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Claire and Frank's marriage reaches a boiling point on Outlander

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At the top of the opening scene of “All Debts Paid,” Claire and Frank appear to be in a better place in their marriage. Frank finishes cooking a full English breakfast. Claire suggests that they both go out to the movies; she heard from her med school friend Joe Abernathy that The Searchers is fantastic. Then, things fall quickly apart. Frank reveals he has already seen the movie, bringing to light their new arrangement. He’s allowed to see other women so long as he’s being discreet. The pretense of Claire and Frank’s marriage has intensified.

That opening scene is fantastic, a brilliant example of Outlander’s layered and penetrating character drama. As frustrating as the separation between Claire and Jamie has been in the early chapters of this season, Claire and Frank’s poisoned marriage, their reluctance to let go of one another even though it’s clear that they could never get back to where they were before Claire went through the stones, makes for a captivating story. They fooled themselves into believing this could work in the first place, and now they’ve fooled themselves into thinking their new arrangement would make it easier to pretend. When one of Frank’s girlfriends accidentally shows up at their house in the midst of Claire’s graduation party, the arrangement blows up in both of their faces. They fight, Frank accusing Claire of being a worse actress than she thinks she is, Claire accusing him of deliberately hurting her by having his girlfriend show up. Claire and Frank have both been hurting each other, slowly, deliberately, over the course of several years. Frank resents her for not being able to let go of Jamie, and Claire resents him for refusing to let go of her, for asking her to just forget the past. He wanted to raise Brianna as his own, and now he won’t divorce her because he’s afraid he’ll lose his daughter. They’re both miserable people pretending to be a family, and they’ve both been unfair to each other.

“Have you fucked her in our bedroom?” Claire asks Frank about his new boo. “I think our bedroom is far too crowded already, wouldn’t you agree?” he fires back. They don’t even have to ever say Jamie’s name; he’s always there, always with them. Years later, when Brianna is 18, Frank tells Claire he wants to move with her to England, leaving Claire behind at her new job in an American hospital. They fight, again, and Frank asks Claire if Brianna hadn’t been a constant reminder of Jamie, if then she could have gotten over him in time. “That amount of time doesn’t exist,” Claire replies, with wrenching delivery from Caitriona Balfe, who is intoxicating throughout. Claire and Jamie’s love transcends time. Their love is still at the core of the show, and this episode engages with the recurring themes of loss and love poignantly. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to forget about the time travel aspect of Claire’s arc, because Claire and Frank’s relationship drama is so visceral and grounded in reality. Claire and Frank thought they could push through their problems, ignore them. Instead they’ve been slowly poisoning themselves and each other. And after this final blowout fight, Frank leaves, and Claire heads into the hospital for a surgery. There, Joe delivers the news: Frank has died in a car accident.

I had sort of forgotten that Frank would die before the events of the season two finale, when Brianna learns the truth about her parentage. Still, Frank’s death is hardly shocking. It seems like the natural conclusion to their sad arc together and it’s the only way to really write Claire out of the hole she’s currently in. As compelling as Frank and Claire’s spiral downward has been, it was starting to feel redundant. It’s a strange choice to kill such a major character off screen, but this has never really been Frank’s story. Instead, we’re treated to Claire’s reaction as she takes in his lifeless body. “I did love you. Very much. You were my first love,” Claire says, confirming what we’ve seen to be true in these past three episodes: After Jamie, she could never love Frank again, not like before. Outlander is, in turns, devastating and beautiful in its portrayals of romance, and the deterioration of Frank and Claire’s marriage is every bit as powerful as the lasting connection between Claire and Jamie. It’s not as simple as Claire loving Jamie more than she loves Frank, and the writers acknowledge that in this final scene. Outlander isn’t in the most exciting place with its central couple separated at the moment, but the character moments remain strong and insightful, and Balfe and Tobias Menzies sell every second of every fight in the tense episode.

Jamie’s timeline moves, literally, slower. Fewer years pass as Jamie lives out his sentence in prison—alongside Murtagh! Jamie’s one of the only high profile inmates and thus the only one kept in shackles. A new governor comes to town and removes those shackles, remaining weary of Jamie’s place of power as leader of the inmates. That new governor in charge of the prison turns out to be a grown up William Grey, the young boy whose life Jamie spared all those years ago and whose debt of honor was technically already repaid in the season premiere by his brother. With less time passing and the overall dismal vibe of the prison, Jamie’s storyline drags a bit. The ramblings of a dying man about hidden treasure don’t amount to much other than his mention of a white witch, which stirs up memories of Claire. Jamie and Murtagh share a tender, quiet scene where they remember her, Murtagh admitting that he still thinks about her from time to time. Claire left an indelible impression on Jamie and the people in his life. Everyone could see how deeply the two loved each other.

While the buildup feels tedious at times, the growing companionship between Jamie and Grey holds the Scotland scenes together and ends up being every bit as emotionally complex as Frank and Claire’s drama by the end. Grey keeps Jamie at arm’s length at first, a little frightened of him. Then Jamie finally confronts him and the two acknowledge their history. Jamie recalls that Grey had promised to kill him, and he kneels before him, ready for Grey to uphold his promise. Grey can’t bring himself to kill an unarmed prisoner, so he lets Jamie live and absolves their debt entirely. He also sends a doctor to treat Murtagh for the illness that has plagued him since his time in prison. The act of good faith brings Jamie and Grey a bit closer together, and Grey invites Jamie to dine with him and play chess.

Their bond grows even stronger when Jamie opens up about the fact that he wanted to die after Culloden. Grey shares his own grief, saying he lost a dear friend in the battle who he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye eventually. Both men don’t appear to be over their losses, and they sit in their grief for a moment. It’s no small thing when Jamie smiles at the memory of Claire for the first time in Grey’s presence. He smiles, and he says her name for the first time in a while, too. Suddenly, the connection between the two men means more than their complicated history of debts and near-deaths. Grey, however, takes things too far, misinterpreting Jamie’s vulnerability and making a subtle move on him. Subtle or not, it’s triggering for Jamie. “Take your hand off me or I will kill you,” Jamie snaps, quickly bringing tears to Grey’s eyes. While Grey clearly isn’t a sadist and rapist like Randall was and doesn’t pursue him any further, given Grey’s uniform and position of power over Jamie, his reaction to the advance makes perfect sense. And given the revelation of Grey’s attraction to Jamie, his behavior in the rest of the episode suddenly makes more sense, too.

When the prison closes and the inmates are sent off to the American colonies, Grey instead arranges for Jamie to be taken to a nearby town, finally freeing Jamie of this dismal prison life. Not quite friends but also not adversaries, the complicated relationship between Jamie and Grey adds necessary depth and dimension to the Scotland scenes which are otherwise so dreary and convoluted (Jamie escapes just to investigate the treasure situation...only to return to prison with pretty much no new information?) that they weigh the episode down. With Jamie out of actual prison and Claire out of the prison of her marriage, both characters finally have some momentum in their arcs. And that’s good news, because as quickly as Outlander is running through the years, the story has stood in place.

Stray observations

  • Frank accuses Claire of being a bad actress, but we’re also treated to a flashback to her one of her best performances: when she pretended to be a hostage of Jamie’s to trick young Grey. Of course, that was a life or death situation. Pretending with Frank is a much more arduous task.
  • Brianna’s likely about to be a bigger part of the story, and as many of you have said in the comments, hopefully Sophie Skelton has been working on her American accent.
  • The fact that Menzies and Balfe are so good on screen together somewhat makes up for the lack of Balfe/Sam Heughan scenes in these first three episodes of the season, but I’m still impatient for a reunion, damnit!
  • Frank is so bad at their arrangement that it’s easy to agree with Claire that he’s purposefully trying to embarrass her.