“What if he made it up to make you feel better?”
What if we make things up to make ourselves feel better?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of this whole episode: how accurate are we with our own histories? Did I remember that love affair as it actually happened? How well do we know the people that we live with? Were my Christmases truly happy? Is America still America without the legend of Paul Revere? Did my parents really love me? Did I make the whole thing up? It is the foundation of every human existential crisis.
Let’s be historians and chase down that narrative.
The near entirety of this episode is centered around Claire and Brianna (and Roger) in Boston, Christmas 1968. We don’t see Jamie until literally the very last minute of this episode, which is at should be. Claire is in suspense and so are we. This episode deviates from the novel quite a bit and I won’t harp on differences. Let’s get started.
Warning: Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 305, Freedom and Whisky
Boston, December 1968
We open on Claire and Joe Abernathy finishing an abdominal surgery and this scene really sets the tone for where Claire is at emotionally. She’s back to business as usual and her life goes on without Jamie or Scotland. We see that she’s a competent, dominant, and slightly risk-taking surgeon. Joe is clearly the more cautious of the two and he looks at Claire with some concern over his surgical mask. She is capable but also just going through the motions. We can also surmise, however, that if she goes back to the eighteenth century she’s going to be just fine; she hasn’t lost her edge.
Also going through the motions? Brianna, as we find out she is failing her history class and is in jeopardy of losing her place at Harvard. Her professor is played by Douglas Reith, aka Lord Merton of Downton Abbey, and I am very glad to see he did not die of pernicious anemia after all.
Bree does not seem too concerned about this class (she spends the entire time sketching the Harvard cloisters in her notebook) and she gives a soft, ironic laugh when the professor mentions her father (Frank). Identity crisis 101: drop out of college. This is all pretty typical for a twenty-year-old but complicated by, you know, the whole time travel thing.
Note that Bree is wearing a tartan skirt here. If you pay attention in this episode you’ll see she alternates between tartan patterns and American clothing between scenes, suggestive of her identity struggle: Am I Scottish or American? Am I a Fraser or a Randall?
Let’s zoom in a bit on Bree’s classwork, shall we?
On one side of the chalkboard we have a very expressive idea chart. HISTORY. Myth! Narrative! Cyclical! Historical themes but also, not coincidentally, themes of time travel.
On the other side of the chalkboard is their research assignment for the break:
“Please choose one of the following questions for your research paper:
- To what extent can history be considered as a pursuit of narrative?
- As a discipline history can be perceived as fragmented and kaleidoscopic [note to professor: this is not a question *ahem*].
Okay, we will! And I will keep this brief because this is far from my expertise and I am also exhausted from chasing my kids around the pumpkin patch all day.
Historical record is constantly shifting depending on the narrator. Historians, like all of us, can be guilty of bias when pursuing a particular narrative or story. Using Bree’s education as an example: Boston is arguably the center and birthplace of American history…or is it? It depends on who’s telling the story. For others it’s the Alamo, or Salt Lake City, or Chinatown, or New Orleans, etc. A melting pot of histories. A kaleidoscope, if you will.
And, like a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, our histories are fragmented (quite literally fragmented, in Claire’s case). We have written word for some and spoken word for others. We make inferences based on experience and intuition (e.g. Claire and Joe with the skeleton). Fiction can alter or romanticize historical events (very meta, Outlander). We fill in gaps of knowledge with speculation. And sometimes we make things up to make ourselves feel better.
The Anglospheric map at the back of the classroom is an interesting add by set production. If this is solely an American History class this may make sense, especially for the decade. But it’s also a reminder that how we view the world, in the most literal of ways, can be shaped simply by what map we are using. Our narrative shifts depending on whether we are using an Anglospheric map or a Mercator projection or a Gall-Peters projection.
Sophie Skelton is so wonderful in this episode. Bree comes home from her crummy day and starts mulling over childhood photos and Christmas mementos, an almost universal recipe for a good crying session. We don’t need dialogue here and none is provided. Was this Christmas ornament really made with love? Did my father really love me if I wasn’t biologically his? My parents look happy in this photograph but now I know it was all a lie– was any of my life true?
Note how the Christmas lights in the background are like kaleidoscope imagery.
Claire begins to open up a bit to Joe about her history, leaving out the supernatural stuff. Under Joe’s playful teasing she alludes to an old affair in Scotland. Joe Abernathy has had very short scenes in these past few episodes but much is accomplished through phenomenal acting and writing. We really get a sense that these two people know each other very well, probably as well as two non-romantic people can. Their scenes together infuse love, respect, and a deep history.
Ah jeez, poor Roger. I’ve watched this episode a few times now and every time I get to this scene that’s what I think: poor, poor Roger. He’s one of us, you guys– a television and movie buff and romantic at heart. He probably had this all played out in his head like a movie (notice how he’s narrating to himself when he gets out of the cab) and then it all went to crap. But that’s life, right? It happens despite our best intentions.
Anyway, he shows up to surprise Brianna under the flimsy excuse of wanting an “American Christmas” and walks into a heated argument between Claire and Brianna over the Harvard stuff. Brianna also wants to move out of the house. And, like any fight, this isn’t really about Harvard. It’s about Brianna feeling rudderless and unloved. It’s about Claire feeling lonely and abandoned with a dash of Mommy Guilt thrown in. The awkward expressions on Richard Rankin’s face during this whole scene are pretty great.
Despite the palpable awkwardness (seriously, I felt so bad for the guy) Roger stays and has dinner with Claire and then drops a bombshell: he found Jamie. He uncovered an anachronistic quote from Robert Burns’ Freedom and Whisky, printed by someone with Jamie’s middle names. He deduces that Jamie is living in Edinburgh in 1765 which, according to the parallel timeline, was only a year ago.
Yay? Like Roger’s poorly executed surprise visit, this ALSO does not go according to plan. Claire informs him that she has attempted to put all this behind her and she’s pretty angry at Roger for putting her in this position. Now she’s forced to make a decision: Jamie or Brianna.
Question: If Claire goes back and Jamie is a printer, couldn’t they have printed something up a bit more overt? Like a pamphlet saying “Hey, Roger Wakefield! Read this! I’m safe and I found Jamie! Remember a trash can, Ted!”
Back at the hospital Joe and Claire get their Bones on and try their hands at forensic anthropology. Claire gets the heebie jeebies from the skull and intuits that she’s a murder victim. Joe identifies the woman as white due to her crural index and confirms that she was murdered based on severed neck bones. Novel readers: NO SPOILERS. But, if you haven’t read the novel AND you’re curious about who this skeleton might be, I invite you to pay close attention to the theme music here. We’ve heard it before.
Claire fills Joe in on more details regarding Jamie (again, minus the time travel stuff) and Joe urges her to give it another chance. The dead woman on the table behind them sends a silent message: follow love before it’s too late.
Brianna busts in on Roger watching Dark Shadows, which was sort of the Passions of its time. Aw, you guys, he IS like us– a sucker for time travel and the supernatural. He and Brianna make up and she invites him to a memorial ceremony honoring Frank at Harvard.
I CAME FOR AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS, he insists. NO ONE is buying it, Roger.
Brianna is in full-on Scottish drag here as she confides to Roger that she really has no idea who she is anymore; she has no grasp on her history. For Brianna history is shifty and unreliable. To Roger, a historian, the facts of our own personal history are less important than how we perceive them– it’s okay to believe in your flawed memories as long as it makes you happy.
Claire runs into one Sandy Travers at the ceremony, she of Historical Linguistics and Girlfriend of Frank. Sandy chooses to confront Claire which, I have to say, is pretty damn brave. If I ran into my lover’s wife and she looked like Caitriona Balfe I would probably slink away to go cry and eat a tub of Funfetti.
Sandy opines that Frank would have hated all this attention, while Claire thinks he probably would have loved it. This is yet another example of a shifting narrative based on who’s telling the story. From Sandy’s view Frank was a victimized husband trapped in a loveless marriage, bound by parental obligation and some unconditional love for Claire. From Claire’s view Frank was a good man but also an adulterer who chose not to leave the marriage through his own volition. They are both right and they are both wrong.
We also clearly see that Sandy really loved Frank and mourns for him the same way Claire mourns for Jamie. Sandy would give anything for one more day with Frank. Wouldn’t Claire do the same for Jamie?
Brianna asks Claire for full transparency and everything comes out in this very touching scene. Claire gives Brianna the reassurance she has been seeking: Frank loved her despite not being her biological father. He never resented her and neither did Claire. And this seems to be all that both of them need to move forward.
Claire watches the Apollo 8 moon orbit broadcast with her staff on Christmas Eve and, suddenly, making her own improbable and difficult journey doesn’t seem quite so intangible.
The Apollo 8 mission brought us the iconic Earthrise photograph, again tying into the theme of shifting perspectives and narratives. Who wouldn’t look at Earth differently after seeing it from space for the first time?
Claire has pretty much committed to returning to the eighteenth century but she hashes out the theoretical ramifications of that decision with Bree. Returning to Scotland means possibly never seeing Brianna again and missing major milestones in her future. And Brianna gives Claire the best Christmas gift she could ask for: she releases her. She assures her that she will be fine and gives Claire the freedom to seek her own happiness. This is so bittersweet and true-to-life. We all want our children to grow to not need us but there is a certain sadness when you realize that day has (or will) come.
Claire also confesses that she’s nervous about seeing Jamie again. Roger’s surprise visit did not go as planned- what if Claire’s doesn’t either? What if he doesn’t love me anymore, she wonders. Can she trust their history enough to make such a leap?
In Joe and Claire’s final scene together she seeks reassurance from him that it hasn’t all gone to pot looks-wise. Like every man that has ever been asked this question he answers correctly: Yes, you are beautiful. Their goodbye here is very poignant since we know that Claire is possibly saying goodbye forever.
Christmas in the Randall household. In anticipation of Claire’s return Brianna and Roger give Claire antique Scottish coins, a guide to Scottish history, and a topaz necklace (Brianna’s birthstone and a necessary gemstone for travelling through the stones). Claire admits that she stole scalpels and penicillin from the hospital. Very smart! Sepsis is a bitch!
(Nerdy medical side note: I’ve always felt that taking a bunch of ampicillin capsules back would have been a smarter pick. They’re far more portable and lightweight and can be taken orally, eliminating the need for a syringe. Plus, capsules would probably raise less suspicion. Oral ampicillin was widely available in the 1960s so it would have been totally doable. Moving on.)
Claire needs a get-up for transporting all this anachronistic paraphernalia and so she fashions herself a new outfit, complete with large, hidden pockets. This is actually somewhat rebellious in nature, given what some have argued is a very dynamic and complex history of women’s fashion and pockets.
Also, Claire, I will gladly take that adorable Breton striped sweater off your hands since it is no longer of use to you.
Time for some literal and figurative self-reflection. Am I making the right decision? Also, my gray hairs are bothering me. Girl, I feel you.
Claire ties up loose ends regarding the bank accounts and house deed and also gives Brianna Ellen Fraser’s pearls. She tells Brianna that she needs to make this journey alone; she wants it to be peaceful, which is very much the way a person would speak of their death. And then it’s time to say goodbye:
Bree bravely holds it together just long enough for Claire to leave and then she loses it. This was some really beautiful acting by Sophie Skelton. I’ve read some criticisms about her acting since she was brought on cast last year but I’ve decided that Bree herself is the bad actor, not Sophie Skelton. When Bree is putting on a brave face she raises her voice in tone and volume and affects an artificial cheerfulness. Clearly in these scenes (and throughout this episode) Skelton proves her acting chops.
After Claire leaves Brianna and Roger finally have their American Christmas, complete with lobster rolls. Roger gifts her a copy of A Christmas Carol, which Claire had mentioned was a family tradition when Brianna was younger. They are creating their own Christmas history and they very cute together.
And Christmas really is such an appropriate setting for this episode. Many of us reflect on our childhoods– our histories– at Christmas. We base the narrative of our childhoods around holidays and we carry that history with as adults to pass on to our own families.
For production purposes they could not film at Craigh na Dun for this episode, which is…fine. We’ve seen it plenty of times before. We know how that particular flux capacitor works. Instead we cut directly to Claire stepping out of a carriage into eighteenth century Edinburgh.
Claire asks a boy for directions to the printshop and she seems almost in disbelief that, after all this time– twenty years, months of research, a journey back to Scotland and through the stones– could it really be this easy? Jamie is literally just around the corner.
Claire immediately seems changed upon her arrival. She walks with her head held higher, with a lighter countenance. Also, I approve of the return of Curly Haired Claire.
It is a credit to the writers, direction, and actors in this episode that, even though I knew how this scene would unfold, I was still left watching this ending anxiously and with a racing heart. Caitriona Balfe did an amazing job of pulling us into her suspense.
I could have watched this ending at least twenty times. There was so much riding on this initial reunion and the actors really nailed it. We see Claire summon the courage to speak and then Jamie, angrily daring himself to believe it, turn slowly to meet her. The wave of emotions that sweeps over Sam Heughan’s face here is phenomenal.
And then he faints! Which is probably exactly what would happen! Claire has had months to prepare for this and Jamie has had no time at all. It was adorable and funny and it will be a VERY long two weeks until the next episode.
Sláinte, fellow fans.