The most recent episode of sci-fi fantasy series Outlander is not boring exactly, but does drag in places. While there are endless scenes of Jamie (Sam Heughan), Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Young Ian (John Bell) chopping trees in the woods, Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) have a long and awkward telephone conversation and the plot slowly inches forward. It feels as if this episode is setting up a much larger story line which will start to emerge as Season four develops.
‘Common Ground’ begins with Jamie actually acquiring some ground of his own. He signs his name on a deed for 10,000 acres of land in the mountains of North Carolina (the area he dubbed ‘Fraser’s Ridge’ in the previous episode). The view from the ridge really is very lovely and it does seem like the ideal place to found a little settlement but the land comes with a price, the distrust of the Indigenous inhabitants and the request for Jamie’s loyalty from the English crown.
Interestingly Jamie deftly dodges Governor Tryon’s (Tim Downie) request for allegiance in exchange for the land. Tryon mentions some settlers being unwilling to pay their taxes to the British which is a rather obvious nod to the American Revolution looming on the historical horizon. Although we know it is necessary for the plot, it seems odd that the Governor would bother trying to elicit support from Jamie at all, knowing that as a Highlander he was once a man who fought against English rule at the Battle of Culloden. Nevertheless it is great to see Jamie neatly sidestep the request for support and toast to his new home with Tryon without really pledging anything. He proves that he can be wily and careful in his old age. It is hard to imagine Season one Jamie being so diplomatic.
In a quest to fill Fraser’s Ridge with settlers, Jamie enlists the help of Fergus (César Domboy) and his pregnant wife Marsali (Lauren Lyle). It is nice to see the young couple again. Marsali is a little overwhelmed by the idea of giving birth and taking care of a baby. She misses her mother in Scotland and in a lovely little scene confides in Claire about her anxieties. Small but poignant scenes between women are one of the things that Outlander does so well. The writers often include the conversations that women have with each other about the parts of their lives that they keep hidden from men or the feelings they have about themselves and their own lives.
After putting a call out for Scottish immigrants to come to Fraser’s Ridge, Jamie, Claire, Young Ian (and Rollo the wolf-dog) start marking out the territory they now own. This includes carving their initials in to two large trees that mark the boundary of their land. Similar to last week’s episode, ‘Common Ground’ actually contains a fair amount of historical accuracy when it comes to the nature of surveying before modern maps or machinery. Surveyors would have used a ‘metes and bounds’ system to survey land. This meant using large identifiable objects or features of the landscape to mark boundaries such as a large stone or a big tree.
No sooner has Jamie’s little group claimed ‘their’ land, than a group of Cherokee Indians show up. In an atmospheric scene filled with tension, both groups stare at each other, unable to communicate or to comprehend each other’s intentions. The scene is cleverly edited so the audience views Jamie and his family first from the Cherokee’s point of view and then alternates so we see the Native Americans from the Scots’ gaze. ‘Common Ground’ emphasises that while Jamie and Claire enthusiastically plan their home and little community, it is clear that the land already belongs to another community and that the Cherokee are not exactly happy to see westerners settling on their doorstep.
The Frasers are intruders, even if they mean no harm. The episode shows the age-old conflict that erupts between humans over resources and land when such things are precious and essential for survival. The writers try to deal with this subject as sensitively as they can. The Cherokee characters all have distinct names, roles and are all portrayed by actual Indigenous actors, but Outlander cannot escape America’s real history of the oppression of its native population. This story is being told from a coloniser’s point of view, no matter how kind and egalitarian Jamie and Claire are.
It is this tension that leads to Jamie to ask John Quincy Myers (Kyle Rees) to act as an envoy and to approach the Cherokee with an offer of peace. In the meantime Claire practices shooting, Young Ian reveals that he and almost all Scottish Highlanders know how to knit (not Claire though!) and they catch fish for their dinner using a net. All these scenes prove that our heroes are more than capable of surviving in the wilderness, although there is definitely a certain romanticism in Outlander to living in the backwoods of America. Claire and Jamie even somehow make the process of surveying salacious by almost having sex up against a tree while plotting out the location of their cabin.
Eventually the tension between the Frasers and the neighbouring Native Americans spills over in to violence as one particular Cherokee warrior dressed as a bear tries to kill Jamie and John. In a slightly bizarre and overly-complicated twist, it turns out that Cherokee warrior was mentally ill and had been banished from the tribe for raping his wife. Left to survive in the wild by himself he went mad and assumed the the identify of a bear. Although this felt like a story line that was not really needed in already intriguing plot of two very different cultures trying to find common ground, it is nice that Outlander is finally acknowledging that there should be consequences to committing acts of sexual violence. It took four seasons to get there, but the show finally does show someone being punished for committing a rape. It does mean that the Cherokee and Jamie bond not so much over ‘common ground’ but rather over a ‘common threat’ and the issue of sharing resources and land still remains to be explored in future episodes.
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Back in the 20th Century, Roger is still pining for Brianna and while skimming through a Scottish American history book given to him by her, Roger comes across a reference to Fraser’s Ridge. Later he confirms that it is indeed Claire and Jamie who founded the settlement on the ridge and calls Brianna in the Boston to let her know in a telephone conversation so awkward and stilted, it is almost painful to watch. It is ironic that Roger is a qualified history professor because the way he learns about history is to accidentally stumble across it rather than through actual scholarly research; he randomly reads a chapter in a book or happens to talk to a friend who has lots of old documents in desk drawers. But this is Outlander, a show in which no coincidence is ever a coincidence.
In one of his accidental discoveries, Roger learns both Jamie and Claire died in a fire on Fraser’s Ridge in the 1770s. Horrified he tries to contact Brianna, but in a twist so predictable that the viewer should have seen it on the horizon since the day Brianna was born, it is revealed she has left American to travel to Scotland. She has gone to find the stones of Craigh na Dun and travel back in time to finally reunite with her parents.