Lighting the Fuse… a reflection on Outlander 4.2 “Do No Harm”

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There are somethings I know about because I have lived them.  I know about being a child growing up in poverty in Appalachia. I know what it means to survive a family where a parent is an alcoholic. I know what it is like to live daily with the pain and life altering issues of chronic illness and cancer.  Then there are some things I think I know about because I have attended school, learned about history, read books and watched movies.  This week’s episode of Outlander “Do No Harm” was so well done, it actually caused me to take another look at what I really know and how we all surmise truth.  The real truth is that the only things I know about slavery in America is what I have learned through school, books, and homogenized Hollywood versions of history.

The show and this episode in particular are based on a fascinating concept.  How would we react if we suddenly found ourselves actually living in the past? How would we, with our modern sensibilities and knowledge, navigate a world where slavery was the norm and our ideas about the wrongness of owning people was seen as incomprehensible, if not criminal? It is sad and horrifying to think that some of us would not even have had a chance to navigate this world because the color of our skin would have determined our path.  Caitriona Balfe did an admirable job of portraying the time traveling Claire’s reactions, her incredulous-ness, confusion, and shock.  Slavery is no longer an abstract concept for her as she looks out her bedroom window and sees slaves working the fields.  She must feel like she is in a nightmare from which she can’t awaken.

Welcome to River Run

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The filming and editing choices were so vital to telling this particular part of the story.  As the riverboat approaches the dock we are treated to the beauty of Jocasta’s plantation home. I literally said “wow” along with Wee Ian. The riverboat in the forefront being manned and steered against the backdrop of River Run was a “Gone with the Wind” moment. I’m sure I’ve seen a wood block print of a similar scene. Many of America’s homes mimic the style and aesthetic of this prototypical mansion.  It has come to represent graciousness and as Jamie’s aunt offers them what we have come to call “southern hospitality” the camera pans out and above. We get a panoramic view and as a result, see an ironic peek at what literally lies behind the beauty of River Run,… slave quarters.

The new characters we were introduced to were a welcome addition to an already stellar casting track record  Aunt Jocasta was an interesting mix of beloved Aunt, MacKenzie machinations, steely southern belle, and white privilege. Ulysses’ cultured voice, respectful and serious manner, and his ubiquitous presence at Jocasta’s side were just as I imagined.  It was at times hard to remember he wasn’t a butler paid for his services and devotion, but a slave.  The sets and costumes were as opulent as any we saw in Paris and in sharp contrast to rags the field hands wore and the shacks serving as slave quarters.  Everything about this episode was unsettling.

Lighting the Fuse that Caused an Explosion

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Jamie’s Aunt, in true Mackenzie fashion, attempts to manipulate Jamie into staying at River Run by publicly naming him heir without discussing the situation with him first.  He could not decline publicly without embarrassing his Aunt in front of her neighbors and friends, but make no mistake Jamie knows what she is about.  The scene that follows between Jamie and Claire contains the words that I’m still thinking about today.  While discussing staying at River Run and his running the plantation, Claire is quick to say she cannot own slaves and Jamie is quick to agree, but he lacks her understanding gained through the lens of future knowledge.  He asks if it would be of benefit to the slaves and perhaps the country if they were there to take care of the slaves and work to set them free.  I believe this proposal to Claire was made with his idea of making this land better  for Brianna in mind.  He talks about changing River Run and perhaps lighting a fuse of change. Claire is skeptical and warns that lit fuses can lead to an explosion.

Moral Outrage Perverted

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After watching this episode, I came to believe that nothing short of an explosion, a war, could have changed the situation. And, I wondered about the courage of those people who did light that fuse that resulted in change.  The devil Jamie and Claire were fighting was an insidious one, laws of the land designed to keep a culture and an economic system preserved by keeping everyone suppressed or oppressed both black and white.  Everyone was placed in a “no win” situation.  Jamie and Claire were forced to make a decision based on the perceived lesser of two evils. No matter where they turned or what decision they made someone was going to be hurt or killed. In Jamie’s defense, it was not a fear of consequences to himself that swayed him to ask Claire to do the unthinkable, he was unmoved by Mr. Campbell’s warning that others who thought like Jamie had disappeared or by the morally outraged Mr. Wolfe’s threats to have the Frasers arrested for their role in protecting the “criminal negro”.  I don”t even think it was the threat to River Run and his Aunt that finally moved him to ask Claire to “do no harm” to Rufus by giving him poison.  I think it was the idea that innocents, the slaves, would pay the ultimate price.

May I say thank you to the writers for Jamie’s beautiful prayer.  I have long-held the belief that Jamie’s relationship with his God was a close and sustaining one and that prayers were woven throughout the everyday of his life.  Jamie prays..a lot.  This moment, this terrible awful moment, was well served by Jamie reaching out to something bigger than himself, his God. I found myself asking for forgiveness  and patience right along side him for all we have done to others in the name of the law, or patriotism, or …religion.

I’m bending my knee in the eye of the Father who created me.

Pour down from heaven the rich blessing of thy forgiveness.

Be thou patient wi’ us.

Grant to us, thou savior of glory, the love of God…

And the will to do on earth, at all times, as angels and saints do in heaven.

         Give us thy peace.

The Faces of Humanity

 

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There is so much I could have written about this episode. I could have focused on the politics of colonialism discussed at Jocasta’s party or the delight that is young Ian and his run in with a striped badger that shot foul odors from its arse and his insight into the similarities between the natives and highlanders, my delight in meeting John Quincy Meyers and his overall hairiness.  I could have written about the testing of Jamie and Claire’s relationship and the commitment they have to caring about and for each other.  I was frightened by and yet moved by Claire’s dedication to heal all who hurt and her noble naivety that she could save Rufus and the empathy and courage it took to give him a gentler death than the one the mob had planned.  I could have written about  how it was difficult to watch our “history” and not fear that our country is once again at a similar crossroad caused by deep political, ethical and moral division and know that it may only be solved by that aforementioned metaphorical explosion. Or, how it is that you can still love people who are diametrically opposed to you politically or ethically. It was thought-provoking.  I know it is only a tv show,  I know that it is only someone’s interpretation of what it might have been like, I know that I will never truly know what it was like because I did not live it, but I cannot help but believe this was a good attempt to present the complicated nature of the issue of slavery and colonialism.

The final shot of the episode showed all of the faces on the porch as they watched a boy drug by the neck and hung from a tree in the name of justice. Each face represented a player in this hideous tableau, slave, slave owner, faces struggling with fear, anger, and dispair fueled by helplessness.  May we all do as the saints and angels do, may we all fight to change our corner of the world for the betterment of all, may we all find the courage to light the fuse of change.  Well done Outlander.

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90 thoughts on “Lighting the Fuse… a reflection on Outlander 4.2 “Do No Harm”

  1. Betsy Spada

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and wonderful piece of writing. I agree with you and reading your beautiful words brought me to tears, as did the episode.

  2. Jacqui Page

    Beth, I can’t be standing in your shoes because I live in a different part of the world; but your comments, as always, add a further wonderful dimension to this very powerful episode and I thank you. Your words provided me with a greater depth of understanding and for that I’m grateful.

  3. Anne

    Thank you, Beth! I am so glad you are here sharing your thoughts. Today, like last Monday, I have spent the day thinking about those things you have written of as well as those that you -could -have written about. Reading your thoughts reinforces for me that I am not alone! Thank you so much!

  4. Nancy C.

    Thank you, Beth. I’ve been reading opposing thoughts and have sought out my own feelings. You spoke them loud and clear. Thank you.

      • Nancy C.

        Well, the comments on FB are overwhelmingly unhappy. It sort of breaks my heart as I think this is the start of one of the strongest seasons. Episode 2 made me cry. Because of the truth. Because this is how it truly was. And for some, still is. That is the fine line we walk through this kind of communication. I so want to keep this Outlander friendly, but the substance is like a fire to a fuse. next up, Fraser’s Ridge.

      • Im sorry other that. The writers walk a fine line between book and screen. I just read a review that suggested that the show did not go far enough and its sounds like some fans think they went too fat

      • As always you captured the essence of the episode. In replying to Nancy C’s comments yes people have been so critical. After episode 2 I actually left the 3 Outlander FB groups I was in. The negativity was too much for me. They are so quick to criticize. I find it usually helps to watch the episodes at least 2 times.
        Thank you again for your writings.

  5. Celia Toohey

    Well done, Beth, with this piece. I was impressed with the level of thought by the producers for this one. Could have gone very badly, but didn’t. Could have sugar-coated it, but didn’t. Yes, it was hard to watch, but watch we must, to see what our ancestors did in this country in the colonial times, and to remind ourselves to learn these lessons. One note, now it seems both Claire AND Jamie are the Outlanders.

  6. lindaimle@outlook.com

    Very well said, Beth. One of my favorite parts of this episode was when Jamie, Auntie Jocasta and Mr. Campbell (I think) talked about Jamie’s wish to free the slaves, pay them a wage should he become heir. He was soon informed (and me as well) by Mr. Campbell of the laws of that colony and how the plantation owners were also not free to do as they might wish regarding the horrible reality of slavery. Claire, as always, thinks she knows best, and ends up actually extending the pain and suffering of Rufus, and then kills him herself!
    Slavery exists still today in parts of the world. And our lives are complicated today by laws far away in Washington, and our courts do not issue justice equally in many cases. Which brings me to my rather weak but necessary conclusion: we are each responsible to practice justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord; that is Jamie’s prayer as well.

  7. GGW

    Beth, this episode wasn’t any easier to watch than last week’s, but for very different reasons. Last week I was keyed up for the start of the new season and distracted by a couple of production choices, but overall I was pulled in by the story and am totally on-board with the continued adaptation. The hanging scene at the start of the episode and the violence at the end were effectively jarring. This week was no less jarring. Claire’s abhorrence of slavery and her incomprehension at everyone’s acceptance of and seeming belief in the rightness of such a way of life is absolutely palpable. I think it was more effectively portrayed on-screen than it was in the books. Her revulsion was stated, but on-screen it’s felt! Loved your caption of “Moral Outrage Perverted”. It’s just too hard in these troubled times to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to all of the morally outrageous parallels that exist today. If I’d watched this episode even 3 years ago, I don’t know if it would have caused quite the same degree of discomfort. Finally, I’m totally with you regarding Jamie turning to his faith as he prayed for Rufus and for forgiveness. Another blogger noted last season that Jamie’s fundamental faith was not adequately depicted in the adaptation and that it was a lost opportunity to fully explain the man Jamie is. I think the prayer scene was touchingly done and I hope we see more like it! Maybe a gralloch prayer or two!! Thanks for resuming your blogging for the season. Yours is the only social media I intend to follow this year! See you again next week!

  8. Diane

    Beth you’ve done a wonderful job at summarizing a particularly moving episode. The set and costumes were great and the actors did a terrific job as well.

  9. Dottie Carpenter

    Well done, Beth. Your reflection was poignant and beautifully expressed. A tribute to the writers and actors who made Diana’s creation come alive.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  10. Jayne Sedmak

    I think you mean aesthetic rather than ascetic. Interesting take on the episode, and I do appreciate your effort. However, your comparison to today’s political climate is definitely over the top/a stretch. I agree its about time we see at least a hint of the deep religious faith that guides book Jamie’s every thought, decision, and action.

  11. Atlanta Gal

    Very thoughtful observation and commentary, Beth, as I’ve come to expect from you in your Outlander essays. Many people say that the current vitriol and division in our country today are as devastating as they were in the pre-Civil War era. Certainly I’ve seen nothing like it in my 65+ years with the exception of Watergate and the Vietnam war protests. I think living in these harrowing times and reflecting on the past allows us to be reflective and draw instructive lessons. Again, I’m always so pleased to see you’ve written something new.

  12. Nancy Powell

    Thank you, Beth. You always manage to articulate my exact feelings. The episode was incredibly powerful and difficult to watch. I thought they did a remarkable job with such tough subjects. This season is really shaping up to be outstanding.

  13. Angie Jones

    Living in a house built in 1835, most likely by slave labor, most likely inhabited by slaves working for a man we know was in the confederate congress, made me appreciate this episode even more. Living in Tennessee, the stories of slavery have been swept under the rug for a very long time. Finally, there are specialized educational tours at several of the house museums in the area that focus on slavery and the lives of the slaves. I am doing everything in my power to change the narrative in my beloved old house. I’m searching slave censuses so that I can honor each of the souls that lived in my house by name. Their stories deserve to be told.

  14. Well done Beth. I found “Do no Harm” a difficult watch. I grew up in Wales during the 1950’s and 1960’s and never experienced or saw any racial prejudices. My little corner of the world was white and the closest thing we had to a “them and us” situation was between being Catholic or Protestant, but that’s a whole other story. My notion of slavery was based on the movie “Gone with the Wind” so not a realistic portrayal. We did see and know about the Civil Rights movement in America but it was still an unreal abstract concept for me. I was not really aware of the horrors of slavery until watching the mini series “Roots” back in the 1970’s.
    I was so naive and lacked any real understanding of slavery until I met a lady who became a dear friend. Her family escaped to Canada from S. Carolina on the Underground Railway in the early 1800’s. Her family story was a real eye opener for me.
    I think the writers of Episode 2 did an amazing job of showing how brutal slavery was and how blase the slave owners were about what they were doing – it very disturbing. Cait and Sam did a commendable job of showing their struggles with the idea Claire could save Rufus – but then what. I can only imagine how hard it would have been for Claire to admit defeat and give Refus the poison. That final scene of the mob dragging what they thought was a live slave and lynching him will stay with me forever.

  15. Jenny

    My great-grandfather was born a slave and escaped at age 14 to join the Union Army at the end of the Civil War. We do not have any records of family before him since no one kept records of slave families except to list them as property on the larger plantations. This family history definitely impacted my thoughts about Outlander episode 402. While some of it was hard to watch, I appreciated showing the slaves – Ulysses, Phaedra and Rufus as real people and not just props. Yes, it was hard to watch but that was part of the point.

    Last week, a candidate for the US Senate in Mississippi ”joked” at a rally about going to a public hanging. As a descendant of slaves, I don’t get the joke.

  16. Lorraine Grzena

    It’s a fine line that Diana and the show’s writers had to walk to continue the Claire/Jamie relationship and the telling of America’s story. To watch it through Claire’s and Jamie’s eyes was like watching it through my own, and making me ask myself how helpless I would have felt actually seeing the slaves and how they lived. Instead of discussing it in this century. Diana had to address slavery, and not hide the situation and feelings under the table.
    Beth, you did a grand job expressing my thoughts. Thank you.

  17. Helen Pharris

    What you wrote is so beautiful and heart-breaking it brought tears to my eyes. The first time I watched this episode I was sure I would not watch it again, but I did again yesterday and again today with my sister. The first time I watched it I was a little disturbed at the changes from the book, but the 2nd and 3rd time I appreciated the changes. In not allowing Rufus to die naturally, Claire did not extend his suffering but showed compassion that Rufus had never known. Claire’s tears, talking about his sister, and Jamie’s prayer. The look on Ian’s face at the end when they were dragging Rufus away to hang was priceless – he looked like a man instead of the boy he has been until then.

  18. Christy H

    Beth, your blog is beautifully written and spot-on, in my opinion. Many others on social media have expressed positive reactions as well, but there are also those that seem to be oh-so impatient with Claire’s reaction – and actions – in response to seeing slavery up close and personal. You should read outcandour.com’s take on 402. I think the essays from the two of you compliment each other perfectly. I am looking forward to reading more of your blogs as the season progresses!

  19. Nancy C.

    My last comment here because after all it’s not my forum to keep butting into conversation. But this blog is forever teaching me, enlightening me and humbling me in ways i never knew. Thank you, Beth, for bringjng out thoughtful discussion. For letting people express themselves and their lives and truths. It is a safe place. I am humbled. ❤️ Until next week. Lol.

  20. Mary Kay

    Beth-I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your assessment of this episode. So many of the whining, complaining viewers have written about their disappointment with the episode spending all its time on slavery. I agreee with the producers and you that showing and humanizing enslaved people is worth an entire episode. Showing Jamie and Claire exactly what they would get if Jamie became Jocasta’s heir, not just the horror of owning people, but also that they would be manipulated by Jocasta to meet her ends with no way to ever free her enslaved people.

    Entertainment is art if it illuminates our lives, speaks truths and lends meaning to our existence. Outlander 4.2 is elevated to art in the way it addresses slavery, our national tragedy. Just look at the geographic, cultural, and political divide in our country. So much of what we see in the news now has its roots in our history of enslaving people. Thanks for your very valuable perspective. And thanks to the Outlander team.

  21. Beth, I follow your Outlander analysis with great appreciation for your insights. I particularly appreciate you pointing out Jamie’s outreach to God for forgiveness and mercy. May we all humble ourselves before Him as Jamie does.

    ~Emily

  22. Nancy NCculley

    After reading your comments Beth and reading all the responses I feel like I have walked into a warm room with a cozy fire and a cup of tea! Refreshing, after 2 days of FB hysteria.
    I love the way you write and I appreciate many of your observations but I don’t totally agree.
    My problems with the TV show did not start with this episode but they certainly continue with 402. I simply abhor what the writers gave done to the “character” of our Jamie and Claire. They have both been changed, Jamie diminished and Claire has become a “super hero”. I fear soon, we may not know these beloved people that brought us all to Outlander.
    I appreciate the intent the writer had in bringing the slavery issue to the forefront in all its ugliness but I did not expect Claire to singlehanded end slavery in 1767 without apparent thought to the repercussions that would occur.
    I am a book lover first and foremost …I think I need to go back and read.

    • I truly do not think Jamie’s character is diminished and Claire impulsivity however well intentioned has always gotten her in trouble and had repercussions for those around her. I this instance she acted as she would have had it been her time. I’m sure even if she had thought it through she would have made a different choice though. Thanks for your comments

    • Julia Kennedy

      I do not find Jamie diminished or Claire a superhero. Under the circumstances, Jamie made the realistic hard choice and Claire had to see the his
      logic in giving the slave an easy death rather than the horror he would have suffered. Neither was weak and neither was foolish. They had to do a harder thing than play an unrealistic and impossibly heroic act that would doom many people–the man they would save for a moment only, many other slaves, and possibly Jocasta and themselves. This not fairy tale with miraculous and false possibilities.

  23. thank you Beth for a thoughtful take. Although E402 was a tough one, I found the writers choices to be deliberate and well done. The topics you elaborated on were in my mind as well and I, too, found myself asking for forgiveness and patience along side Jamie & Claire. The entire cast performed brilliantly and genuinely. Jamie & Claire as a united front, moving in the same direction together is something I’ve been waiting to see. I breathe a sigh of relief when your blog appears. The world hasn’t completely gone nuts yet.

  24. jehscribbler

    I appreciate your insights into this complex episode. I think the writers, director and actors made courageous choices to center the story of Jamie and Claire’s time at River Run around the issue of slavery and their response to the injustice they saw. I didn’t know some of the laws that made it impossible for an owner to free slaves and pay them for their labor. The system was truly set up to preserve itself and to thwart anyone who had wanted to end it. It seems that made outside intervention in the form of the Civil War the only way to topple the institution of slavery.

  25. Sheila Morisette

    with all the attention paid to detail in this series I was surprised that they did not use the vernacular of the day, difficult as it is. Often the southern accent pronounced it Nigra, but I declare it was not Negro unless that was the English way to pronounce it. Enlighten me, please. Thanks as always to a job well done…am reading the books and have purchased the CD’s too.

    • jehscribbler

      I would think that the Southern accent developed later. This was still a country of immigrants with the accents that they had from their countries, so I would expect they would have sounded different and used whatever the language was in their former country.

  26. Denise Morrison

    Thank you Beth; I too went to FB to see what other fans thought of episode 2 and saw nothing but negativity and it hurt to see it. Then I got your post and blew a big sigh of relief. And saw other like-minded responses. This season feels different, looks different and I for one appreciate it. I love that they’ve made Claire so strong and I love that it doesn’t diminish Jamie at all; it makes them stronger together. This episode had so many threads running through it but that one stood out. I appreciated how they took an episode from the book and made it stronger. Thanks for articulating all that. Really appreciate it.

  27. Heidi Higginbotham

    It is incredible how you can put into words what I feel. I don’t have the ability to write like you or even think like you and it is through your writing I actually gain a better understanding of the episodes.

    I admit to not liking this episode much as I was so horrified by the brutality of it. It was heart wrenching for me. Thank you so much for your efforts on our behalf. I look forward to your weekly blog.

  28. Karyn Donohue

    Wow, Beth. I was anxiously awaiting your perspective on this episode and I have to say it wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m one of those fans who rarely compares the show with the books since I usually appreciate and understand their creative differences telling the same story. However, this episode had me pining for the book and too focused on what I felt was missing rather than absorbing all that was right with it. Thank you for making me watch it a third time thru your insightful lens and for prompting me to appreciate all that this episode so aptly delivered.

  29. Txsassenach

    Beth – As always, your commentary is thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. And your readers provide some of the most civil and interesting reactions in OUTLANDER fandom.

    For the second week in a row I was left utterly speechless at the end of the episode. This is not a normal state for me. I think it was a good five minutes before either my husband or I said anything. We just sat and looked at each other. I am not at all sure that I have finished processing all my reactions and thoughts. I do know that this season feels entirely different from all of the previous three. And I appreciate the maturity of the characters and story lines. Really I do. But a little more OUTLANDER mischievousness would not be amiss.

    I do have some issues, one general and one specific to 402. Here goes.
    Early in the episode, Claire, Jamie and Jocasta have a discussion on the porch which introduces the characters attitudes towards slavery. Claire plainly criticizes the lack of agency forced on those stolen from their lives and forced into a state of inhumanity. And yet, in the end, it is Claire who denies Rufus agency in choosing, if not the time, at least the manner of his death. He was conscious. And he knew what was coming. How powerful would it have been for her to allow him to grab his life back and choose for himself. Who knows what he might have done?

    My other issue is sounding like a bit of a rant in my head. I am getting a little tired of the ‘everything Claire does to help is really reckless and thoughtless and causes nothing but trouble’ trope. I can’t think of much that is more insulting to this brave, loving kickass woman then to pass off her actions as ‘she meant well, but …’ Never has this been clearer than in this episode, where it is fully the choice of the series writers to play it out this way. I have appreciated most of the adaptive choices and I’m not saying that the invention of this story line was awful. I just want to see respect demonstrated for this powerful woman. Stop using her to drive the plot in such a way that everyone is left cleaning up Claire’s mess. OK, rant over. Thanks for listening.

    • I did, thank you. I found it moving and enlightening. The author of that article recognizes that Claire meant well “I can appreciate Claire’s intentions in this episode and understand that she meant well. She was trying to be on the morally right side.” which was the point I was trying to make by saying her intentions were noble but naive. Claire did not think it through, but I do not think it was out of character for her. She did put everyone in danger by allowing her feelings to rule her actions. A privilege indeed afforded her by her skin color in this situation. Thanks for sharing your views.

  30. Lisa A McClain

    Thank you, Beth! As always, your insights are appreciated. I, too, struggled with the similarities between the political divide on the show and the one we are currently living in our country. I found the episode very difficult to watch – it was painful on many levels – but that is exactly what I HAD to watch.

  31. Melinda Ray

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, and beautifully written review. This may well be one of, if not THE best review of a television episode that I haver ever read. You and I think and look at these things in much the same way. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

  32. margie9546

    I thought this episode was incredibly well done. It’s one of those that ends and I have to check the clock to see that it’s actualky been a full episode. Part of what riveted me was how Jamie and Claire simply pulled in one string— saving Rufus— and that brought so many calamitous complications down on their heads. I thought the writers did a brilliant job in illustrating that a few people’s good intentions were not nearly enough to make a dent in the vast institution of slavery. I know I’m weighing in late, but this powerful plot structure has been on my mind. As always, thanks for your thoughtful reflections.

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