Who wins a war? The scrappy upstarts with passion in their hearts and righteousness in their eyes? Or the well-established, well-organized, well-trained armies of the establishment? Every so often, as in the case of the American Revolution, a band of rebels will eke out an unlikely win. Far more often, uprisings end the way the student revolt does in Les Misérables, with a bitter, lonely survivor surveying the wreckage and saying, “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for…”
Even when an insurgency thinks it’s ready, it probably isn’t; it’s merely raring to go. That is certainly the case in this pretty grim episode — titled, dryly, “Je Suis Prest” (medieval French for “I am ready,” after the Fraser family motto) — in which Jamie frets that he has too little time to turn a bunch of farmers into soldiers who stand any chance against the British. Dougal, his headstrong and impulsive uncle, tries to convince Jamie that Highlander enthusiasm will carry the day. Sorry, Dougal. Like Hamlet says, the readiness is all. And Jamie knows it.
As the episode begins, Claire and Jamie reunite with more of the MacKenzies whom we remember from season one. They have synced up with the other new recruits for some training before everyone joins Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army to fight the Redcoats. Claire gives a big smile to old pals Rupert and Angus, but Dougal gets a more tight-lipped welcome. The last time she saw that bald bastard, he was wrestling with her in a cave, trying to stop her from saving Jamie’s life — and to instead accept him as her marital substitute.
“It is our time,” Dougal now tells Jamie, full of pride to be fighting alongside his nephew against the usurper on the English throne. As you may recall, he pimped out the sight of Jamie’s body on various country roads to raise funds for the Jacobite cause; he’s thrilled that it’s finally time for action, and the nephew whom he had to bully into showing his scars now stands with him. “For glory. For Scotland,” Dougal says. He’s drunk on his own Kool-Aid. Our heroes aren’t, but that doesn’t matter. They’ve committed to this fight, so they’re going to do their damnedest to win.
Plaids, bagpipes, bannocks for breakfast: We’re planted so securely back in the Highlands that the detour to Paris may as well as have been a fever dream, save for the welcome presence of Fergus. Murtagh has found his calling as a drill sergeant, barking at his recruits as if he were auditioning for a Kubrick film. Jamie is in his element, leading and disciplining and making speeches to his men, though he doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in any of it. He’s seen battle, he’s trained in France with a real army, and he knows true soldiers when he sees them. So does Claire, who keeps flashing back — flashing forward? — to her time as a battle nurse, when she made small-talk with cute Yanks destined never to see Texarkana or Yonkers again.
The burden of the future, and her inability to change it, presses on Claire. She’s been a Cassandra since she arrived in the past, but the stakes are much higher now, and the knowledge she’s cursed with weighs more heavily. These men will be cannon fodder. Worse, she’s suffering from PTSD. It makes her jump every time she hears a gunshot and curse at men who don’t deserve it — as well as Dougal, who most certainly does.
Jamie’s uncle is busy undermining him, although at least he’s spurred by a surplus of enthusiasm rather than malice. (And narcissism, as Claire points out, in a clunky and unnecessary scene.) At one point, Dougal goes all Braveheart with his men and disrupts a training session by charging in with a war cry, chest bare and face painted. God is on their side, Dougal argues, so a good ol’ Highland battle cry is all they need to scatter the British. Dougal doesn’t seem to remember or care that William Wallace’s rebellion failed; Wallace, who was actually hanged, drawn, and quartered, faced the same gory end that Claire heard about in Paris.
In any event, Jamie is unswayed by Dougal’s wishful thinking, and he assigns Dougal and the MacKenzies the much more mundane task of sentry duty after his own men fail him. (Which, again, underlines the point of the episode: If these proto-soldiers can’t patrol their own camp effectively, how on Earth do they expect to take on a global superpower?)
Then, Dougal and the MacKenzies fail him too. A little English spy, drawn by the fires, slips into camp and nearly manages to slit Jamie’s throat. Jamie saves his own life, and Claire’s quick thinking saves the spy himself. She starts play-acting being Jamie’s English captive so that the young Redcoat, in lieu of trying to withstand torture, can sacrifice his honor to save hers. In exchange for a promise that the monstrous Red Jamie, as the boy calls our hero, will not molest Claire, he agrees to reveal his name (William Grey) and lots of details about the English camp where he’s stationed, including its location and the number of men stationed there. Since his information turns out to be accurate, the boy is left tied to a tree rather than killed and the Frasers get to do a little raiding. Who would’ve guessed that sabotage agrees with our hero? Jamie finally looks like he’s having some fun.
Before he leaves the camp, Grey tells Jamie that he’s in his debt, and he hopes to discharge that obligation as soon as possible. Grey is humiliated and furious so, as he puts it, in a rather stilted way, he wants to repay the debt so he’ll then be free to kill Jamie. In that case, Jamie replies, he hopes they never meet again. They will, of course: The laws of television and of Chekhov’s gun demand it. And probably quite soon.
That’s because, as the episode ends, it’s clear Jamie thinks that he and his soldiers have done all the preparation they can. He has won their respect and their loyalty, in part by taking off his shirt to voluntarily submit to the same physical punishment doled out earlier to the sentries who were taken unaware. The moment serves as a nice call out to (and implicit rebuke of) Dougal, who made Jamie take off his shirt to gin up feeling against the British. This time, Jamie does it to show that his scars don’t define him, that he will add more to the collection if necessary, and to build cohesion among his men.
Afterwards, Jamie leads the crew up to join Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army, to meet their fate at last.