The title of the first episode of Outlander’s third season, “The Battle Joined”, is a fitting title for this review because, in many senses, it encompasses the theme of the entire season to come. As someone who has read the books multiple times, I know what’s ahead for these characters, but, as a fan of the show, knowing what will happen is not the same as knowing how it will play out on screen. If you wonder why readers want to watch adaptations of their favorite books, what the cast and crew of Outlander put on screen should answer that question for all time. To take the grand tomes that Gabaldon has created and then boil them down to thirteen hours of television is a monumental task, but to do it in a way that consistently brings fans back even after a fourteen-month hiatus is Herculean.
They make it look so easy I nearly forgot that Droughtlander ever happened.
Going In and Out
The episode opens with the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden – both literally and figuratively. Much as Voyager opened on Jamie’s realization that he had survived the battle, the episode does the same. Rather than showing the battle linearly, from start to finish, Jamie recalls it via flashbacks, jumping around from moment to moment. Clutching Claire’s shawl after sending her back through the stones. Charging the British. Consulting with Prince Charles and his commanders amongst cannon fire. His final chance to confront and kill Black Jack Randall. These bits of action are bookended by Jamie going in and out of consciousness as he lies injured from his battle with Black Jack.
Jamie went into battle determined to die after saving Claire and their unborn Brianna and his Lallybroch men. When he and other injured Jacobites evacuate to a nearby cottage, they all expect and wait to die, as the British finally find them and begin to execute them all one by one. As with all things Jamie Fraser, small, seemingly toss-away details inform the happenstances that punctuate his life. The British commander that is doling out justice on behalf of the Duke of Cumberland is none other than Lord Melton, the brother of the young John Grey that Jamie spared before Prestonpans in season 2. Seeing that the injured man waiting to die is the man that his brother owes a debt of honor to, Lord Melton puts Jamie on a jolting cart back home to Lallybroch. Fevered and despondent, Jamie arrives home to the relief of his sister Jenny and brother-in-law Ian, somehow spared of the gunshots that awaited all of his fallen compatriots.
For Claire, rather than picking up in 1968 where the show left her at the end of season 2, we find her back at the end of episode 2.01, where she has come to America to Frank. They attempt to pick up where they had left off, building a life together in the US as the world moves on from World War II. Claire is pregnant, though, mourning Jamie and finding herself rudderless in the post-war misogynistic world she’s has had to inhabit once again. She does not want to be here, but she knows she has no other place to be. As Frank reminds her, she chose to come with him and she can choose to be here with him now.
Before Claire can make her choice known, her water breaks and she goes to the hospital to give birth. As with her previous pregnancy with Faith, Claire does not get to experience the birth of her child and she wakes up with the understandable panic that the baby has died much as Faith had. Instead, Frank greets her with a healthy baby Brianna and they resolve to make a life with this child together. It’s a grand moment – until the nurse points out the baby’s red hair. Those small reminders of that life she had (and what it could have been) permeate this episode and likely will continue through this first part of the season.
The episode’s title “The Battle Joined” is apropos for this phase of Outlander’s third season. Sure, the ostensible battle is the one on Culloden Moor, but, really, this is about the personal battles that Claire and Jamie must fight now that they are no longer together. She has to move forward without him, knowing that every connection to him has been severed and she has no choice but to compartmentalize her psyche in order to survive. Jamie must fight to find a purpose for himself because the life he had before, the one with his clan and his wife, is no longer there. Culloden spells the end of so much for both personally, but also for the macrocosm that Jamie inhabits, the one that defined his identity.
The battles ahead of Jamie are ones that are expected for a soldier returning from war as the loser, not the victor. The British strip away much of the culture that Jamie had inhabited throughout his life, reinforcing the Scottish defeat over and over through plunder and harassment. He still has value to his family, though, but it will take time for Jamie Fraser to recover or rebuild his sense of self, to fight the despair of loss to regain something like a future.
For Claire, those battles are the same, but have to be done as a woman within a time period that has placed even more strident limitations on the role of women than she had dealt with in the 18th century. With Brianna now to care for, Claire will have to choose how she rebuilds her identity in order to best care for this child that she and Jamie wanted so badly that she left him in order to ensure survival. With the second World War over, the purpose that Claire had chosen for herself, to serve as a combat nurse, is not a role that she can maintain. The absence of purpose beyond Brianna is a challenge and Claire will now need to rise to meet it however she can, given her emotional state.
So much commentary has been made about the feminist qualities inherent in presenting this story from Claire’s point-of-view and from exploring what a woman would experience both in the 18th and the 20th centuries. Really, though, Outlander takes care not to slap the reader and viewer with any sort of political agenda. Rather it focuses on telling the story of the internal life of a character who happens to be a woman and how she experiences life in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. The show does the same, but the medium limits how one can tell that story.
Instead, the writers do their best to present the story in a balanced way, never shying away from the uncomfortable topics – female sexuality, miscarriage, misogyny – quietly treating them as part of the story, as essential as, for example, the political intrigues that informed the lead-up to the Jacobite Rebellion, because those topics are as much part of the story of a life as the machinations and conflicts. Many marriages experience the same sort of tension inherent in Frank and Claire’s relationship; the circumstances may differ, but that conflict is familiar to the audience. Both women and men experience the same headiness of passion and the same complications of being in love. Outlander presents all of that in a way that lets the viewer (and reader) see themselves in the story while still being completely transported.
This episode is yet another example of how successfully Ron Moore and company have adapted Diana Gabaldon’s work from print to a visual medium. You feel Jamie’s pain acutely through Sam Heughan’s flashes in and out of consciousness. You see and understand Claire’s conflict when she looks at herself in the mirror, trying to make sense of the person in front of her, trying to live a life she didn’t want. The hour flies by, negating the memory of fourteen months of Droughtlander so completely that I was honestly surprised when the episode was over. I was left wanting more and more already and we’ve only just started. That is great television.
Outlander has moved to Sunday nights at 7 pm Central, 8 pm Eastern. As always, the show airs on Starz, but is also available via subscription to Starz on Amazon Prime. Here is the preview for next week’s episode, entitled “Surrender.”
Are you patiently awaiting the next episode, or has Outlander somehow let you down over the seasons? Let me know in the comments!