Outlander has often delved into the horrors of war with an intense focus on the actual humans who fight it. The show occasionally gets bogged down in the politics and strategic maneuvers of its biggest conflicts, but that’s necessary context. What makes it all much more compelling is the way it doesn’t just treat war and battle scenes as merely an opportunity for big set pieces and stylized sequences. Outlander is often concerned with aesthetics—and it should be. A big part of the allure of period pieces are the sets, costumes, and finer visual details that develop and give life to the world. But when it comes to war and violence, Outlander is deeply empathetic, emphasizing the actual lives and bodies on the line instead of just going for big, bold war movie moments. In “The Ballad of Roger Mac,” Jamie contemplates his own mortality on the eve of a battle with the Regulators, which also happens to be his 50th birthday. He cautions two young men in his militia not to take things lightly: War is killing.
At the surface, there’s the divergent interests of the Regulators—who are protesting unjust and corrupt taxation practices at the hand of the crown—and Tryon’s militia, assembled because any threat of uprising is a threat to the crown. The Regulators don’t even want to overthrow the crown; their uprising is more focused and localized than that, but Tryon still wants the rebellion squashed, especially since his attempt at a pardon didn’t work out. But this conflict is about more than just the Regulators and the Redcoats. Murtagh’s men are real people whose lives have been greatly impacted by the unfair taxes. And at the heart of this, there’s the interpersonal conflict between Murtagh and Jamie. Neither wants to fight one another, but both are locked into their places in this fight.
There’s the added complication of the Battle of Alamance being considered by some historians to be a spark for the American Revolution. Brianna conveniently remembers this from her history class and rushes off to warn Jamie that his militia will indeed win. This puts Jamie in a precarious position. Normally, a colonel would be delighted to know that he’s leading his men to victory. But in this case, victory means defeating his own countrymen and, in the case of Murtagh, his own family. Jamie has the benefit of knowing the battle’s outcome, but it’s more like a curse. He decides to warn Murtagh, even though this could alter history entirely. Brianna seems skeptical of those potential ripple effects, but Jamie and Claire have recently resolved to not thinking so much about the future and instead making the best choices they can in the present. That’s a dicey position for a time-traveler to take, and Outlander has indeed more directly engaged with the ethical qualms of altering history in this season, and “The Ballad of Roger Mac” shakes out in an interesting way: Jamie does indeed send Roger to warn Murtagh, but the battle happens anyway and with the same outcome as before. Jamie and Claire have learned this lesson over and over, too. Changing history is harder than it seems.
Roger knows he’s going on a dangerous mission when he volunteers to deliver the message to Murtagh. It literally requires crossing enemy lines, and many of the Regulators do not know Roger. It does end up being a failed mission in more ways than one. Even though Roger pleads with Murtagh to call it off, Murtagh knows that he cannot. These men can’t wait for the American Revolution to fight for their cause. Their lives have already been upended, and they’ve already lost too much. As a historian and academic, Roger sees things in different terms than someone like Murtagh, who is at the frontlines of a cause. Those differences become clear in their conversation, providing definitive stakes. Murtagh and his men will move forward despite their fate already being written in history.
Ironically, it’s not the warning to Murtagh itself that gets Roger in trouble but rather a reunion with an acquaintance who also happens to be one of his ancestors. Roger spots Morag MacKenzie and asks her about her new life and family, offering help should she ever need it. But Roger once again finds himself out of his own time when he embraces her and it’s perceived as an advance by her husband. Roger has struggled the most to adapt to new culture, and it costs him dearly in this case. He’s literally beaten and hanged by his own ancestors, a cruel time-travel twist. His fate at the end is left slightly ambiguous, but it’s nonetheless a terrifying image in an episode full of horrific violence.
There is, of course, an extended battle sequence, complete with slow-motion and sweeping shots. But the cinematography is far from romanticizing. Despite Jamie’s speech about taking as many prisoners as possible instead of waging a massacre, the Redcoats kill without mercy. Jamie cannot control the violence. It’s war after all, and the battlefield allows little room for nuance. Murtagh and Jamie come face-to-face, two people who love each other deeply and yet on opposite sides of this battle.
Murtagh’s final act is to save Jamie, who indeed keeps trying to play both sides of this, attempting to mitigate the situation on the wrong side of history. Previously in the season, he has learned just how impossible that is. But the point is driven home even harder here when the Regulator pulls his gun on him despite recognizing him. Jamie is, after all, wearing a Redcoat, a symbol of the oppressor he once fought against back home in Scotland. This Regulator has no reason to trust him; the lines have been drawn. But Murtagh saves him at the last second despite Jamie releasing him from his contract. It’s family and honor above all else, and the ties between Jamie and Murtagh are complex and indelible.
There is a brief moment of warmth between the two men, sharply interrupted by a gunshot. One of the boys in the militia who Jamie lectured before shoots and kills Murtagh. He’s doing exactly as Jamie told him to. Jamie’s intention in telling the boy not to waver in battle had been to potentially save the boy’s life. But his words ended up leading to the death of Murtagh. Again, it’s not possible to play both sides. Jamie cannot fight this battle and simultaneously protect lives, especially not the lives on the side he’s fighting against.
It all provides Jamie and Outlander a chance to meditate on the injustices with which history is recorded. History books do not allow for the nuance and humanity captured here. Tryon celebrates his victory, and Jamie, the wounds of losing Murtagh painfully fresh, points out that the slaughter of innocent men is not something to celebrate. Historical records will render Tryon a hero and the Regulators wicked. The battle will be condensed and flattened into a historical footnote that glosses over the human toll and decenters the actual people fighting it. Outlander takes liberties with history, but it remains honest and critical about the actual rendering of history. And that makes historical fiction all the more compelling.
- As a reminder, I have not read the books, so these reviews are always written from that perspective. If you have read the books, please be considerate to commenters who maybe haven’t and clearly label any book discussion and spoilers in the comments.
- On that note, my instincts tell me that Roger is not dead. We see him hanging, but Claire, Jamie, and Brianna also show up on the scene, so I think he could potentially be saved. I’m sure there will be long-term effects on his body and self if he’s indeed saved, but something is telling me that Roger is not gone completely.
- Only on Outlander would a very serious war episode begin with birthday sex. Honestly, I have immense respect for Claire and Jamie being horny as hell on the eve of a literal battle.
- Claire’s penicillin needle is smashed! Isaiah and the Browns’ personal drama is having calamitous effects.
- Claire’s shock at seeing Jamie in the royal army uniform is palpable. It’s indeed so disturbing to see him in it given his history.