The opening scene of “Prestonpans,” episode 10 of Season 2 of Outlander, has Claire standing next to the ravaged corpse of a Scottish warrior as he lies gently in repose against a felled tree. As the dappled light of the forest surrounds them, Claire quietly contemplates the number of men she’s seen killed in war. This moment of isolation and decay epitomizes the poignancy of episodes 10 and 11; in these episodes the camera doesn’t flinch from up-close and personal violence, and plays it to great dramatic effect.
A quick recap: “Prestonpans” depicts the first Scottish battle victory, largely thanks to the brave land surveying efforts of Dougal MacKenzie. Claire runs her field hospital like a seasoned charge nurse, and holds a dying Angus in her arms as he succumbs to internal bleeding from a cannon blast. In “Vengeance is Mine,” Claire once again plays the English hostage to Scottish benefit, allowing herself to be “rescued” from vicious Highlanders by British soldiers, in order to allow the men of Lallybroch (well, and Dougal) to escape slaughter. She finds herself as a “guest” at the house of the Duke of Sandringham, where she and his god-daughter, the shy Mary Hawkins, are most spectacularly rescued by Jamie and Murtagh.
Overall I found “Prestonpans” to be a bit of a slog, a brief blip on a show that’s otherwise kept my interest high through each episode. Originally I thought it was because I was trying to eat pizza while watching men hack off pieces of each other, and grimacing while Claire stitched up Rupert’s cutlass wound, but I later realized that my indifference couldn’t have been for that reason, because I was spellbound while eating pizza (yes, again) and watching Murtagh decapitate the Duke of Sandringham (more on that later). Perhaps it was the fact that the episode’s emotional core shifted away from Claire to the rather nebulous concept of men winning honour through combat. Scenes with Shakespearean-type cogitations before battle and vigils by deathbeds in Claire’s field hospital attempt to inject more of the emotional core of the show back into this episode, but it didn’t really work for me.
I also found that the episode’s tone was a bit unclear about glorifying or denigrating war. The inherent despair of war seems present at some moments, like when Murtagh wonders whether his death in war will have any meaning, and Claire notes that “war always tastes bitter.” Yet other moments, such as the scene where the Scots charge in slow-motion out of the mists, was a beautifully shot battle scene that romanticized the Highlander charge. Dougal’s testing of the marsh land, where he refuses to run or duck from British bullets (even when one knocks off his tam) earns him the cheers of the men and even a hug (!) from Bonnie Prince Charlie, who commends him for his bravery. Perhaps the point is that this war can be both glorified and denigrated, as the reasons for fighting in it are as numerous as the men who take the field. Some men, like Charles himself, believe that it must be fought so that the future King can fulfill his divine right, and others, like Dougal, fight it to liberate a people who are subjugated in their own land by unwelcome invaders. Jamie is hoping that his involvement will somehow change the future, even though the Scottish victory at the Battle of Prestonpans seems to suggest that the path of history is unfolding just as Claire predicted.
“Vengeance Is Mine” returns the focus of the show from macro to micro, from politics to relationships, with a small band of warriors leaving the army under Jamie’s leadership towards Inverness. The more intimate party dynamics allows the characters to shine as they flee from the pursuing British forces. I definitely LOL’d when Dougal tells Jamie, “Ach, stop being such a hero” when Jamie suggests surrendering himself to the British to save his men. However it’s not Jamie, but Claire, who is the hero in this situation, as she banks on her British accent to save them once again. Her plan to negotiate the safe passage of the Scots by pretending to be a hostage is well-received by everyone but Jamie. “Am I not Lady Broch Tuarach? Are these men not my responsibility too?” she asks him, grateful for the opportunity to save her soldiers, unlike the WWII men she watched die and who haunted her PTSD dreams in Episode 9. However it seems like Claire’s jumped from the frying pan to the fire when she finds herself in the house of the Duke of Sandringham, political schemer, ally of Black Jack Randall, and all-around villain. Luckily, Claire’s friend from Paris, Mary Hawkins, is staying with the Duke, who is her godfather, and is willing to help Claire escape.
I found Simon Callow’s Duke to be very watchable, a delightful mixture of sly and frivolous. It seems too good to be true when he wants to help her get word to Jamie, and it turns out that it is: the Duke has set a trap for Red Jamie to ensure his own favour with the King of England. While captive in his house, Claire recognizes the birthmark on the hand of Darnton, the Duke’s servant, as that of the man who raped Mary Hawkins when she and Claire were attacked on the streets of Paris. Sandringham reveals that he was the architect of the attack. He said that he owed the Comte St. Germain a favour he had a large debt he could not repay, and that he was able to convince the Comte that “simply having you raped was sufficient for losing his goods.” Ugh.
It all comes to a head in the house’s kitchen, of all places, where Mary and Claire are caught by the Duke and Darnton trying to escape. Murtagh and Jamie come crashing in at just the right moment, and Claire reveals Darnton as the rapist. I was very, very satisfied by the meek and subservient Mary Hawkins stabbing her rapist in the ribs as he tries to flee. I was also quite satisfied by Murtagh savagely hacking off the head of the Duke (depicted quite graphically, I will add – I believe I shouted “WHAT? That escalated quickly!”) as a way of “lay[ing] vengeance at [the] feet” of Mary and Claire. The two women, clinging together, look more traumatized by the violent turn of events than vindicated, but Mary’s astute observation that they should leave as quickly as possible suggests that she won’t be permanently damaged by watching the murder of her godfather. I’m glad for it; I’m starting to root for Mary. I’m also very happy with the different fate of Hugh Munro, the beggar who helped Jamie find Claire, than the one that awaited him in the novel Dragonfly in Amber. He’s captured and hanged by the British guards in the novel, and it is to his widow that Murtagh presents the head of the Duke as vengeance. In this episode, he seems to be unharmed.
Episode 11 left me revved up for what awaits as we move quickly towards the Season finale and the Battle of Culloden. I hope that the episodes allow for more of a romantic development between Claire and Jamie, as the connection that these two leads has had this past season has taken more blows than it’s had time to repair. As someone who’s read the novels, I know how Mary Hawkins brings Outlander’s most tense and dramatic relationships full circle one final time, and I’ll be eagerly waiting to see how the show orchestrates it.