Outlander

Geillis Duncan returns to Outlander at last, and her dramatic entrance is the first of many missteps “The Bakra” makes. Emerging from a pool of goat’s blood, naked and menacing, Geillis’ first scene is a rare instance of Outlander leaning into its sci-fi side. It’s initially a stunning shot, but it becomes increasingly overwrought, an indulgent display of nudity on a show that’s usually more deliberate and less fixed in the male gaze when it comes to naked bodies.

Starting with that initial (literal) blood bath, Geillis is presented as an over-the-top villain. Who is this Geillis Duncan who rapes virginal young boys and then kills them? The Geillis we once knew straight-up murdered her husband, and it’s implied in this episode that she has done the same to her plantation-owning husband in Jamaica who mysteriously shares a surname with Joe Abernathy. But the Geillis of the past hurt men who hurt her, a vigilante fighting the patriarchy who Claire used to bond with over their shared feminism. Being involved in dark arts is one thing; kidnapping young boys and forcing them to have sex with her is a whole new level of depraved. The Geillis that coerces Young Ian into telling her the truth about the treasure box, which turns out to be hers by way of Dougal, is much more sinister and hypersexualized than the character has ever been. The poor execution of Geillis’ big return feels nothing short of a betrayal. Geillis used to be one of my favorite characters on the show. And the way she’s portrayed in “The Bakra” simply doesn’t add up. She has always been cunning and up-to-something, but her villainy in “The Bakra” is outsize and confusing. She seems like a new character entirely.

If only that were the only issue with “The Bakra.” Claire and Jamie arrive in Jamaica—which Claire calls “primitive” in her voiceover, making her sound like the very colonizers she criticizes later—and immediately head to the slave market to look for Young Ian. There, Claire watches a slave get branded, looking in horror until then looking away. When another slave is sexually assaulted in front of a crowd, she can’t hold it in anymore, and she lashes out against the slave traders, begging Jamie to do something for the man. Jamie’s solution? He buys the slave in Claire’s name. Yep, Jamie and Claire now own a slave, and the writers bend over backwards to reiterate that they bought him to save him, that they’ll eventually set him free when it’s safe to do so. Jamie refers to him as his “servant” although there is no discussion had about salary—only the promise of future freedom. And Claire and Jamie waste no time in using Temeraire to help find Young Ian.

Where to even begin? The whole storyline serves merely to make Claire and Jamie look good. Showing the horrors of slavery through the eyes of uncomfortable white people centers their comparatively minor trauma rather than the actual trauma of the slaves. It’s voyeuristic and plays into the white savior narrative. Being disgusted by slavery doesn’t make Claire and Jamie heroes. Outlander all too often ignores Claire and Jamie’s flaws in order to make them the heroes of their own story. In actuality, Claire and Jamie have tunnel vision a lot of the time, focusing so intently on their own plans that they often act in recklessly selfish ways.

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This is seen not only in the way they treat Temeraire but in the way they treat Yi Tien Cho, too. Jamie openly declares that Yi Tien Cho’s purpose at the ball they attend at the governor’s mansion is to distract. Jamie literally wants to benefit from partygoers exoticization of Yi Tien Cho. He wants to benefit from Yi Tien Cho’s suffering. Because make no mistake: The ogling and interrogation that Yi Tien Cho experiences at the party is nothing short of suffering. Jamie is not Yi Tien Cho’s friend. Jamie and Claire consistently use others with little regard for the consequences.

Jamie and Claire do eventually help Temeraire escape. As soon as the character has served his purpose for the plot, he disappears, probably forever. This season of Outlander keeps trotting out characters to serve as mere plot devices—like Annekje Johansen and Mamacita—and it’s hard to ignore the fact that these characters tend to be people of color or people who barely speak English. “The Bakra” has no genuine interest in making a commentary on the slave trade, just an interest in provoking with horrific imagery and then centering it all on Claire and Jamie’s experience. Temeraire never gets developed beyond just being a slave who helps Claire and Jamie out.

It’s especially unfortunate that this episode is such an extreme misfire because it has a genuinely compelling overarching theme. Claire and Jamie can’t escape their pasts—specially, the people of their past. They’re haunted by living ghosts like John Grey, Geillis, the fortunetelling siblings, Captain Leonard. So many previously disparate characters cross paths at the governor’s mansion, drawn to the thing they have in common: Claire and Jamie. This dramatic crossing of paths at the party should be thrilling, but it mostly just feels tedious, and it never eclipses the episode’s glaring problems. There’s some decent stuff in there, like the reunion between Jamie and John Grey, whose unrequited love for Jamie is just at the surface of their interactions.

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But so many of the interactions at the party are drawn out and mired in exposition. The only times when Geillis isn’t being a horrible person, she’s merely explaining stuff. Have the writers forgotten than Claire and Geillis used to be very close friends? Their reunion is stiff and anticlimactic, perhaps an effort to distance Claire from Geillis now that she’s full-on evil. It ignores so much character history. Geillis has been flattened. And Claire and Jamie meanwhile are ballooned into the big heroes of the episode just because they think slavery is bad but seem to have no issue asking a slave to do them a huge favor and then sending him on his way without so much as a penny. “The Bakra” is one of the worst episodes in Outlander’s history and not merely because it presents a revisionist history of Geillis and her relationship with Claire. Outlander’s attempts to grapple with the horrors of slavery are inadequate and serve only to make Jamie and Claire look good despite their subsequently selfish actions.


Stray observations

  • I realize that this series is based on existing books and that the flaws with the characterization of Geillis likely come from the way she’s portrayed in the original source material, but Outlander the show has previously made changes to characters and story for the sake of improving upon the novels, so defending the Geillis choices by saying “that’s how it was in the books” doesn’t really hold up.
  • If you had told me I would be giving such a low grade to an episode in which Geillis Duncan says the words “why are men such fools?,” I would have laughed in your face.
  • One of the only fun things about the episode are some of Geillis’ anachronisms: She references Benjamin Button and also quotes Casablanca.
  • On that note, Claire knows Geillis can time-travel and yet doesn’t really bring it up at all here, which seems unlikely.
  • Theory time! Geillis hired the fortunetelling siblings and needs the sapphire in order to predict when a Scottish king might rise. The prophecy ends up being that a 200-year-old baby needs to die. Geillis dismisses the prophecy as cryptic, but she’s a literal time-traveler, and I have a hard time believing she wouldn’t be able to put the pieces together. She herself has a baby, and it has been suggested on the show that the ability to time-travel is hereditary, so if she were to travel into the future 200 years with her baby—or someone else’s baby who possesses the ability to time-travel—then that baby would technically be 200-years-old, no? Seems pretty straightforward to me.

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