Apologies for the delayed post! Homeschooling my children is…a challenge.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 509: Monsters and Heroes.
Fasten yourselves to a ship’s mast and plug your ears, dear readers. We’re about to embark on a voyage…not quite a twenty year odyssey back to Ithaca, but close. So let us journey to a land of deep indigo blues…
…where west winds guide our heroes home…
…and let us slay monstrous bulls…
…and use a serpent for healing…
…and sail on Charon’s boat to visit the afterlife and then return again. Let us embark, my friends, on a hero’s journey of mythical proportions.
This was a finely crafted episode that leaned heavily into all that is best about Greek mythology. Heroes cannot exit without their gods or their monsters, and this hour was replete with all three.
Jamie mentions the bed of Procrustes in this episode, which is an apt reference for what the hour deals with thematically. In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a smith and a bandit who would invite weary travelers and passerby to spend the night. But the seemingly benevolent invitation was a cover for evil. If the person was too short for the bed, Procrustes would stretch their body to make them fit. If the traveler was too tall, Procrustes would…wait for it…amputate their legs.
The myth serves as a metaphor for any circumstance to which one must adapt– if a situation cannot be changed then it is we who must conform. We may not always be a perfect fit, but sometimes we are forced to do the best we can with what we have.
And so we find our characters all struggling to fit themselves into situations that aren’t quite ideal but ones with which they are forced to reconcile nonetheless. Brianna finds a way to be an engineer, despite the position not being wholly available to her in this century. Roger finally finds his place in this family, despite not initially being a perfect fit (at least not in Jamie’s eyes). A snake is adapted to use as a syringe, and a stick is used to replace a lost voice. A husband becomes a midwife when no others are available…everyone is forced to conform themselves to a “bed”that isn’t quite the right size, making the best of imperfect situations.
Moreover, our characters each take turns recognizing that in making such compromises– in perhaps sacrificing part of themselves in the name of adaptation– that it does not come at the cost of their identity or being. A part of them might be missing– a limb for that figurative bed of Procrustes– but they are still whole.
As Young Ian reminds Jamie later in the episode, there are any number of ways for person to be complete, even if they physically (or emotionally) are not. Claire tells Bree that even if she were to lose Jamie (a bit of foreshadowing there, eh?) or any other member of her family– if she were to have this emotional amputation, if you will– she would still have her medicine. Life goes on, and we can live a full life, even when we lose a part of ourselves.
And so this episode examines what makes us whole. Fergus is missing a hand, but still has a loving (and growing) family. Marsali is missing her mother, but she has a surrogate in Claire. Brianna is missing her education and career, but she finds new ways to use her gifts on the Ridge. They may all be missing “parts,” sometimes adapting themselves into situations that don’t quite fit, but they are still whole.
Which makes this episode an appropriate one to follow last week’s, which was devoted entirely to Roger losing his voice– his one trait which he felt made him whole. But whereas last week was more of a deep, individual character study of Roger and Ian, this week steps back and examines the Fraser family more broadly. As an ensemble they are all part of a hero’s journey, and in the end it is the sum of all these parts (with the adorable addition of Félicité), which makes this family whole.
Sam Heughan and Richard Rankin do some amazing work together in this episode, each cycling through complicated emotions as they try to process the possibility that Jamie might die. In the novels we get a sense of how well-educated Jamie is, having a deep and thorough knowledge of theology and the humanities, and so it is nice to see that this is one means by which these two men finally bond.
But besides Procrustes and Charon, perhaps the better myth to have referenced in this episode would have been that of Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a figure in Greek mythology punished by the gods for his sins by means of a snake bite. The bite festered and became septic, and Philoctetes was exiled to an island until he was eventually taken away by Odysseus to be healed and fight in the Trojan war.
Jamie views his own misfortune as a penance for his sins. And so, if we compare Jamie to Philoctetes, then Roger becomes the natural Odysseus…a man determined to get home, despite the enormity of the challenge. Like Odysseus, what partially compels Roger forward is the thought of another man (Bonnet) stepping in to lay claim to his family.
Like so many Greek heroes, Jamie also briefly visits the world of the afterlife. He crosses with Charon, glimpses the shades of the underworld, but returns to the mortal world to continue a hero’s work.
What brings Jamie back is love, and so Claire in this story becomes Asclepius, god of medicine and healing. Asclepius carried his eponymous rod entwined with a snake, sometimes mistakenly referred to as a caduceus. He had the power to bring mortals back to life from the brink of death (and beyond). And so it happens here…a healer with near-supernatural powers, equipped with a serpent, saving our hero and once again becoming a hero herself.
And where does Brianna fit in this mythological comparison? I’d like to think she is most like Daedalus, the engineer who managed to contain the Minotaur. After all, Daedalus had one prized possession: his son.
Jamie tells Roger to follow the west wind home in this episode. In Greek mythology, the god Zephyr controlled the west wind…the gentlest of all winds and the harbinger of spring, birth, and renewal. And that’s where we end this touching episode: our characters renewed, with birth and rebirth. In the the end they are all transformed and changed but together again. They are whole.