Warning- Contains spoilers for Outlander Episode 408: Wilmington.
The next time someone tries to dismiss Outlander as romantic fluff, I would like you to 1. first squash your impulse to smack the back of their head and then, 2. gently redirect them toward this episode. And all of Season 4. And then the novels and the prior three seasons. Try not to gloat as they apologize.
Because themes of pretense and theater, an example of the Bystander Effect, use of Shakespearean elements, and subtle commentary about American history are just a few motifs explored this hour. Shallow romance? I don’t think so.
This was an interestingly framed episode as we, the audience, watched nearly every other character in this episode also, in turns, be an audience member and an actor. Whether it was quite literally attending a performance…
…or watching a surgery (note, I love the makeshift surgical theater within an actual theater)…
…or observing things we might not understand…
…or watching history happen before our eyes…
…or seeing the happiest night of one’s life turn into the worst…
…or, most disturbingly, watching a horror unfold and doing nothing about it…
…everyone engages in theater in this episode. “All the world’s a stage,” quotes Governor Tryon from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and that’s true to a certain extent– we do see our characters acting quite a bit in this episode: Claire feigning she can’t fully empathize with parenthood, Jamie “accidentally” elbowing Edmund Fanning in the gut, Brianna and Roger pretending that their fight doesn’t devastate them as much as it does. Everyone does their fair share of acting in this hour and there is no shortage of drama. But, as this episode deftly illuminates, the men and women aren’t merely players. They are real people for whom the actions of others have real consequences.
American playwright Thomas Godfrey wrote Prince of Parthia in the neo-classical style and borrowed much of its plot and structure from Shakespeare. And this episode, perhaps in a meta nod to neo-classical tradition, is also similarly structured. We have all our main characters descending upon one location (Wilmington), with the events of this episode (our play) taking place over the course of twenty-four hours, and a prominent Shakespearean theme of mistaken identity and misunderstanding.
As much as Governor Tryon would love to believe otherwise, however, Wilmington is not London, Godfrey is not Shakespeare, and the governor’s mansion is not a palace. The presence of George Washington in this episode is an overt reminder that nowhere is the inevitability of change most prominent than in pre-revolutionary Colonial America. Whether it’s a family of two expanding to three, an adjustment of our expectations in a new marriage, a female surgeon assuming a male-dominated role, or a country beginning to embrace the ideals of democracy, change invariably comes to us all; it’s no use pretending to be something that you are not.
We open with Roger roaming the muddy streets of Wilmington, searching for Brianna and unknowingly also running into Fergus. While we’re on the subject, can we petition for César Domboy to be in every episode? I find his sweet intepretation of Fergus totally heartwarming.
Claire and Jamie are also in Wilmington, squeezing in a visit with Fergus, Marsali, and Germain (who is the cutest little muffin of a baby EVER) before heading to the theater later that night.
New mother Marsali is gobsmacked with the overwhelming love and surge of emotions that many of us feel upon becoming parents. She would do anything for Germain, she tells Claire, tying into the prominent theme of Season 4: family and what we will do for those we love.
Roger and Brianna eventually reunite and it is in equal parts romantically great and aggressively passionate. Did you note the tavern patrons watching their love story unfold? All of Wilmington is an audience.
Very much not an original thought, but I am totally here for Richard Rankin’s long hair and perfect beard stubble.
Anyway, even though they take their defensive-but-sincere “I Love You’s” outside, they still can’t escape the one-person audience of Lizzie. She has apparently never seen Atonement and thus might not suspect that her interpretation of Roger and Brianna’s reunion- the drama she is watching unfold- is perhaps… subjective.
Roger and Brianna move things indoors and there’s apparently nothing like time travel, a long ocean voyage, and being lost in a different century to give everyone a new perspective.
They agree to be handfast, and Roger looks at Brianna the way every man should look at his newly affianced: like he’s won the biggest lottery in the world.
Meanwhile, across town (I’m assuming it’s across town?), Brianna’s parents are rubbing elbows with the Wilmington gentry at the new theater. Among attendance are Edmund Fanning (fictional hernia sufferer but real-life financial extortionist), Margaret Wake Tryon (for whom future Wake County, North Carolina is named), and, of course, George and Martha Washington.
I really love how the series makes a point of showing that at this time in history it is Martha who is arguably the more famous member of the couple. Margaret Tryon is quite in awe of her; Colonel Washington is a bit of an afterthought.
Book readers know that Washington pops up in the later novels, so it’s interesting that he is introduced earlier here. Although Jamie and Claire would certainly find themselves at odds with the Washingtons over certain issues (namely, slavery), there are a few parallels to draw between the couples. Both Martha and Claire are on their second marriages married to younger men, and know the pain of losing a child. Jamie and George Washington are military men, fathers to adopted children, and husbands to fiercely independent women. And, of course, we know where Washington’s ideals and loyalties will eventually lie.
But more than commonalities with the Frasers, the presence of Washington here ties in nicely to this episode’s theme. Perhaps no other American will have the story of his life explode into larger-than-life proportions to the same extent as George Washington. The parable of the cherry tree, somewhat embarrassingly blurted out by Claire, is only one example of the man eventually becoming the myth. And so, in an episode devoted to pretense and acting and theater, the presence of Washington- whose life becomes the ultimate American drama- is very fitting.
Although Claire rightly thinks that meeting Washington is pretty great and she wishes Brianna could be there, I’m going to suggest that losing your virginity to your hot new husband might be just as exciting? This was all very sweetly and beautifully done. I’m also assuming everyone in Wilmington besides these two is at the theater seeing Prince of Parthia, since no one comes to investigate why there’s a fire going in this building that does not belong to Roger and Brianna.
Tryon lets it be known to Jamie that at this very moment he has plans to arrest Murtagh. He knows, thanks to an espionage mole, that the Regulators intend to rob a Treasury carriage that night. If Murtagh is arrested he will surely be hanged, and so Jamie sits there in agony trying to figure a way out of this mess.
The solution comes in the way of administering agony to another. He elbows Fanning in the abdomen so hard that some bowel loops are likely dislodged through his herniation, thereby causing a much better drama (and distraction) than the one currently on stage. I’m not sure if it was intended to be comedic, but in my last-minute Christmas deliriousness I found Jamie’s “THIS MAN NEEDS A SURGEON” absolutely hilarious. Again, another example of our characters being actors in this episode.
Claire sets Fanning up on a table in the lobby and we finally have our famous hernia repair surgery from the novel. Watch Margaret Tryon’s face in the background as Claire successfully takes charge of the situation…she maybe has a new girl crush to add to her admiration of Martha Washington? Can we petition for a spinoff series in which Colonial women form a clandestine group and find ways to subvert the patriarchy under the guise of a quilting guild? Maybe get Betsy Ross in on the action?
Sorry. Too much eggnog. Moving on.
Governor Tryon assists Claire during the surgery and even he is able to “act” during this episode, as he briefly assumes the role of someone who is brave and helpful.
The surgery is successful, everyone claps. Take a bow, Claire, your performance was stellar.
Meanwhile, Jamie is able to slip out and catch a ride with the Washingtons, who have no doubt decided that Wilmington is a bit of a drag and are high-tailing it back to Mount Vernon. Or, perhaps, they have a premonition of what happens to United States presidents in theaters. Thanks for the lift, George, see you at Valley Forge! Bring a coat!
Wisely, Jamie does not go to warn Murtagh himself but instead sends Fergus out to prevent the debacle. Thus, we get a pretty cute reunion scene between Murtagh and Fergus. The crisis is averted as Murtagh calls off the raid. Note: more acting by the Regulator who pretends to be a drunkard lost in the woods. All the world’s a stage.
But the biggest make-believe this hour comes from Roger and Brianna, who both pretend that their argument (over the newspaper article) and subsequent separation isn’t totally devastating to them both. I don’t need you, I’ll go if you want me to, I want you to leave. They are angry and hurt and there is truth in their words, but they are putting up a proud and defiant act for the other. I’m sorry, I messed up, I love you, I don’t want you to go— words that they undoubtedly mean but do not say. It’s nothing but extremely painful pretense.
A heartbroken Brianna stumbles across Stephen Bonnet in the tavern and spies Claire’s ring in his hand. Everyone’s an actor in this episode, but none so convincing as Bonnet. A sociopath masquerading as a charmer, he proceeds to rape Brianna behind closed doors. The tavern patrons do nothing as they hear the horror. In an episode where everyone puts on some sort of an act, these witnesses pretend not to care.
So where does that leave us? Hopefully reflecting on our own pretenses. There are countless horrors that happen in this world each day– to what or whom are we turning a blind eye? Who are we hurting when we pretend not to hear or see or care?
It’s a sobering but relevant thought as we head into the holiday. Let us help those who need us. Let us not play pretend with those we love. ‘Tis the season to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us.
For those who celebrate, Merry Christmas from my family to yours.