Season 4, Episode 2: ‘Do No Harm’
Last time “Outlander” engaged the subject of slavery, Claire and Jamie bought a person. (They promised to free him — and did, although Temeraire’s patent disbelief was that subplot’s best note.) But he existed largely as a plot point, and the slave auction scene was more concerned with how Claire felt than with the slaves. The white-savior framework felt like a way for the show to acknowledge slavery without making Jamie and Claire tackle it head on.
Now they’ve come to River Run to visit Auntie Jocasta, and her 152 slaves.
Jamie is quickly confronted with his inescapable family legacy because Jocasta wants him to inherit her fortune. He sets a condition: On inheriting the estate, he will free all Auntie’s slaves. He finds out, however, that freeing the slaves is near impossible because of North Carolina law. Shortly thereafter, Claire rescues a slave who is being hanged by a hook because he fought back against his overseer, but then learns that she has saved his life only so that he can be torn to pieces by the furious white men at the door.
This is a deeply frustrating episode. In the past, putting Jamie and Claire in a no-win scenario has been a catalyst for character development, showing us the choices they make and how they’re affected by failure. But any narrative that centers well-meaning white people in the middle of something as fraught as American slavery has a lot of work to do. And, crucially, “Outlander” is committed to having Jamie and Claire be heroes, not just protagonists. It won’t let them be wrong — not with things like this.
It doesn’t have this problem with everyone. Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy, nimbly walking a very thin line) manages to be both human and chilling. Her assurances that she buys slaves in family lots because they’re more efficient feels utterly benevolent to her, and we are rightly meant to find it horrifying. Ditto the family attorney, furious at the cost and danger the family would assume by freeing slaves. They’re intelligent, welcoming people, and yet we’re very clear how terrible they look — not only to Claire (who challenges Jocasta directly) but also to Jamie.
But the show’s ability to put critical distance between the way we see these supporting characters and the way they see themselves makes you wonder how it would frame some of these plot points if the heroes weren’t Jamie and Claire. A white man takes up arms against a stifling government and then gives up on the idea of freeing slaves after learning there are laws against it. A white abolitionist woman stands for a dress-fitting as the slave Phaedre (Natalie Simpson) lavishes praise on her eyes, bosom and skin. Neither seems particularly comfortable, but neither have they discarded their fancy clothes, packed their bags and left.
There’s an interesting story to be told within this setup. This episode could examine how those who consider themselves good people can quickly become complicit in terrible things. We see it often in Jocasta, in Jamie, and there’s a hint of it in Claire at that dress-fitting. The episode could, in classic period-piece style, use the past to ask questions about the structure of criminal law in the present. It could even ask us to evaluate how much sympathy we extend to protagonists — and who gets to be one. A version of this episode that followed Phaedre and Rufus (Jerome Holder) would likely give us a very different take on some of these events.
But despite Jamie and Claire’s mistakes in the past — and questionable decisions here — “Outlander” doesn’t want to cast too long a shadow over their essential heroism. Since they can’t be aligned with the bad guys, they must be the good guys. In this episode, that’s an uneasy perspective at best.
No one can expect them to turn the tide of an institution during a weekend visit. Claire and Ian’s awkward party conversations prove just how entrenched so much of this cruelty is. The dissonance lies in the ways this episode seems less interested in examining the impact of slavery on slaves than on Jamie and Claire. When Jamie muses about growing rice, the episode doesn’t suggest it’s a slippery slope to contribute to the plantation — it’s just his cleverness. When Claire finds out her attempts at heroism have backfired, the camera spends more time on her horror than on those she has put in danger.
Rufus, moreover, is injured enough — and the horrors that wait for him outside are savage enough — that giving him poison him can seem merciful, and not like a way to excuse Jamie and Claire for turning him over to the mob. Presumably they wouldn’t have let him be brutalized, but we’ll never know: This setup neatly spares them from having to make that choice. Even Rufus reassures Claire it’s all right, dying gently amid bittersweet reminiscence. Holder does a great job with what he’s given, but Claire and Jamie get almost as much time to mourn Rufus as he gets to be a person.
“Outlander” is clear about the horrors of slavery. But this episode isn’t a meaningful look at either slavery or our protagonists. It feels sometimes as if the slaves’s tribulations are there merely to unsettle our heroes, calling to mind the season’s overarching question, first raised by Episode 1: Why has “Outlander” brought Jamie and Claire to America? These issues were inevitably going to come up. Let’s hope this is the beginning of some deeper soul searching. Otherwise, an episode about slavery that ends on a shot of Jamie’s fury and Claire’s tears feels as if it missed the mark.
• This episode did not do Claire or Jamie any favors, but Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe did their best, and they brought more nuance to these moments than the story necessarily supported.
• We’re introduced to John Quincy Meyers (Kyle Reese), who washes a skunked-up Rollo, sets himself up as a go-between for the Frasers and the Native Americans, and has a few things to say about “Indian women” that we could have done without.
• “Indians dinna sound that much different from Highlanders.” That’s the second time in two episodes the show has given us this unwelcome parallel.
• The composer Bear McCreary did some lovely work this episode.
• If you were holding your breath hoping Claire would have a minute to process her assault from last episode, you are still holding your breath!
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