The main issue with “First Wife” is that it’s just sort of...boring. The episode at least attempts to fill in some of the blanks of Jamie’s life between Helwater and Edinburgh and is the first episode since the reunion to truly recognize how difficult it is for two people to just resume their lives together after 20 years of being apart. But those attempts to fill in the blanks are tedious and ultimately do little to move the story forward or develop either character. Claire and Jamie are as stuck as they were when they were apart, having different iterations of the same dumb argument. If these two love each other as much as they say they do, why are they obsessing over each others’ lives when they were apart?
And why go through the trouble of showing us Jamie’s journey to the island on his little escape from Ardsmuir if all it really amounts to is a box of treasure that becomes a clunky plot device? His story takes too long and accomplishes little. The only flashback in the episode worth anything is seeing Jamie dance for the first time during his initial return to Lallybroch after Helwater. The slow-motion is a little excessive, but the look on Jamie’s face is delightful, and it’s nice to see that his life without Claire wasn’t necessary all doom and gloom. But “First Wife” spends a lot of time on parts of the narrative that don’t really matter.
Leave it to Jenny Fraser Murray to tell it like it is. She’s the only character with any damn sense at the moment. She is the first person to really point out how ridiculous it is that Claire has just dropped back into their lives after 20 years. Claire and Jamie want so desperately for their lives to just resume as normal, but Jenny points out that it can never be like it was. Her doubts—as well as the shock of Jamie’s other family—cause Claire to really doubt herself for the first time since coming back. She tells Jamie she’s not sure if they belong together anymore, but he quickly reassures her that they’re mated for life. Earlier, their fight explodes into a heated sex scene, cut short by Jenny, who says they’re running around acting like selfish animals. She’s not wrong!
Outlander’s championing of true love has always been one of its strengths. It’s often one of the most romantic and sexy shows on television, and that combination can be hard to find. But there are limits to love, and Outlander has become borderline naive about the strength of Claire and Jamie’s. They both talk a big game about loving each other so much that they would die for one another. Claire says she would have happily died with him at Culloden if he hadn’t made her go through the stones. Jamie says he was a ghost without her. But then they both are still so stupidly stuck on each others’ romantic history during their “break.” Jamie says he used to have thoughts about Claire having sex with Frank and that it made him angry enough to kill her. Jamie and Claire are often melodramatic, but that confession crosses a line, makes it much tougher to accept when Jamie gives his romantic speech at the end of the episode. Jamie at least admits that his anger with her about leaving—something she only did because he made her—is contradictory and unfair, but they’re both still acting like emotionally stunted brats. If they loved each other as much as they say they do, wouldn’t they hope that the other was happy during those 20 years, even if that happiness came from another? Are they really so selfish that they want each other all for themselves?
And, just to reiterate: Jamie and Claire didn’t even fall in love with anyone else during the 20 years, so their jealousy isn’t even valid! With Jamie and Claire, Outlander suggests that soulmates are set in stone, that people can only really truly love one person and that’s, frankly, kind of boring. There’s a way to establish Claire and Jamie as great lovers with a connection that can’t be broken but also acknowledge that 20 years is a long time and that sometimes people change a little bit. The past 20 years have ramifications for the plot but not really for their character arcs. Claire’s doubt at the end of the episode is one of the most compelling moments since their reunion, but it’s brushed aside rather quickly. Every time Claire and Jamie fight, it’s all quickly resolved by one of them just saying “but we love each other” and that’s that. Even the attempts at introducing some conflict to their reunion have been clumsy, relying too much on their jealousy when there are other obvious issues to Claire coming back—something only Jenny seems to understand.
Even the issue of Laoghaire is wrapped up rather neatly, as quickly as possible. Laoghaire has always been a troubling character. Her obsession with Jamie is childish, playing into sexist stereotypes of possessive, unhinged women. The initial shock of finding out that she’s Jamie’s other wife hits hard, throws us into the perspective of Claire, who’s horrified. Laoghaire, after all, tried to kill her. And she tries again in this episode, accidentally shooting Jamie when she meant to shoot Claire. How could Jamie have possibly married her? The answer is pretty simple and, yep, boring! Look, it’s very touching that Jamie decided to enter a loveless marriage with the widowed Laoghaire so that her children wouldn’t be fatherless, but the backstory is just a convenient way of explaining away an unnecessary twist. Jamie supposedly loves these little girls enough to have married his stalker, but here he is all stuck on not having been able to raise to Brianna and he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Claire he had two other step-daughters? The scene between Jamie and the youngest daughter surpasses tedious into awkward territory. Jamie basically tells the young girl that he doesn’t love her mother and that he loves this new woman who seemingly dropped in out of nowhere: It’s intended as a sweet scene where the parent basically explains divorce to the child, but it comes off as heavy-handed and insensitive.
The second family is a twist for the sake of a twist instead of adding any emotional depth to the story. Laoghaire is at least developed a little more; it’s implied that she suffered trauma in her previous marriages that makes her unable to be intimate with anyone. But it almost feels like that’s only thrown out there as a way to explain why she and Jamie never shared a bed instead of being a sincere attempt at developing one of the show’s weakest characters. Laoghaire is a mere plot device.
After a mostly boring episode, “First Wife” ends with a bang. Young Ian swims out to the island to retrieve the very convenient box of treasures. Before he can make it back though, a large ship appears and men snatch Young Ian off the island as Jamie and Claire look on, helpless. Jamie has spent the past two episodes convincing Jenny and Ian to let Young Ian have some more freedom, and now his elaborate plot to pay Laoghaire’s alimony has gotten the boy kidnapped.
The cliffhanger is the episode’s saving grace—along with all of the Claire and Jenny interactions, which are more compelling and well written than the rest of the mechanical character development in the episode. The writers are bending over backwards with things like this Laoghaire twist. The show usually excels at believable, grounded, organic, and intimate character drama, but “First Wife” is all over the place with the character development and emotional narrative.
- Jamie doesn’t know what Swiss cheese is.
- Jamie’s response to Claire telling him he needs to drink liquids in order to heal: “Whiskey’s a liquid, no?”
- Jamie is working that fannypack.
- Ned’s comment about “a woman scorned” just reiterates Laoghaire as a tired trope.