It’s been said that every war movie is a pro-war movie, whether it means to be or not. There’s something about the very nature of action sequences that makes an audience feel invested and excited, and that inevitably glamorizes whatever a director might intend to critique. Even supposedly antiwar films can’t help but demonstrate a certain camaraderie and bravery among soldiers risking their lives. They’re doing what seems like a noble thing — “for gore and glory” — even when they’re doing it on behalf of a naif with no military experience who says he must win because he promised God and his dad he would.
But war movies tend to be created by and for the male gaze. Will Outlander’s female-focused sensibility make any difference?
In this episode, “Prestonpans,” named for the Jacobites’ first real battle against the British, the female gaze initially seems critical. Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose only redeeming characteristic is that he listens to Jamie, has assembled a ragtag bunch of generals, all from different places, to lead his ragtag army. Since none of those generals can seem to agree on anything, let alone a coherent battle strategy, the members of that ragtag army won’t be going anywhere soon. As they grow more restless, infantrymen bide their time spitting at each other and threatening to cut each other’s throats. It’s not exactly the historical romance of Sir Walter Scott.
Nevertheless, the men couple up in a (somewhat) romantic way: Jamie and Murtagh, Ross and Kincaid, Angus and Rupert. Even Dougal and Bonnie Prince Charlie, in a sense. The larger drama of “Prestonpans” plays out through the fates that await each of these duos.
Jamie and Murtagh will have each other’s backs, as always. Ross and Kincaid, two of the Lallybroch farmers who picked up arms for this struggle, pledge to take care of the other’s family and property should he fall. Angus is moved by such loyalty and suggests to Rupert that they strike a similar bargain, and though Rupert is too superstitious to accept, his devotion to his buddy isn’t in doubt. It’s clear these men aren’t really fighting for the ponce in the wig. They’re fighting for each other.
But when will they get to fight? At the moment, the Jacobites have the better position: high ground, situated across a sloped and boggy meadow from the Redcoats. The Scots must find out just how boggy the meadow is, so Jamie inspires Dougal to make a brave show of crossing into that mucky no-man’s-land, surveying the terrain on horseback in broad daylight. Of course, Jamie warns his uncle to stay back out of range of the English guns, and of course, his uncle doesn’t listen. He gets close enough that bullets fall around him like raindrops, but then he can’t escape, the thick mud trapping his horse. Dougal manages to hop down and pull his horse out and away. The only casualties? His cap, which gets shot through … and his breeks, which, as he later tells an admiring crowd, got shat in.
The prince, who has a habit of touching other men’s faces and saying, “Mark me,” holds up Dougal as a model soldier. But the monarch and the man have quite different values, as we’ll soon learn. Charlie tells Jamie that, when the fighting begins, Claire and the other women tending to the wounded should serve the Redcoats first. After all, the English are his father’s subjects too. Contrast that with Dougal’s “take no prisoners” attitude toward the wounded English: Why bother treating them when you can kill them as they lie on the field? The prince and the warrior are fated to clash.
But not before they get an opportunity to fight. (Dougal and the men, at least; Jamie convinces the little prince that his life is too vital to risk.) A fellow whose family owns the land where the soldiers are encamped gets to Fergus, who brings him first to Claire and then to Jamie. He tells them about a narrow, secret path through the woods that bypasses the no-man’s-land altogether, then promises to lead the men to the English camp, where they can take the Redcoats by surprise. Although he says the shortcut is impossible to follow by night, next thing we know it’s dark and he’s guiding the troops on foot. Meanwhile, Claire and the other women get a field hospital in order and wait for the first casualties to stagger in.
This is the first real test of Claire’s knowledge of the future. According to what she recalls, the Jacobites win this battle. Can her information be trusted? Turns out, the answer is yes. After only 15 minutes of grisly, sword-clanging combat, the English scatter and the Jacobites claim victory, but it comes at a price. Rupert seems to fall, and then Angus actually does, meaning that the two men will never get the period buddy-cop comedy they deserved. Ross must drag Kincaid’s lifeless body back to camp. And Dougal nearly gets himself dismissed by the prince, who is disgusted by his soldier’s savagery. Good thing Jamie is on hand, as always, to save Bonnie Prince Charlie from himself; he convinces him to promote Dougal rather than punish him. With that crisis dodged, Dougal will now lead a brigade of Highlanders after the retreating British.
But unlike the man he fights for, Dougal is no fool. “You champion me and you exile me, both at the same time,” he tells his nephew. Jamie doesn’t deny it. Most important, he’s keeping his bloodthirsty, impetuous uncle out of harm’s way. He knows what’s coming, and so do Claire and Murtagh. If Claire was right about success at Prestonpans, odds are she’s also right about the impending disaster at Culloden.
“I expected the flavor of victory to taste sweeter,” Murtagh tells Jamie. “Aye, war tastes bitter, no matter the outcome,” Jamie replies. Everyone seems numb and traumatized, including Fergus, who joined the fight against orders and killed an Englishman with his knife. “Come, let’s drink while we have breath, for there’s no drinking after death,” the bereaved warble, waving mugs of ale. And Outlander’s message, though muffled during the fighting, again makes itself clear: The battlefield may be exciting, but there’s little glory there. Just a lot of gore.