Welcome back, Outlander enthusiasts! It’s been nearly a year since we left Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) laying on a sandy Georgia beach after surviving the Artemis’ devastating shipwreck, ready to embark on a new life in what will eventually become the United States of America. (There’s even brand-new credits to celebrate the change of locale!) If you need a quick reminder of where we left off, check out our season 3 finale recap. Otherwise, let’s dive right into the season 4 premiere, “America the Beautiful,” directed by Julian Holmes.
Outlander loves circles. It’s a circle of stones that brought Claire back in time to 1743 Scotland in the show’s the first season. A silver wedding ring binds her to Jamie, the hunky Highlander she fell in love with there, while a golden one stands as a reminder of her first marriage to Frank Randall (RIP). So, it’s fitting that this episode opens with a flashback to 2000 BC, where early tribes are setting up a stone circle of their own in North America. Since we already know that the magical stones of Craigh Na Dun aren’t the only portal through time (last season showed us a similar phenomenon hidden in a Jamaican cave), this scene appears to suggest that we can expect some supernatural activity even in the wilds of colonial North Carolina, where we reunite with Jamie and Claire in 1767. As Claire explains in a voiceover, it’s been four months since their unplanned landing in the New World, and they’ve been making their way up the coast from Georgia, intent on finding transport back to Scotland.
It’s hanging day in Wilmington. Gavin Hayes (James Allenby-Kirke) — one of Jamie’s fellow captives from Ardsmuir prison, who followed him from Scotland, to Jamaica, and then America — is set to meet the noose (yet another circle). Jamie’s savior complex compels him to try to save his friend, but Gavin is determined to die — all he asks for is to see a friendly face smiling at him as he does it. Jamie complies with his friend’s last wishes, and stands front and center as he drops from the platform. But Lesley (Keith Fleming), another of the Ardsmuir bunch-turned-Jamie sidekick, isn’t so ready to stay calm. He makes a scene, rushing towards the now-lifeless body, and another prisoner sentenced to die escapes in the ensuing kerfuffle. Drama, it seems, still follows the Frasers wherever they go.
The escaped prisoner turns up again later that night, as Jamie, Claire, Lesley, and Young Ian (John Bell), head out to the graveyard under cover of darkness to bury Hayes (as a suicide, he isn’t technically allowed to be laid to rest in consecrated ground). Played by Downton Abbey favorite Ed Speelers, Stephen Bonnet is the kind of charming rogue that could as easily slit a throat as he could undress you with his eyes. A pirate and a thief, it’s clear from the start that he’s willing to say anything to get what he wants, but Jamie and Claire have a soft spot for those trying to escape the King’s justice. They help Bonnet escape, and after a close call, send him on his way — but not before he admires Claire’s unusual rings (“There’s something about the notion of an infinite circle that fascinates me”), clear foreshadowing for this episode’s unusual and brutal ending.
Another manifestation of the circle effect is one quiet but important scene between Jamie and Young Ian. As they dig a grave for Hayes, Ian suddenly gets flustered, scrambling out of the dirt. As he reveals to his uncle, the burial rites triggered terrifying memories of his captivity under Geillis Duncan, and his sexual assault. One of Outlander’s greatest strengths has been to never shy away from or gloss over the consequences of the violent sexual acts depicted on screen (especially in the case of male sexual assault), and Jamie, who’s suffered his own sexual trauma in the past, helps his nephew to cope without judging him.
With Bonnet on his way, and Lesley and Ian busy finalizing Hayes’ burial, Claire and Jamie are left on their own in the woods, and you know what that means! We get our first (good!) sex scene of the season, followed by — of all things — a little geography lesson. Pointing at the woods, Claire explains that “they stretch all the way to a mighty river called the Mississippi, the Great Plains. This is just the start of what America will become. Eventually it will reach all the way to the Pacific ocean. North Carolina will just be one of 50 states.”
Claire continues to wax poetic about the wonderful land of the free, which will soon start accepting immigrants from all over the world, hoping to live together in harmony and pursuit of the American dream. It’s an earnestness that’s a little hard to take given the current political climate, but as I reminded myself several times throughout the scene, Claire doesn’t know about Donald Trump yet. (Although as a Boston resident in 1968, and having presumably witnessed the Civil Rights movement, she should be well aware that American has varying levels of freedom and opportunity based on the color of one’s skin, and country of origin.)
Jamie, no stranger to discrimination himself, asks about the those who were already on the land before the British saw fit to conquer it: “The natives? What becomes of them?” The Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series on which this season is based on, tries to establish a parallel between the treatment of Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans, and the show is clearly following suit. That, combined with a later interaction Claire has with a freed slave, leads me to suspect we’re going to be in for a more political season.
(Verdict on whether or not that’s a good idea withheld for now.)
Still, that conversation, combined with a conversation Jamie has with North Carolina Governor Tryon during a fancy dinner later in the episode, convinces the couple that maybe their destiny lies in America, rather than Scotland. Tryon suggests that Jamie could receive a large tract of land as a grant from the king, in exchange for his help reining in the Regulators, a group of rebels protesting taxes, precursors to the American revolutionaries who will throw tea into the Boston harbor less than a decade later. Claire is hesitant about accepting the offer: she knows that war is coming, and that the British side is the wrong one to be on. Still, the two decide to wait and see — after all, this is the country of their daughter Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton) eventual birth.
With the money Claire and Jamie reap from the sale of a ruby, retrieved from the wreck of the Artemis, they have enough money to travel with Ian, new dog Rollo, and Lesley to River Run, Jamie’s aunt Jocasta’s North Carolina plantation, before sending Ian back to Scotland and finding a place of their own to settle in. And there’s more good news: Fergus (César Domboy) and Marsali (Lauren Lyle) will also be staying in America, because the latter is pregnant! Mazel tov all around.
That all sounds great — except, of course, the story must come full circle. And it does, when Stephen Bonnet boards the small ship Jamie and Claire are taking to River Run. (Jack Sparrow did warn us never to trust a pirate.) Turns out he is more likely to slit throats than anything else. He kills Lesley, who steps in to try and protect Claire, and has Jamie dragged on deck and beaten as his men gather anything of value. The money from the ruby? Bye bye. The other gems Jamie and Claire had salvaged? Adios. But before leaving with his booty, Bonnet turns to Claire’s fingers: He wants her rings. And though she manages to swallow Frank’s gold ring, Jamie’s wedding band is stolen from her, as she crumples to the floor, sobbing.
Outlander doesn’t usually dabble in anachronisms. The Beatles remain squarely in the 1960s, while 18th century ballads have their place in the halls of Castle Leoch. But the show makes an exception in this scene, as the words of “America the Beautiful” (where the episode gets its name) play over the couple’s horrifically dashed hopes. Sadly, they won’t be the last to experience that.