Warning: this review contains spoilers.
This week, writers have injected some un-subtle and unresolved homoerotic tension into Outlander in the form of new character Major John William Grey (portrayed by David Berry). Brianna grows up and graduates High School, Claire becomes a surgeon, and we bid a sad farewell to the excellent Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall.
The episode starts in Boston 1956 with Frank Randall (the most patient cuckolded husband in the universe) cooking a full English breakfast, which includes black pudding and toast fried in bacon fat. Despite this being reason enough to fall back in love with Frank, it is clear that Claire still loves Jamie and her relationship with Frank is purely platonic. However, there are some spikes of jealousy from Claire when it becomes clear that Frank is dating another woman (which they both agreed he was allowed to) and is regularly going to the cinema with her. He does reassure Claire he will be discreet.
As the years pass by, Brianna grows older and is clearly close to Frank, her adoptive father. Claire graduates from medical school and celebrates becoming a doctor with all her colleagues at a party held at her house. A misunderstanding results in Frank’s girlfriend crashing Claire’s party and Claire reacts with fury. She is rather unfairly outraged and escorts her guests out. Later she angrily rails at Frank for allowing his girlfriend to come to the house. She’s jealous and says some pretty ugly things to Frank, who she has routinely refused to love. Both characters drink and argue bitterly, with Frank suffering and Claire stubbornly refusing to compromise. Outlander is daring in showing how Claire is a complex woman, capable of both being ambitious and admirable as well as proud and hypocritical. Never in the series has she come so close to being unlikable as in this episode. The prospect of divorce and freedom is dangled in front of Frank, but he loves Brianna too much to leave her.
Of course a larger battle is brewing between Frank and Claire and has been for many years. As the 1960s dawn and Brianna grows into a woman, her parents argue about who should claim custody of her. Frank wants to return to England and take his daughter with him and Claire, panicked at the idea, fights back viciously. It is sad to see two such nice characters and kind people, who once felt great love and affection for each other, turn into two such embittered and angry individuals with no respect for each other’s feelings. A bad marriage filled with unhappiness can make good people say and do ugly things. It is the tragic end to Claire and Frank’s story that redeems the relationship. Frank dies suddenly in a car accident; and in death, Claire can confess the things to Frank that she could never say to him in life. She remembers that he was her first love and kisses him tenderly, weeping quietly over his body. In this single scene, with the camera focused close and tight on her face, the grieving Claire is redeemed. It is clear that all of her unkindness towards Frank came out of her pain at losing Jamie, rather than any real hatred. It a sad and touching end to Frank Randall’s part in the saga of Outlander.
Meanwhile, flashing back in time to 1755 and Ardsmuir Prison, where Jamie was taken after being arrested in the last episode, the audience meets Major John William Grey. John Grey was last seen as a 16-year-old in Season 2 trying to capture Jamie for the English army. Now he is all grown up and about start a new job as the man in charge of the prison. He is given history’s quickest handover by Colonel Harry Quarry, who leaves fairly promptly but not before pointing out Jamie Fraser, who is looked upon as chief by all the other imprisoned Jacobites and nicknamed ‘Mac Dubh.’ Neither man seems to recognise each other from their encounter years before.
Jamie spends his days in the prison shuffling about in chains and talking to his kinsman Murtagh Fraser. That’s right! Murtagh is back! Never has the audience been so pleased to see his perpetually grumpy Scottish face. He is in poor health and Jamie once again uses the medical knowledge he learned from Claire to collect some medicinal plants to treat Murtagh’s illness. Imprisonment, losing his wife and his entire clan at the Battle of Culloden has changed Jamie. This is never clearer than in his interactions with the young and naive John Grey. Jamie is now a wise, haggard and wryly sarcastic man, who is respected for his experience and strength. John seems in awe of Jamie and overwhelmed by his presence. The two men spend a good deal of the episode gazing at each other and despite being intimidated by Jamie, it is clear that John is attracted to him. You could cut the the unsubtle sexual tension with a knife. Jamie exploits this by demanding better conditions for his fellow prisoners and the ability to set traps for food. John Grey invites Jamie to dinner and after an impromptu escape attempt, both men admit they recognise each other. They are on their way to becoming friends despite one being the prisoner and the other the jailer.
Entering on to the scene is a homeless Highlander called Duncan Kerr, who seriously ill, is found wandering the countryside mumbling in French and Gaelic about hidden Jacobite gold. In exchange for a doctor for Murtagh, Jamie agrees to translate Duncan’s fevered words for John Grey, so he can find the gold. Duncan says a lot of things, none of which make much sense and certainly don’t lead to hidden gold. But his mention of a ‘white witch’ sparks Jamie’s curiosity as Claire was known as the ‘White Witch’ amongst his kinsman. Duncan implies the white witch is coming for Jamie and knows where the gold is. Could this be a message from Claire in the future somehow smuggled into the past? Unfortunately Duncan dies before he can say very much more. In a very sweet scene, Murtagh wonders what happened to Claire. As much as this is Jamie’s story, we are reminded that Murtagh also grew to love Claire and to consider her family. A television show is only as good as its characters and Outlander benefits from having rich and complex supporting players as well as its main stars.
As Jamie and John Grey get closer, the tension between them grows. During a chess match, Jamie describes his long-lost wife to John and in return John reveals that he lost a man he loved at Culloden, revealing to Jamie in a thinly veiled way that he is a homosexual. Misunderstanding Jamie’s feelings, John Grey lays a suggestive hand on his leg. Poor Jamie, he has now been sexually propositioned by military jailers in at least two prisons and he reacts with a cold and deadly threat of violence. John is shocked by Jamie’s frightened and angry reaction to his proposition and the friendship between both men is shattered. As the prison is liquidated of its inhabitants and the prisoners are sent abroad, John Grey gives Jamie the closest version to freedom that he can; a position as a servant to an English Lord Dunsany at his estate Helwater. Jamie in the 18th century is now free from prison and in the 20th century, Claire is now free from marriage. It is only a matter of time, or should we say, time travel, before the two are reunited.
This episode is an exciting mix of both hope and sorrow. The characters gain freedom only then to lose it and suffer and then gain it again. Ultimately ‘All Debts Paid’ is about how people are often complex, difficult and conflicted but ultimately kind and redeemable. Yet again the writers of Outlander have taken what could have been a simple tale of historical romance and turned the series into a story arc about the complexity of human relationships.