‘Outlander,’ Season 4, Episode 3: Mysterious Encounters

Outlander, Season 4, Episode 3: ‘The False Bride’

It was a dark and stormy night when the ghost of a Native American helped Claire find her way home in the rain.

That’s one of the set pieces of this week’s episode, and although the plot isn’t particularly tense — it’s largely a means to cut to the past, where Roger and Brianna have their own raging storm in 1970 — the rain itself is suitably visceral. Claire’s traveling dress practically sinks her when it’s wet (“Outlander” doesn’t skimp on the heft of a 18th-century ensemble). Darkness presses down on every side.

Then comes Otter Tooth (Trevor Carroll), visible only in the lightning, and somehow still not quite. (The effect is good — otherworldly without feeling as if Otter Tooth were consciously attempting a dramatic entrance.) And when Claire wakes, he has left a trail of her own boot prints to lead her to Jamie.

This is, at best, awkward. The book by Diana Gabaldon that provides the source material was published in 1996, before the last several years of cultural discussion about threadbare and dismissive plot devices. Among those devices: marginalized characters who appear in a story as if by magic, primarily to offer their services to the white main characters while not even asking for characterization in return. The show, however, is being made on the far side of these discussions, and in moments like these that you can feel things straining at the seams.

The episode’s ending is no better. When Myers told them this land “mostly belongs to Cherokee now … they do what they must to guard their land from whoever has a mind to take them,” Jamie said with a nod of approval that he didn’t blame them for it. And then Jamie and Claire end the episode standing on Cherokee land, making plans to accept the Governor’s land offer and rename it Fraser’s Ridge.

The music swells triumphantly to let us know all’s well. But in its own way, this moment is as jarring as watching Claire denounce slavery in last week’s episode while a slave fitted her dress. We can guess that the Cherokee whose land they’re on will come to accept them — Claire and Jamie aren’t mere protagonists, they’re heroes, and they will likely prove their mettle to the show’s satisfaction. (They’ve already benefited from one Native American’s good will.)

But that certainty is itself uneasy. Fascinatingly, the ending confirms the truth of Aunt Jocasta’s parting shot to Claire about Jamie’s desire to be a laird. If Claire and Jamie weren’t heroes, Jocasta’s pronouncement might foreshadow a morally dicey turn. But then Jamie, who spent years trying to defeat the English occupiers on his family’s ancestral lands, begins planning his homestead in Cherokee territory and there’s no sign the show notices this cognitive dissonance. It sees only Jamie and Claire, embracing as the music rejoices and the horizon rolls out endlessly before them.

These are uncomfortable, tense choices for the show to be making. (It calls back to that central question from the season premiere: Why has Gabaldon brought them here? What purpose does it serve?) And it is made all the stranger set against the story of Brianna and Roger, whose subplot is made of very human frailty, with plenty of room for painful mistakes.

Until now, Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) have been minor characters, defined more by Claire’s marriage to Frank and her search for Jamie than by their own merits. And it takes their explosive breakup for the characters to snap into focus here — both Rankin and Skelton fare better amid the vitriol, horror and fury of heartbreak than they did as thumbnail sketches of love’s first flush.

Roger’s proposal is doomed, and although he can’t see why, we can. So can Brianna, who is presented with a life-altering question — which quickly becomes a demand — and is steadfast enough not to buckle. After he rejects her second kiss, Brianna seems to age five years in a heartbeat. She’s an orphan, and he’s the only one in the world who knows why. He, more than anyone, should understand the source of her reluctance, and yet he returns her offer of intimacy with an insistence on lifelong commitment and, ultimately, with contempt.

“If all I wanted was to have my way with you,” he sneers, “I would have had you on your back a dozen times last summer.” That slap doesn’t even begin to express the depths of her hurt.

We’re meant to see it for the wreck it is. Roger is a protagonist, not a hero. His love is earnest and his heartbreak is real, but the episode makes no excuses for his cruelty to Brianna, and the show sets him up to pay a price. (A price that, by now, we expect him to have to work to pay — this show is more than capable of making characters face consequences when it wants to.)

And what about Brianna? At the festival, they’ve been surrounded by people reaching out to the past — a past Brianna already knows well — and Roger has definitively removed himself as a reason to stay in the present. No wonder their story ends as Roger sets something fragile on fire and Brianna vanishes amid the torches, darkness pressing down on every side.

Other Gossip:

• That wicker deer is a delight.

• Full marks to Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe for doing a scene on actual horseback instead of on barrels with hair.

• This week’s comment we could have done without: Ian hearing about the sexual freedom of Cherokee women and declaring, “I love this land.”

• There sure is a lot of emphasis on Brianna’s very modern higher education this episode.

• Rollo is a very good dog. Rollo is clearly being paid enough in treats to show up and sit still, but not enough to make eye contact with anyone in frame, and I love him for it.

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