Warning- Contains spoilers for Outlander Episode 402: Do No Harm.
Wow, my friends, that was a truly excellent episode. I cannot applaud this week’s writers enough for tackling such a complicated story so deftly. This episode was beautiful in its sadness, haunting in its message, and terrifically executed. It also managed to tick a lot boxes that will be important for many fans: Claire and Jamie working perfectly and equally in tandem, references to Jamie’s faith, and wonderful novel-to-screen character introductions in the way of Jocasta, Ulysses, Phaedre, and John Quincy Myers.
Before we dive in, I will warn readers that toward the end of this recap I do discuss current politics. Not in reference to any current politician or political party, but more reflecting on our current political zeitgeist. If you prefer not to mix your Outlander with politics I suggest you opt out now. I tend not to make political statements on the blog, but it’s fairly impossible not to do so this week with an episode that deals with this subject; slavery is undoubtedly the most difficult political challenge the United States has ever faced and we still haven’t fully recovered from our country’s dark beginnings.
And speaking of darkness, so much of this episode focuses on blindness and vision. Whereas last week’s episode explored a theme of hidden darkness, this week the ugliness is front and center, out in the open for those who can see it or choose to see it.
Aunt Jocasta literally cannot see, but figuratively she is also blind— she cannot envision a different life for her slaves, she cannot see that their captivity is wrong, she cannot foresee a future for River Run in which slavery does not exist. Most of her colleagues, although visually capable, are just as morally blind.
We also reference Jenny, who we know has a touch of the Sight. And Claire, of course, has the advantage of a vision of the future— it’s easier to picture a better world when you’ve actually seen it. In the end, however, it is Jamie who is arguably the most clear-visioned: he sees that the future does not allow for slavery because slavery is fundamentally wrong, but he also sees the sad reality of the situation with Rufus for what it truly is— a loss no matter the outcome.
There is no way to tell an accurate story of Colonial America without addressing slavery, and I don’t envy the writers of this episode for the task of dissecting out in one hour the enormous complications of the institution. After all, it took our country nearly a century and a civil war to attempt to figure it out. That’s not to say that the concept of slavery itself is complicated— that one is easy: slavery has always been and always will be wrong and evil. But, as this episode so beautifully demonstrates, changing the course of history is enormously complicated.
As Jamie comes to realize, there are frustrating legal, political, and social ramifications in attempting to change an institution that is so deeply embedded. A movement (here, abolitionism) can be morally right, but others often don’t see it that way; bending the will of disbelievers toward that “long arc of justice” can often come at the cost of endangerment to yourself and your loved ones. This is nothing new, of course, and any civil rights leader will tell you that these challenges didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation.
I can’t really recap this episode the way I normally would, given the gravity of the subject matter it addresses, but first we need to set the scene. Jamie, Claire, Ian, and Rollo finally arrive at River Run where they are greeted by Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta Cameron and her slave butler, Ulysses. Maria Doyle Kennedy and Colin McFarlane both give outstanding introductory performances in this hour.We are treated to a little light commentary and comedic relief before diving into the really deep stuff. Rollo gets skunked and we meet John Quincy Myers, who we can immediately deduce is awesome simply because Ian likes him. Ian, if you hadn’t noticed, is like a litmus test for all people in the Outlander universe— if he likes you you’re good, if he doesn’t you’re bad. story a bit more gravitas for such a short amount of storytelling time.
Huge round of applause to actor Kyle Rees, who infused this character with such a kind and worldly personality. In the novel JQM is exceptionally tall; Kyle Rees isn’t extraordinarily tall but he still gives Myers a larger-than-life feel.
What Jocasta Cameron lacks in sight she makes up for with true MacKenzie manipulation. It is not surprising that in an episode featuring the last surviving MacKenzie sibling there are a ton of call backs to Castle Leoch, Dougal, and Colum. But whereas Leoch and the world of Season One was ancient stone, castles, and deep Highland ties, everything about River Run is extremely new.
The home is recently built and of wood, the tapestries are clean and in good condition…it truly is a New World here at River Run. Everything is shiny and bright and Jon Gary Steele did a phenomenal job with set design. River Run’s exteriors and interiors are truly a delight for the eyes- almost like seeing the White House as it might have been brand new.
We want to like Jocasta (and River Run), and there is quite a bit about her to admire at face value: she’s outspoken, independent, and keenly intelligent. She also welcomes Jamie and Claire with open arms, even if she does have some ulterior motives. But for all her strengths, she still is a woman of her time. Keeping slave families together seems like a benevolent gesture (if you overlook keeping slaves in the first place), until you learn she values her slaves not as equal human beings but as extremely expensive financial investments. They are more costly than livestock and they “perform” better when happy. She speaks of her slaves like the property they are to her, much the same way we might discuss a new car.
Look how everyone’s costumes in this scene blend in with the colors and aesthetic of River Run. Ulysses matches the fall colors of the landscape, Jacosta’s dresses and shawls complement the colors of the house. Even Jamie blends in, mostly because he is at the home of family. Everyone seems fairly matched to River Run except…
Claire, who stands out in bright red. She is the one at most odds with the plantation, her bright and clashing color perhaps signaling her opposition to Jocasta. It could also represent her Englishness…she is again an outlander in this environment.
I also like the small irony here of Claire stating she is against slavery while being tended to by Phaedre, although I get the impression that Claire didn’t have much say in the matter. As an aside, Natalie Simpson is so lovely in this episode and emanates radiant energy from her character.
Despite the Fraser clan coming in, skunking up the house, questioning Jocasta’s morals, and needing new clothes, Jocasta still bequeaths River Run to Jamie and names him as heir. It’s too bad Jocasta is blind, because the looks on Lieutenant Wolff and Farquard Campbell’s faces are pretty priceless:
This development is distressing to Claire but Jamie sees it as a possible opportunity– a chance to change history in this small part of the world.
Note: I’m not certain, but I believe that’s a poppy flower on Claire’s white dress. Production likely didn’t know the air date of this episode when they filmed it, but it ties in beautifully with Remembrance Day. It also might symbolize the laudanum Claire uses later in the episode. UPDATED: Terry Dresbach says it’s a dogwood blossom.
But the next day, as Jamie is educated in how it would be nearly financially and logistically impossible to free all the slaves at River Run, all hell breaks loose.
A slave, Rufus, has injured Byrnes, the overseer. Claire and Jamie rush to the scene, only to discover that Byrnes has impaled Rufus on a hook. Despite Rufus being destined to hang for drawing blood from a white man, Byrnes has taken justice into his own hands. As was observed last week, there is the law and then there is what’s done.
I applaud the writers for including this book scene and portraying it as graphically as Diana Gabaldon wrote it.
Claire goes into full surgeon mode, rushing Rufus onto Jocasta’s dining table and tending to his life-threatening injuries. For Claire, a twentieth century physician, there is no racial identity or other impediment to administering treatment; this is simply a man needing medical care.
The world of eighteenth century Cross Creek does not agree. A mob threatens River Run if Rufus is not given up for hanging. There is no right way out of this situation; Rufus is destined to die regardless if he survives his injuries.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the wonderful acting job performed here by Jerome Holder, who plays Rufus. This episode really hinges on this character and he more than delivered with his performance.)
In the end Claire gently administers an overdose of aconite to Rufus, giving him the best thing that she possibly could given the circumstances: a peaceful death. We remember a similar scene with Colum, of course, but we are also reminded of a time twenty years ago when Claire oversaw the death of another young man who had been impaled. “Tell me about your home,” she guided young Geordie then. “Tell me about your sister,” she guides Rufus now.Celtic prayer for grace, which I think is extremely fitting for an episode that aired during Veterans or Remembrance Day weekend. Give us all grace, we ask, guide humanity to be better.
This episode begins with Jamie lamenting that he couldn’t do more to help and save the ones he loves during the boat attack. Claire absolves him of this burden, helping him heal with love. The episode ends with similar sentiments, with Claire wishing she could have done more to save Rufus, and Jamie essentially absolving her of her own perceived sin. It is not that Claire could have done better, it is her fellow human beings who need improving.
I’ve read some criticism that Claire acts recklessly in this episode, unable to grasp the ramifications of her actions. But to me she is acting very much in character— a Sassenach wearing nothing more than a flimsy dress ordering a bunch of seemingly dangerous Highlanders around rings a certain bell. It doesn’t always make her actions right, but it at least makes her consistent.
Frankly, changing the world requires us to do things that are a bit dangerous and go beyond social norms or expectations. Ask anyone who sat at a lunch counter, rode the front of the bus, or marched across bridges.
The title of this episode, “Do No Harm,” forces us to question when to take action- either as a doctor or just in our everyday lives. When is doing nothing the better or right thing to do and when is it the wrong decision? When do we step in and try to fix an injustice? Is there ever a time when we can’t…or won’t?
And because the problems of our past help highlight the problems of our present, this brings us to some political commentary. What Claire and Jamie experience at the end of this episode is a great example of privilege. That word- privilege- gets thrown around a lot lately in our current discussions, but it is often misunderstood as a label meaning people are wealthy or somehow do not work hard for their place in life. We know that’s not true, as Claire and Jamie as first generation immigrants exemplify the can-do, roll-up-the-shirtsleeves attitude that comes to help define the American Dream.
But the privilege here is that they get to walk away. They can leave River Run behind them, while the slaves can never leave. And that is what is meant by privilege in our society: who gets to walk away. Who gets to tune out the news, not invest in politics, or not engage in uncomfortable discussions. Who can afford to simply walk away.
And the ones who cannot walk away in this episode are the ones, finally, who tell Claire and Jamie what they need to do. A reminder to all of us to stop and listen to the people in our society who are less privileged and perhaps have a different perspective for us to consider.
The hands of time feature prominently in this episode. There is a deadline of midnight and we can imagine Claire, as a doctor, calling the time of death. Time is working against Jamie and Claire in “Do No Harm,” and the times (meaning the eighteenth century) are working against them as well.
Claire and Jamie tried to change history before, to no avail. In the end, perhaps the lesson we learn from this episode is that we can make small changes one person at a time. We can better one person’s life…or death. We can hope to change at least one person’s mind when we see injustices. We can raise our children to be better than us. We can aim to do no harm.