Outlander: Do No Harm

"A grave matter of justice."

I dreaded reviewing this episode, nearly as much as the first season finale. I kept rewriting and rewriting, wondering what I could possibly say.

And maybe that's the answer to this episode's time traveling dilemma: that there is little to say. Slavery in the American South was a real life existential horror with only one unsatisfying solution, and that was to wait a hundred years for America to grow the hell up. Part of me thought maybe the producers should have just set this season in a northern colony, or not dealt with slavery at all, but that would have been a departure from the source material that would reverberate if they get enough seasons to dramatize the later books. Plus it would be a cop-out to simply ignore the existence of slavery in Colonial America.

Jamie and Claire were expecting a simple family reunion with his Aunt Jocasta Cameron, a respite from recent travails where they could think about where they would settle in this new country. They weren't expecting a plantation, slaves, and an insoluble moral dilemma. And Jocasta couldn't be faulted for her open and friendly reception, her generous hospitality. It would have been an easier dramatic choice to make Jocasta a cruel slave owner, but she was kind to her slaves and deliberately kept families together; she even said that she saw some of her slaves as friends. And yet, they clearly aren't people to Jocasta. She had never even considered how her slaves felt about being deprived of their liberty.

It's interesting that Jocasta is also powerless, but doesn't relate her own situation to that of her slaves. Like her late brother Colum MacKenzie, she is very intelligent and strong minded as well as disabled, but she cannot be the master of River Run simply because she is a woman. Jamie's arrival must have felt like the answer to a prayer: a smart, honest nephew at loose ends who could take over and... well, actually, carry out orders for her. In a chess move worthy of Colum, Jocasta announced that Jamie was now her heir and that he would take over management of River Run immediately – and she did it publicly, without asking Jamie first.



So Jamie was just handed a second chance at being a laird, and I have to wonder just a bit what he would have done if Claire hadn't been there. Would he have tried to justify slave ownership to himself as Jocasta has done? I like to think not. While still the product of his time, Jamie is naturally progressive. Many people in the eighteenth century were opposed to slavery, and not just Quakers. At any rate, Jamie immediately proposed that he free the River Run slaves and hire workers, even thinking that doing so might spur change among the locals. Think globally, act locally, in other words.

But the locals had already established laws to thwart this situation. Each slave would have to have saved the life of a white person, like the river boat's Eutroclus. Each slave would require an impossibly expensive bond posted on their behalf. And even if Jamie managed all of this, the other plantation owners would not take it well; apparently, others who have tried such things have "disappeared."

That brings me to Claire's dilemma. The title of this episode is "Do No Harm," part of the Hippocratic oath. Of course, Claire would try to save Rufus, to heal his horrible injury, but killing him later without his consent felt wrong, no matter how many other lives hung in the balance. I can't imagine that Rufus would have chosen the lynch mob over peacefully falling asleep in a comfortable bed, but it still bothered me. It was the crowning injustice of a much too short life full of injustice.

Along with an unbearable dilemma, this episode introduced several interesting new characters. While Aunt Jocasta was mostly defined by her role as a slaveowner, she also gave us a glimpse of what Jamie's mother Ellen must have been like. Like Jamie, Jocasta wasn't one for self-pity; admitting to her blindness, she immediately added that her sharpened hearing was formidable compensation. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Phaedre described Claire's physical appearance to Jocasta, who praised Claire for having strong opinions and observed that this aspect of Claire's personality must have attracted Jamie. It most certainly did.

I thought Ulysses (Colin McFarlane) in particular was a fascinating character. Ever present at Jocasta's side, leading her about and describing what she could not see, his face was mostly impassive as the situation with Rufus unfolded into tragedy, but what he was thinking was lurking there in his expressions if you looked for it. He was the one to explain to Claire that by saving Rufus from death by hook, she had condemned him to being torn to pieces; that took courage.



Ian also had several nice moments that spoke well of him as a person, and I'm not talking about the comic relief with the skunk. As Ian assisted Claire in the dining room table operation, he watched her display of medical skills with respect and admiration. His compassion for Rufus was obvious. And like Claire, Ian is now seeing the Native Americans and their situation as similar to what happened to the Highlanders.

So much for River Run. I assume we're back to considering the Governor's land grant?

Bits:

— The title card vignette was Jocasta's hand painted grandfather clock. Time ran out for Rufus.

— The episode began with Jamie blaming himself for trusting Stephen Bonnet. At least Bonnet didn't take Claire's medical box.

— I thought Maria Doyle Kennedy did a good job with the role of Jocasta Cameron. Not an easy role to play. I also liked new character John Quincy Myers. Farquard Campbell and Lieutenant Wolff, not so much.

— Lieutenant Wolff argued that the Native Americans should be grateful to be saved from their savagery, just as the Brits should be grateful to the invading Romans. There might be a flaw with that particular argument.

— Claire said some thoughtless things, much like the unintentional paternalism toward Eutroclus on the barge in the previous episode. She told Phaedre and Mary to call her "Claire" when she knew very well it was something they could never do. It was also tactless of Claire to discuss slavery as a concept while Phaedre was kneeling at her side.

— Let me add that I understand what Claire did. I have no idea how I, as a modern progressive, would react if I were suddenly confronted with the reality of slavery.

— Claire was still wearing Frank's ring. That felt odd without Jamie's on the other hand.



— It just occurred to me that Jamie is now an Outlander, like Claire.

Quotes:

Ian: "Indians dinna sound that much different from Highlanders."
John Quincy Myers: "That's a fine way of looking at the world, Ian."

Claire: "From what I can tell, that Byrnes is a son of a bitch. I'm sure you had good reason to do what you did. (Ian looks at her) What?"
Rufus: "I never heard a lady speak like you before."
Ian: "You'll no encounter many ladies like my Auntie Claire. I've heard her speak words fit to make a sailor blush."
Ian likes this about his Auntie Claire, doesn't he?

Ulysses: "Saving that boy's soul is all that can be done for him now."

Jamie: (similarly) "If your oath is to do no harm, then isn’t it better to save his soul than to have those men tear it from his body?"

An upsetting episode. I'm not sure I can rate it,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

2 comments:

milostanfield said...

Maybe three and a half out of four good intentions mired in an inevitable past, like Culloden? I dunno.

Since this show, and the characters I love, came to America I’ve been wishing we were back in Scotland or France to avoid the one issue, America as a slave owning country, that we may never resolve. But there it is and here it is.

Having Claire there from the future puts us and our good intentions right there in the game. As she tries, and fails, so do we. And so would we.

Love time travel stories. Most seem to be about one of us going back to the past, not the reverse. I also fantasize a lot about people coming from the past to our present. Usually involving Mozart or one James Fraser. Maybe Mark Greig could do one of his fun "5" posts? Who would you bring to the "future" and what would they do?

Billie Doux said...

Mozart or James Fraser. :) I'm absolutely with you there. I know they've already eliminated the possibility since Jamie doesn't "hear" the stones, but I'd love to see him experience the twentieth century.