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Outlander goes to war

Illustration for article titled Outlander goes to war

After having assembled a small, untrained army at the end of last episode, Jamie and Claire return tonight to prepare for war. They set up camp with the army, which has dwindled rather quickly thanks to a lack of real commitment from a lot of Lovat’s men. In “Je Suis Prest”—Jamie’s clan’s motto, which translates to “I am ready”—Jamie, Murtagh, Claire, and their band of Scotsmen set up camp in order to hunker down and train to fight the redcoats. Dougal Mackenzie links up, and the differing leadership styles between him and Jamie provide some of the episode’s conflict. “Je Suis Prest” features training montages and rousing war speeches and sweeping cinematography. At times, it looks and sounds an awful lot like a war movie.

But Outlander is not a war drama—nor should it ever try to be. As the episode trudged through its first few scenes, I waited for the hook, for the signal that Outlander was still the same Outlander and not trying to be something it shouldn’t. Then it came, fast and hard. As Claire watches some of the men practice with their fake weapons on the grassy hills of Scotland, she’s pulled back to her time as a World War II nurse. We don’t know much about Claire’s life as a war nurse, and these are the first real signs of PTSD we see from her. The suddenness of it all doesn’t diminish its impact though. In fact, it only makes it all the more bitingly real. “Je Suis Prest” has very clear plot beats, jumping between a lot of those aforementioned war drama conventions. Sam Heughan commands every second of Jamie’s speeches, but it’s really Caitriona Balfe giving the most powerful performance of the episode, with Claire’s trauma unfolding subtly on the sidelines, pulling the focus away from war and politics and grounding the story in something more human, more personal, more Outlander.

Claire gets pulled back to her life as a war nurse several times throughout the episode, each flashback more debilitating than the last. “Je Suis Prest” brings back the adorable but rotten pair Rupert and Angus, and Claire’s initial reunion with them is tinged with warmth and familiarity, but she later snaps at both when they make a mockery of her lectures on the dangers of trenchfoot. In the flashbacks (which are technically flashforwards if we’re speaking in literal chronology terms…the headaches of time travel never end, do they?), we see the Claire we’ve come to know very well. She’s smart, kind, confident, and cool—a little flirty and with a sharp sense of humor. In the present timeline in Scotland, Claire’s out of sorts, not acting like herself and not initially telling Jamie what’s going on. He notices of course, because these two know each other inside and out. But until she confides in him, Claire suffers silently, her world closing in on her as she’s reminded that war is war and one is never fully ready for it—especially if they’ve lived through one already.

In the first of the flashbacks, Claire bonds with two American soldiers over the terrible rations. Immediately, there’s a sense that something bad will happen to them. Again, the episode really does borrow a lot of devices from war dramas, and I’ve seen enough to know that flashbacks to a tender bonding moment mean death is imminent. Sure enough, as Claire’s panic intensifies, we learn more of what happened to leave her so rattled. She and the Americans were attacked on the road, and the two men were killed. She lived, and she feels guilty about it. Claire’s calling is as a healer, and she couldn’t save either of the men. She tried to shut out the awful sounds and horrors of war that night, trembling in a ditch, and she closed a door on all that happened, blazing forward so as not to be consumed by her guilt. Jump forward (or back) to here in 18th-century Scotland. Claire’s curled up on the ground again, trying to shut it all out, pulled back one final time by the gunshots from the Jacobite soldiers in training. But Jamie brings her back from her vivid nightmares, and she finally opens up. She re-opens the door to that night so she can close it once more. Jamie promises her she won’t be alone like that ever again, and it’s wholly convincing. Nothing seems more certain on Outlander than Jamie and Claire’s steadfast love for each other. But then again, I immediately was taken back to the first shot of the second season: Claire on the ground next to the Craigh na Dun, alone. Perhaps Jamie made a promise he can’t keep.

Outlander’s genre is perpetually hard to pin down. It takes a little bit from here and a little bit from there to weave a dynamic and immersive tapestry that truly defies categorization. “Je Suis Prest” dons some war-drama armor. And it does so quite effectively for the most part. Again, it helps that the writing still keeps things focused on Claire’s nuanced emotional journey and on parts of the characters’ histories, maintaining most of the show’s strengths even as it tackles all these war-drama elements. Politics are really just part of Outlander’s finely detailed world-building, not the driving force behind these characters. Dougal claims he loves Scotland, but Claire’s assessment of his narcissism seems more accurate.

And that’s why “Je Suis Prest” could have benefited from a little more emotional storytelling when it comes to Jamie instead of the psychological focus of the episode merely focusing on Claire. Jamie seems weirdly detached from a lot of his actions in the episode. I wrote last week that it makes more sense for Jamie to be fighting this war instead of scheming to stop it. His skills are better suited for it. But I meant more so that Jamie makes sense as a soldier. As a commander…I’m not totally convinced—even as a commander of such a small and shabby army. His speeches are electrifying, but they ultimately lack real emotion. I don’t know. It just seems like Jamie is suddenly great at whatever the writers need him to be great at to move the story along these days. I expected to feel more from the mere imagery of Jamie ordering lashes against others—and even more so when he submits himself to be whipped. And yet, the episode doesn’t really let the character live and breathe in that moment, doesn’t really dig into the emotional significance of his harsh leadership. Shouldn’t Jamie be more conflicted about using this kind of violence for discipline? And if he isn’t, then why? He also seems to get a giddy high from his first real act of war, when he and the other men sneak into the British camp and sabotage it. Again, more time should have been spent in that scene with Claire after, so that we could really be pulled into his headspace and understand where Jamie is at internally these days. The episode is so deft at exploring the whys when it comes to Claire in this episode that it’s all the more noticeable when Jamie’s actions aren’t afforded the same level of depth and clarity. I’ll be more here for Commander James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser if we get a little more into his head with scenes more intimate and telling than those beautiful but broad wartime monologues.


Stray observations

  • Claire is absolutely vicious in her takedown of Dougal, and it’s riveting. I always love when Claire’s claws come out.
  • The young boy who gives up the British camp’s location promises to pay back his debt to Jamie and then kill him…so I’m guessing he’ll pop up again somewhere down the line. There has been an awful lot of foreshadowing this season.
  • The direction for this episode is gorgeous. Even with some of the more broad scenes, there’s a certain intimacy to the camera’s focus. Outlander manages to stay less cold and distanced than the vast majority of war dramas. I especially love that final sequence of the men marching toward the prince’s camp.
  • As much as I loved the extravagant, brightly colored silk dresses of France, I’m glad to see Claire back in her Highlands garb…which is still stunningly beautiful but a bit more practical.
  • I completely forgot about Claire and Dougal’s “pact” until this moment.
  • “Dragonfly in amber” is a phrase Claire uses here and it is also the title of the second book in the Outlander series, which this season is (loosely) following. As a friendly reminder, please clearly mark any book spoilers in your comments as many people reading these reviews—including myself—have not read them!