Outlander is back for a fourth season this week and we have returned to the adventures of time-traveller Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) and her Scottish 18th century husband Jamie (Sam Heughan). Both characters are still as handsome as they were in the last series, both getting themselves in numerous dangerous situations and engaging in outdoor sex, except this time they have exchanged Scotland for the great country of America.
‘America The Beautiful’ picks up four months after the events of the season three finale in which Claire murdered the insane Geillis (Lotte Verbeek), Young Ian (John Bell) was both kidnapped and sexually abused and everyone was shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina. In keeping with this change in location, the title music of Outlander has morphed yet again in to an Americanised version of the folk song in the opening credits, complete with a country-style choir and the twang of a banjo. The production values are excellent as usual with the exception of some strange cinematography towards the end of the episode when it appears as if the actors are in front of a green-screen. It is worth noting that the production is still being filmed in Scotland despite the fact that the series in now set in North America. But there are enough realistic costumes and a decent amount of mud to satisfy any fan of period drama television.
There are some unintentional but truly laughable moments in this episode. It is inconceivable how both Jamie and Claire appear to have de-aged since the last season, perhaps appearing even younger than they did when they first met many decades before and literally 30 minutes in to the episode Jamie is already shirtless. Later in the episode, to avoid rousing the suspicion of the British Redcoat soldiers stationed in East Carolina, Jamie and Claire are forced to camp out in the forest overnight. Of course this leads to an unabashedly romantic conversation and an alfresco sex scene because this is Outlander and sex outdoors is neither cold, uncomfortable or interrupted by mosquitoes.
The episode starts with a shot of another magical stone circle like Craigh na Dun, but this time in North America in 2000 BC. Claire, in a voice-over, tells us of the importance of the symbol of a circle found in a wedding band, in a hangman’s noose and in the swirling pre-historic dancers who frolic around the stone circle. Obviously this means that Claire’s daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) will someday travel back in time through these stones, but the scene also begs the question, why are we not watching a TV show about a prehistoric cave woman accidentally time-travelling through history? That would really be something to witness!
The story returns to East Carolina in 1776, where one of Jamie’s Scottish shipmates, who we neither remember nor care about, is being hanged. Jamie seems distressed but like all the background characters in Outlander, the poor Scottish bloke is quickly dispatched and buried. The Scottish community in the town mourn him with a tongue-twisting ballad and then he is secretly buried on consecrated ground. Despite the apparent pointlessness of this storyline, it does lead to a nice scene in which Jamie and Young Ian discuss Ian’s PTSD from last season and it is great to see the two men both openly discuss their feelings and the subject of sexual assault. Outlander has always been good at portraying men as multi-dimensional characters with real feelings and anxieties.
While burying the dead man, Claire and Jamie meet Stephen Bonnet (brilliantly portrayed by Ed Speleers), an Irish pirate, who they save from being captured by the British. Saving the pirate is one of the first serious mistakes they will probably make this season. Bonnet is a character that audiences will love to hate. He’s smarmy, self-important and a wily liar. He’s obviously not trustworthy especially after he spends an uncomfortable amount of time staring at Claire’s two wedding rings and is a convicted thief. But both Claire and Jamie have never been the best judges of character and they do seem to have an uncanny ability to stumble in to danger at every available opportunity.
Claire’s overly trusting nature is only surpassed by her romanticism of America itself. She is filled with all the patriotism and wide-eyed-wonder of someone who believes in the American Dream. She is also enamoured with the idea of witnessing the birth of the USA and is misty-eyed over a mythologised version of American history that she can enjoy, partly because of her privilege as a white woman. Jamie innocently asks about what happens to the ‘natives’ of the US. This reference to the indigenous populations of America and the destruction of their societies is perhaps a little obvious and clumsy, but it is a genuine attempt by the writers of Outlander to show how our understanding of the founding of the US should be rooted in historical fact rather than romantic propaganda.
The episode moves speedily through a series of events, Jamie appears to be suddenly pardoned by the British, he and Claire attend a fancy dinner, sell a ruby and make enough money to settle in America. Young Ian gambles and wins himself a large wolf-like dog and newlyweds Fergus (César Domboy) and Marsali (Lauren Lyle) reveal they are expecting a child. Everyone decides to stay and settle in the US and Claire, despite knowing the Revolutionary War will take place in 8 years time, does nothing to dissuade anyone. Perhaps the greatest irony of Outlander is that Claire, the time-traveller with a prophetic knowledge of the future, is always finding herself on the wrong side of history.
Despite the episode’s events failing to make much of a dramatic impact, ‘America The Beautiful’ earns itself a place in Outlander’s history as having one of the most stunning episode endings. While travelling to meet Jamie’s aunt (the unfortunately named Jocasta), Claire, Jamie, Ian and another forgettable Scottish kinsman are attacked by Stephen Bonnet and his gang of pirates in a scene that is both brilliantly devised and horrific. To the tune of the song ‘America the Beautiful,’ Bonnet murders and thieves his way through the little group, stealing Claire’s wedding rings and even digging them out of her mouth as she desperately tries to swallow them. Caitriona Balfe’s portrayal of grief upon discovering that it is the ring that Jamie had given her that is the one actually stolen is heartbreaking. It is a horrible scene made worse by the complete absence of sound except for the song playing over the action.
But the most disturbing aspect of the ending of ‘America the Beautiful’ is, that except for the period setting and costumes, all the action could be taking place not in 1776, but instead in 2018. With the modern soundtrack this could just as easily be a modern robbery. It’s a brave stylistic choice on the part of the showrunners. This is America, a land where the dream of its ideals is very different from the harsh reality of its existence. As Jamie says: “A dream for some can be a nightmare for others.” Which is a pretty accurate description of the country of America both then and now.