‘Down The Rabbit Hole’ is an episode about fathers and daughters and love and loss. The writer of this episode, Shannon Goss has effectively weaved in multiple characters’ stories of familial bonds so that parallels can be drawn between the broken families of both the past and the present.
The episode opens with Brianna (Sophie Skelton), having travelled back in time, walking resolutely through the Scottish Highlands. She seems rather unprepared for the trip. She is dressed inappropriately for the cold weather and is almost immediately lost. Stumbling at the first hurdle and twisting her ankle, she possess none of the defiance that Claire (Caitriona Balfe) showed when she first passed through the magical stones but also none of Claire’s haughtiness either.
The scenes in the Highlands are beautifully filmed. Brianna looks great in her costume and the Scottish wilderness is wonderfully dramatic especially with snow. Visually I was drawn to this episode but I couldn’t help wondering what Brianna’s game plan was. Can she actually save her parents? How? What useful information does she even know other than they are going to die in a fire? Without more information on how and when the disaster is to occur, Brianna’s trip in to the past feels overwhelmingly foolhardy.
We do receive some insight in to Brianna’s state of mind however, through flashbacks of her adoptive father Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies). It is lovely to see Menzies back on the show. He was one of the strongest actors in the series and his reappearance adds emotional depth to the episode. The presence of Frank watching over Brianna actually makes a lot of sense. He’s been more of a father to her than Jamie and his love for her is perhaps less idealistic than Jamie’s feelings, but no less fierce. The scenes between Brianna and Frank are filled with tenderness and real pathos with Skelton doing some of her best work in the series.
Of course the journey through the freezing 18th century Highlands proves to be a tad too exhausting for a 20th century college student, especially when Brianna must camp outdoors overnight. Interestingly when Claire came through the stones, she bumped in to English soldiers and Scottish Highlanders almost immediately but years after the Battle of Culloden the area is a sparsely populated wilderness. It is a nice nod to how human events can shape a physical landscape. Brianna starts a fire and forlornly eats her white-bread 1960s sandwich that somehow survived the journey back in time with her. The next evening exhausted and limping, she is within sight of a house when she loses consciousness.
I didn’t anticipate the next plot twist, but perhaps I should have, since this is Outlander and coincidences are abound in the show. Brianna is rescued by none other than Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson), Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) ex-wife and the woman who accused Claire of witchcraft all the way back in Season 1. Refreshingly this is not just a simple revisiting of the character in the show but a different view of an aggrieved Laoghaire. The audience gets to see the kinder side of the woman, who is now older and slightly calmer than her younger and more hot-headed self. It is clear that whether or not he intended to, Jamie has done serious damage to Laoghaire and her little family by leaving them to return to Claire.
Laoghaire is kind, commanding and generous. She is a mistress of her own household despite struggling financially. From her point of view, the story of Outlander has turned out differently than the happy ending between Claire and Jamie that we usually see on screen. She’s lost a family, a husband and the financial security of a marriage. She immediately welcomes Brianna in to her home and it is clearly emphasised that the young woman starts to take the place of Laoghaire’s own absent daughter Marsali (Lauren Lyle) who is in North Carolina and deeply missed. With this plot and the addition of the scenes involving Frank, writer Shannon Goss effectively examines the damage done to children by the disputes and actions of their parents and the family breakdown that ensues when people do not love each other enough.
It is this sort of storytelling that Outlander could do more of; different points of view and multiple storylines that examine the feelings of background characters in more depth. But the show is predominantly Jamie and Claire’s story and so quickly all discussion between Laoghaire and Brianna turns to the Frasers. Here the plot becomes slightly ridiculous with Laoghaire abandoning any reason she may have previously possessed and engaging in a rather dramatic argument in which she locks Brianna in her room in a fit if jealously and rage. It seems unfair to make Laoghaire appear so deranged after she has been so reasonable for most of the episode. I suppose the show has to find its drama somewhere and the writers do tend to favour plot over realistic character development.
While Brianna is getting to know her Scottish relatives, Roger (Richard Rankin) has arrived in the past looking for her, still as love-lorn as ever. He is dressed in horrendous period clothing which includes the ugliest brown culottes that have ever graced a television screen. He has sadly shaved off his beard and somehow made it to a port in half the time that Brianna has been wandering around the moors. Roger manages to convince the villainous pirate Stephen Bonnet (Edward Speleers) to hire him to work aboard his ship bound for America.
Bonnet is a truly an odious man, throwing children overboard when they show signs of smallpox and tossing a coin in his pocket to decide who lives and who dies on his ship. He is the new Jack Randall and a villain an audience will love to hate. Roger is getting a rude awakening to just how harsh the 1700s was and it can’t be long before Brianna will also be facing the dangers of the 18th century as she also boards a ship bound for America.
Despite this episode being touching and entertaining in places, it is let down by the many chance meetings in the story. Most of the coincidences in Outlander are truly fantastical. Brianna falls on to the doorstep of her biological father’s ex-wife and accidentally ends up meeting her uncle. Roger coincidentally ends up working for the pirate who attacked his ex-girlfriend’s parents on the other side of the world. These instances must test the patience of even the most avid Outlander fan.
Outlander: Season 4 is now airing on Amazon Prime.