Outlander

At last, Jamie and Claire are together again. Despite the dramatic action of their initial reunion (Jamie fainting), their first few interactions with each other are awkward, lilting, uncertain. Jamie asks Claire to turn around so he can change the pants he spilled on, and she nervously reminds him she’s his wife. It’s a somewhat strange assertion for her to make so soon into their hesitant reunion, considering all the time that has passed. She doesn’t yet know anything about the Jamie that stands before her. He could have remarried, fallen out of love, moved on. Her entire plan to come back, leaving her daughter behind, hinges on the feelings of someone else, on the idea that her and Jamie’s love can resume just as it were 20 years before. Multiple times throughout the episode, she asks him about other women, wants to know if he loved Willie’s mother or anyone else in the time since they last saw each other. It’s off-putting to see this insecure and borderline silly side of Claire who seems to not entirely understand that 20 years is a very long time. “A. Malcolm” oscillates between a thrilling reunion for two characters who truly belong together and a far too-tidy attempt to finally merge Jamie and Claire’s narratives this season.

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Ultimately, Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe—along with director Norma Bailey—are doing a lot of the heavy-lifting, bringing emotional layers and conviction to a wobbly script. Those first few slow and stiff interactions between Claire and Jamie are, in some ways, more convincing than their later more comfortable, familiar scenes. Claire and Jamie’s reunion should be awkward. They haven’t seen each other in 20 years. Heughan and Balfe convey that anxiety convincingly in the first few scenes of the episode. Jamie and Claire do kiss almost right away, but the build-up is slow and contemplative. Their lips hover closely. Jamie whispers into her mouth “we have not done this in a very long time,” then their lips meet and the music swells. It’s appropriately grand. They’ve presumably been waiting for this moment for 20 years, and we have been waiting for five whole episodes.

After, Jamie becomes self-conscious about his reading glasses, Claire about her gray hairs, which she has dyed. Again, it makes sense that both characters would be thinking about how much they have aged when faced with a lover from their past. But that’s the thing...Claire and Jamie have not aged—not physically nor emotionally. Look, I’m somewhat willing to forgive the makers of Outlander for letting Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe look exactly the same as characters 20 years older (Heughan is, at least, closer in age to the age Jamie would be, while Balfe is playing a character over 10 years older than her). They’re two very hot and fit people, and there’s an element of romanticism and fantasy to Outlander that allows them to just keep being two very hot and fit people with surface-level signifiers for their age like reading glasses. Jamie’s fitness, at least, has plot relevance. Claire notes that he wouldn’t look the way he does if he’s really just a printing press owner. Jamie eventually confesses to both distributing seditious pamphlets and running an alcohol smuggling side business, but given some of the shadowy figures he’s taking meetings with in tavern cellars, it seems there’s more to his story.

For all the little hiccups in their reunion, it ultimately goes too smoothly and moves too quickly. Jamie introduces her as his wife to everyone almost immediately, and their faces convey appropriate confusion. After bringing her back to the brothel where he boards (Claire isn’t a fan of that particular detail of Jamie’s new life), Jamie asks Claire why she came back. He points out they know less about each other now than when they were first wed. At least someone points it out! But Outlander barrels through these questions and doubts, reducing one of the most important turns in this arc—the moment when they start to become familiar with each other again—into a voiceovered montage. Jamie and Claire eat dinner, drinking wine and drinking in each other, and then Claire’s voiceover kicks in and summarizes their reunion, explaining that they slowly started to know each other again.

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I get the expedience, I do. It’s all so we can get to the sexy stuff. And damn, Outlander really outdoes itself with these sex scenes. Claire and Jamie slowly undressing one another while making intense eye contact is one of the longest scenes of foreplay I’ve ever seen on television. They’re nervous and excited and taking their time. Then, after a brief head-bump, they become voracious, needing each other so powerfully that Claire commands him to not be gentle. Both the sex scene and the post-coital scene that follows remind us just how intensely Claire and Jamie desire each other. Their overwhelming physical attraction to one another is as palpable as their emotional connection, which makes Outlander’s sex scenes some of the most passionate on television. They have sex again, this time slower and more tender, maintaining eye contact. Then they talk about how neither of them quite understand what it is between them but still feel it pulsing, and Jamie hungrily goes down on her, reiterating the fact that women’s desire and sexual fulfillment continue to be priorities in the lovemaking scenes on this show.

So yes, the sex scenes are captivating, and Claire and Jamie’s crackling love for one another radiates in almost every scene. But there’s a strange disconnect throughout “A. Malcolm,” starting with that initial moment when Claire insists that it’s fine if she sees Jamie change his pants because they’re married. Some of the awkwardness is intentional and meaningful. But Claire and Jamie’s emotional states are reduced to a very simple narrative of true, unconditional love. They ask each other hard questions, and then they just sort of move past them. Their transition from strangers to the same lovers that they once were happens quickly, and the fact that they’re both still in the same emotional place with one another is tougher to swallow than the fact that they have remained physically the same. I’ve written before about how Outlander has backed itself into a weird corner this season, and that problem intensifies in “A. Malcolm.” A smooth and satisfying reunion appeals to the show’s love story, giving fans what they want. But it all hinges on an understanding that the lives Jamie and Claire lived since they last saw one another don’t really matter.

Usually, Outlander’s message of the power of love is one of its strengths, but here, it just seems far-flung. Yes, Claire and Jamie’s love transcends time and space, but it shouldn’t be this easy. Is reuniting with a lover from your distant past really like riding a bicycle? Outlander makes it appear that way, and the disconnect between the awkward premise of their reunion and the fluid transition back into husband and wife makes “A. Malcolm” a bit bewildering. That being said, Heughan and Balfe turn in incredible performances. And Bailey’s direction imbues the feeble script with much needed urgency and coherency, bringing the nervousness of Jamie and Claire’s interactions to the surface as well as bringing those sex scenes to life with intimate camerawork, especially in the undressing sequence. All in all, it makes sense that Claire and Jamie’s reunion would be some mixture of awkward and sexy. But they go through the motions too quickly, and the episode never fully considers the weight of some of the questions and doubts posited.

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Stray observations

  • 20th century things that perplex Jamie: bikinis, Newfoundland dogs, bicycles, photographs, snaps.
  • Jamie working that printing press is hot.
  • Thank god Claire’s good, curly hair is back!
  • Jamie calls Claire a good mother but like 1. How does he know? 2. Is she??????
  • Claire’s reunion with Fergus is adorable, but as with her scenes with young Ian, it also makes her transition back into Jamie’s life seem a little too easy. She simply explains away her absence by saying she went to the colonies when she presumed Jamie dead.
  • Claire’s interaction with the prostitutes the next morning provides a few lessons in 18th century safe sex.

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