Outlander Recap: So Many Kilts, So Much Closure
So often, in prestige dramas, the production becomes overly enamored of ending a season with several lingering questions, as if that is the only way to hold onto an audience. Outlander is better than that. As the second season winds down, there is a notable confidence in the way things are wrapping up—a confidence that narrative closure won’t scare audiences away.
Over the past two seasons, we’ve seen the Frasers endure all manner of suffering, trauma, and betrayal, much of it at the hands of Black Jack Randall. Wherever they are, that man keeps showing up and keeps making trouble, proving himself irredeemable in the enormity of his evil. This week, though, Randall finds himself in the position of needing something from Claire; that need makes him seem, dare I say, almost human. It raises questions of redemption and forgiveness, and whether or not these things are possible for a serial sadist, rapist, and murderer like Randall—a man who revels in darkness and does so without apology.
The Battle of Culloden still looms. When the Frasers arrive at a camp just outside Inverness, spirits are low. After months of fighting and marching, the Highlanders are, as Claire observes, “broken and demoralized.” Claire feels some of that herself. She, Jamie, and Murtagh have plotted, schemed, and deceived, and for what? Jamie tries to bolster Claire’s spirits; in another era, he’d be the kind to spout some kind of platitude about not believing in the word “can’t.”
In Inverness, Claire runs into Mary Hawkins, who is now living there with Alex Randall. Mary has finally lost her meekness. She knows Claire tried to keep her and Alex apart in Paris, and she lets Claire know it. Alex, meanwhile, is not doing at all well—pale, sweaty, coughing, blood staining his mouth. One of the most decent men on this show is not long for this world. (I’m sure there’s a moral in that.) Claire quickly springs into action, offering to prepare a poultice to loosen Alex’s chest muscles, but before she can really get to work, in strolls Black Jack Randall. Claire wants to run, but Mary begs her to stay, and as Black Jack sees to his brother, we bear witness to his “human” side. He has been supporting Mary and Alex financially, visiting, being a good brother. We are forced to see that Black Jack is not only his villainy. I, for one, wanted to look away, because I will never un-see what Black Jack did to Jamie.
Mary also drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant! With Alex’s baby! It’s quite the disconnect, seeing how deathly ill Alex is and imagining him involved in the conception of a child, but we have to suspend our disbelief. As she’s leaving the boarding house, Randall comes after Claire and practically begs her to help his brother. Claire demands quid pro quo; she’ll help Alex if Black Jack tells her where the English army is. That she’s willing to sacrifice sick, innocent Alex only endears Claire even more to Randall. No surprise there.
Back at camp, Jamie is furious that Black Jack is still around, but once Claire divulges that Cumberland’s army is hanging out at Nairn, Jamie’s spirits rise. (Remember when this show was sexy? I miss those days.) Claire also learned that in two days, Cumberland is going to have a birthday party, which seems like a grand time for a surprise attack. The prince says it’s not very “gentlemanly” but ultimately agrees with Jamie’s plan to ambush the party. There is, once more, a faint hope that history can be changed.
It lasts about two seconds. Jamie tries to prevent the battle at Culloden, but Prince Charles has evidently found some fight and patriotism somewhere in his limp frame. “Gentlemen, God will provide for us, if we do his bidding,” Stuart says, as if God has anything at all to do with the affairs of power-hungry men. In the end, the ambush never happens because the prince and his men get lost. So much for that.
Things get more interesting when Colum MacKenzie shows up. He too is not long for this world and has a euthanasia-related request for Claire. She complies, offering Colum something that will feel like “drifting off, into a deep sleep.” During their chat, she also learns that Geillis Duncan was kept alive long enough to deliver her baby. We, and Claire, are granted even more closure.
In a meeting with Jamie and Dougal, Colum cedes leadership of Clan MacKenzie to his son Hamish (who is, lest you forget, Dougal’s biological son). Colum also appoints Jamie as guardian until Hamish comes of age, which means that Jamie will control the clan for many years to come. Dougal does not take this news well. He goes to see his brother to seek closure, and does so at length—talking of all his misery, how he blames his brother for it, and so on. When he finally turns to his brother for a response, he finds that Colum has died. “Oh, brother,” Dougal says, “So you turn your back on me one final time, and leave me alone in the dark.” No closure for old men.
Alex Randall grows sicker. Black Jack is not at all pleased with how much Alex is suffering, but he wants the impossible—a cure that does not exist. Poor Alex uses what strength he has left to ask his brother for one hell of a favor: He wants Black Jack to marry Mary so she has “position.” Black Jack freaks out and runs to a pub, where Claire finds him nursing his torment. He asks, “What kind of God creates a world where monsters thrive? Beauty and purity is rewarded with poverty and death.” Claire glibly replies, “The same god that offers an opportunity for redemption.” If only she were right. As an aside, throughout this episode I am reminded of how ruthlessly practical Claire can be. She doesn’t blink at impossible choices.
As Black Jack wallows in self-pity, he tells Claire he does not regret anything he did to Jamie. In that, his true fear is revealed. He knows that not even his love for his brother will keep him from being cruel to Mary. That must be a hell of a thing to live with, to know that fraternal devotion cannot overcome true nature. Black Jack does end up marrying Mary in a rather grim and perfunctory ceremony. Alex dies, as at peace as he can be.
Does this mean Black Jack has found redemption? I don’t think so. After all the evil he has done, the bar has to be way higher. Maybe, though, he is on the path toward redemption, and maybe that’s all we’re going to get. The show is making a smart and nuanced narrative choice as Black Jack’s character arc wanes. His incomplete and reluctant redemption leaves us unsettled, uncomfortable. It challenges what we know of redemption and reminds us that no man or woman is any one thing. And in that, there is a kind of closure.