After the violent events of last week’s episode, Outlander dips its toes even further into the dark history of America’s beginnings with an episode almost entirely focused on the practice of slavery in 18th century North Carolina. ‘Do No Harm’ picks up right after Bonnet’s (Edward Speleers) robbery of Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe). Jamie feels guilty about trusting Bonnet and knows full well that his helping Bonnet to escape the hangman’s noose will now lead to more innocent people being robbed along the river.
But despite being traumatised and guilt-ridden, Claire and Jamie are still delighted to be visiting Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) in her estate, River Run. Its always a pleasure to see Maria Doyle Kennedy on screen as she is an excellent character actor. In this episode she does a good job of embodying a woman who not only is partially sighted, but is a powerful landowner in a patriarchal system. The initial meeting between Jamie and Jocasta appears to go a little too well. She’s too gracious, hospitable and complimentary.
She’s a charmer and beneath her genteel and kind demeanour she hides an ugly willingness to perpetrate and benefit from a system of oppression. Her household is entirely made up of only African Americans, which should sound off warning bells, especially in Claire. Yes, she owns a whole plantation of slaves. Amongst her closest and most trusted are Ulysses (Colin McFarlane) and Phaedre (Natalie Simpson) two black characters who receive far too few lines in an episode about slavery and whose names prove Jocasta has a bizarre penchant for characters from classical mythology.
Once it dawns on Claire that the plantation is worked by slaves, she is unsettled at the idea of staying in Jocasta’s home, although she continues to let Phaedre dress her and perform household tasks for her. Claire might initially silently grimace at the idea of slavery and Jamie tries to tip-toe around the issue with his aunt, but Jocasta does not see herself as a bad slave owner. She states that she keeps slave families together, feeds them well and treats them with what she presumes is kindness. She believes that she has given her slaves ‘a purpose,’ which truly illustrates her belief that the white settlers in America are superior to their black slaves. Her attempts to prettily dress up her racism does however make her a more interesting character than all the other slave owners in the episode.
Aunt Jocasta is by far one of the most entertaining aspects of ‘Do No Harm.’ She may be all sweetness and smiles, but her lacy clothes and lady-like manners hide a shrewd business mind and intelligent brain. She’s run a business, estate and household with without a husband in an era when women had little or no economic or political power. Jocasta understands Claire immediately, knowing that Claire disapproves of the slaves at River Run and Jocasta has no qualms about forcing Claire to openly admit it. Jocasta’s fatal flaw is that she sees slavery as a work opportunity for the displaced population of Africans in America. As we well know there can be no ‘good’ slave owners, as owning slaves, whatever the situation, can never be justified.
Unfortunately aside from Jocasta, the rest of the characters in the episode, with the exception of Young Ian (John Bell), are cliches and stereotypes of the kind we seen in many a period drama about slavery. It is interesting to see the Scots who were the underdogs in previous seasons, now dressed up as aristocracy at fancy parties in the New World and oppressing others much like the English, who the Scots so despised. But Outlander is not known of its depth when it comes to background characters. They often fall in to two groups, characters who are bad or morally corrupt or characters who are good or simply in the show so their demise can elicit a reaction from Claire and Jamie. Perhaps the themes of colonialism and slavery could have both been better explored if the colonists and slave owners had not been such uncomplicated villains and so easy to dislike.
Jocasta, in a twist wholly obvious and expected, decides to leave River Run to Jamie and despite the fact that she is not dead yet, Jamie in a fit of idealism announces he intends to set all the slaves on the plantation free. He even confesses to Claire that he hopes it will start a rebellion, which seems strange for his character since Jamie has already been part of a failed rebellion back in Scotland (anyone remember Culloden?!). He soon learns that the entire legal and economic system in North Carolina is completely designed to keep slavery ongoing and that freeing slaves is more complicated and costly than he previously thought.
There is an uncomfortable white saviour theme that runs throughout the episode. We learn in detail what Claire, Jamie and Jocasta think about slavery, but many of the actual slaves have very little dialogue and we learn almost nothing of their histories. If the slave owners and colonists are stereotypes, it is even more disappointing to find that the slaves are also reduced to cliches, such as silent servants and suffering victims. One can only wonder how descendants of African American slaves might feel watching this episode.
Just when the plot seems to hit a narrative wall; Claire does not want to live at River Run while slaves are kept there, Jamie can’t actually free all the slaves and neither of them want to accept land from the English (so as to not end up on the wrong side of the Revolutionary war in the future), a dramatic event is thrown in to the episode. A local overseer is attacked by a slave and in retaliation, a mob of locals hang the accused slave from a tree by a large metal hook through his abdomen.
Predictably Claire and Jamie rescue the poor man, named Rufus (Jerome Holder) and what follows is perhaps one of the most exciting scenes of the fourth season so far. Jamie, Claire, Young Ian and the household slaves try to save Rufus’ life in a dramatic make-shift operation on the dining room table. Young Ian proves he is an excellent assistant to Claire’s surgeon and the visual effects are both realistic and visceral as the hook is removed from Rufus’ belly. To give the writers credit, they do try to show how barbaric a system of slavery is with this scene. As Claire tries to correct the damage done by the bloody dark metal hook and staunch the bleeding, a mob gathers outside the house ready to lynch Rufus.
It quickly becomes clear that Rufus is introduced as a character only so that he can die and being discussed by a moralising white people. Like all the black characters in ‘Do No Harm’ he appears to be there solely so that Jamie or Claire can try to rescue him. The problem is that while there is value in telling a story about the abuse of power, violence, and racism that comes out of colonialism and slavery, ultimately it is hard do so in one hour of television and in a story in which all the main characters are white.
Outlander: Season 4 is now airing on Amazon Prime.