Outlander (Starz/Aimee Spinks)

"Outlander" recap: The tragic chivalric romance of "The Battle Joined"

Chivalry isn't dead in the 18th century, or in 1948. But the hope for one marriage may be


Melanie McFarland
September 11, 2017 11:59AM (UTC)

Frank Randall is a devoted, loving spouse and a gentleman to the utmost degree. He’s imperfect, like every other person, but fundamentally good, kind and patient. Frank lost his wife Claire for three years and regained her again, in both cases unexpectedly. She returned to him pregnant with another man’s child and no longer his, in body or in her heart.

But Frank (Tobias Menzies), ever the good man, stays with Claire (Caitriona Balfe), continuing to love her and presuming that one day she can love him, just as before.

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“Outlander” was never written to favor Frank.

“The Battle Joined,” the third season premiere of the Starz drama, marks the plot's plunge into an emotional gully, one precipitated by the separation of Claire and Jamie in the previous season’s finale. Jamie (Sam Heughan) sends Claire back to 1948 to save her life when a kinsman, Rupert Mackenzie (Grant O'Rourke), witnesses Jamie standing over the dead body of his kinsman with Claire as his witness. That puts Claire’s life in danger and destroys the last chance Jamie and Claire have of stopping a clash he knows his side will lose, one in which he presumably dies.

But in the second season finale, Claire, seen in 1968 with her and Jamie’s adult daughter Brianna, discovers documentation proving that Jamie is still alive. The episode tells us Jamie survives the Battle of Culloden; we just don’t know how. Knowing that Jamie lives may take some of the tension out of the premiere's gory confrontation on Culloden Moor, but not much.  A central truth in this series is that Jamie is a man who can endure suffering, and if “The Battle Joined” is a taste of what’s coming this season, witnessing season 3’s tribulations is going to hurt.

The Battle of Culloden, 1746

Ronald D. Moore wrote the season opener, and the plot confirms Jamie’s survival immediately, by showing him after the battle is over. He lies underneath a redcoat on a field littered with the dead, gasping for air and barely alive. Initially we can’t see the face of the man slumped over him.

Moore and director Brendan Maher recreate the skirmish through the paradigm of the dying Jamie Fraser’s shuffled thoughts: Jamie stands by the stones holding a wool wrap in his hands, all that remains of his love after she falls through the stones. Jamie rides to the fateful field wearing the expression of a man with nothing to live for. Jamie cuts his eyes at Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Andrew Gower) as he brandishes a travel canteen made of precious metal and declares, “Mark me gents — I will watch the Duke of Cumberland drink from it when this day is done!”

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This does not happen.

Gower’s portrayal of Charlie would be comic relief, if not for the fop's obsession with the details of his gloating than the welfare of the Scotsmen fighting for him. As Jamie lays dying, the Prince is nowhere to be found.

Black Jack Randall (Menzies), as it turns out, is very close. Within the same flashbacks Jamie and Black Jack engage in a final one-on-one combat that Maher lights in the ruddy gold of a smoky sun. Eventually their fight becomes a race to see who bleeds out first, robbing the victory of its glory. And as the scene cuts to the dark frozen field where Jamie lays and the snow has begun to fall, the winner becomes clear. It’s Jack’s apparently lifeless corpse atop Jamie, who lets Claire’s gift of a dragonfly in amber fall from his fingers.

"Outlander" emphasizes love as much as war, and Moore makes Jamie believe he's seeing Claire's ethereal spirit come to him as he fades. But it's actually Rupert, who takes Jamie to a hiding place where the remaining Highlanders have gathered. The British discover them nevertheless, executing each man by firing squad — including, sadly, our Rupert.  The Mackenzie clansmen shores up his men’s bravery in the face of death and comforts the dying Jamie for as long as he can, until it’s his turn. He bravely growls out his name for the British officers keeping record of the condemned, then strides out as he briskly says, “I mean to set a quick pace, so try to keep up.”

Once the upright are done for, the officers move on to the injured, deciding to prop them up against the post. Jamie volunteers to go first, but as soon as he says his full name the commander stops. Turns out the officer is the eldest brother of John William Grey, the boy whose life Jamie spared in a previous episode. Familial honor compels the officer to let Jamie live, so he puts him in a cart filled with hay and sends him home to Lallybroch.

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Boston, 1948

Claire and Frank’s marriage is its own field of the dying, only we don’t quite notice that immediately. Frank is determined to give Claire a lovely home in America to raise her child — their child. But post-war America is nothing like the Britain Claire left right after World War II, or the dangerous but liberating 18th century Highlands.

The women in 1948 America, as demonstrated by Claire’s well-meaning but pushy neighbor Millie Nelson, smile brightly through their acceptance of oppression. Claire isn’t used to cooking on a stove, so she makes supper over the flames in the fireplace. Her neighbor chirps that men don’t like their wives to do anything out of the ordinary. “Just look clean, raise the kids, look pretty when they meet the boss.”

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“You’re lucky,” she tells Claire. “You won’t find another man like Frank again.”

Claire has, much to her tremendous fortune as well as her torture. In contrasting Jamie’s bloody hardship in 1746 with Claire and Frank’s prison of convenience in 1948, “A Battle Joined” invites us to view the 18th century's plotline as a chivalric romance set against 20th century patriarchy and notions of masculinity.

At a cocktail event at Harvard, Frank’s misogynistic boss holds court and condescendingly waves off any contradictions to his assertions, regardless of how informed they may be — especially Claire’s. The dean scoffs Harry Truman’s ascendance to the presidency and predicts the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, would handily win that fall’s election. When Claire brings up that the Boston Globe (correctly) opines that Truman will win, the Dean sneers and tells Frank to pay attention to Claire’s reading habits.

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The politics of academia are nowhere as clearly cut as those governing the battlefield. Frank holds his tongue to remain in the dean’s good graces and earn a salary. Claire, in turn, must play the part of the woman happy to be relieved of the burden of independence. And in her exchange with Frank's boss, the flicker of fire around Balfe’s eyes tells us this is when Claire, a wartime combat nurse, resolves to join Harvard’s medical school — if only to contradict the dean’s piggish declaration that “past experience has shown that few women succeed as physicians.”

All the men treat Claire like this except for Frank. But this gains Frank nothing. His touch makes Claire skittish, and when he tries to overcome that, she flings a glass ashtray at him. Despite this, he gets up in the middle of a sleepless night and starts a letter to his friend Reverend Wakefield, inquiring after Jamie’s fate. He is interrupted when Claire goes into labor.

As a table setter, “The Battle Joined” establishes the third season's opening episodes as a solemn combat between two adversaries striving to do their duty but thwarted by fate, two centuries and the lady caught between them. With it, Moore and Maher create a tragic atmosphere that holds true the narrative's seductive nature as it allows Menzies to retain Frank’s honor while bidding farewell to his other character, Jack.

Frank never has the opportunity to put his body on the line for Claire in the way that Jamie consistently does in Scotland. His language is steady, but it lacks the poetry the writers grant to Jamie. His word, like that of the rival he’ll never meet, is oak. And in the episode’s final scene, Moore allows us to have hope that Frank will win back the woman he loves as he and Claire gaze upon Brianna for the first time. The sight of the newborn melts away all the anger between them, and Claire posits aloud that the baby could represent a new beginning for her and her first love. “Let’s make it so,” Frank says, and they share a genuinely affectionate kiss.

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Then the nurse interrupts to deliver the coup de grace. “What a beautiful little angel,” the woman says. “Where’d she get the red hair?”

This is how Claire escapes a lost battle set 200 years in the past, only to become the taciturn aggressor in a cold war of sentiment set in 1948.

Poor, poor Frank Randall.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Caitriona Balfe Entertainment Outlander Ronald D. Moore Sam Heughan Starz Tv




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