Warning: this review contains spoilers.
The premiere episode of season three of Outlander, ‘The Battle Joined,’ is a mixed bag of melodrama and action. It works exceptionally well in some scenes and seems strangely forced in others.
The episode opens with a grim tracking shot on a pile of dead bodies on a misty, cold and silent battlefield. It is the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden and the field is littered with dead Scots. English redcoat soldiers wander around killing survivors and pillaging the pockets of the dead. Jamie is alive, although barely. He is badly injured and as he lies there, he flashes back to the events of the battle. This is an effective device in covering the battle and allowing the audience to catch up on what has been happening to Jamie since he and Claire parted at Craig na Dun.
The battle scenes, although not as cinematic as those normally found in big historical blockbusters, are realistically ugly, chaotic, uncoordinated and dirty. It is clear from the outset that the Scots, despite being brave and ferocious fighters, are outnumbered and outgunned by the English soldiers. Jamie moves from soldier to soldier, even killing a few with his bare hands, which is quite a contrast from the previous versions we have seen of him throughout the series. He has transformed from a loving husband to a vicious killer on the battlefield.
Of course, Captain Black Jack Randall, the main protagonist of Outlander and Jamie’s nemesis is also fighting at Culloden. The moment when Jack and Jamie lock eyes across the battlefield is darkly comic in its romanticism. They gaze at each other through the hazy warm glow of a sunset and anyone would think they were old comrades until they inevitably throw themselves into a bitter, very physical fight. As they battle with swords, they continually embrace each other, inexplicably linked and both suffering mortal wounds.
As the day becomes night and the battle reaches its final throes, Jack and Jamie exhaustively wrestle until they fall to the ground in each other’s arms. This is a pretty fitting end to the saga of their contentious relationship that has been played out across seasons one and two of Outlander. Captain Jack Randall dies as the night goes on, literally strewn across Jamie in a mock lover’s embrace. As odious a man as he was, Jack will be missed as a character. Mostly because he was played with much relish and talent by actor Tobias Menzies, who is now only left with the role of the much less dramatic Frank Randall, Jack’s descendant. As Jamie lies dying he hallucinates Claire appearing before him, but as his vision clears it is clansman, Rupert MacKenzie, who has come to his rescue.
Meanwhile, in the Boston of 1948, Claire and Frank are surveying their new home. It is a pleasure to see the 1940s clothing of season one again. Costume designer Terry Dresbach has always done an excellent job with the costume design in Outlander and in general the production values, both in terms of set design and locations, are a joy to watch. The atmospheric scenery, lighting and the music of composer Bear McCreary often embellish scenes where the script can be sparse or cliched.
But for all the lovely lighting and period costumes, the scenes of Claire’s life in Boston are sketchy and long-winded compared to Jamie’s turmoil in the 1700s. There is a nice transition in one scene of a positive and excited reaction from Claire to her new home to a tired, frustrated and heavily pregnant Claire months later. She is bored and while longing for her 18th century life she decides to cook on the fireplace and accidentally makes friends with perhaps the most annoying character to have ever appeared in the show, next door neighbour Millie Nelson.
As the scenes flit back and forth between the past and the present, Jamie lies dying in a barn as one by one his companions, the survivors of Culloden, are executed by a group of Redcoats. Rupert reminisces about his dead friend Angus, bids Jamie farewell and bravely marches out to be shot on the hillside. It is a truly sad moment in the show considering how both Rupert and Angus started out as characters in Season One. They began as a comedy duo of bumbling Highlanders and ended up as tragic heroes dying for a doomed cause in history. Jamie, luckily is rescued in the nick of time by his association with John Grey, whose life he saved. John’s brother, an English soldier returns the favour by sending him in a cart to Lallybroch.
Back in the 1940s, Claire is still proving to be an awful person to live with, as Frank is discovering. She stares with melancholy at sparrows, tries to cook miserably with modern kitchen appliances, and stands up to Frank’s sexist boss, a Harvard history professor. Essentially Claire is exhibiting all the symptoms of bereavement and depression, she is technically grieving for someone who is long dead in the past. She doesn’t show even the remotest happiness at being back in the 20th century. She doesn’t seem excited at the idea of central heating, a flushing toilet or not having to wear a corset. Seasons One and Two made it clear that the 1700s entailed the constant threat of rape and dying in childbirth. Surely, despite the loss of Jamie, Claire would be relieved to be giving birth in the 1940s at least?
In contrast, Frank is practically a saint. He’s kind and gentle. He defends her against his sexist boss. He even starts to research Jamie’s whereabouts to assuage Claire’s grief. Frank is the same reserved but sweet man that Claire once loved and married. But he’s no Jamie, and she can’t move beyond that fact. An argument between Frank and Claire is brewing and when it finally takes place it is both upsetting and realistic. Bridges seem to be mended between the two when Claire’s daughter Brianna is born and just when you think Frank’s dreams of a happy family might be coming true, the interfering maternity nurse casually asks where the baby got her red hair from. Oops.
The main problems with this episode come from the contrasting story lines of Claire and Jamie. Claire’s situation in 1948 is so much less dire and traumatic than Jamie’s that her depression and unkindness to Frank appears over the top. She seems pretty selfish and petty in comparison to her two suffering husbands. In this episode, the viewer gains more of an insight into the psychology of Frank than Claire. We learn that Frank is both as kind and honourable as Jamie.
Season one of Outlander stood out as one of the best seasons due to Claire’s internal monologue. The audience had a deep understanding of her thoughts and viewed the 18th century through her eyes. Her narration disappeared as series one and two progressed and the show suffers as consequence. Perhaps this episode could have been improved if we were party to Claire’s thoughts once again?
Outlander Season 3 is currently airing in the UK every Monday on Amazon Prime.