Episode 401: America the Beautiful

Warning: Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 401: America the Beautiful.

What did we all think of the episode? You might want to think again…things are never what they seem.

Some ghosts can only be banished by speaking their names and foul deeds aloud.”

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While this episode explores a more obvious motif of circles and time and the infinite nature of the universe, there is a much more subtle theme at play during this hour: what lies beneath. What looks beautiful can belie an ugly undercurrent. Stephen Bonnet is handsome and charming but also a psychopath (ditto with Geillis). The ruby appears flawless but it has evil origins. America seems beautiful and full of promise but we know (and Claire knows) that our romanticized history often overshadows an unpleasant past. The governor’s offer seems like a sweet deal but it comes with strings attached. Even the use of Ray Charles’s rendition of America the Beautiful is quite meaningful— a gorgeous song that masks the troubled man behind it. Like Claire’s cherished new microscope, this episode invites us to take a closer look.

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We pick up this theme almost immediately as the episode begins, with prehistoric North Americans building a stone circle. We are reminded that what appears to be a New World is actually an ancient land. Like almost everything else in this hour, things aren’t always what they appear.

Also, put a pin in that stone circle because I have a feeling we will see it later in the season (please no spoilers).

Cut to eighteenth century North Carolina,  where Gavin Hayes is sentenced to hang for accidentally murdering a dude after boinking his wife. I didn’t know she was married, laments Hayes! Dude, I know, that’s the theme of this whole shebang- nothing is ever as it seems!

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In any case, Jamie bribes the prison guard to let him in and say goodbye, and he and Gavin share some meaningful words. But, again, what seems like a touching moment between two old friends is really a gut-wrenching scene in a dark prison, and it’s somewhat abruptly interrupted by one…

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…Stephen Bonnet. Like Matthew B. Roberts comments in the aftershow, Bonnet is a sociopath who steals the best parts of others and uses them for himself in the darkest ways possible. Whereas Blackjack Randall was always fairly upfront about his evil and sadistic inclinations, Bonnet is danger wrapped in beautiful and charming packaging.

Hayes insists on dying with honor and wisely declines Jamie’s offer to help him escape. Jamie promises him a friendly face in the end, and that’s just what he gives Hayes as he stands on the gallows. Until the noose is lowered, that is. Like so much in this episode, it’s a beautiful moment interrupted by ugly reality.

Lesley can’t stand to see all this and sort of loses it, causing a bit of mayhem in the crowd. Stephen Bonnet takes advantage of the confusion and manages to the escape.

Confession time: I’m not so sure we’ve invested enough time in Lesley and Hayes to feel the sort of emotional impact the writers were maybe hoping we’d feel. They’ve sort of been presented as Rupert & Angus 2.0, but honestly I never felt the same sort of warm chemistry between these two characters. After spending more than two years with Rupert and Angus their deaths hit me pretty hard. Here, though, I’m sad for the abrupt loss of life in general but not necessarily about the man himself.

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Later, everyone is remembering Gavin over a drink and talking about making their way home to Scotland after he is buried. Time probably didn’t allow for the lengthy ghost story that accompanies this chapter in the novel, and that’s too bad as it’s one of my favorite passages.

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In any case, Lesley spontaneously decides to sing a caithris (a sort of wake) for Gavin. And, talk about surprises under the surface- who knew that Keith Fleming was hiding such a truly beautiful voice?! (Well, probably his agent…and his family…and lots of other people. But still).

This was a really nicely done scene as other Gaelic speakers in the tavern join in with the small Fraser group as they sing for Gavin. It was a poignant reminder now that these emigrants, and not necessarily Claire, are the outlanders. And, again, the song they sing is beautiful but it’s about death; nothing is as it seems.

The gang (minus Fergus and Marsali) has to sneak poor Gavin into the cemetery themselves since the priest wanted a bribe to bury a convict (not to beat this theme over the head, but it’s an example of man who appears pious but is actually a crook). Ian and Jamie take up the duties of digging the grave, an activity which sends Ian into the spirals of PTSD as he remembers the rape and murderous going-ons at Rose Hall with Geillis.

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What follows is one of my favorite scenes of the series to date, in which Jamie walks Ian through his emotions, letting him know he’s also been forced to have sex without consent (a huge understatement) and that none of it is Ian’s fault.

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Jamie tells Ian, “Some ghosts can only be banished by speaking their names and foul deeds aloud.” He’s speaking specifically of Ian’s tribulations, but the line also nods to the larger themes at work in this episode. America is beautiful but she has ugliness in her past; we speak of the ghosts of slavery and Native American mistreatment out loud to help us remember and learn and grow. We call our ghosts out loud.

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As Ian works through the confusion of his rape- it felt “pleasing” but the act itself was detestable- the premise of this episode is expanded a bit more: something can look beautiful or feel good but still be wrong.

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And speaking of ghosts…up from the wagon pops a spirit from the underworld!  Not to worry folks…things are never as they seem! It’s only Stephen Bonnet, having successfully escaped the hangman’s noose by hiding next to Gavin’s body all afternoon.

Bonnet is a a smooth talker and takes advantage of Jamie’s honorable nature to convince Jamie to get him out of town. Claire goes with Jamie so everything will seem less suspicious (seriously, almost every scene in this episode is somewhat duplicitous in nature).

As they pass the British checkpoint, Jamie tells the baby-faced soldiers that he has a body in the wagon he’s transporting back to kinsmen, a claim they decide to test out by stabbing it with a bayonet.

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Side note: I will forever associate the name Griswold with National Lampoon and so the whole time during this scene I kept expecting Chevy Chase to somehow pop up from underneath the wagon.

The not-Clark Griswold soldier manages to mostly stab the slab of venison in the back, only giving Bonnet a fairly minor injury. Claire tends to Bonnet’s wounds once the wagon safely out of sighting the soldiers, and again we are treated to a pretty great two-character scene. Bonnet confesses to having a fear and recurring nightmare about drowning, an experience with which Claire is also familiar. For a minute I think we see a rare glimpse of the humanity in Bonnet as he monologues…or he could also be manipulating Claire’s trust so he can later rob her.

In any case, again we go back to our theme: the sea is beautiful but dangerous creatures lurk beneath. The sea isn’t what it appears to be and neither is Bonnet.

Then Bonnet leaves- see ya, psychopath!- and Jamie asks Claire if she wouldn’t mind camping overnight in the woods.

And of course she doesn’t mind because her camp bunk buddy looks like this:

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This is the part of the episode where Sam Heughan is contractually obligated to sit shirtless in front of a roaring fire. I’m not complaining. And, as two beautiful half-naked people sitting around a fire are wont to do, they end up having some pretty amazing sex. “I want to feel alive,” Claire tells him. Girl, you two are making all of us feel pretty damn alive here.

Yes, that was nice.

In the morning Claire waxes poetic about the American Dream and the melting pot of the United States. Jamie sort of puts a needle scratch on this moment when he asks what will become of the Native Americans. Dreams aren’t always what they seem; “A dream for some,” as he pessimistically states, “can be a nightmare for others.”

Later, Claire and Jamie are getting ready for a fancy dinner with the Who’s Who of Wilmington- an event that I thought was explained a bit better in the novel; here we don’t really learn how or why Claire and Jamie, as two random people in the Carolinas, managed this swanky invitation.

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Jamie gives Claire the ruby to wear as a necklace, as they are both hoping to persuade Baron Penzler in to buying it and giving them some usable currency. Again, the ruby is beautiful and looks flawless, but remember where it came from:

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Yep, it came from Geillis. Ian managed to scoop it off the floor of the Abandawe cave before escaping in Episode 313.

At dinner everyone complains about taxes (talk about a topic that infinitely stands the test of time), and Native Americans- “savages.” Governor Tryon attempts to sell Jamie on the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and invites him to share in an aperitif.

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I feel like an opportunity was lost here in having Jamie not be shirtless in front of this fire as well. Imagine what Tryon might have proposed to him then!

Anyway, despite everyone leaving their clothes on, Tryon offers Jamie a land grant. He explains the Crown is trying to encourage emigrant settlers in the American Colonies. Jamie later confesses to Claire that he suspects Tryon is trying to gain his loyalty; Tryon needs experienced soldiers on his side as there are already rumblings of revolutionary discontent in the colony. Tryon is even willing to waive the normal purchase price of such a grant: “There is the law, and then there is what is done.” Everyone say it with me: nothing is as it seems!

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Claire and Jamie mull it over later and I’m very happy to see Claire still sporting her zippered corset because zippers are fundamentally awesome. Had I been Claire I might have stuffed one pocket full of antibiotics and the other full of zippers before jumping back in time. Maybe also tampons.

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When I first read Drums my initial reaction to this whole situation pretty much matched Claire’s here: let’s get the hell out of Dodge before we get sucked into another long war. But Jamie very endearingly tells Claire that he’s inclined to stay and help build the America that will someday (or currently? time travel is confusing) be Brianna’s home.

Next day, Jamie and Claire meet Rollo, the wolf-dog hybrid Ian won rolling a game of dice. I’m embarrassed to admit that until this episode I never put it together where Rollo’s name came from.

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I’m a veterinarian in my real life, so I might be the only person who ever does this, but my favorite game to play with any doggy actor is Where’s The Trainer. If you watch a dog on film it’s always staring off-camera at something during a scene. That something is usually a trainer holding some treats. Who’s a good boy?

Inside the tavern Claire and Jamie tell the group that they intend to stay in the colonies. Everyone is pretty excited about this for different reasons. Ian is giddy with this prospect because anything sounds better than returning home to Scotland to make muck patties on the farm; the way that Jamie immediately shuts down the idea of Ian staying is pretty hilarious. John Bell is truly a delight and a bit of a facial Gumby. I just love him.

Lesley says he also intends to stay since he just lost his best buddy and his loyalty is with MacDubh and, honestly, he probably has nothing home in Scotland to return to.

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And yay for Baby Farsali! Everyone is excited. Well, mostly. Claire’s reaction here is a tad confusing, but I think mostly it’s because last she and Marsali spoke it was about how to prevent pregnancy as Marsali wasn’t ready for motherhood quite yet. But everyone else is very excited and I noted that Jamie does quite a bit of pounding on tables in this episode.

Later, Fergus and Marsali stay behind in Wilmington while everyone else decides to make their way up the river to Aunt Jocasta’s plantation. Jamie takes the opportunity to fill Claire in on the MacKenzie-Cameron branch of the family tree.

The Sally Ann turned out really beautiful, didn’t it? High marks all around to the production team.

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You can probably guess where I’m going with this, right? Claire assumes this man, Eutroclus, is a mistreated slave. But, like everything else thus far, there’s a different truth beneath the surface. Here, however, the true story is a good one. The riverboat captain informs Claire that he gave Eutroclus his freedom and the man earns a fair wage. Eutroclus saved Captain Freeman’s life once, and so the captain saved his in turn.

Jamie surprises Claire with a medical kit and this whole exchange was very sweet. But, yet again, we have an example of something seeming beautiful but it may be something different; without giving too much away in regards to spoilers, novel readers know that we eventually learn a dark story behind this particular medical kit.

Worst surprise party ever.

Actually, this was my favorite part of the episode as it delivered such an emotional gut punch. Caitriona Balfe, especially, really hit this out of the park.

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Stephen Bonnet and his gang hijack the Sally Ann, robbing Jamie, killing Lesley, and making off with Claire’s silver wedding ring in the process. But, perhaps there is a silver lining as we go back to this episode’s theme and remember NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS. This situation seems hopeless but we know these characters will somehow manage to pull through. As Claire’s wedding rings remind us in their infinity symbolism, nothing is ever lost- only changed.

Other thoughts:

  • No character of Duncan Innes yet and I’m sort of suspecting we won’t see him.
  • Novel readers know that in the book it is Frank’s wedding ring, and not Jamie’s, that is stolen by Bonnet. I’m interested to see why they made this change and how it will fit into the rest of the season.
  • The use of Ray Charles is very poignant. Again, tying into our theme, his life seemed charmed but we know he suffered from all sorts of personal demons. Additionally, he had to fight against discrimination in the Jim Crow South despite his fame and influence.

That’s it for now! Hooray for Season 4…see you next week.

Slàinte

Photos: STARZ

 

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22 thoughts on “Episode 401: America the Beautiful”

  1. Loved the recap. I was shocked by what happened to Lesley. I admit, his death affected me more than Gavin Hayes’ because I expected it to happen to Gavin. Didn’t see Lesley’s coming.

    They have put out an explanation about why they changed the ring that was stolen, and it makes a LOT of sense. Frank’s gold wedding band is plain. There’s nothing distinctive about it. How would anyone know, if that was on a table, say, that that was Claire’s ring? Given the quickie wedding Frank and Claire had in the registry office, there’s no reason to think that there was necessarily any inscription on the interior of the band to identify it as hers. Since Jamie’s ring was a key to Lallybroch, it was unique and could be identified as hers without much trouble.

    While I haven’t seen this included in any of the publicity items handed out by the production team (probably because it was more of a spoiler than they wanted to leak), Another other reason was probably because of the circle theme in the episode. Just before the attack, Claire told Jamie that she didn’t need him to give her laces and fine jewelry. The ring he gave her was enough. And that’s the one that Bonnet stole.

    Great job, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Curious how later encounter with Stephen Bonnet and “the ring” will also be used. Of course, readers know what I mean!

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  2. I really appreciated your commentary on this episode. I hadn’t thought of some of the ways in which the promise and the underlying danger and threats to their life together are woven into the episode.

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  3. I’m lost. Somewhere between Little House on the Prairie ( or on the River) and Huckleberry Finn, the evil element of Lord of the Ring could not capture my heart. Not $4 episode 1 of the Outlander that showed today.
    Sorry for- the spread out plot pieces that did not glue together, repetitive acting gestures that felt like a mini world of a soap opera, the lack of chemistry amongst the young actors.
    Thanks for- the beautiful costumes, authentic accessories and the sexy hanky panky scenes- I’m still hopeful for a better series🙄😦😪

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Poor Leslie – Thanks for the song….but now you’re gone!!! I really thought he was going to turn out to be the Duncan Innes character – totally wrong on that one! And since Duncan also doesn’t = Murtaugh, I’m getting worried. Because if Murtaugh = Arch Bug…..then I’m going to have some issues!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too, only a few minutes before I was thinking “Ah he’ll probably take on Duncan’s role”, so his death was s shock.

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  5. I thought they did a good job tying up some loose ends from season 3. I believe it makes it a better introduction to what is coming for non book readers. Both my friends and my husbands had ferwe questions watching this episode. Things that we knitpickers are bothered by didn’t even occur to them. The ring choice, based on having just rereading DOA, doesn’t matter as Bree scoops up everything in the bowl when she leaves the boat as she couldn’t figure out where the ring was in the bowl. So that will eventually sort itself out and perhaps be a touching reconnection for Claire. Second, as I’ve said in a few other posts, I liked having the music overlay the sounds at the end. We really don’t need more screaming and fighting sounds in this show. We can imagine them quite well and the music is actually poignant. You draw excellent comparisons and this was a good start to the season. A lot to digest if you think about it. And, spoiler, if they include it, Bonnets’ fear of death is quite prophetic.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous recap!! You clarified everything I was fuzzy on…. at least I think so, but as you so beautifully stated: “nothing is as it seems! “ I loved this episode and I can’t wait to see what will be revealed next week! So glad the Frasers are back on my TV screen! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve read a lot of comments where people did not like the overlay of America the Beautiful over the ending fight scene. I thought it was awesome and extremely emotional. America is beautiful but it also has violence and ugliness. Using Ray Charles’ version was poignant since he was a descendant of the slaves whose unpaid labor built much of the country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly how I felt about it. I didn’t see the use of the song as a criticism, but rather a poignant commentary and great juxtaposition for the scene.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Like

  8. Having read and commented on your take on Ep 2, I have read your review on Ep 1 and concur with everything you say – It was a beautiful Caithris for Gavin, and a shocking end for Lesley, but we aren’t invested in them like we were with Rupert and Angus, Rupert’s death actually brought me to tears. Claire, other than her assumption about the boat man, was quite subdued – her expressionless face is getting me down though – Cait can only do excessive emotions, like the loss of her ring. Sam, as Jamie in this episode, was magnificent and back to his true book character – I just wish they’d kill the wig and find him a better one. The meaningless jump jockey half clothed sex scenes are a tad boring – like the one in the cabin prior to the Hurricane in S3… it was a good start to season 4 – the musical choice at the end was good, fitting, but FAR TOO LOUD imo

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