Outlander Recap: French Letters


Useful Occupations and Deceptions
Season 2 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Outlander Season 2 2016
Caitriona Balfe as Claire. Photo: Neil Davidson/© 2016 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All rights reserved.

Claire and Jamie are in France for one reason: To prevent the disastrous Jacobite rebellion that will bring the English wrath down onto the Scottish highlands. That is why Jamie bounces from palaces to brothels, pretending to be a sympathetic, loyal subject of the uninspiring Bonnie Prince Charlie, and why Claire takes tea with high-born ladies like her friend Louise, who is less amusing when she’s not getting waxed.

Still, that’s a hard idea to build a narrative arc around for several reasons. Rebellions are violent and exciting: Think of the jolt George Washington sends through Hamilton when he predicts, “We’re gonna fly a lot of flags half-mast.” There’s drama in death. There’s not a lot of drama inherent in trying to stop death before it starts.

Besides, most Americans know little and care less about the internecine power squabbles of 18th-century European kings. The power struggles on Game of Thrones work in part because the show feeds its audience something that feels kind of like history, only more fun. Perversely, it can be easier to grasp stakes when the conflict is Lannisters against Targaryens than when it’s Protestants against Catholics. Plus, you know, dragons.

Outlander can’t offer dragons. It has to do something else to keep audiences interested: Make sure its characters care about something other than their stated goals. Let Jamie and Claire be a little bored by the machinations required by this Jacobite stuff too. Give them B-plots in which to shine.

“Useful Occupations and Deceptions” episode does that. It establishes that, yes, Jamie’s always game for beating the Minister of Finance at chess. (He claims he respects the man too much to let him win, which is a funny thing to say to a fellow you recently tossed into a body of water.) And Claire is okay with providing basic sex-ed to servants and timid English ladies who never learned about the birds and the bees. But neither Claire nor Jamie feels fulfilled by their cushy Parisian lives. Both of them crave action.

Jamie is spying, sure, but his situation calls on him to be less Jason Bourne and more George Smiley. And Claire, expected to do nothing more taxing than playing cards in various mansions, is getting claustrophobic. “My life has gotten more conventional by the day,” she laments. “As have I.”

Oh, and Murtagh needs action too — but he’s getting some, in the form of Claire’s lady’s maid. I suppose you’ve never heard of birth control, Claire says to Murtagh. “Control?” he replies blankly. Yes, Murtagh, control.

(Fun fact: Condoms have existed in one form or another for at least several hundred years, and possibly since antiquity. And while the English call condoms “French letters,” the French call them “English hoods.”)

Lacking any French letters or English hoods, Claire returns to the squat, cheerful apothecary, Monsieur Raymond, to get her maid some herbal contraceptives. Raymond has lots of drugs and few morals, although, he points out, he stops short of selling lethal poisons to his customers.

He also notes Claire’s ennui and suggests that she might find satisfaction in volunteering at the local charity hospital, run by nuns and a hobbyist who’s a butcher by trade (yikes) out of what looks like a huge, empty church. Soon enough, a far more self-actualized Claire is playing House, diagnosing patients by tasting their urine.

“I had the most wonderful day!” she enthuses to Jamie when she returns to Jared’s mansion. “I lanced two boils, changed dirty dressings, and saw my first case of scrofula!” Jamie isn’t in the mood to appreciate this, however, because Prince Charles boasted that he actually has the financing he needs for his war, and Jamie can’t figure how Charlie made this coup. Jamie is also being uncharacteristically caveman-like, annoyed that a barefoot and pregnant Claire wasn’t waiting for him at home.

“I thought you’d be happy for me,” she says, sounding sincere, if totally naïve. As Murtagh anticipated, Jamie’s feeling more sullen than selfless. He stalks out and doesn’t get happy again until, later that night, he spots a Gavroche-type pickpocket who he chases, tackles, and convinces to work for him. A more satisfied Jamie renames the urchin Fergus and brings him home, where Fergus attempts to charm the women of the house by complimenting their breasts. Hey, it works in brothels.

With Fergus’s help, Jamie and Co. steal Prince Charles’s correspondence. It’s encoded, but a page of sheet music provides a clue. Jamie approaches Claire’s boss at the hospital, the highly competent German-speaking, harpsichord-playing Mother Hildegard, who is a friend of the composer J.S. Bach. (She also has a marvelous dog that sniffs out medical issues in the canine take on a CAT scan. The New Yorker cartoon basically writes itself!) She helps them understand that, as Claire puts it, “the key is the key.” Does that pun work in French or only in English?

Regardless, our heroes use the key to decrypt Prince Charles’ letters and discover that, though he was exaggerating the extent of his war chest, he does have significant backing — and both Dougal and the Duke of Sandringham may be involved. In spite of these tidings, Jamie’s undaunted. He’s made progress, and he’ll make more. Claire is feeling better too, now that she’s doing some good at the hospital.

But she’s also concerned. Sandringham’s new secretary, whom she met at Versailles, is Captain Black Jack Randall’s brother, Alexander, who told her that their nemesis is still alive. Jamie wasn’t with her and she hasn’t yet shared the bad news. Worse still, after remembering an old family tree, Claire realizes that Jack Randall needs to live at least another year in order to father a child with none other than meek little Mary Hawkins, Louise’s English visitor. Otherwise, her 20th-century husband will never be born.

If Jamie finds out his abuser Captain Randall lives, he won’t rest until he has killed him. But what would happen to Frank, centuries later? Looks like Claire is facing one of the cardinal risks of mixing sex with time travel: The possibility that her current lover will ensure that her future lover never exists.

Outlander Recap: French Letters