Whew! That was an emotional doozy. What an excellent episode. Let’s discuss.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 507: The Ballad of Roger Mac.
Even though most novel readers knew how this episode was likely to end, it’s a testament to the writing and acting that this hour built very gradually with a growing sense of dread. We begin with singing (Roger and Brianna) and fun tent-time (Jamie and Claire), but each scene adds a layer of unease that ultimately culminates in tragedy. Like a red coat that we were never meant to wear, it’s increasingly uncomfortable and nothing feels quite right. In the end we are all Brianna- the worst of our fears realized when a loved one doesn’t return.
Much has already been discussed regarding the title of this episode and how it is perhaps named inappropriately. After all, a great deal of this hour is devoted to Jamie and Murtagh, seemingly belying what we expect from an episode with “Roger Mac” in the title.
But if we interpret the title as an action, rather than a description, it all seems to fall into place. The ballad or ballads, are not about Roger Mac, but from Roger Mac. Here is a story of a miner and his daughter Clementine. Here is a story of how you will lose this battle. Here is a story of how we are family. Here is the story of how I saved your wife and son. Here is a story. Please listen to my words…they are all I have to offer. Please remember what I have to say. Please remember who I was.
Because a ballad, in the traditional sense, is a story in song form handed down by oral tradition. The stories of our families- our parents, our godparents, our ancestors- are similarly handed down by such a tradition. And that’s what much of this episode focuses on: the stories we have after our loved ones are gone. When our parents have passed and can no longer hand down those memories- when that oral tradition of family loses another voice- all we have left are the words we are meant to remember. Make sure you know the words of Clementine, Roger tells Bree…please remember this song. Hand down this ballad of me and the man I was.
It’s a plea we find nearly all the characters asking in this episode, sometimes explicitly and sometimes indirectly. Jamie remembers his father, realizing that he has now surpassed him in age; Jamie is embarking on a stage in life for which there are no stories, no ballads, to use as guides. Murtagh’s death is a similar loss of a parent figure— gone is a man who loved and knew Jamie as any parent would, more than most people in this world will ever fully love or know him. With Murtagh’s departure the stories of Ellen and Brian and the Highlands also threaten to disappear. The ballads are all that is left to tell….stories left to hand down to children.
And ultimately this episode is about children, both the children we always feel we are and our own children to whom we want to impart those stories or memories. It’s about children with whom we have to say goodbye and children that might never know their fathers. It’s about children sent off to war and children who make terrible mistakes. It’s about the words we tell children to teach them or give them guidance or reassurance: remember this song, you cannot waiver, it doesn’t hurt to die.
The tragedy of this episode comes from the stories we lose when our loved ones die…the ballads that are lost when a voice is silenced. Lost and gone forever, like Clementine.
Roger is counting on Bree to remember the words to Clementine, because if he dies there will be virtually no one else who knows the lyrics. As the song won’t be written until the next century, it would be lost with Roger’s death. More than remembering the song, Roger is relying on Bree to give Jem memories in case Roger doesn’t return from battle.
The battle in question is the looming conflict by Alamance Creek, where Jamie and Tryon have gathered the militia and army. Although the Regulators make an attempt at parlay, Tryon is unmoved, motivated mostly about the story that will eventually be told of his leadership (more on that later).
Brianna and Lizzy and Jem are staying nearby in Hillsborough in the company of the Sherston family (friends of Jocasta’s). When Mr. Sherston relays the position of the Regulators, Brianna has a flash of recollection…here is a story, a ballad, found in the deep corners of her memory— a story she is meant to remember and hand down.
And hand down she does. Riding into camp, she comes to warn her family of the Regulator’s impending loss (and Murtagh’s probable death). Outlander is always most interesting when the time travel element adds conflict, and so our characters are left debating (again) how their actions might permanently disturb history as it is written. Might the ballads change?
It’s a risk they are willing to take, and Roger volunteers to sneak over to the Regulator camp to warn Murtagh. But Murtagh knows that the history as it is written means he is meant to fight. Despite the warnings and the attempts at a truce, the battle is set to begin.
But not before Roger runs into Morag MacKenzie, his direct ancestor and wife of one William Buccleigh “Buck” MacKenzie. Buck obviously gets his looks and temper from his father (hello Graham McTavish!) and his sinister manipulation from his mother (Geillis). In an episode where family is held paramount, here is the bitter truth for some: sometimes what is handed down from parent to child is toxic and destructive. Ballads can be tragic as well.
The fighting commences and the battle scenes in this episode were brilliantly shot…Amanda Rae Prescott over at Den of Geek goes into the cinematography a bit in her recap. Notable is the way the Regulators fight…less organized but wholly familiar with the land in a way that will eventually serve the Continental Army well during the Revolution.
Oh yeah, Isaiah Morton has come back to fight. This pisses off the crusty Brown brothers and one of them uses the cover of conflict to shoot Isaiah at close range during the battle. When Claire calls them out on their shadiness they respond by smashing her syringe full of penicillin. And don’t for a minute think that animosity is gone with this episode; I have some major speculation about what the end of this season will entail (hint: it involves the Browns and Claire. No spoilers, please, for non-book readers).
As the stories will be written, the Regulators do indeed lose the battle, but not before young Hugh Findlay fires a fatal shot upon Murtagh…unwavering in the manner taught to him by Jamie himself. Sam Heughan does an amazing job in the scenes that follow, rapidly moving through shock, denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. Caitriona Balfe also does some award-worthy work as Claire balances her own grief against her need to solace Jamie. She, too, is saying goodbye to a friend and family member…gone is the man with whom she sang the ballad of a bugle boy all those many years ago.
As it often happens in real life, there is little time for grief as the world moves on. Roger is still missing. The sense of dread toward which we’ve been moving over the hour climaxes in the realization that Roger was mistaken for an insurgent and hung by the governor. It is undoubtedly the most tragic fate for a man for whom song and words and stories meant everything.
And what will be the ballad of William Tryon? In the real-life sequence of events he will leave for New York in just a few weeks. The history books will write that he successfully stopped the Regulator uprising. But, as Jamie notes, the history books will leave out the details…there is what is written and there is what has actually been done. Tryon has fired upon his own citizens, created laws prohibiting the right to assemble, and prosecuted men with ex post facto laws. He has executed men without trial and has behaved as a king. In short, Tryon has created an atmospheres ripe for revolution…a perfectly unjust environment in which men will eventually declare independence and write a constitution prohibiting such inequity. Tryon’s actions have set the stage for the ballad of the American Revolution.
It’s a ballad handed down to American children to this day— a story of men and women fighting against the brutality of an unfair monarchy. We hear the stories, we sing the songs, and we remember our ancestors.
And that brings me back to the title card sequence. Who is writing Roger Mac’s ballad? It’s not Roger…people generally do not write ballads about themselves. It is more likely a descendent, remembering a story, committing it to paper and pen, and singing the song before it is forgotten. Oh my darlin’, remember me before I am gone and lost forever. Sing my own song of Clementine.