Outlander often tries to be didactic in its storytelling. Sometimes it does not succeed, such as when Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) become the white saviours of slaves. Other times the show not only succeeds in telling a moral story but gives us an episode so empathetic that it will stay with you for days afterwards. This is the case with the episode ‘Savages.’ At first it appears the title may refer to the Cherokee, but in truth it is the white settlers who are the real savages of the story.
The episode begins with a sweet scene between Claire and the Cherokee healer Adawehi (Tantoo Cardinal), who have become friends, swapping knowledge about medicinal herbs and sharing their own different languages. The friendly intimacy between the two women is a nice way to show Claire’s openness to other cultures, her curious mind and her desire to connect to with different people.
Adawehi cryptically hints that Claire’s daughter may be near and we know from earlier episodes that Adawehi is treated as a sort of shaman by her people, so it is safe to assume we will be seeing Brianna (Sophie Skelton) in the 1700s some time soon. Further portents of Brianna’s arrival come in the form of a dream that Jamie has of his daughter’s birthmark. These hints that Brianna will travel back in time to reunite with her parents are slightly over-the-top and it does feel as if the writers are perhaps going to drag this particular story-line out for as long as they can.
In the time since the last episode Jamie has built a whole fully furnished cabin with so much stuff in it that he loses his hat in all the clutter. It is perhaps the most elaborately furnished wood cabin in the entire frontier. Claire is going to assist in the birth of a local baby and Jamie is leaving for a few days to travel to the local town to find tenants and farmers for his land. For the first time both Claire and Jamie are putting down roots in a place, rather than just passing through. In North Carolina they are reaching out to their community and attempting to fit in with their surroundings. But this is Outlander and trouble is always brewing on the horizon.
Claire assists in the successful birth of a baby girl to her German neighbour Petronella Mueller (Marie Hacke) and the young mother decides to name the baby Klara, after Claire which is a sweet gesture and one our reviewer heartily approves of. Petronella and her mother Rosewitha (Nicola Ransom) are kind and friendly women who have struggled to survive in the harsh wilderness. Perhaps it is a bit much to hope that both women will survive until the next episode knowing Outlander’s penchant for killing off its background characters.
The idyllic little scene is interrupted by the arrival of a local group of Cherokee, to which the head of the household, grandfather Herr Gerhard Muller (Urs Rechn) reacts violently to. It is clear that Muller has been furious with the Native Americans (who he calls ‘savages’) for a very long time and has indoctrinated his whole family with his prejudice so that they are terrified at the mere sight of the Cherokee.
A stream runs between the Mullers’ land at which the Cherokee water their horses. The ensuing argument over access to the water is inevitable and tragic. There is not one part of this story line that does not feel authentic. Even Claire’s attempts to keep the peace feel realistic. Her diplomacy and ability to be respected by both groups allows her to initially prevent bloodshed. This may be strongest and bravest we have seen her in Season 4 so far. She is now a true frontier woman, resourceful and determined.
Unfortunately Petronella, her brother and her little newborn baby all succumb to the measles and die in a very short space of time. This is another example of Outlander using historical insight to reference a very real threat of the 1770s. Measles was one of the leading causes of infant mortality during that time and it was not unusual for an outbreak of the disease to kill several family members at the same time as it was highly contagious. Herr Muller driven insane by grief at losing his children reportedly blames Claire for their deaths.
When the showdown between Claire and Muller finally takes place it is more horrible than any scene of violence could be. Muller thinks the Cherokee cursed the water on his land and no matter what Claire says, he cannot be dissuaded. It is the age old conflict of science vs superstition and a battle that Claire cannot hope to win in the 1700s. We understand the true horror of Muller’s prejudice and cruelty when he hands Claire a parcel containing Adawehi’s severed scalp. Muller believed her to be a witch and although this may be an isolated incident in the series, it effectively conveys what we ourselves know from history; that this is merely the beginning of the injustices that the Native Americans will face at the hands of white settlers.
Jamie is facing a conflict of his own in town. The Scottish farmers reject his offer of 100 acres on principle. They are bitter after being taxed heavily by the Governor, which has led to the loss of the farms they previously owned. Jamie is about to leave downcast, when in a twist departing from the original Outlander novels, Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), Jamie’s old friend and godfather reappears working as a blacksmith in town. Murtagh is a fan favourite with his gruff affection and wry humour. The reunion between the two men is brilliantly acted by Lacroix and Heughan, injecting real emotion in to the scene without feeling cheesy or contrived.
Of course this being Outlander, Murtagh has to be on the side of the rebelling farmers (named Regulators). He’s not just in opposition to the taxation from the Governor, he’s leading the charge against the whole system. This puts Jamie in to conflict with his old friend since Jamie has accepted 10,000 acres of land from the Governor in exchange for loyalty and support. It seems that no matter where Jamie goes he tends to find himself in the middle of an uprising somewhere. It may be a predictable twist, but seeing Murtagh give a rousing speech or joyfully embrace Claire later in the episode will no doubt invoke a strong emotional reaction in the audience who know him well.
‘Savages’ does suffer from one minor failing though, which is the lack of Brianna. At this stage in the series the entire audience must be waiting with bated breath for Brianna to be reunited with her parents. The show has been hinting at such a possibility since the end of Season 3 and it does not help that everyone in the past keeps referring to her existence in every other scene. It makes narrative sense for Outlander to not reach the reunion scene too quickly, but it still feels a little unfair for us to have to wait the whole 50 minutes of this episode to actually find out if Brianna is going to try to travel back in time.
The episode ends with Roger (Richard Rankin), clad in a truly horrendous woollen hat, reading a letter Brianna has left for him. In it she tells him she has gone to save her parents in the past. Finally we are treated to the sight of her walking through the stones of Craigh Na Dun dressed in historical clothing. It’s an exciting end to a sad but thoughtful episode and one of Outlander’s best in Season 4 so far.