Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…that was quite the tonal shift. Let’s discuss.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 502: Between Two Fires.
Compared to the bright and relatively cheery season premiere, this episode is emotionally a bit of a one-eighty. We deal with darker themes, are shown darker sides of some characters, and are re-introduced to our villain in the form of Stephen Bonnet— the darkest of them all. For anyone worried that Outlander would portray an idealized form of Colonial America this season, this episode proved the series (and its characters) isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty.
As Matt and Maril very nicely laid out in the aftershow segment, a prominent theme of the episode examines nearly all the characters figuratively walking between two fires: Jamie between Knox/Tryon and Murtagh, Murtagh between Jamie and the Regulators, Claire between the limitations of the eighteenth century and her knowledge as a twentieth century physician, Roger between the present and the future, etc.
But a subtler theme of the episode is examining cause of death– an autopsy of humanity in general and Colonial America specifically. Just as Claire performs an actual post-mortem, this episode looks at what literally and metaphorically kills us: poisonings, infections, stab wounds, biases, prejudices, anger, and pride. Lieutenant Knox observes that without civility we would all begin killing each other. This hour is almost entirely about death and disease; just as it does in a man, the poisoning of a society leads to its downfall.
Knox is correct and, indeed, his lack of civility in one scene directly leads to another man’s death. Bonnet, as an extreme, is completely lacking in all civility and he murders frequently and without discretion. But impulsive pride and sociopathic anger aren’t the only things killing these colonists. Unjust taxation leads to a toxic inequality among the Colonists. The Ridge tenants are unwittingly poisoning their loved ones and almost completely ignore Claire’s advice– their ignorance and biases are actually killing them. If markers of civility and advanced society are education, a judicial system, scientific exploration, economic mobility and a welfare state, then in this episode we see all of those systems destroyed. When civilization dies, this episode argues, then we die too.
Thematically this episode is similar to Episode 405: Savages, another Murtagh-heavy episode that explores who or what we consider evil based on our own prejudices or biases. Jamie opines that the best we can do is live by what our conscience dictates. The inevitable conflict arises when one’s morality differs from another’s. Murtagh’s conscience tells him that his fight is worthwhile for economic and judicial fairness. Knox’s conscience dictates that he defend King and Country to no end. Both men have strong convictions of what is considered “right.”
But fighting for our ideals isn’t always noble…it can get tar-and-feathers messy. This opening scene is based on a real-life events in which Regulators stormed the courthouse in Hillsborough, demanded to be jurors, and then rioted when those demands were not met. Immediately we see how the breakdown of society leads to destruction and death. Here, an unjust judicial and taxation system is the etiology for the path to war. And isn’t war the ultimate breakdown of civilization…a breakdown that leads to us all killing each other?
Note: for a man who was instructed to be hard to find, tar-and-feathering public officials is maybe a tad…conspicuous.
Jamie is uniquely positioned as a character to see the good in most everyone. In his life he’s known kind and unkind soldiers, just and unjust rulers, and honest and immoral citizens from all slices of society. He’s been both a prisoner and a laird, homeless and a landowner. So it is perhaps his broad understanding of humanity that gives him so much internal struggle in this episode. He understands the motivations of both Murtagh and Knox. He has walked between two fires for nearly all his life…he has seen more civil destruction and death than one person should.
And so he is both sympathetic to the Regulators’ cause but equally disturbed by their brutality. He is at turns impressed with Knox but disgusted with his actions. His sympathies alternate when he observes both sides losing their civility.
In Hillsborough Jamie and Knox see the aftermath of the riot and it is important to note that at this time most Colonists were not sided with the Regulators. It’s a sentiment that will soon change, of course, but for now we see that the destruction and disruption in Hillsborough is mostly unwelcome by its citizens. Their town was destroyed in the riot…a loss of civility that endangered their lives.
Knox predictably demands to meet the guilty parties, and Jamie is relieved to find Murtagh absent among the prisoners (he’s instead hanging out with Herman Husband out in the woods, hopefully taking notes about non-violent protest). Moved to aggravation, Knox stabs one of the men, serving justice (in his mind) without a fair trial…which is exactly what these men were protesting in the first place. Knox is at first shocked and ashamed but swiftly moves to defensive and justified. While he earlier exalted the benefits of civilized society, his character also shows just how quickly we can lose it.
Back at the Ridge, rather than battling a disease of civilization’s structure, Claire is tackling actual poisonings. As she is unable to save a Ridge tenant from a ruptured appendix, subsequent peritonitis and sepsis, and probable anemia and mercury poisoning, Claire realizes (again) just how hard it is to introduce new ideas into society…especially when those ideas come from a woman. She has fought this battle many times before, but perhaps it now feels more urgent with the presence of her entire family in the eighteenth century. She performs an autopsy on the man, determined to save a population that doesn’t realize they need rescuing.
Brianna is not so much into gross anatomy, which is a consistent character trait from the novels. But you know who can’t help her morbid curiosity?
One highly capable, Highland-raised farm girl who’s great with a knife and not afraid to get blood on her apron. I love, love, love this new Claire and Marsali relationship development and it makes me think we might eliminate the Malva Christie storyline from the novels altogether.
But despite her squeamishness, Brianna earns her keep around the farm as she’s an ace shot who has clearly settled into this century’s way of life. She has settled so much so, in fact, that it creates some conflict between her and Roger. For even though Roger is “short-sighted“ (as diagnosed by Claire), of the two of them he has the clearest long-range vision.
Roger fully understands just how dangerous this world is. Brianna’s argument that Jem doesn’t have to worry about road traffic seems almost laughably naive. There are no cars, true, but there are innumerable things that can kill a child in this time…things that are easily treated two hundred years in the future: bee stings, infected cuts or scrapes, asthma attacks, diarrhea, etc. Novel readers know that an incident will eventually make her come to this realization, but for now it puts Brianna somewhat out of step with her husband.
Roger himself presents as a foil to all the lack of civilization, for in this episode Roger represents the best of what an advanced society has to offer: religion, music, and pacifism.
Stephen Bonnet lies at the other end of that spectrum, for he symbolizes the worst of a degraded society: amorality, murder, corruption, and misogyny. He is a pirate, a man whose goal it is to undermine civility every turn.
Our characters walk between two fires in this episode, but perhaps the most crucial path they all have to navigate is the one that alternates them between civilization and anarchy. If humanity is inherently diseased, we do our best through society and culture to cure it.
And if I were the king of the world
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you.
Can we throw away the war? Not yet. We cannot ever fully stop death but, like a good physician, we try anyway.
photo credit: STARZ