At about the halfway point of any given Outlander season, our heroes usually wind up in a completely different country—sailing from Scotland to France, or shipwrecked in America by way of Jamaica. The stakes change, the theme song gets a cool new spin, and the latter half of the season is drastically altered.
But after three years, you gotta shake things up a bit. So it’s no surprise that the midpoint of Outlander season 4 is less concerned with changing the where so much as the when… and in doing so, creating not one, but two new sassenachs.
Spoilers for Outlander 4×07 “Down the Rabbit Hole”
That’s right, Brianna and Roger both make it through the stones! I have to say, when I started this series, I had no idea time travel would consist of round trips and almost be treated with the same ease as a transcontinental flight. The aforementioned sea voyages are more harrowing and incite greater culture shock than zipping back two hundred years in time. The show isn’t too concerned with presenting much lead-up to either journey, aside from the sweet title card of Bree packing herself a PB&J (oh, honey) and Roger’s relief at hearing the stones call to him at Craigh na Dun. Clearly the writers know that viewers want to themselves jump ahead to when these intrepid time travelers are marching through 18th-century Scotland in their period garb, struggling to look like they belong.
And yet, that’s what I would have loved to see more of—the anxiety of completely upending their lives, the self-conscious thrill of picking out a costume that would be more at place at a Renaissance Faire or historical reenactment festival. So focused are Roger and Brianna on their respective goals—she to find Claire, he to find her—that “Down the Rabbit Hole” doesn’t have space for their panic or second-guessing. Or perhaps those are simply outweighed by the confidence that it has to work, because the alternative is unimaginable. “Time is not a reality,” Roger tells Fiona at the stones. “It’s a concept, or a measure.” With every time that Claire has managed to move back and forth between timelines, it makes time travel that much more of a possibility for the other people who need it.
That said… Brianna might have wanted to think through her own time travel a little more before hopping on a one-way flight to Inverness. While there is something so brave and inspiring about the visual of her dressed up in 18th-century garb, she’s only achieved half her goal if she looks the part but the fabric is too thin to actually keep her warm. (When in doubt, wool.) And clomping up and down endless rocky hills in boots becomes a lot more difficult once she manages to trip and bust her ankle, which severely slows down her progress. She’s ready to succumb to the cold, her epic mission over before she’s even crossed paths with another living being, when she is rescued by a kind stranger who—
Oh, nevermind, it’s FUCKING LAOGHAIRE. Of all the dumb time traveler’s luck.
The funny thing about Bree’s hasty flight from present-day America is that she didn’t have to rush quite so much. Assuming that she connected the dots regarding Jamie and Claire’s obituary and did the same math as Roger, that they have anywhere from one to ten years before the fire, she could have at the very least taken a few weeks to properly stock up and research/train for what to expect in the 18th century. Instead, she seems to have left as soon as she found out.
Outlander has done really excellent work with how various characters perceive time and history. When Claire discovers the existence of “Alexander Malcolm” in Edinburgh in 1766, she leaves 1968 immediately because she has to catch Jamie in that place and in that time, despite the fact that the pamphlet she holds a copy of was printed two centuries ago. Brianna making her decision in 1971 has her rushing back to 1769 (according to this timeline) to prevent something that both has and hasn’t happened yet. Further complicating things is the biggest revelation of the episode: Brianna glimpsed this obit long before she knew who Jamie Fraser was, because Frank had the fucking obituary all along.
Oh, hi Past Frank! I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Tobias Menzies until he showed up in Bree’s flashbacks to remind us that, even if Claire and Frank couldn’t make it work in the present, he was never anything less than a stellar father to their daughter. However, the fact that he had the obituary for years and never said a word to Claire does dampen some of my sympathy for him. This is the seasons-later payoff of the moment in 1948 that Frank asked Reverend Wakefield to do some research for him on both Jonathan Randall and James Fraser; clearly their correspondence lasted for some time, for the reverend to pass along the obituary when he spotted it in the Wilmington Gazette. The fact that he discovered it before Frank’s death and before Claire’s decision to go back seems to imply that she was always fated to return, and that Frank knew that. Interestingly, the reverend’s letter also makes mention of Frank’s “trouble with your heart,” whether that’s the impending divorce or another potential cause of death being unclear.
Confronted with the knowledge that both of Brianna’s birth parents would die, with only a relatively small window in which to change it, Frank has the chance to clue Bree in as to her heritage but selfishly (yet completely understandably) chooses not to. Instead, he doubles down on the relationship they’ve always had, asking her to move back to England with him instead of remaining at Harvard. The flashbacks are a little unclear in terms of time, but at least a year must pass between them, as Bree is still wearing a school uniform in the obituary conversation but is dressed like an undergrad (and mentions studying history) in her final scene with Frank.
It’s gutting to learn that Bree was the last person to see Frank alive, that (at least, by her thinking) she could have saved him from the car accident that claimed his life had she stayed with him that night. Then again, with the aforementioned heart troubles, perhaps Frank might not have lived much longer even if they had relocated overseas. Brianna torturing herself with what-ifs at Frank’s grave is fascinating when contrasted with his very clear lack of questions about the fate that befalls James Fraser “and his wife” at Frasers Ridge. It seems that the knowledge that Claire would eventually leave him anyway is what finally prompts him to ask for a divorce while struggling to maintain his relationship with Brianna—only to lose the most important person in his life anyway to a twist of fate.
Fathers who don’t want to leave their daughters are the throughline in this episode, with Brianna bonding with her stepsister (?) Joanie at Laoghaire’s home, despite neither woman realizing their connection. When all Brianna knows about her generous, welcoming hosts is that some “lout” got “bewitched” into no longer loving his wife and leaving their happy home, she can sympathize with a family that has a gaping hole. Of course, I’m watching every interaction, from Laoghaire berating Ian for Jamie not being able to pay alimony—the fallout of him and Claire getting robbed by Stephen Bonnet, no doubt—to Brianna trying to convince a skeptical Laoghaire that there are good men in the world, just waiting for the bombshell to drop. When it did, I was truly surprised that Laoghaire didn’t put her food prep knife to Brianna’s throat right there. Instead, she locks Bree in the guest room and prepares to call the authorities to dispose of yet another witch—the dire fate Claire might have met if not for Geillis’ sacrifice.
Except in this case, her redheaded rescuer is sweet Joanie, who informs her that it’s not her fault her mother is a witch (hah!) and safely transports her to Lallybroch so she can be reunited with her blood relatives. Joanie’s sweet, naïve request that if Bree finds Jamie, maybe she could convince him to come home, was all the harder to watch for the fact that she will never understand why “Da” doesn’t want to be part of their lives anymore, when the truth is that he made an impossible choice.
The same goes for Elizabeth, the new character shoehorned in at the end as Brianna prepares for passage on the Phillip Alonzo: Her father has no choice but to sell her as a servant to this random woman traveling to the New World, or else she will become some man’s concubine. It almost sounds like some sort of con, which is likely what Brianna is thinking as well, until he bids his daughter farewell, knowing he may never lay eyes on her again but that he is sending her off to a new life. And who else is there to see his daughter off? Why, Frank, looking wonderfully out-of-place in his 1960s garb and just smiling at her like the proudest dad.
While this moment of closure is entirely nonverbal (and acted the hell out of by both Menzies and Sophie Skelton), Frank’s line from earlier in the episode stuck with me: “Sometimes life takes unexpected turns, and when it does, you know what we do? We soldier on.” Frank’s entire life has been characterized by nothing but unexpected turns, and even some expected ones considering his knowledge of the obit, but it’s keen advice for his daughter, making her way toward the New World.
Except that she may have just left one sociopath’s house for another’s ship—because isn’t that the ship of Captain Stephen Bonnet?
I wrote so much about fathers and daughters that I don’t have much space to devote to our second sassenach—or perhaps Roger MacKenzie is only half an outsider, seeing as he’s Scottish. His plotline was an entertaining parallel to Bree’s, with the same dramatic irony that had me yelling “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH” as he convinces Bonnet to allow him to join the crew. Of course, he finds out pretty quickly what a mistake he’s made, as a smallpox breakout has Bonnet literally throwing babies overboard and eventually pulling a Two-Face by sparing Roger’s life thanks to a lucky coin-toss. (Maybe I’ve seen too many Batman rogues in recent years, but “goodness by randomness” is not as chilling as I think it’s supposed to seem.) It’s all worth it, though, as Roger manages to save his infant ancestor Jeremiah MacKenzie from being whale food and therefore ensures his own existence.
Though it’s not clearly shown at the end of the episode, it would appear that Roger and Brianna (wearing Claire’s tartan skirt, aww) manage to keep missing each other, as I think he leaves the same ship that she boards. But I have faith in them finding each other, and ultimately Claire and Jamie. After “Down the Rabbit Hole,” it will be fascinating to see what Brianna and Jamie’s first meeting is like. All she knows of the man is her mother’s stories contrasted with Laoghaire’s nastiness—even if she knows the gossip that Laoghaire threw out is false, Bree can see the negative effect that Jamie had on his second wife. Despite Ian telling her she’s a Fraser through and through, Bree buys passage on the Phillip Alonzo as Brianna Randall, deliberately signing this name into history.
Frank would have loved that.
Next week: Fergus walks right past Roger without knowing who he is, and ugh I’m crying, I live for these missed connections. We’ll check back in with any other big Outlander developments and, of course, the season finale in a few months.
Please no book spoilers! I’m watching the show without having read the books, and so am discussing them in that mindset.
Natalie Zutter thinks it would be pretty rad if the Outlander theme brought in some, say, 1970s influences. But that probably depends on how long Bree and Roger will stay in the past. Talk Outlander and other time travel stories with her on Twitter!