
“Welcome to the 20th century,” Claire assures him with her easy confidence.
“The Way Out” opens with this flashback before sharply returning to 1743, where Claire isn’t even permitted to bathe or dress herself. Last week, I suggested Outlander seems determined to turn the gender roles typically assumed in this genre on their head. This week, that the writers start building that thesis with more purpose, showing us we’re not witnessing a hackneyed hero story, but something different, for both the fantasy genre and the realm of prestige TV dramas.
After Claire drunkenly stumbles out of the dining hall with Jamie, she announces to him: “I am the healer, after all. I’m in charge.” And Jamie agrees with her. If Colum or Dougal or any of their loyal watchdogs had heard her, they would likely feel the same way as Frank as he sends her off to war: emasculated and baffled. This is backwards! Women in the highlands of 18th-century Scotland aren’t in charge! Especially husband-less women who aren’t from around here!
Of course, Claire isn’t in charge of all aspects of her new life. In fact, far from it. She’s a prisoner of the MacKenzies. She lacks privacy and basic human rights. When she suggests that a sick boy might have been poisoned and not possessed by a demon, people look at her like she’s the crazy one. Welcome to the 18th century.
But what’s brilliantly compelling about Outlander is how Claire seizes control when she can and maneuvers between the rigid structures of his society. When she says she’s in charge, we, like Jamie, believe her. When she says she will escape from Castle Leoch at episode’s end, it’s also easy to believe her even though the chances of it actually happening next week are very slim. But Claire has been constructed the same way so many male heroes are constructed: She wins even when the odds are against her. She outplays her bearded foes with finesse. This week, those wins come in the form of a correct diagnosis and a fun little ruse to free a young boy with the help of Jamie. Unfortunately, her medical victory only tightens the Mackenzies’ grip.
It’s impressive that—only three episodes into a new series—we know as much as we do about who Claire is. From the repetition of her very endearing signature exclamation “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” to the playful way she teases Jamie, to her unrelenting tenacity, the Outlander writers have very carefully drawn Claire as a complex and captivating character.
That being said, the voiceovers are already becoming tiresome. So far, the writers have most often used the device to spell out important exposition, but the only times Claire’s narration actually provides us with anything interesting are when the writing lets us in on the inner-workings of the character’s psyche that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to gather from her interactions with other characters and the superb acting work Balfe continues to do. Claire doesn’t need to tell us she wants to go home or that applying 20th century medical practices with 18th century resources is super duper hard. But when she tells us she mocked Jamie’s hickeys not because she’s jealous of Laoghaire but because she’s jealous of the intimacy they share and it makes her long for the intimacy she once had with her husband? Now, that’s useful. That revelation reinforces Claire’s loneliness and sexual agency; yes, she misses her husband, but she also misses sex with her husband, because Claire is a human woman with human desires, something television all too frequently forgets.
This week, Geillis, too, grows into a richly illustrated character. Sure, she’s shrouded in mystery, but we know that she’s smart, intuitive, and manipulative. She expertly manipulates her husband into executing a less harsh punishment for the village boy caught stealing from his employer. Like Claire, she knows how to work within the system—which grants little power to women—to get what she wants, but she’s even better at it because she belongs to this time and place. Like everyone else in the castle and village, she’s suspicious of Claire, but we also get the sense that she knows something no one else does and has secrets of her own. And even if it doesn’t turn out she’s a witch like I so badly want her to be, I’m longing to know more.
- So far, all three episodes of Outlander have included the word “witch” in dialogue, but so far there have been zero real witches.
- Can someone confirm or deny the historical accuracy of circle scarves and knit arm warmers? Did Claire fall through time again, shop at Urban Outfitters, and then return to 1743?
- Have to admire Claire’s wingwoman skills, even though she ultimately fails Laoghaire.
- I had to rewatch the “I am the healer after all” line several times, because on first, second, and third listens, I heard “I am the hero after all” and a part of me knew that had to be wish fulfillment.
- The song that basically tells Claire’s exact story in Gaelic is a little too much, but I suppose in a world where time travel exists, it’s plausible that strange allusions to history repeating itself could embed themselves in art.
- Frank, to Claire: “Your stubbornness is what I find so attractive about you.” Same, Frank. Same.
- Geillis, to Claire: “We can go downstairs, have a nice glass of port, and tell each other all our secrets.” HOW DO I GET AN INVITE?