Well, this episode was timely, was it not? A plague of biblical proportions? As always, life imitates art. Ready to dive in?
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 506: Better To Marry Than Burn.
“Fire! That got everyone’s attention. That panic you felt in your chest, that terror, the instinct to protect yourselves from danger. Now imagine if there was really a fire…one shift of the wind and your homes could be reduced to ashes. Are you willing to take that chance?”
What are you willing to gamble in this life? What risks are you willing to take? Is a lifetime’s worth of gold worth losing your child? Is an untested method worth risking your crops? Is a horse worth saving your pride? Are your wife’s rings worth keeping your honor? Is your love worth the risk of losing it all? One shift of the wind, and you could lose everything.
The title of this episode is taken from 1 Corinthians 7:9- “But if they can not contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” Marriage, the Bible tells us, is a way to contain lust— something less dangerous used as a way to contain something more dangerous. Similarly, in this episode, smoke is used to contain locusts, a game of Whist is used to contain a wildcard man, and laws (unconstitutional by modern standards) are used to contain the Regulators. Things that are less risky are used to contain things that are more risky…hedging your bets, so to speak.
But more than containment, our characters this hour find themselves playing with fire and subsequently creating smoke screens. Roger and Brianna and the Ridge tenants most literally, everyone else more figuratively. Hector Campbell is a fugitive with stolen French gold, using an alias and endangering his family. Claire uses a whisky partnership as a ruse to lure in Wylie and Bonnet. Jamie gambles with Claire’s rings (and trust) and also resorts to using a nom de guerre. Murtagh risks being captured just to see Jocasta, using the dark of night as a cover. All of them playing with fire, gambling on their happiness, and using smoke screens with variable success.
Jocasta, as the exception, is walking away from the table. She is perhaps using her marriage as a smokescreen to mask her loneliness, but she is a woman who has risked enough in her life; gambling with one’s happiness and security just isn’t worth it. As a MacKenzie she shines but doesn’t burn; she is done playing with fire.
And as the episode begins we quickly understand why. In a flashback we learn that as Culloden was unfolding the Cameron family (Hector, Jocasta, and their daughter Morna) fled Scotland, bound for America with the French gold that arrived too late for the Jacobite army. Two British dragoons stop the family, discover the gold, and Morna is accidentally shot to death by Hector in the resulting crossfire.
I very much enjoyed this flashback scene for a few reasons. First, it was refreshing to see expansive Scottish panoramas that we were so used to in the first few seasons. Although I know the series is still filmed in Scotland, since arriving in America most of the scenes are shot at closer range. Second, it was amazing to see Jocasta still visual and be reminded of what a fantastic job Maria Doyle Kennedy is doing with her character. And it took me a few minutes to convince myself that it wasn’t Alexis Bledel playing Morna. Seriously, she and Rosie Graham could be sisters.
Fast forward to the day before Jocosta’s marriage to Duncan Innes. She is alone with her memories, holding Morna’s ribbon. Duncan very sweetly gives her a wedding present and attempts to make a speech about two rivers joining as one, but Jocasta almost immediately shuts him down. It is true that she loves another and cannot fully give her heart to Innes, but Jocasta is perhaps also keeping Innes at a distance to protect her own feelings. She has had her heart broken more than once; you cannot be hurt if you don’t allow yourself to feel. She’s holding her cards close to her chest.
She joins Jamie and Gerald Forbes downstairs and proceeds to sign over River Run to Jem, explaining that she will act as guardian of the estate until Jem is of age. I have to acknowledge Colin McFarlane in this scene because he really was brilliant. Without saying a word, we felt the weight of this moment on Ulysses…his whole life signed over from one owner to another with a simple signature. Life as a slave was an endless, painful process of evaluating risk.
The wedding festivities are underway and I have to say costuming and set design really hit this one out of the park…so many extras to outfit in these scenes! It’s interesting to note that many of the men are costumed in reds and pinks and florals while the women wear unadorned shades of greens and blues, reminding us that what we consider masculine or feminine is a social construct and constantly changing.
Lord John is here and he and Claire and Jamie basically remark on how all the women pining for Lord John are destined to burn forever. As a group they reluctantly make their way over to converse with Governor Tryon.
So a note here about this magistrate introduced as Martin Atticus. “Atticus” was the pseudonym of a real-life man who wrote a long, scathing letter to the Virginia Gazette in 1771, in which he accused William Tryon of mishandling the Regulator uprising and being a general imbecile. “Atticus” is thought to have been Maurice Moore, Jr., a judge in the Cape Fear area and a man close to Tryon. The historian that identified Moore as Atticus was a man by the name of Francois-Xavier Martin. See what the writers did there? Another smokescreen.
Claire and Margaret Tryon leave the men to their conversation and Margaret, discussing the scheduled Whist game, remarks that she finds it “very beguiling watching men gamble away their fortunes.” Which segues us back to the Ridge, where Roger and the tenants are arguing on how to rid themselves of the locusts that have recently descended. In keeping with the gambling theme, they are essentially betting on methods that might save their crops— the only fortune they have. Here’s a tip…maybe someone should ask the Harvard/Radcliffe and MIT-educated woman? Brianna’s your ace in the hole…let’s have her throw out a few ideas.
The method they settle on is one that Roger recollects from tales he heard in childhood of the American West: smoke. It’s a technique that may be rooted in actual history, but I’ll let the entomologists out there weigh in on how effective it actually might be (my guess: not very). But the reference to the American West thematically makes sense for this episode, for what other era better epitomizes boom and bust, gambling and risk?
Back at River Run, Claire finds herself unable to shake the attention of Phillip Wylie, recently returned from France with a gambling problem and a penchant for fine clothing and pedigreed horses. He fancies himself a gentleman but he’s nothing but a rake; everything about him is artifice, including his mole. Notice how the rice powder applied during the title card resembles smoke? Wylie’s whole presentation is a smokescreen.
Claire attempts to trick Wylie into entering into a whisky partnership and secure a meeting with Stephen Bonnet, who would act as smuggler. Claire is most definitely playing with fire here, as she is gambling on Wylie not knowing the Fraser’s full history with Bonnet.
But her methods backfire when Wylie makes advances on Claire. Jamie interrupts Wylie’s assault and nearly kills him until Claire reminds Jamie that committing murder at his aunt’s wedding is perhaps not ideal. So Jamie lets Wylie live but attempts revenge in another form: a high-risk game of Whist. Jamie bets Claire’s rings (which, unsurprisingly, does not go over well), while Wylie bets his horse (and reputation).
Jamie ends up winning and lets Wylie keep his horse in exchange for a meeting with Bonnet. The meeting itself will be a high-stakes gamble, as Bonnet is a wholly unpredictable man who will risk anything. The stakes are definitely raised now. Especially when Gerald Forbes later informs Bonnet that Jem has inherited River Run.
Back at the Ridge, having made smudge pots and surrounding the fields with low-burning fires, the tenants make their stand against the invading swarm of locusts. Notice how the cloths covering their faces resemble bandanas worn in the Wild West? It’s a showdown at the corral between the tenants and the pests. They are gambling that this method will work…that the locusts will ultimately stand down.
And it works! And our cowboy is subsequently hailed as a hero. Jackpot.
Well, there’s a song that opines that we have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. And here we leave Jocasta folding her cards and walking away from the table. She has lost all her children, given her love to men that were careless with her heart, and lived a life consumed by grief and guilt. Her gambling days are over. Murtagh lays all his chips on the table too late; the game is finished. Jocasta has hedged her bets and decided this love is no longer worth the risk.
We end with Jamie undoubtedly feeling that grip of terror in his chest that Roger so eloquently described earlier. Jamie has been playing with fire all season, walking the line between the Regulators and Tryon. But now they are headed for battle and Jamie knows the rebels are no match for the force of the British Army. As conventional wisdom tells us, the house always wins. But here we are at the table, all in, winner take everything. May fortune smile upon the lucky.