Television writers love a divorce. It’s a terrific tool to keep a show’s ongoing plot interesting and a stupendous springboard for a character’s social and emotional rebirth. That’s why there are so many series about marital dissolution, including “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Reba,” “Dear John” and yes, HBO’s “Divorce,” returning for its second season at some point in the near future.
Penning dialogue and story about divorce can be invigorating and, I’d imagine, relatively easy in comparison to writing and acting scenes from a union devoid of passion and affection. That’s a more sullen, tougher business — and more painful to witness, since untold numbers of people choose to live this way. They do it for the children, for the financial and emotional security, for the lack of a better option. And all of these reasons play out in “Surrender,” the second episode of this new season of “Outlander.”
On the heels of the slash and burn of “The Battle Joined,” “Surrender” is remarkable for its palpable stillness and impenetrable frustration for all parties. In the 18th century, six years after the Battle of Culloden, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is a shaggy fugitive living in a cave near Lallybroch, as his sister Jenny (Laura Donnelly) and brother-in-law Ian (Steven Cree) mind the estate and watch over his young charge Fergus (Romann Berrux). Redcoats, including Corporal MacGregor (Ryan Fletcher), a zealous Scotsman who holds no love for his countrymen, regularly harass Jenny and Ian on a quest to find the Jacobite traitor “Red Jamie,” who they also believe to be the local legend known as The Dun Bonnet, named for a cap he wears to hide his recognizable red mane.
Jamie is filthy and ragged, living off hunting and fishing while only occasionally visiting his family to prevent them from being caught and punished for harboring him. But during one visit to the castle, when Jamie brings a deer he’s killed and butchers it for the family, Jenny posits that he’s not really hiding from the British as much as he’s imprisoned himself over his sorrow for losing Claire.
Meanwhile, in the late 1940s, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank (Tobias Menzies) muddle along in passionless purgatory — that is until one night, when Claire awakens flushed and decides to use Frank as a surrogate for Jamie. She awakens him by saying, “I miss my husband” and climbs on top, figuring if she's not with the one she loves, she'd better love the one she's with. Claire closes her eyes during the act and appears to enjoy herself. The painful part is that Frank, in that moment, does not yet understand that her affection is not directed toward him.
This dawns on him soon enough. Days later, Claire and Frank host a dinner party for Millie Nelson and her husband, who flirt and coo at one another in front of their refined English hosts. After they leave, Claire, inspired and emboldened, seduces Frank in front of the fire, saucily pulling up her skirt and revealing lingerie. And it’s all going well . . . until Frank asks Claire to open her eyes and look at him while they’re making love. She can’t. It then becomes obvious to Frank that he’s not the one Claire is sleeping with.
The action in “Surrender,” written by Anne Kenney, serves the simultaneous purposes of forwarding the plot and as a metaphor for the emotional state of its characters. Claire and Jamie aren’t divorced or widows. They’re something worse — they believe they’re irrevocably divided. Jamie let Claire go because he thought he was fated to die, but he was cursed to be lucky, and survive. Claire is in the arms of a man who loves her but whose passion she can’t reciprocate. And Frank is stuck between them by his own choosing and out of a sense of honor.
In the 18th century, Jamie and Jenny have a few close calls; the British patrols swing by and take Ian away, a habit to which the family has become accustomed. But it happens again a short time before the very pregnant Jenny gives birth. Fergus, ever the troublemaker, finds a firearm in a storehouse and takes it to Jamie in the cave, telling him to save it for the next uprising. Jamie angrily shoves it back at Fergus, ordering him to get rid of it, saying there will be no more fighting and reminding him that guns are now outlawed in the Highlands. Fergus irritably calls him a coward.
But then Fergus uses the pistol to kill a raven that’s landed on the wall surrounding the castle, since such an event is said to be a bad omen while a woman is in labor. The sound of the gunshot brings the British patrols back around to the manor in search of the contraband, just as Jamie is visiting his sister and the new baby. The uncle hides with his nephew and keeps him quiet, while Jenny lies to the soldiers and tells them that her baby was stillborn, and just as the ruse is falling apart, Jenny’s kitchen maid, Mary MacNab (Emma Campbell-Jones), surrenders the gun and takes the blame for firing it at the bird. The officer in charge leaves her with a stern warning, but the close call leaves everyone rattled.
Only days later, a cocky Fergus intentionally leads MacGregor and one of his subordinates on a wild goose chase when he knows they’re following them and goads them by calling them traitors to their own people. Jamie hides nearby and witnesses as two more patrolmen ride up on horseback, causing Fergus to trip. MacGregor catches him, orders his partner to hold down Fergus and cuts off his hand with his sword, leaving him to bleed out.
Once the soldiers take off, Jamie retrieves Fergus and brings him back to the castle. Don't feel too bad for wee Fergus, though: In Paris, Jamie struck a deal with him that if he were to ever lose a hand, Jamie would support him for the rest of his life. Fergus jokes to Jamie that he's lucked out. "In one stroke, I have become a man of leisure," the kid wisecracks.
It is then that he resolves to end the family’s besiegement, asking Jenny to turn him in and collect the reward from the British. Jenny is not enamored of the idea, but agrees to go along with it for the sake of the family.
Upon Ian’s return, he comforts Jamie by explaining that he understands what it’s like to live through an amputation. Fergus will always feel the ghost of his hand, Ian tells Jamie, just like he sometimes senses his leg. Then Ian points out that in the larger scheme of things, surviving the loss of a limb is easy. “Claire was your heart,” he concludes.
And because of this, on the night before he is to go with the British, Mary comes to Jamie’s cave to clean him up and offers herself to him before his long imprisonment. Jamie — like Claire — cannot gaze upon the woman he allows himself to couple with. Mary is a widow, however, so she understands.
“Outlander” is a romance above all, and by design of the books and the filming of it, the tortured separation of Jamie and Claire cannot last long or else the series would end. That’s no spoiler, it’s simply common sense.
Despite its agonizing plot, “Surrender” is still gorgeously filmed by Jennifer Getzinger and structured in a way that Claire, Frank, Fergus and Jenny and the rest of Jamie’s family, receive full consideration and empathy. The hour serves as a bridge to take Claire and Frank (and the infant Brianna) from their tenuous circumstances into a future that viewers glimpsed at the close of season two. In the episode’s most uplifting scene, Claire heads into her first day of class at Harvard’s medical school, where she is the only woman, and is made to feel as unwelcome as the other outsider in her class, an African-American first year student named Joe Abernathy (Wil Johnson).
This, at least, ensures Claire has a motivation to keep her going. Jamie, meanwhile, theatrically strolls up to Lallybroch as Jenny stands outside, looking angry and sad. He greets her loudly and with a practiced smile. Almost immediately, the redcoats appear and arrest him, and the commander hands Jenny a bag of gold. Jamie, playing his part, protests her fake betrayal.
But when Jenny yells in response, “You gave me no choice, brother. And I’ll never forgive you. Never!,” it’s unclear if she’s acting.
Frank, in the 1940s, calmly resigns himself to another version of confinement as the episode ends. Claire smiles at the end of a long day, and as she comes into their bedroom and bids him goodnight, he shows her a smile tinged with sorrow. As the tight shot widens to show the room, we see they’re now sleeping in two beds.