Not enough Kleenex in the house, my friends. Let’s dive in.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 603: Temperance
I’m almost scared to admit this, but I’m beginning to think this abbreviated season, with eight episodes rather than the standard twelve or more, may be a bit of a blessing in disguise. Because, wow, these writers are really just getting to the meat of the story and the essence of these characters this season. I’ve truly enjoyed every season of this show, but with these last few episodes I’ve had a warm feeling of recognition for the story I love. There you are, Outlander, I’ve missed you.
Thematically and structurally, this episode was quite similar to Season Four’s Blood Of My Blood (Episode 406), which is unsurprising since both episodes were written by Shaina Fewell. When I recapped 406 a few years ago (you can read it here), I noted at the time that it, in turn, was structurally similar to The Garrison Commander (Episode 106; you can read my recap of that episode here). All three episodes feature reflective two-person scenes with relatively long monologues. As in 406, Claire finds herself serving as a confidant for a patient (Lord John in Season Four, Tom Christie in this episode), and Jamie saves the life of one of his sons (William then, Fergus now).
Additionally, like 406 and 106, this episode also explores themes of identity and belonging. While The Garrison Commander examined how our identity is shaped by our love for a country or political ideals, and Blood Of My Blood explored how our identity is formed by love for our family, this episode examines how identity and a sense of belonging are formed in response to stories or narratives.
Which, of course, is a hugely overarching theme of the entire series– our histories are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves and others. Our identities, the series has argued more than once, are shaped by our past and our past is determined by the memories we choose to remember. Throughout the seasons, plot and character development hinge on our characters’ ability to sort through their own historical narrative. Recall, in opening voiceovers by Claire and Jamie in Season One: “Strange, the things you remember…“
Stories, as this episode posits, offer a means of escape. They serve as a distraction from sorrow or loneliness (the prisoners in Ardsmuir), or as a way to cope with insomnia (Claire), or as lesson in humanity or morality (Roger’s sermon). Stories can serve as a means of hope or inspiration or offer readers a chance to be a voyeur in a world they might never explore (or be afraid to explore).
But stories, as this episode also seems to argue, help reaffirm our identity– we are what we read, so to speak. And so we see our characters this hour enthusiastically choosing to believe in some stories and forcefully rejecting others. Some settlers choose to believe the worst about Henri-Christian, and in so believing are perhaps wishing to separate themselves from something about which they are ignorantly afraid. Tom Christie refuses to read Tom Jones, and his rejection of the novel helps him confirm his identity as a pious and righteous man. Fergus has chosen to believe the narrative he has created in his mind– that he is useless to his family and they are better off without him. How far do those stories carry us, this episode asks, in our actions? How do we separate our own fact from fiction?
The title of this episode, Temperance, speaks most obviously to Fergus’s struggle with alcohol and his apparent resolution for abstinence in the end. But the word “temper,” more broadly, refers to restraint or moderation– when we “lose our temper” we have lost our restraint. And throughout the episode we see our characters literally or figuratively display varying degrees of restraint or temperance: Tom Christie’s hand is freed from the restraint of the diseased tissues beneath, which then allows him to show little temperance in regards to Malva; Jamie displays some rather clever temperance in dealing with the boys who would wish to harm Henri-Christian; Jamie helps restrain Christie while Claire operates. Claire, perhaps, restrains herself from clobbering anyone who continues to mention Saint Paul.
But this episode also deals with the flip side of restraint, which is liberation. And how fitting that is when Roger recalls the story of Moses during his sermon. Moses helped liberate his people…he delivered them to the Promised Land. And so we see our characters also help liberate or deliver others this hour: Roger safely delivers Henri-Christian to safety (and also delivers him to the Lord by means of baptism); Jamie catches Fergus before he succumbs to depression, delivering him back to the love and forgiveness of his family; Roger delivers Amy McCallum from the (rather humorous) “danger” of the bullfrog (and promises safety for her family in the future); Christie recites Psalms 23 during his surgery, in which God acts as a shepherd for mankind and delivers his flock to safety. The episode ends with literal deliveries, when MacDonald brings both the firearms and the news of the Boston Tea Party.
(Note: “Deliverance” might have been an alternate title for this episode but, you know, we already have a story entitled “Deliverance” set in Appalachia and it includes decidedly fewer handsome Scottish lairds.)
Similar to last week, this episode adhered fairly tightly to the source material of the novels, and opens with Roger rescuing baby Henri-Christian from the river. “It’s Mr. MacKenzie!” the boys exclaim, in the same intonation as “It’s Superman!” No phone booth needed for this character, however, for whom the writers continue to redeem. Extra points awarded to Richard Rankin (and his stunt double, if so employed)… that water must have been freezing.
The following scene, in which Roger recounts the tale to the extended family, felt really organic; six seasons in, these characters really do act and feel like family to one another. Fergus and Marsali grapple with their frustration and sadness, while Jamie and Claire intervene with the deft experience of two people who have done, seen, and felt it all before.
Fergus and Claire’s conversation outside was so moving and this episode is undoubtedly César Domboy’s best work on the series to date. As this episode explores the concept of belonging, Fergus worries that Henri-Christian may never belong anywhere. Children often outlive their grandparents and parents, he observes astutely; Henri-Christian has a place of belonging now (Jamie announces this later out loud when he chastises the boys), but what of the future?
As a book reader, I smiled at the inclusion of “vrooms” (carved wooden toy cars) in this episode. And speaking of vrooms, if ever there was a man who would refuse to pull over and ask for directions it is Tom Christie. Good gravy, what stubbornness. There were quite a few little non-verbal character moments in this episode that I loved. Marsali’s still-confused smile when Brianna explains the word “vroom,” and the quick, exasperated glance Claire gives Jamie over Tom’s head were two of them…so much said with no words at all.
More and more bits of Malva’s backstory were dropped into this episode, and Jessica Reynolds continues to do some great work with her character. John Bell was also charismatically lovely in his scenes with Reynolds, and there seems to be some easy chemistry between the two actors. I’ll likely be writing a longer thought piece about Malva later in the season, once non-readers know her full story, but I’ll only say now that her careful elaborations about her mother and childhood in this episode also tie in nicely to themes of narrative, belonging, and identity. A story has been to told to Malva, nearly all her life, about her mother. That story, in turn, has definitively shaped her family and her sense of belonging. And we see her try to make sense of other people’s identities and belonging as she struggles with her own– is Ian a Fraser? Is he a Christian? Are we all sinners? Is America so different from Scotland?
Marsali and Fergus’s marriage continues to suffer, as Fergus falls further victim to depression, self-loathing, and alcohol. Marsali offers up a story of her own to Fergus- a non-fiction in which she murdered Lionel Brown. She means this confession to be a reassurance to Fergus, hoping it might unite them, but it has the opposite effect. Fergus sees his uselessness as validated– what sort of man lets his wife commit murder on her own behalf?
Things come to literal blows on Quarter Day, when two tenants insult Fergus and Henri-Christian to Fergus’s face. Did anyone save that basket? Because this woman deserves to be shoved into it and floated downriver. (The character, obviously. I’m sure the actor herself is quite lovely).
These tenants, as rotten as they behave, are motivated by fear– fear of what they don’t understand. Fear is a strong driver of actions for most of our characters in this episode, but fear is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves about what might possibly happen. Sometimes our fears are realized, but very often we see that the stories we tell ourselves are nothing but fictions. And it helps to hear the non-fictions from people we love. You can- you will- be that man again, Jamie assures Fergus. Love thy neighbor as thyself, Roger implores his congregation. Love thyself, Jamie implores of Fergus. To temper something is to also act as a neutralizing force and, in this episode about temperance, fear is counterbalanced with love.
So, for those keeping track, this episode suggests we’re in early 1774. The Boston Tea Party occurred on December 16, 1773, and we’ll assume it’s taken at least a few weeks for news to travel down the colonies and into more remote settlements. The Battles of Lexington and Concord are just over a year away. It’s starting, Claire surmises with worry. The stories and narratives, fact or fiction, of the American Revolution are just beginning. So, too, is the identity of a country that will be forged in its aftermath. It’s up to our characters, now, to decide where they belong.
Screengrabs provided by Outlander-Online.com