After last week’s muddled episode of sudden events and random characters, Outlander returns to its usual excellent story telling with ‘First Wife,’ an hour of family drama that explores the themes of honesty and trust.
Following the fiery destruction of the print shop, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), Jamie (Sam Heughan) and their nephew Young Ian (John Bell) return to Jamie’s ancestral home of Lallybroch to lay low for a while and consider their options. Perhaps rather naively, they expect a warm welcome from Jamie’s family. They are sorely disappointed however as both Jamie’s sister Jenny Murray (Laura Donnelly) and her husband Ian (Steven Cree) greet them frostily at the front door. Both Jenny and Ian are less than pleased that Jamie has lied about the whereabouts of their son Young Ian and allowed him to work as a smuggler in Edinburgh. Jenny in particular is suspicious of Claire’s sudden return after 20 years.
Any episode in which the feisty Jenny appears in is instantly improved by her presence. She always manages to call out characters on their foolish behaviour and faces every challenge with no-nonsense bravery. Laura Donnelly is an excellent actress who manages to convey multiple conflicting emotions at the same time. Jenny is both happy to see Claire, who she once considered a sister and yet furious at her for lying about her whereabouts and leaving Jamie alone for so many years. Claire tries her best to explain where she has been, but Jenny knows that Claire is telling half-truths and in this close knit family half-truths are not enough.
Any intimacy that once existed between the two women is finished unless Claire can bring herself to tell Jenny the complete truth and thus gain her trust again. Claire does consider explaining to Jenny about her time-travelling, but Jamie advises against it, explaining that Jenny is too unsophisticated and provincial to conceive of such a notion. He is being extremely unfair to his sister, she has overcome many challenges over the course of the series and there is hints in the script that she may also suspect something about Claire’s otherworldly knowledge anyway.
The complexities of family dynamics are explored repeatedly throughout the episode. Ian and Jenny disprove of Jamie’s care of their son and with good reason. By the end of the episode Young Ian has been abducted by some smugglers after Jamie tasks him with swimming out to an island castle in search of treasure buried there. One can only imagine the wrath that Jamie and Claire will feel once Jenny discovers the loss of her son once again. Jamie’s relationship with his step-daughters is both touching and sad, he is a reassuring and loving presence in their lives but cannot remain their father as his marriage to their mother is now no longer valid. It is clear that with love comes sorrow, with trust comes betrayal and it is often easier to lie to those nearest and dearest to oneself than tell the truth.
There are two huge lies at the centre of ‘First Wife.’ One being Claire’s fabricated story of where she has been over the course of 20 years. The other lie is a lie of omission, as Jamie neglects to tell Claire he has since re-married in the time she has been in the 20th Century. Claire might have been able to accept this development if Jamie had married anyone other than Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson) the jealous young woman who accused Claire of being a witch in earlier seasons. Laoghaire has always had an unhealthy obsession with Jamie and the sight of Claire apparently returned from the dead is a enough to drive Laoghaire off the deep end in to hysteria.
She returns to Lallybroch with a pistol and accidentally shoots Jamie while aiming at Claire. Lucky for Jamie, his ‘first wife’ is a qualified surgeon and Claire patches him up in no time. Laoghaire demands a large financial settlement, which the Frasers and Murrays cannot pay and this is how Young Ian finds himself swimming to the island in search of buried treasure . We have no doubt his kidnapping will lead Claire and Jamie on to their next adventure as they try to rescue him.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode is the comedic moments that pepper the script. Ian calls out Jenny on her ability to stir up drama by saying ‘If there is a pot of shite on to boil, ye stir like it’s God’s work.’ One of Jenny’s children refers to a fight in the household as a ‘kebbie-lebbie’ leaving the audience with a new slang term to use whenever there is a commotion to be heard. Perhaps the funniest scene in the whole episode is when Claire and Jamie furiously scream and shout at each other and then proceed to have noisy ‘make-up sex.’
Jenny so fed up with the ruckus caused by the pair throws cold water on them yelling, ‘Stop it! The both of ye! Fightin’ and ruttin’ like wild beasts, and no carin’ if the whole house hears ye!’ Jamie and Claire’s love may be intensely romantic but their feelings often lead to them acting like drama queens and the idea that they are keeping the whole estate of Lallybroch awake is pretty hilarious.
With all this drama, family quarrels and heightened feelings, it is easy to see this episode as an extended soap opera set in a historical context. But there are some real tender moments in the episode. Claire and Jenny holding back tears as they sit beside each other on the front steps of the house. Jamie professing his steadfast love for Claire atop a cliff even as she debates her decision to remain with him. A flashback where he stumbles through the ruins of a castle plaintively calling her name.
The intimate looks between Jenny and her various family members who she obviously fiercely loves. This is a story that tells of the trials and tribulations of living in a large family, of the love, support and compromises that comes with committing to life-long bonds and of the importance of trust and honesty in preserving them.
Outlander airs on Mondays in the UK on Amazon Prime. Let us know what you think of the season.