‘The Doldrums’ is a strange episode. The pacing feels uneven, some events flash by in minutes and other take up long scenes. A great deal of time is given to a subplot involving the superstitions of a boatload of sailors and a truly bizarre speech from Yi Tien Cho (Gary Young). Meanwhile only a few minutes are devoted a larger plot involving a Naval ship full of men dying from Typhoid that ends up abducting Claire (Caitriona Balfe). The plot device of separating Claire from Jamie (Sam Heughan) and pitching her once again in danger is growing tiresome. She has the uncanny ability to put herself in harm’s way in almost any situation.
This episode marks a definite change in the direction of Outlander, which is hinted at in the new opening credits. The main theme tune now contains some distinctly tropical sounding drums amongst all the Scottish folk music. The series is moving to the West Indies! Young Ian (John Bell) has been kidnapped and taken to Jamaica where Jamie (Sam Heughan) suspects he is to be sold as a slave. Jamie vows to never return to Scotland without his nephew and so he and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) board a ship bound for the West Indies to rescue Ian.
‘The Doldrums’ pings back and forth between seriousness and lighthearted comedy, not always successfully. Moments of comedy involve Jamie feeling seasick and being treated with acupuncture. There is the suggestion that red-heads and women are bad luck on a ship and so both Jamie and Claire are treated with suspicion by all the sailors, who compulsively touch a horseshoe nailed to the deck. Some of the conversations between Jamie and Claire are the wittiest for many seasons and it is fun to see them becoming more comfortable together after such a long separation. At one point Jamie poetically complements Claire’s hair turning silver with age as the two of them continue to learn to accept each other as they are, rather than who they used to be.
Setting the episode entirely on a boat does have some benefits. It means the writers can squeeze in a lovely romantic scene in which Jamie and Claire embrace on the top deck while staring at the moon. Claire explains to Jamie about how men have landed on he moon and remembers reading the classic children’s book ‘Goodnight Moon’ to Brianna. Jamie imagines the moon contains a man’s face. It is a nice reminder that both Claire and Jamie have very different experiences of the same world, something that harks right back to Season 1 in which they discussed air travel and modern medicine.
In addition to Claire and Jamie, there is another couple on board the ship, Fergus and Marsali. In a nice scene Fergus (César Domboy) and Jamie discuss the former’s wish to marry Marsali Fraser (Lauren Lyle), Jamie’s step-daughter. Jamie speaks to Fergus like a father to a son, emphasising how he is no longer the young man of previous seasons. Jamie now has responsibilities and an authority over this young couple, which he uses by denying them permission to sleep together. He is not so mature that he can’t be hypocritical though, chastising Fergus for not being completely truthful with Marsali about his ex-lovers, when Jamie himself is in his current predicament because he failed to inform his two wives of each other’s existence.
The introduction of Marsali Fraser is a breath of fresh air to the series. She is sassy, straight-talking and confident. Marsali delightfully stands up to both Claire and Jamie. Her scenes with Claire are particularly amusing as they are forced to share a cabin. In attempting to protect Marsali’s virtue by insisting she room with Claire, Jamie has inadvertently yet again alienated his already annoyed wife. We can understand this as Claire has waited 20 years, crossed an ocean and travelled back in time 200 years to be with Jamie, not sleep in bunk-beds with his hostile step-daughter.
Despite the tension between the two women, there is very little suspense in the rest of the episode and most of it feels forced. Claire dines with Captain Raines (Richard Dillane), who is in charge of the ship. Raines may be uncouth and disapproving of Claire, but he is rather insightful when it comes to his crew. He allows and even encourages their superstitions. He knows that long months at sea can kill a man’s hope and he is keen to prevent a mutiny.
Later in the episode when the wind dies down and the boat is stuck still in the open ocean for weeks on end with provisions and drinking water running low, the sailors look for a scapegoat for their bad luck or a ‘Jonah.’ Captain Raines’ stands by as the men pick their ‘Jonah’ and encourage him to throw himself overboard. This should be a scene of high drama but as is often the case in Outlander, events happen so quickly that we barely get the chance to absorb the plot development, let alone feel any of the peril that the characters are experiencing. Scenes of a similar nature set in the doldrums have been far more effective and exciting in shows such as Black Sails or in the film Master and Commander.
The most dramatic scenes of the episode add to its uneven pacing. A glimpse into the bottom of a nearby Naval ship reveals sailors horrifically suffering from Typhoid. The scene is filmed to great effect with sick men repeatedly puking from hammocks in semi-darkness, but it does not seem to fit with all the humorous scenes that have come before. Claire and Jamie have sex during a rainstorm, which is particularly clichéd and leaves the audience asking how many people have had sex during rainstorms in television. The answer would be far too many. If the sex scene between Jamie and Claire is the most predictable of the series, then Yi Tien Cho’s monologue has to be the strangest.
In an effort to distract the crew from becoming violent during the doldrums, Yi Tien Cho tells his story of why he left China, describing very poetically his sexual desire for women and unwillingness to become a eunuch. Although this is fairly amusing, it does become rather disturbing when his love of women quickly turns into hatred and he curses western women for not sleeping with him. Yet again this scene feels completely as if it was plucked from another show and placed into this episode. Yi Tien Cho is a strange and perplexing character whose motivations we do not know. Unfortunately since the audience have never been allowed to get to know him, he can often seem like a racial stereotype.
‘The Doldrums’ never fully succeeds in making much sense as an episode. It is an hour of numerous rapid scenes spliced together. Outlander almost always lets its audience down when the writers speed through events at a breakneck speed. The sudden change in theme and emotion also leaves the viewer confused and bewildered. We hope that in next week’s episode the story will start to make sense again.
Outlander is now airing on Amazon Prime weekly in the UK. Let us know what you think of the season.