My favourite TV series is back (well on Amazon at least) and we’re talking grief, honour, everyday sexism and perhaps most importantly of all: is Murtagh alive? Contains SPOILERS.
Droughtlander is finally over and season 3 of Outlander is back. Our intrepid lovers Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) are separated through time and Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) finally gets his comeuppance.
If Episode 1 is about anything, it’s about grief. How the hell do these two lovers carry on living without each other? Though saying all that I’m guessing the immediate question that most Outlander fans want answering after watching ‘The Battle Joined’ is whether Murtagh Fitzgibbons Fraser (Duncan Lacroix) is dead or not.
This is because if Claire and Jamie’s romance underpins the whole show then the bromance between Jamie and Murtagh is surely next in line. I don’t read the novels until I’ve watched the corresponding series so I have no idea if the ‘book Murtagh’ meets his end at Culloden or not. However, if he does, I guarantee this is one change from the original source material most fans would be happy with.
Now admittedly, the bearded Highlander that the camera first pans onto, lying dead on a pile of bodies, sure looks as if it might be Murtagh. My only hope is that the producers wouldn’t let such a fantastic character meet his end without bothering to show it. I may well be clutching at straws but here’s hoping!
Considering all of Season 2 led up to the Battle of Culloden I expected Season 3 to open with the battle itself. Instead Season 3 opens with the aftermath of what was one of the most bloody and brutal battles fought in Britain. Thus among the piles of the Highland dead walk British soldiers killing the wounded while a wounded Jamie is saved from this fate thanks to Black Jack’s corpse fortuitously lying on top of him, as if in some lover’s embrace.
And it’s thanks to Jamie’s memories while lying in agony and near to death on the battlefield that we get snapshots of Culloden rather than an entire battle scene per se. This allows the story to move at a pace while getting the salient points across: the military ineptitude of John O’Sullivan, the indecisiveness of the Bonnie Prince: the Prince’s refusal to listen to military leaders who knew what they were talking about and his fateful decision to fight on land particularly uncongenial to the fearsome Highland Charge – the Highland way of fighting.
The brutality of what happened to the Highlanders after Culloden would now be considered a war crime akin to ethnic cleansing. (If you’re interested in finding out more, check out the amazing Culloden documentary from 1964). Here the Outlander writers encapsulate the brutality of what happened by focusing in on the cold-blooded shooting of prisoners in a barn into which Jamie and Rupert (Grant O’Rourke in fine form) have fled. Lord Melton (Sam Hoare), the officer in charge of these summary executions is an intelligent and well-educated man who is ‘following orders’ and killing unarmed and often badly wounded men and boys because he has been ordered to do so from on high. The fact that the officer is so civilised and polite in how he goes about executing these men somehow makes the brutality seem even more chilling.
The episode also highlights a concept long lost in the annals of history – that of honour. While Lord Melton has no qualms about also executing those prisoners so badly wounded they can’t stand, he does find the suggestion of executing them while they lie on the ground utterly dishonourable and goes to the trouble of getting stretcher bearers so they can be executed standing up. From a modern perspective, this seems rather a moot point.
However, what proves to be not so moot is that Lord Melton happens to be the brother of Lord John Grey who owes Jamie a debt of honour for saving his life. Thus on realising who Jamie is, Lord Melton feels obliged to let Jamie live and manages to send him packing to Lallybroch. Of course with Claire gone, all Jamie wants to do is to die.
And while Jamie is facing his fate at Culloden, Claire is facing hers in 1940s Boston with long-suffering Frank (Tobias Menzies). You have to feel sorry for Frank. He clearly loves Claire but is not getting much in return. Claire, if in contrast to Jamie in not expressly wishing to be dead, is nevertheless dead inside, dealing with her grief and sense of loss by going through the motions and remaining emotionally and physically distant from Frank. Menzies again puts in another particularly fine performance as Frank in what can’t be an easy role to play.
One of the more interesting aspects of this episode is that Claire seems to have had more freedom in an 18th century feudal Highland society than she does in 1940s America, where she’s expected merely to cook, clean, be a mother and look nice for her husband’s boss. When she makes a pertinent comment about the state of American politics, the disdain from the academics she is talking to is palpable; they likewise dismiss her war work and assume, rather misguidedly in the case of Claire, that motherhood is the be all and end all of everything that she could ever hope for.
Worse is to follow: when in labour, Claire is treated as if she is a child. As someone who wasn’t compos mentis last time she gave birth when she miscarried Faith, Claire is keen to have her wits about her this time round. An ardent wish ignored by the doctor who puts her out cold and thus Claire wakes in fear that she has miscarried again. While in mid-panic, Frank comes in with Brianna and for a moment it looks as if the baby has brought them back together at long last until the attending nurse innocently asks: Where’d she get the red hair? Neatly summing up what will always keep Claire and Frank apart – Jamie.
So how did I find Episode 1? Well, if this Episode is anything to go by, Outlander Season 3 is back on track. It helps that a great deal of Episode 1 takes place back in Scotland where the series always feels most at home. It’s also great to see, however briefly, Murtagh and Rupert in action. At its best, Outlander also manages to be thought-provoking, and here it pivots a conundrum that all of us will face at some point: how does one go on living when the person you love the most in the world is no longer there. It’ll be interesting to see how the season develops with Jamie and Claire apart and even more so when they finally get back together again. My only caveat: for the love of God, please bring back Murtagh.
Special thanks to @SarSketches for her illustration accompanying this post.
For further Outlander articles and posts, check out the following links or you can always listen to mine & Jen Brister’s podcasts on the subject!