“O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.”
- Hecate to the three witches, Macbeth Act. 4, Scene 1
Just for fun, I watched The First Wives Club right before viewing Episode 308, “First Wife,” and one particular scene in the 1996 film connected closer to the women of Outlander than I had anticipated. After a revelatory fight with her two friends, Diane Keaton’s character fears that “we’ve become exactly what the world thinks we are…(the) three witches!” Bette Midler’s character then counters with, “Witches have powers…(for) good and for evil!” I realized when multiple strong-willed women come together antagonistically in one episode - of any program regardless of genre - the tendency is often to deprive their characters of reason, accountability, or decorum in favor of overarching histrionics and outlandish behaviors. In short, it is easier to reduce women to witches ripping each other to pieces rather than examining the dimensions of their interlocking relationships that led to this discord. While it is more tawdry and amusing to focus on the jealousies and rivalry of hens over a rooster, it is easy to forget the inherent lack of agency that 18th century women had over their bodies, property, and livelihood that spurs such vehemence.
Fortunately, Outlander, to its underappreciated credit, never takes the easy road, but instead insists that its audience look closer into how its characters are portrayed and how they respond to such perceptions. Claire’s return to the 18th century is not just a return to Jamie, but to society at large, then her community, then the Fraser family and friends - like a series of concentric circles with him at the center. She has to exist within social mores of how women could dress, act, work, and think in public. Being an intelligent, educated, independent woman, she must be doubly discerning in how to display and utilize such intelligence, education, and independence so as not to draw negative attention or misconceptions about herself. One misstep and her reputation could be ruined or worse - the delicate membrane that allows Claire to exist among people in the past could be irretrievably broken.
As Claire refuses to stay hidden up in the bedroom at Madame Jeanne’s, but rather longs to be back in the world of medicine and run a shop and interact with people, her adjustment is rockier, more dangerous, and requires more vigilance in how she is seen and heard. Like Jamie, she must gain control over the perceptions of her, but while Jamie could be honest within his inner circles and maintain a facade in public, Claire is in the opposite position at present - she can enjoy a bit of agency among people in Edinburgh who don’t know her but need her skills, but her facade must remain around Jamie’s kin.
Because of this, we see one of the many brilliant parallels that Diana Gabaldon has created in Jamie’s and Claire’s separate-but-connected journeys that wisely was maintained by episode writer Joy Blake and director Jennifer Getzinger: Claire must confront and reconstitute her own legend. As tales of the Dunbonnet had sprung about as Jamie existed on the fringe of society, so Claire’s twenty-year absence - as well as her singular presence as a healer at home and the battlefield - has allowed for her own legend to grow more dramatic and robust with superstition. For example, when she first meets Young Ian at the brothel in “A. Malcolm,” he says,
“Some of the auld women at Lallybroch used to say you were a wise woman, a white lady. Or maybe even a fairy…(maybe) ye’d gone back to where you came from, back to the fairies. Is that true? D’ye live in a dun?”
At first, Claire is amused by this. She has witnessed the benefits to being called a white lady, but also the risks both in Scotland and France. While a king may regard her status with respect and awe, a mob may use it to burn her at the stake. Even if her renown as a healer were stripped away, just being an educated, literate woman is a daily tightrope upon which she must precariously tiptoe.
During her and Jamie’s argument towards the end of “Creme de Menthe,” Claire remarks, “I’d forgotten how bloody rigid this century is. A woman is either a Madonna or a whore.” Not only does this quote follow her back to Lallybroch in "First Wife," where she soon learns what Jamie did years prior - that you can’t go home again - but it also hearkens back to her earlier difficulties adjusting to Castle Leoch in Season One and the suspicions and misconceptions that surrounded her as the enigmatic Mistress Beauchamp. Ironically, I went back to two episodes in the first season for snippets of Claire’s scenes with “Mr. McTavish,” who later reveals himself to be Jamie Fraser, only to delightfully find juicy interactions with young Laoghaire MacKenzie that also proved prophetic to the explosive revelations in Episode 308.
The two people Claire was closest to at Leoch were Jamie and Geillis Duncan, as they both shared her passion for knowledge and existed both within and without ordinary society, albeit for different reasons. She connected to them as a fellow Other: one who remains an outsider even among a crowd. In Episode 103, “The Way Out,” Geillis debates Claire on superstition versus logic concerning a sick (and possibly possessed) boy, and she warns Claire that “You challenge [people’s beliefs] at your peril.” Geillis prides herself on mastering the balance of being regarded as eccentric and being feared, and she believes her knowledge of both herbs and the occult affords her a degree of agency and mobility towards her cause, the reason she even ventured into the past. When Claire asks Jamie to take her to the Black Kirk to investigate the boy’s adventures in the supposedly haunted ruins, Jamie also exhibits a mixture of reason and superstition; he was educated by a tutor who “taught [him] Latin, Greek, and such, not childhood stories of fairies, devils, waterhorses in lochs,” thus revealing to Claire his skepticism of the validity of folk tales and petty sorceries, though he quickly admits “But I am also a Highlander, born and bred, and I dinna think of tempting fate by making light of Old Nick in his own churchyard.”
In Episode 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs” (another witchy Macbeth reference), Jamie again demonstrates not only skepticism but also the wisdom to understand why others believe as he consoles Claire over a dead infant in the forest, left by its parents on a fairy hill or dun as a changeling:
“It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born. They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday.”
Undoubtedly, this same attitude is present many years later as Jamie brings Claire home to face Jenny, whose threshold they will have to cross in more ways than the literal one. Feeling her sister-in-law’s coldness and open suspicion, Claire wonders if they should tell her and Ian the truth, as Murtagh had been told and believed. Jamie counters that Murtagh “was a man who had been out in the world. Jenny has never left this farm.”
He is not implying that his sister is simple or gullible, but rather entrenched in her paradigm of the world that was constructed in part by her faith and superstitions and also by her own personality and hardships. Being an alpha female like Claire, Jenny had to maintain the farm while her brother and husband were often in prison, run a large household of her growing family and often other widows and their children, and care for the local populace. She would not have survived without structure and Jenny’s way is to be rigid and controlled. Claire was a force beyond her control, which is why Jenny’s doubtful side-eyes towards her in “First Wife” are a magnificent sight to behold. Looking almost unchanged after twenty years, appearing on her doorstep with her brother, and delivering a shaky excuse for her long absence and sudden reappearance, Claire disrupts the careful structure of Lallybroch, and causes Jenny - a woman unaccustomed to the world but not unaware of its ways - to immediately regard Claire as the Other again.
Jenny’s and Claire’s reunion includes a mutual awareness that the full truth between them has not been revealed. Claire is not fully aware of Jamie’s struggles and torment during their years apart, while Jenny doesn’t fully believe the story Claire provides about believing Jamie dead after Culloden and escaping to the Colonies. What details they don’t know, these two practical women must accept on trust and faith (a daunting task), and while Claire has Jamie to vouch for her story to his family, the sudden appearance of Laoghaire as his second wife - plus the realization that everybody knew but her - knocks down the scaffolding Claire had put up while rebuilding her life in the 1700s.
If Laoghaire MacKenzie had been steered in another direction in childhood, she might have made a magnificent storyteller or bard seeing as how she can dispense vulgarities with the cadence of a sailor and the temperament of a stage diva. As Murtagh observed to Claire in Episode 103:
“That’s not the wife [Jamie] should have. He needs a woman, not a lassie. And Laoghaire will be a girl until she’s fifty. I’ve been around long enough to ken the difference very well. And so do you, mistress.”
Not only was the wise godfather prescient, but also mindful of what Claire’s attitude towards the girl should be. Laoghaire has not the sharpest mind, but there is one thing she cannot deny: she will never be enough as compared to Claire. Not only that, but once she finally gets Jamie after two deceased husbands and two daughters and years of disappointment, his pedestal soon collapses. Though he does not know the specifics of what happened in either or both of her earlier marriages, Jamie could tell that “she was hurt,” and see the “fear in her eyes” at his touch. Their marriage bed was haunted from the start by his true love for Claire and her detachment from physical contact, and it could only be exorcised by their estrangement and apathy towards each other.
In an earlier article, I admitted that "as with Geneva, I’ve had to come to terms with Laoghaire MacKenzie and her incessant immaturity, yet I can’t deny pity for the character who might be coquettish and opportunistic but lacks the true sympathy and emotional intelligence to see how tightly the rose-colored glasses are stuck to her temples. In a way, I’m reminded of Scarlett O’Hara’s realization at the very end of Gone with the Wind that the image she had passionately and stubbornly created in her head of Ashley Wilkes was a standard which he could not possibly attain. Laoghaire had a teenage crush on a man who helped her out of kindness, and she misread his gentle indifference toward her as the soil to nurture a myopic obsession with her white knight that blinded her from their lack of chemistry, understanding, or true connection until she finally snags his hand in marriage and the truth hits her upside the head.” Though we don’t get to peek into Laoghaire’s thoughts, I can’t help but substitute Scarlett’s realization for hers at some point in her marriage to Jamie:
“He never really existed at all, except in my imagination,” she thought wearily. “I loved something I made up, something that’s just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn’t see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes — and not him at all” (Gone with the Wind, Chapter 61).
It makes Laoghaire’s vitriol towards Claire all the more potent as her third marriage - and future financial support - might dissolve with Claire’s reappearance. Claire will always be the abominable thing, and because Laoghaire doesn’t understand her, she mentally creates this grotesque creature (or Sassenach witch, or whore, or adulterous bitch, or English c—t!) that used some sort of sex magic to enchant Jamie. Not only does Claire’s supposed witchery remove Jamie’s agency in going with Claire of his own volition, but it also justifies Laoghaire’s retaliation. She has “come to protect what’s mine,” meaning not so much her husband's tender touch but her livelihood. She had all night to stew on the situation and probably feared being alone in the world with two young daughters and little work skills. Like everyone in his life, Laoghaire could lean on Jamie, and having that scaffolding threatened by The Creature ensures that passion trumps reason as she attempts to shoot Claire but accidentally hits Jamie on the left shoulder and arm.
Ironically, it is the presence of children that are the sobering factor amidst all the dramatics of the adults. They are tangible reminders that the worlds of Jamie, Claire, Jenny, Ian, and Laoghaire didn’t come crashing down after war, separation, loss, and hardship. In the most open, tender conversation of the episode, Jamie talks to his youngest stepdaughter, Joan, about bonds and love, free of semantics or platitudes. Joan’s biggest fear is that Jamie will “go away forever,” as children conceive time as magically elastic and relative to emotion. However, Jamie assures the girl that he will always look after her, even if they don’t live together. It is a bittersweet scene between a man who has repeatedly been prevented from fatherhood and the child who enabled him to feel needed again.
After the quiet honesty of his talk with Joan, the blow-up between Claire and Jamie sways between cathartic and repulsive, as each tries to destroy the last shred of illusions of the other. Long-suppressed frustration and grief over their years apart, compounded by how they imagined each other lived (which only grows more salacious as their pain and fury intensifies) create a spectacular set of fireworks as they slap and scream and spit and roll around on the floor. Whereas Jamie and Laoghaire’s arguments drove them further apart, his battle with Claire brings them physically closer - if only Jenny didn’t show up to literally douse the fire. I’m still mad at her for barging in during delicious Rage Sex, as her reasoning that they are rutting around like animals and waking the household is inherently weak. Obviously, no one threw water on her and Ian EVER, and I’m sure her household had to withstand the sounds of their obviously robust copulation more than once over the last quarter-century. Ian’s hair is WHITE, for Heaven’s sake.
In Jamie’s confessional scene after being shot, prostrate with pain and fever and shame, the ghost metaphor that signified both his unsettled, haunted existence since Culloden and his presence in Claire’s Boston life is continued after his return to Lallybroch after Helwater and a disconcerting simulation of home and family. As if caught between the memories of his deceased parents and brother and the presence of his living relatives and neighbors, Jamie existed in the shadows of his home, stripped of its ownership and his sense of place and belonging in the world. It is a tenuous justification for reconnecting with Laoghaire, who tried to have Claire burned for witchcraft, but his relationship with Joan and Marsali is more understandable even if it could not sustain the marriage.
Though Claire’s and Jenny’s relationship is not yet fully remedied, they do reach a fragile consensus that there are still things they do not understand about the other. Jenny admits that she “didna ken who you were or what. We didna know your people or your place.” She trusted her as Jamie’s choice, and there is still that feeling that he will remain the go-between for a long time. It may come down to their reliance on belief over logic to accept each other again. Similarly, Claire admits to Jamie of her doubts on their future together after years of building a career and raising Brianna in Boston. It’s one thing for Claire to convince herself in 1968 that she will risk finding Jamie in whatever situation he is living in Edinburgh in 1766, but quite another to immerse herself in those new paradigms with a man who has survived for twenty years without her, who has admitted to and apologized for lies and cowardice and criminal behavior, but has at least attempted to forge new connections in order to exist in the world again. Unlike Jamie, Claire has a choice of worlds to inhabit, and to exist in his means taking agency over her own legend (or infamy in some cases) and its intermingling of fact and superstition. When Jamie asks her, “Will you risk the man I am for the sake of the one you once knew” it is a question of faith not only in him, but ultimately in her own resiliency and fortitude.
- The title of this article is from a book featured in the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which I was watching as I wrote pieces of it. I'm pretty sure Claire and Brianna would have watched it together in a movie theater.