Oh, how I’ve missed this show. Let’s discuss the Season 6 premiere.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 601: Echoes
To understand this episode thematically it’s helpful to remember exactly how an echo is created. An echo is a sound that is repeated when its waves hit a surface and are reflected back to its listener. And, via Claire’s voiceover, much is discussed in this episode of how echoes are created across space and time— a person sets a wave in motion, sound or otherwise, and that wave bounces in different directions and affects the various “listeners” in its path.
But think of what is necessary to create an echo— a sound wave needs to hit a hard surface to create that repetition. If it hits a soft surface it is absorbed instead… nothing is repeated back. And so, over and over again in this episode we see the difference of when an action— a sound— hits a hard surface (Christie) versus a soft surface (Jamie). With Christie, a man wholly rigid in his thinking, things are reflected back in undesirable ways; he is that hard surface against which undesirable echos bounce off. At Ardsmuir he is unwilling to compromise with the prisoners. He is a man completely unwavering in theological doctrine. He is a father wholly rigid in his thinking. Violence, intolerance, injury, and generational trauma are destined to repeat when they reflect off of him.
Jamie is the soft surface by contrast. Not “soft” as in “weak”, but rather a surface that is able to absorb whatever is directed at it. He is able to absorb his time in Ardsmuir with grace and honor. He is able to absorb the lashes of punishment with dignity and bravery. He is able to absorb loss with faith. He is able to absorb hardship with intelligence and humor. He is even able to absorb new tenants and an adversarial man onto his land with patience and openness. He does all of this effortlessly, and so the echoes of those traumas and hardships and pains do not get reflected back onto those he loves.
But what happens when the occasional echo bounces back? What happens when we must deal with the repeated sounds of things we would rather not hear? And that’s the other primary theme of this episode: how we numb ourselves against those waves that continue to hit us. Alcohol? Denial? Fainting? Ether? “You don’t feel anything,” Claire exclaims, as she extols the virtue of anesthesia. It’s true, we don’t feel any pain while anesthetized (an = without, aisthēsis = sensation). But, as a doctor, Claire would be fully aware that anesthesia is as close to death as we can get while still being alive, and there’s only so much we can take before we either wake up or die.
Any first episode of a new season will have to deal with a huge amount of exposition in laying the groundwork for future episodes, but “Echoes” does it rather effortlessly. We are re-introduced to Ardsmuir and the period of time when Jamie has newly arrived at the prison (just about eight years after the Battle of Culloden). We meet Tom Christie, a Protestant man who believed in Scottish independence but not a papal king. And although we see Christie symbolically break bread in this episode, we learn he is man who will not share and will not offer forgiveness. He can quote the Bible but he does not understand the humanity for which it serves. Put a pin in that, because there’s a nice character foil to that later in the episode. Hint: he’s very handsome and has a beard. Another hint: it’s Roger.
Jamie, on the other hand, deftly establishes himself as a leader among the men simply by demonstrating that he is one of them— that he is their equal. In a scene lifted from Voyager, he assumes the punishment for another man, claiming a piece of forbidden tartan as his own. He both absorbs the transgression and the retribution that follows. As such, the anger and fear that drive that retribution are absorbed with him and are not echoed back onto his fellow prisoners. And this is what all effective leaders do: they appear untroubled, they are reassuring, and they are patient. They absorb the anxieties and fears and tempers of those they lead.
Flash forward to North Carolina twenty years later. While things seem relatively tranquil on the Ridge, a ripple of discontent runs just below the surface. Claire is good at hiding it, but she’s clearly trying to manage some serious PTSD from her abduction and rape. Fergus is drinking way too much, and it is suggested that there is domestic violence in his and Marsali’s marriage. Jamie is trying to balance domestic duties against the political machinations of the colony’s leaders. And who should show up? Tom Christie, doing a great job of humble pretense but ready to challenge Jamie on his own land. He also has his daughter, Malva, who is intelligent but unnerving, and his son, Allan, who is a bit unhinged.
But Jamie sees through much of what Tom is and is again able to reassert that he is the true leader among his men. Jamie has faith, but he knows you cannot live in a church. It isn’t enough to break bread in front of your congregation…you must actually feed them. And so Jamie builds houses and lays out a feast and absorbs the troubles that come with establishing a new home in a new land for these immigrants.
His family is there to help, and everyone rolls up their sleeves for these new settlers. Roger, especially, seems drawn to aid these tenants, perhaps recognizing and remembering that he was once newly arrived to this world. He is reassuring to the widowed Amy McCallim and, like Jamie, helps absorb some of her fears.
Fergus and Claire are finding more troubling ways to allay their worries, Fergus with drink and Claire with ether. Claire spends much of her time reassuring everyone that she is okay, essentially absorbing their worry for her. It is suggested that Fergus feels inadequate in his ability to provide for or protect his family, and the self-loathing he absorbs is his own. Claire is haunted by the echoes of her recent past, while Fergus is perhaps haunted by thoughts of the man he thinks he should be. In the timeline at the beginning of this episode (1753), he is still a child, recently dismembered and not realizing how that action would echo for the rest of his life.
Oh yeah, and the Browns are still lurking about and probably burning down houses and blaming Native Americans for it as an excuse to exact their perverted form of justice. And Allan Christie has stolen some of their gunpowder, which is probably the dumbest of dumb ideas.
But when the Browns show up at the Big House to confront Allan, Jamie again steps up to assume responsibility…he absorbs the duty of administering punishment. Thus the violence that threatened the beginning of the season is allayed (for now); it does not echo back out into the world.
Give anything enough time, Claire muses in her voiceover, and things resolve. This is true, but resolving is not synonymous with healing— things can resolve or end in ways that are undesirable and we cannot always numb ourselves or fall asleep and wait to emerge on the other side. When you wake up you will still feel pain, Jamie reminds Claire of anesthesia and surgery, suggesting that it is perhaps best to work through that which hurts us. We either reflect those damaging waves back onto others, or we find a way to silence the echoes that haunt us. We either let those echoes bounce back…or we choose to bounce back ourselves.