After last year’s Outlander finale, which literally shipwrecked Claire and Jamie onto the shores of America, I was expecting a bigger cliffhanger ending to this season—that the letter the redcoats delivered to Jamie at River Run would be conscripting the poor Scot to fight on their side in the American Revolution. Then I remembered that it was only 1770, and that the next big war was a few years (or, I’m going to assume, one season) away. Instead, the season 4 finale, filled with resolutions both neat and messy, ends on Jamie getting a much more pressing, one-on-one assignment that reemphasizes this season’s enduring question: Can a good man do a bad thing and remain a “Man of Worth”?
Spoilers for Outlander season 4.
The thing is, it’s difficult to care too much about Jamie being ordered to hunt down Murtagh on behalf of Governor Tryon, because it seems too obvious that, between the two of them, they’ll be able to come up with a solution. That could mean faking Murtagh’s death or smuggling him back to Scotland, and thus away from Fraser’s Ridge, which would carry its own bittersweet heartache, but it’s not as if there’s an ideological chasm between them—hence the low stakes. It also seems a far-off problem when this season was more than a little uneven, and I’m still working through my frustrations with how the Brianna and Roger plots shaped the latter half of the season.
So, what feels like the most appropriate way to send off Outlander season 4 is to return to the theme linking the past thirteen episodes—good men doing bad things, bad men doing things that might have positive ramifications despite their intent—and reexamine the worthiness of Outlander’s men.
Jamie: If I were Jamie, I would be feeling like a right arse by the end of this season. First he helps outlaw Stephen Bonnet escape, out of a misguided sense of goodwill toward a fellow immigrant in this new country, only for that to blow up spectacularly in his face. Of course, he has no way of knowing how the consequences of his act of charity will lead to his daughter getting raped by Bonnet, but it’s a sobering lesson in the dangers of believing the best of your fellow man. Then Jamie swings to the opposite end of the spectrum by assuming that Roger is the one who violated Brianna, beating him senseless without taking a breath to consider, to question the circumstances, propelled by pure rage. Brianna is rightfully furious at him—and they have one of the best moments of the season, when Jamie screams and kicks a chair in frustration and Brianna snaps, “No! You are not allowed to be angrier about this than I am.” He’s clearly wrestling with so much self-loathing that, after twenty years of maturing and growing beyond the hot-headed lad he was when he met Claire, he has regressed back into an impulsive thug.
But Jamie has also learned self-awareness in the intervening decades, as he demonstrates in his incredible scene of vulnerability, asking Claire if she and Bree think that Frank was the better man. He got the girl—she went back in time for him—and he still doubts that he’s good enough. Sam Heughan has brought so much depth and nuance to a character who could have stayed a one-dimensional fantasy; watching James Fraser grow up has been one of the series’ greatest delights.
Roger: On the one hand, Roger endures indescribable pain and suffering as a slave of the Mohawk—the worst possible time travel experience, all because of a misunderstanding he was only partly to blame for. On the other hand, every time he’s offered the chance to be the good guy, he finds a way to be unlikable. Slut-shaming Brianna for being unsure about marrying him as a virgin was difficult to watch, especially considering that the next time they see each other, she was the one to compromise her comfort and pledge her life to him because of his unwillingness to budge. He reiterates multiple times that he had the chance to leave and kept coming back for her, but we only hear that through his telling, which casts him as some romantic hero. At the last minute of the episode he comes riding in on a horse, for crissakes, but that’s more than a day after Jamie and Claire return to River Run, believing that Roger was unwilling to join them.
Again, these are the kinds of choices one would not wish on anyone—such as being told that there is a good chance that Brianna’s baby is not his, and that to honor the terms of their handfast would mean committing to raising that child and spending the rest of his life in the past. If anything, as much as their plotline aggravated me, at least it forced constraints on Roger’s decision, instead of him getting to set the stakes. Roger is not a bad man, but he has demanded a lot of Brianna; I’m curious to see them build a more equal partnership going forward.
Stephen Bonnet: I’m still so impressed with how Bonnet went from charismatic stranger to fatal threat in the space of one episode, and how just a few acts of specific cruelty did so much to change the course of the Fraser family’s lives. Considering how we witnessed his turn in the premiere, it was difficult to muster up any real sympathy for him when Brianna confronted him with her emotional speech about how her child would be nothing like him. Offering up the ruby seemed like a rare moment of vulnerability for the criminal, but I suspect that was more of a formal obligation to contribute one positive thing to this bairn’s life than any regret for raping Brianna in the first place. Also, I’m not convinced that he perished in that prison, and am half-expecting that he will reappear, cockroach-like, next season to kidnap the baby that might be his.
Brianna’s son: Just born, and as far as I remember they did not mention his name. So, for fear of revealing the few book spoilers I stumbled upon in my research (ironic, I know), I’ll just reiterate that he’s a wee fighter and not tack on “like his da” since we are just ignoring his paternity. It was clear, though, that Bree was anxious to meet the little guy, in case she somehow saw Bonnet reflected in his face, but that upon taking him in her arms she was relieved to feel nothing but overwhelming love.
That said, from the moment that Brianna decided to keep the baby, there was no saving her plotline for me. But that’s a discussion for another piece.
Young Ian: I can’t feel anything but oddly maternal pride upon witnessing Ian’s character growth, particularly in this season but even stretching back to when he dragged his poor uncle and aunt across an ocean to save his overeager ass. The season premiere saw him grappling with the trauma of being raped by Geillis, of shaping his identity around what happened to him while not letting it define him; concurrently, he’s learned how to make himself a useful member of Fraser’s Ridge. Sure, offering to marry Brianna was classic dumb Young Ian; selling Roger to the Mohawk was nigh unforgivable. But he more than made up for it by offering up himself in Roger’s place, to live among the Mohawk and replace their dead member. Honestly, it was about time that Ian learned who he was without his blood relations there to protect him. And look how he made it through the gauntlet! That’s our boy.
Murtagh: It’s fascinating to see how the writers fit Murtagh into the narrative, considering that the character is kinda living on borrowed time—that is, he’s long-dead in the books, but they spared him in the adaptation. His and Jamie’s reunion in Wilmington scratched one of my narrative itches—that prolonged moment in which two souls, separated by time and distance, slowly recognize one another while the viewer is screaming omg, hug already!! But now not only are they caught up on the last decade-plus of each other’s lives, but they also recognize that they have landed on different sides of a growing conflict, due to their respective definitions of self-preservation. I’d like to see the series delve more into this next season, to really make it an impossible choice for Jamie.
Side note: Murtagh and Jocasta’s argument-turned-hookup, complete with her throwing whiskey in his face, was amazing.
Fergus: Under-utilized this season, stuck in Wilmington and mostly just reacting to the plot action when it comes to him. What would make Jamie’s dilemma more affecting would be if Fergus (who, it’s been established, can’t find work anywhere else) joins the regulators in earnest—making it two loved ones that Jamie is contractually bound to hunt down.
Otter Tooth: The initial discovery of Otter Tooth’s skull made it seem as if he and his silver fillings would play a larger role in the season. While at first it was a surprise that it took only half of an episode to lay out his story, it also speaks to the utter tragedy of the failed time traveler. Unlike Claire, who finds a willing believer in Jamie when it comes to Culloden and other predictions of the future, poor Otter Tooth could not convince enough of the Mohawk to heed his warnings about the Iroquois being forgotten. Instead, he was branded a madman, hunted down, and forced to haunt this time and place, unable to bring about the change he so desperately wanted. Moreso than almost any other plot this season, it’s a thought-provoking story that Diana Gabaldon included, and the writers adapted. Plus, the post-credits visual of him in his present watching the two white boys play Cowboys and Indians was wrenching, and one of the series’ best of these little moments.
Lord John Grey: Poor Lord John puts up with a lot this season, mostly in the form of the daughter of the man he loves blackmailing him into marrying her, lest she out him to everyone. But this is the man who maintained affection for Jamie even after being friendzoned, who has proven over and over that he will put his own desires behind those of a child in need of a father, or a pregnant woman who will be dishonored without a husband. LJG is good people.
William: What a fierce, pouty li’l jerk. It’s too bad that we weren’t treated to the narrative weirdness of William’s half-sister Brianna becoming his stepmother, but perhaps he’ll reappear in future seasons.
Lesley: To be honest, I had barely registered him before he got his throat slit by Bonnet, but nobody deserves a death like that. RIP.
Frank: FRANK. His one cameo this season, in a number of revelatory and gutting flashbacks, was the perfect way to bring him back—especially since we see him through Brianna’s eyes, after years of him refracted through Claire’s perspective. But even Brianna doesn’t realize how many complicated feelings it layers on top of Frank’s motivations to know that he had the obituary the whole time and never let on to Claire that he knew about her supposed death. Not that I blame him, considering how she treated returning to their marriage as a consolation prize, but still.
George Washington: Presumably, but we only got a few scenes with him. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) more of the would-be President next season.
Rollo: Very Good Boy. Very glad he made it through the season and will accompany Young Ian on this new adventure.
What were your highs and lows of season 4? What do you hope to see (but please no book spoilers) in season 5?
Natalie Zutter does find it interesting that there is no mention of the Boston Massacre in the finale and wonders if that might be part of what kicks off next season. Talk Outlander and other time travel stories with her on Twitter!