[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Outlander” Season 3 Episode 1, “The Battle Joined.”]
At its heart, Diana Gabaldon’s saga is a tale of romance about how love conquers all: war, continents, and even time travel. Viewers have caught on with their own passionate and often outspoken love for Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall/Fraser. And that makes a third season, marked by the lovers having been separated for nearly two decades, a tricky thing. Rather than picking up where the second season left off — with Claire, her daughter Brianna, and historian Roger tracking down the presumed dead Jamie through the history books — “Outlander” returned to the period just after Jamie and Claire’s separation to dig into some of that lost time. With 20 years to cover, there’s certainly a lot of story to incorporate, but the more writers fall down that rabbit hole the longer they separate the couple people are waiting to see. That makes this season a hard, but rich, tale to navigate.
A Bloody Battle
Can you ever get enough of Sam Heughan running full-force in a kilt on a battlefield towards British armies? If the flashback scenes at Culloden are any indication then the answer is no, you cannot. The first rule of storytelling is to show, not tell, and so while we all know that Culloden didn’t exactly work out for the Bonnie Prince Charles and his loyal followers, showcasing the events through Jamie’s broken recollections was a masterful way of incorporating the events from his point of view without over-selling the heartbreaking fall of his men.
It was also a brilliant way to end the chapter of Black Jack Randall without over-dramatizing what was ultimately an uneventful death. His demise had to come at Jamie’s hands, given everything the man had put Jamie through in the first and second seasons, but by not lingering on it the show finally closed that chapter while offering a larger commentary on the swift brutality of battlefield death.
Meanwhile in 1948 Boston, Claire and Frank made a go of a domesticated life, as though Claire hadn’t just disappeared for two years and returned pregnant with another man’s child. For Claire the match was one of survival; letting go of the past and focusing on the future was the only way to forget Jamie while still honoring his wishes to keep his child safe. For Frank, raising Claire’s child was the only chance at fatherhood he’d ever have, knowing now for sure that he was unable to bear his own. For a historian like Frank, not being able to have a lineage has got to be a complex thing. Add in losing the woman that you love to a man who may or may not have existed in the past and a sense of responsibility for taking care of his wife after the war, and the arrangement seemed to be the most moral and practical for both parties at the time. Of course that didn’t mean there was no tension, as Claire struggled to move on and Frank fought to be let in, subsequently driving those two further apart despite the fact that they were living under the same, supposedly idyllic roof.
The Death Count
One of the most brutal moments of the episode came from the detached way the Red Coats were finishing off wounded Highlanders on the quiet battlefield, where graves of bodies piled up following the foreseen loss. No one would accuse the English armies of being forgiving, especially as they followed through with execution orders on the young, elderly, sick and unlucky. That trend continued when a regiment came across the survivors—including Jamie and Rupert, and had everyone but Jamie shot. Sure, it was among the most honorable ways to go out following such a bloody battle, but the callous way in which the business was conducted was a stark reminder that there really are no victors when it comes to war.
A Blast From the Past
Of course, in order for Jamie to actually survive for the next 20 years, he needed to be the exception to that rule. Which is why in the “previously on” bit at the beginning of the episode viewers were reminded of Lord John Gray, the boy whose life Jamie spared after he tried to kill him before the big battle. That connection came to be Jamie’s Hail Mary, as the boy’s older brother was forced to follow through on his sibling’s vow to return the favor of saving his life, resulting in Jamie being carted off from the battlefield instead of shot alongside the rest of the survivors. It’s funny how honor means so much to some and so few to others in instances of war like this, but perhaps it’s true what they say in that no good deed goes unpunished. At that point, Jamie certainly had nothing left to live for, and forcing him to go on was perhaps the harshest punishment of all.
A Woman’s Place
Claire endured a harsh punishment of her own as she attempted to integrate into American culture following the war, a time when many women had had a taste of the workforce while the men were away and realized that there was maybe more to life than cooking dinners, having children and cleaning the house. That’s something Claire, a born wanderer and feminist has always known, so to watch her struggle to conform the way she did with Frank’s boss at the university was uncomfortable.
Whether or not she’d ever met Jamie, Claire was never cut out for that sort of life. In fact, had she and Jamie simply settled at Lallybroch and had kids it would have been tranquil for a while, but eventually, boredom would have set in. Claire lets the milk spoil and can’t keep the oven lit; simple chores that every woman was supposed to handle in that time. That’s why her healer persona has been so important to the character — even during rare times of domesticated bliss it has added excitement and purpose to her life. Claire mentioning that Harvard Medicine is now accepting female students was no coincidence; in fact, it’s a clear indication that being a mother and wife will not be enough for this character in the long run.
If anything would push Claire to pursue her love of medicine in the current timeline it was the moment of Brianna’s birth, when the doctor put her under despite her insistence at being kept awake. Given what happened with the miscarriage, it’s understandable that Claire wouldn’t want to lose all control again — plus bringing Jamie’s baby into the world was her sole reason for returning to that timeline in the first place. Allowing anything to jeopardize Brianna or her birth would be terrifying.
New babies are also the great unifier for struggling couples; they make everything better for a short, hormonal period (and for those who have experienced it, harder for the subsequent period following that). For the moment, Frank and Claire seem to have finally put all of their differences aside, and viewers were left not knowing whether Frank will send that letter inquiring about Jamie’s status after all. But Jamie’s presence can definitely be felt in the 1940s, as the nurse so casually remarked in the episode’s final line: “How’d she get the red hair?” It’s a stark reminder that this child will never be Frank’s by blood, no matter how much he loves her, and that Jamie will always stand between Claire and Frank regardless of the timeline.
By the Book
While Gabaldon’s third novel, “Voyager,” devotes some ink to reflecting on Jamie and Claire’s struggles following their separation, it also spends more time allowing Brianna, Roger and a future Claire to discover what happened to Jamie on their own. By opening the series with events immediately following Claire’s return instead of jumping two decades into the future, viewers instantly become more invested in the stories and have a better sense of the struggles both characters went through without each other.
It also allows time for viewers to become invested in Brianna and Claire’s relationship, perhaps the second-most important one in the novels. But as previously noted this is, above all else, a love story, and readers and viewers alike will be counting down the minutes until Jamie and Claire are back in a scene together and by each other’s sides. Twenty years of being apart be damned.
“Outlander” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.