Oof. I was prepared and yet not prepared for this episode. Let’s dive in.
Warning- Contains spoilers from Outlander Episode 606: The World Turned Upside Down. As an additional note to show-only fans, I do give some spoiler-y hints regarding Malva toward the end of this post…don’t read if you don’t want to know.
In contrast to last week’s episode, which was relatively fast-paced with multiple scenes, this week only dealt with two main story lines: Claire’s illness and Malva’s accusation. Really, though, both deal with the same subject matter in that they address diseased states of the body and the mind.
As it does in the novel, Roger’s sermon about weak things shaming the strong serves as foreshadowing about the outbreak of amoebic dysentery that plagues the Ridge inhabitants. More broadly, this episode addresses things that we cannot see that nonetheless have the potential to damage or destroy us: a microscopic amoeba destroys the intestinal tract; an extramarital affair crushes a girl’s perception of her father; a young woman endears herself to a family with the invisible intent to break it apart. Everywhere in this episode, our characters grapple with unseen dangers.
And so they spend a large part of this episode literally and figuratively trying to reveal or sanitize those invisible forces. Curtains are pulled back. Microscopes are adjusted. Memories are analyzed, confessions are made. Water is boiled, a contaminated water source is cleared. The one thing that frustratingly refuses to come clean is Malva.
Immediately following Roger’s sermon—a scene marked by sunshine, cleanliness, and hope—we are transported to the MacNeills’ cabin—a setting marked by darkness, disease, and fear. As romantic as Outlander often is, this episode demonstrates how extraordinarily dangerous it could be living in a time before modern medicine. Because while there are definite exceptions, even in the United States, we live in a world where safe water is available on tap, we handily reach for Advil, and diarrhea and dehydration are not the killers they were two hundred years ago. We can feel Claire’s frustration as she storms around the cabin, hamstrung by her lack of resources.
As serious and sad as this scene was, I did have an inward chuckle at this image. Recalling the early days of the pandemic, Claire is the CDC and Lizzie is all of us immediately touching our face the second we were told not to.
And in similarly familiar and sad echoes of our past two years, our physician falls ill as she attends to a disease-ravaged community. Storm clouds figure prominently in this episode, appearing literally in Claire’s dreams and figuratively as she later describes the emotional atmosphere on the Ridge. Storms form when there is instability, and so it is suggested that there is volatility both within Claire’s psyche and among the community. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that storms also begin as unseen forces that can wreak destruction— invisible water vapor condenses into droplets, accumulating until clouds form and threaten the world with lightning or flood.
Jamie and Claire had some really lovely scenes together in this episode, and much of it was recognizable dialogue from the novel. Their reminiscence of memories more than twenty years prior reaffirmed their foundational love, reminding them and us that this a couple not easily shaken.
But I thought Claire and Roger’s scene was also quite poignant and reflective of other moments these two characters have shared over the years. There is an honesty to their relationship that is hard to define or qualify, but it’s consistent and illuminated by the talent of both actors. Claire and Roger seem to understand each other’s pain without the expectations that come from their other relationships.
The scene in which Malva accuses Jamie was exceptionally acted by all involved. Sam Heughan’s face as it transforms from expectant patience to confusion and indignation was a sight to behold. As always, Caitriona Balfe says so much without saying anything at all, as her face and body convey empathy, sadness, shock, and rage all within about two minutes of acting.
Malva’s story is not yet finished, but the writers have dropped small details this season that will help us complete her picture. Pay careful attention to the person controlling Malva’s actions and words this episode—the person who openly admires beautiful things and previously showed us he feels free to take that which does not belong to him.
I find Outlander episodes that reference Faith specifically as a person also tend to explore faith abstractedly as a belief. This episode was no different, as Claire and Jamie remember their time in France earlier in the hour and then later repeatedly tell themselves and others to have faith that this difficult time will pass. Most heartbreaking, though, is the continued faith Claire has in Malva, offering her mercy and empathy and a chance for honesty. Claire knows that the truth exists across a threshold that is just beyond reach, but Malva’s abuse is invisible to everyone except her…an unseen barrier that is destroying them all.
I will never be willing to discuss Malva without putting her actions within the context of trauma and abuse. I cannot abide broad generalizations that she is evil or wicked without the recognition that to judge Malva is to do it from a place of relative privilege in our current century. For just as I am grateful for modern medicine and modern utilities, I’m equally grateful to be a woman in modern times. Abuse still happens here, yes, but we live in a time when girls and women are taught about their bodies and have reproductive options. We have telephones and the internet and shelters and mental health services. We have Facebook groups where a woman can post about the abuse from which she is suffering and a whole chorus of other women will offer themselves up: I live in this city near you. Tell me your Venmo. Buy a bus ticket. Come stay with me. Let me help. I know it because I’ve seen it because I am in such groups.
Leaving is never easy, not even now, but for an abused woman in the eighteenth century it was near impossible. None of those support systems were available to Malva, and so she took the only care and affection she ever had and tried to manipulate it to her advantage; one does not always know what to do with love if they’ve never experienced it. So, while I do not excuse Malva’s actions, I understand them. Fearful people behave in desperate measures. Sometimes they cut off someone’s hair. Sometimes they take ether. Sometimes they sabotage the only mother figure they’ve ever known.
This episode ends in tragedy and reminds us that one person’s invisible suffering has the potential to wreak devastation for many. Grief, regret, and anger are unseen forces that shape our lives, and it’s hard to find the optimism in an episode such as this. But love, hope, and forgiveness are correspondingly invisible and equally as powerful. Sometimes we cannot breathe life into that which has already passed, but we look to the sky and wait for the storm clouds to pass.
Screengrabs provided by Outlander-Online.