Death makes people rage because it reminds us how little control we have. In Outlander’s second-to-last episode of the season, two dying men — and others who waver on the brink of their own mortality — act out in desperate attempts to secure their legacies. If trying to force our will on the universe is a dicey proposition when we’re alive, trying to do so from beyond the grave is damn stupid. But we are stubborn, foolhardy people. We cannot help ourselves. It falls to the living to carry out the wishes of the dead. Unfortunately, and especially during wartime, the living cannot be very reliable.
In Diana Gabaldon’s world, compromises are generally considered wise — even deals with the devil, when pursued for a good cause — while an adherence to principle at all cost is a mistake. Though Claire is loyal and ideologically driven, she doesn’t hesitate to adapt when circumstances demand it. For this, she is rewarded. When she agrees to help Colum Mackenzie die on his own terms, Colum blesses both her and Jamie. When she helps ease the pain of her sworn enemy’s brother — and convince her enemy to do the right thing by his brother’s fiancée — she helps guarantee the existence of her 20th-century husband, Frank.
Dougal, equally fierce in his loyalty and principles, is less tractable. For that, he suffers: He won’t be entrusted with the guardianship of his putative “nephew” Hamish (actually his own son). Prince Charlie, too drunk on his own Kool-Aid to bend, suffers as well. History will consign the Bonnie Prince to oblivion and disgrace.
Gabaldon’s point seems to be that, in life as in politics, one often has to sacrifice a bit to move forward. (This idea, of course, is co-signed by episode writers Anne Kenney and Ira Steven Behr.) The people who refuse to make those sacrifices are the most dangerous of all.
In the first minutes of this episode, ominously titled “The Hail Mary,” we are back on the battlefield, where things look awfully grim. The Battle of Culloden is three days away. Can Claire and Jamie do anything to avert the looming disaster? Not bloody likely, but they must try.
Jamie presents good arguments to the Prince, whose new duds — bright red tartan that makes him look like Trey MacDougal attending a Highland Fling — only emphasize how out of place he actually is among these hungry, depleted men. And Claire, after running into little Mary Hawkins yet again, gets useful intel about troop placements. It’s a surprising advantage, made all the more surprising when you consider who gives it up: Captain Jonathan Randall himself, who shares the intel when Claire helps his dying brother, Alex.
Meanwhile, Mary has grown into herself since killing her rapist and getting it on with the man she loves. Inititally, she scolds Claire for interfering with her relationship with Alex back in France, and to Claire’s credit, she apologizes. When Claire asks to see Alex, she’s sobered to find that his condition is fatal. She can’t heal him; all she can provide is palliative care. But when she discovers that Alex has gotten Mary pregnant — and his proposed solution is for his brother to become Mary’s husband and the baby’s father — Claire chases down the Captain to do this one last good thing.
Critics talk a lot about chemistry between lovers, but chemistry between rivals is just as important. The actors have to sell their mutual loathing so that we really believe it. And in the case of Claire and Captain Randall, we do. Outlander is a uniformly well-acted show, yet these two have a rapport that stands out. She’s married to the man he desires; he’s responsible for nearly killing her husband several times over. They’re strong personalities who are wary of (and fascinated by) each other, and the scene in which a drunk and despairing Randall finally agrees to wed Mary for his beloved brother’s sake — even though Randall and Claire both know what a sadistic monster he can be, particularly when sex is involved — is a chilling one.
Meanwhile, the Frasers and Co. get a surprise visit from Uncle Colum, whose condition is similarly fatal. He wants Jamie to ease his mind by agreeing to become the guardian for his son, Hamish, and Claire to ease his body with a potion like the one Geillis used to kill her husband. Though Claire is taken aback, she obliges with a small vial of something as effective but less brutal than arsenic, to be taken when the time is right. That time comes quickly. When Dougal barges into Colum’s bedroom, blazing with a lifetime’s worth of repressed indignation, he’s too late to finally have it out with his older brother. Apothecary, thy drugs are quick. Colum is gone.
Soon Alex is gone as well. The Captain’s violent response, in which he takes out his anger on his brother’s corpse, could hardly be more different from the hug Dougal gives Colum. But both of these men are coping with awareness of their own mortality. Captain Jonathan Randall is fated to fall at the Battle of Culloden, which he knows because Claire cursed him with the knowledge back in Wentworth Prison. Dougal understands that he might well fall because Colum had him pegged — he’ll fight to his last breath, and to his last man, even if the cause is lost. Odds are that he’ll never have the opportunity to be a father figure to his first secret son, Hamish, or his second, the baby he had with Geillis whom Colum fostered out on another family.
The only one who shows no sign of understanding these dire stakes is Bonnie Prince Charlie, who keeps on whistling Dixie. Jamie tries to use Claire’s intel to stage a last-minute, nighttime attack on the British while they’re unprepared and recovering from a party. He’s supposed to lead a column of men with one general while the Prince leads a second column with the other, but of course, the royal fool gets lost and turns back. All Jamie has managed to do is further weaken his overstretched troops.
The battle and the massacre that Jamie and Claire tried so hard to prevent is finally here. The universe is not so easily swayed, and I fear that all this death is just a warm-up for what’s to come in next week’s finale. See you on the moor.