I’ve now watched Episode 402 twice, and, frankly, I didn’t like it any better the 2nd time. My objections to this episode are not with the acting – once again the casting is spot-on and the new cast additions of Maria Doyle Kennedy as Aunt Jocasta, Colin McFarlane as Ulysses, Natalie Simpson as Phaedre and Kyle Rees as John Quincy Myers (and of course, the lovely and talented Tim Downie as Governor Tryon in Ep. 1), were all fantastic and brought tight, emotionally-nuanced performances to their roles. They are also not with the costuming or the sets – as always, I’m in awe of the talents of Terry Dresbach and Jon Gary Steel.
No, my issue, once again, is with the writing and direction, particularly with respect to the character development of Jamie and Claire. I’ve been saying since Season 2 that the hero worship of Claire (at the expense of Jamie) by the writers and directors has been materially altering the Outlander story – and not for the better. The reason we love Jamie and Claire in the books is that they work as a team; they are equals. The faults and strengths of each balance the faults and strengths of the other, they don’t work in opposition to them. And this, I argue, is what the writers don’t seem to “get.” Claire’s domineering personality was, yet again, on full display in episode 402, “Do No Harm.”
Up until this season, it’s been Jamie’s character that’s been under assault – the writers have weakened and minimized his character to the point that he often seems to be merely Claire’s trusty sidekick, rather than her soulmate and equal partner (see my older posts Looking for Mr. Fraser and Yeah, It Kind of IS About the Sex) for specific examples). On a side note, in case any of you were wondering why it’s been so long since I’ve posted, I chose to bite my tongue last season and say nothing. I wrote a few pretty harsh critiques, but then decided not to publish them – what was the point? The show was the show and nothing I wrote was ever going to change what I regarded to be glaringly lost opportunities to showcase this couple as they should be portrayed. However, after watching 402, I was so offended by the direction the writers had taken with Jamie and Claire that I felt the need to come out of hibernation.
First, a disclaimer: I am coming at this from the perspective of a white woman. I can try to empathize with the experience of a person of color all I want, but I understand fully that I will never experience certain things in the same way. As a woman, I can relate to misogyny and being relegated to second class status as women were in the past (and to some extent, the present), and even though women have historically been treated as property, I know it’s not the same kind of “ownership” as that experienced by slaves. I also want to make it clear that my personal view is that in all of American history, slavery is one of our most shameful and odious blights. In no way do I believe that the lives and feelings of enslaved people were unimportant or irrelevant, or that they were undeserving of treatment when sick or injured. I say this because my comments in this post about the slaves and their positions at River Run will be from the perspective of the time period in which the events in this episode occurred and how white people may have viewed them at that time.
So, my question to the writers is this: what purpose did this episode serve? It didn’t help further develop the main characters and it didn’t move the story forward. If anything, it did just the opposite. One thing it did accomplish was to waste a lot of precious and limited screen time (considering everything that happens in Drums of Autumn) for no reason other than to showcase, once again, Claire as Savior in a situation where no good could come of it.
Arrival at River Run
Claire and Jamie arrive at River Run with almost nothing but Ian, Rollo, Claire’s gorgeous medical box (thank GOD – I worship you, Gary Steele!), and the clothes on their backs.
They are greeted by Aunt Jocasta, aided by Ulysses, who graciously welcomes them to her home (even though they are nearly complete strangers to her). Almost immediately, we see “that look” on Claire’s face conveying her displeasure and disapproval of the fact that Jocasta owns slaves.
Aunt Jo gets them settled in, listens to what happened to them and tells them they are welcome to stay as long as they like (and proceeds to supply them with new clothing, free room and board, contacts in the community, a horse and wagon and a huge (if unwanted) inheritance). How does Claire repay this generosity? By pouting, pursing her lips, glaring, being exceedingly rude and complaining almost incessantly about the fact that Jocasta owns slaves. We get it, Outlander writers – Claire disapproves of slavery! From a 21st century viewer’s perspective, we understand her feelings because we share them. However, from an 18th century perspective, she is being unbelievably inconsiderate to a woman who has opened her home and been incredibly generous to them. Claire was well aware of the history of slavery. She knows that sniping at everyone and imposing her 1968 viewpoint on them will do NOTHING to change the situation, yet she does it at every turn. In addition to her rudeness to Aunt Jo, she is also making all of the slaves uncomfortable, and potentially endangering them, with her behavior – ”Oh, call me Claire!” Really, Outlander writers? Really? And it just gets worse from there.
I found the scene with the torture and death of Rufus to be monumentally offensive, but not for the reasons you might think. The hard right taken from the events in the book altered the scene from being about the horror of slavery to being all about Claire…again. Except this time, she went from being St. Claire the Savior of the ill, injured and downtrodden to St. Claire, Patron Saint of White Privilege: a selfish, irresponsible, arrogant self-righteous…well…asshole. While I suspect the intent of the scene was supposed to be a social commentary on slavery, that is not what was achieved. Rufus’ plight became secondary. The entire scene shifted to being about Claire. That IS a tragedy. If they had left well enough alone, and played it as it was written, it would have kept the focus on Rufus and been much more affecting.
And where was Jamie during this fiasco? Trying to force her to see how stupid she was being, right? No. Of course not. He was right by her side, taking orders and doing nothing to stop her from making a dangerous and heart-breaking situation 100 times worse, which is COMPLETELY out of character for Jamie Fraser (book version). I’ve opined (repeatedly) in previous posts about what’s happened to the book version of Jamie (that we know and love), but now I’m also asking the same about Claire. We know that book Claire is reckless and headstrong, and often doesn’t stop to consider the consequences of her actions, but she’s NOT stupid or selfish to the point of caricature. When book Claire realizes that her actions could put others in danger (particularly Jamie or her friends and family), she will stop and listen to Jamie (who is usually the voice of reason in these situations). But the way show Claire behaved in this episode was absurd.
As book readers know, the way the scene with Rufus played out in print was much the same, except for one HUGE, significant difference: in the book, they did not bring Rufus back to the house for Claire to tend to his wounds. She did what she could for him right there at the mill, and when Jamie made her take notice of the hostility rising around them from the white overseers and others, and told her they could not save him, SHE LISTENED to him and gave Rufus the mercy of a quicker and far less painful death. The situation was tamped down, right then and there, so that it never got to the point of a, literal, lynch mob. The scene was about HIS tragic death, not her martyrdom.
No one was paying attention to the true object of the discussion. Only seconds had passed-but I had only seconds more to act. I placed a hand on Jamie’s arm, pulling his attention away from the debate.
“If I save him, will they let him live?” I asked him, under my breath. His eyes flickered from one to another of the men behind me, weighing the possibilities.
“No,” he said softly. His eyes met mine, dark with understanding. His shoulders straightened slightly, and he laid the pistol across his thigh. I could not help him make his choice; he could not help with mine-but he would defend me, whichever choice I made.
“Give me that third bottle from the left, top row,”
–Drums of Autumn, Chapter 11
For some unknown reason, the writers decided to go down a ridiculously unrealistic rabbit hole and, like show Claire, completely disregard the collateral damage (to the characters and the story) resulting from her behavior. I assume by including the horrific “punishment” of Rufus, the writers were trying to give us a historically accurate depiction of the brutality of slavery, as did Diana in the text. But by changing the scene, they ended up taking the focus off of the treatment of the slaves and putting it on Claire and her need to make sure everyone within a 1000 mile radius knows that “She’s a DOCTOR” and will operate on anyone, regardless of the unintended consequences. And this is not the first time they’ve done it. Think back to Season 3’s Crème de Menthe, when she insisted on operating on the man who just tried to rape and kill her (and threatened to kill Jamie), ONE DAY after she gave up her entire life to come back him, and then got all pissy with Jamie because he wasn’t sorry the guy died anyway! That ranks up there with one of the worst, most useless, waste-of-time scenes in Outlander (show) history, IMHO. Seriously, how many times do we need to see Claire operate on someone? We know she’s a skilled surgeon. We don’t really need to be hit over the head with it over and over again. But I digress…
So, there she is, with a mortally wounded slave (who has attacked a white man) bleeding all over Aunt Jo’s dining room table, ordering all of the house slaves to do her bidding to help this man. Think about this from an 18th, not a 21st, century perspective. First, Claire was told – before she ordered the other slaves to carry him to the house (potentially sentencing them to death, too, for helping him) -that he would be hanged for the “crime” of attacking a white man, if he lived from his wound. That was NON-NEGOTIABLE. There was absolutely nothing she or Jamie could do to prevent that. Second, I confess the I am NOT A DOCTOR!, but even I know that if you insert a large, dirty hook through a human body, that person is not going to recover in the 18th century. Third, book Jamie would NEVER have allowed Rufus to be brought into Aunt Jo’s house, not because he didn’t think he deserved to be treated, but because he was intelligent enough to see the situation as it was. He would have recognized the danger to Jocasta, to the other slaves, to Ian, to Claire and to himself in doing that, and he would have told Claire “NO.”
Instead, the writers decided to gin up some unnecessary drama: Claire is told he will be hanged anyway, but she keeps operating. All of the slaves in the house were visibly scared to death even before the mob got there because they knew this was going to end badly for them and for Rufus. Even Rufus knew he shouldn’t be there. Neither she nor Jamie even consulted Jocasta to see if she would agree to this (which she would not have), thus putting her at risk as well. When the mob shows up, they are getting ready to burn the place down if Rufus isn’t handed over by midnight (yet another ridiculous plot device-why would an angry mob agree to wait patiently for an arbitrary deadline?), AGAIN, endangering everyone. It never even crosses Claire’s mind that they might also drag Jamie and Ian out and hang THEM for harboring and aiding a “criminal.” And even if they all got out of this alive, what has she done to Aunt Jo’s livelihood? Will these people ever want to deal with River Run again? I’m guessing…no. This last point may seem irrelevant in comparison to what happened to Rufus, but from an 18th century perspective, it was not. It was a BFD. And all of this against the backdrop that Rufus will die one way or another, a fact about which Claire is fully aware!
If the writers had left the scene as it was written in the book, Rufus could have died with some dignity, without having his body further defiled by being dragged across the property and hanged as an example. In the book scene, the white “mob” was led to believe that he had died of his injuries, so they took no further action. That final scene was unnecessary and exploitative, in my opinion. It was thrown in for shock value and nothing more.
As we book readers know, Jamie and Claire will leave River Run and head for the mountains to settle. Aunt Jo isn’t happy that Jamie doesn’t want to be her heir, but they part on good terms. Based on the events in the show, I’m not sure how that will happen. If I had been Jocasta, I would have been furious at what transpired and by the position they had left me in, and I would have told them not to the let the door hit them in the ass on the way out. Do the writers expect us to believe that everything will just go back to normal at River Run? That everyone in town will just forgive and forget? I guess we’ll have to wait and see what new rabbit holes the writers will lead us down in the coming episodes. Let’s hope they’re more intelligent than this one because if show Jamie and Claire don’t wise up, they’re not going to last five minutes on the Ridge.