It is fitting that Outlander’s ninth episode of the season, “Je Suis Prest,” debuted the Saturday after Memorial Day on May 30. Jamie and Claire are two veterans of wars in Europe who must now train a patchwork army of regular men, most of whom have never been beyond the borders of their own clans, let alone across the sea towards France. Separately, they have seen the expanse and power of modern armies in their own times, and that every soldier must be present as to what he is fighting for and why. For Jamie, this period of training reveals his skill as a leader of men, while Claire’s repression of past trauma begins to crack as events within the camp elicit painful memories of her time in combat. Directed by Phillip John, this episode is about the selflessness that goes into making a leader, and how the emotional resonance of war can echo in the mind and soul for years. Weaving the scenes of present training and past trauma together is the hauntingly beautiful Jacobite anthem “Moch Sa Mhadainn,” sung by Gaelic singer and piper Griogair Labhruidh.
The Frasers’ arrival at the camp at Crieff reconnects them with family - blood or otherwise - as they prepare their countrymen for war. Along the way from Beaufort Castle to the camp, men who had been ordered by Lovat to enlist steadily dropped off from the ranks to return to their farms. Those that remain are older and/or out of shape, as Lovat kept his best men behind to guard his interests. Jamie wants to “bring them back into the fold” and sends young Simon to convince the men to return with the promise of land, or as Claire put it, “something to fight for…to die for.”
Reconnecting with Fergus (Romann Berrux), who has become Murtagh’s squab of sorts at the encampment, and the welcome surprise of good-natured Rupert (Grant O’Rourke) and impish Angus (Stephen Walters) brings Jamie and Claire a bit of joy against the immaculate Scottish skyline. Theirs is a happiness shared by friends who have seen each other in the most harrowing of situations, and who risked death to extricate themselves from it.
It makes the return of Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish), who is met with a more hesitant but friendly response, pale in comparison as Claire’s memories of his treatment of her and refusal to help Jamie in Wentworth are still vivid in her mind. Dougal has come on his own volition, as his brother Colum remains neutral to the cause, and he intends to mount up and meet Prince Charles at Perth tout de suite to secure VIP placement by the Stuart’s side and treatment in his favor. Jamie, however, is the head of this camp, and he knows the men (mostly “cottars, tacksmen, and smiths” unused to structured combat or weapons) are not ready.
Nine episodes into the season, I am still amazed by the dialogue and cinematography of each chapter. Adapting such a vast and detailed book into thirteen segments must have been an incredible challenge, and not a line on screen is wasted. In “Je Suis Prest,” written by Matthew B. Roberts, Jamie and Claire are enduring “the deep breath before the plunge,” to borrow a line from the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in which two characters are awaiting imminent invasion and one admits, “I don’t want to be in a battle. But waiting on the edge of one I can’t escape is even worse.” Jamie and Claire have been in war before, and know what probably lies ahead for Scotland if they fail, but they battle their fear and doubt daily for the greater good, for a future beyond themselves.
In France, Jamie was out of his element, literally: learning the wine business, dealing with errant royals, navigating the labyrinth of French society and politics. Back at home, all those experiences abroad bolster the foundation of his leadership style and skills, in addition to his intelligence and natural abilities. He retains an empathy for the soldiers not only because he has been on the field, but he also shares their connection to the land. He looks at the terrain and sees order: he can visualize how his troops need to train as a unit. He instructs Murtagh to teach them how to first stand, then move, then handle weapons. As they progress, Dougal and Murtagh model closer combat with broadswords and knives. When he is not teaching, Jamie is observing every aspect of the camp, as all the wayward pieces slowly start to come together. That is his priority as opposed to Dougal, who wants to rush through training so as to secure a place nearest Charles Stuart’s ear; Jamie has “more pressing concerns than securing a seat at the Prince’s table.”
Claire, on the other hand, watches the soldiers going about their daily activities and sees how things can fall apart, as she is reminded of two American GI’s she encountered in France. Innocuous things such as playing shinty or eating chow transport her back to her days in the medical tents or canteens during the War, meeting young men barely out of school who were thousands of miles from home. In one dinner scene where soldiers are talking about their hometowns, Claire admits she is “from all over, really. Not sure where home is to be honest. Anywhere but here, that’s for sure.” Now, she is again creeping back towards the front line, and all the shadows from her past grow darker and more oppressive.
Though Claire arrived at the camp in good spirits, in the ensuing days and weeks we see her withdraw into herself, her mind in another space and time. Her head hunches down on her shoulders when she walks; she unconsciously and obsessively rubs her hands together; her activities such as cooking becoming more isolated from Jamie and others. Jamie (and even Murtagh) senses that Claire isn’t right, but she assures her husband that nothing is wrong. In one of their rare quiet moments together in front of the hearth at night, Claire looks at Jamie’s badge upon which the Fraser motto of “Je Suis Prest” is etched. He apologizes for bringing her with him, and promises to make sure she is safe.
Roberts continues to distinguish Jamie and Claire’s innate reactions and outward responses to war by they way they root out the truth in those around them. In a scene reminiscent of a teacher responding to students asking “Why are we doing this? When are we going to need this?”, Jamie recognizes his soldiers’ attitude towards their drills as “foolishness and games.” He reaches out to the very romanticism of war in men’s minds: the flags, the music, the order of the troops in matching uniforms. So pretty, he admits. When the first shots ring out, the spell is broken and it is too late to wish for more preparation. In the first of what will hopefully be a succession of rousing speeches (and in his style, brief and heartfelt), Jamie tells the men that “it takes more than courage to beat an army like that; it takes discipline” and that they must learn to function together.
Dougal and Claire’s relationship has always been frosty, and their ultimate interaction here recalls the season-one episode “The Gathering,” also written by Matthew B. Roberts, in which Dougal recognizes Claire’s experience with healing during wartime. As Jamie and Murtagh train the way Jamie learned, the War Chief of Clan MacKenzie had been puffing his feathers out and asserting his own method of surprise attack, complete with shirtless bodies covered in mud. With a tone of respectful but firm assertion, Jamie reminds Dougal “My men, my clan. They answer to me and no one else.” It will take as much effort to train his uncle as the men of Lallybroch and Beauly. Dougal approaches Claire privately to ask her to speak to Jamie on his behalf, reminding her of their agreement in the cave, but Claire will have nothing of his opportunism and slick advances. She calls Dougal’s bluff by confronting him directly about his shortcomings.
One thing an egotist can not bear to hear is someone’s indifference towards him, and Claire cuts him to the quick with “If I ever thought of you, I might hold a grudge, but I don’t because of your inability to be selfless.” Dougal looks shocked, not only because a woman is saying this to him, but that his self-love is not shared by others. “Stop trying to convince everyone of your patriotism - it’s tedious,” she hisses, before loudly and clearly telling him to f—k himself. Claire has had it with selfish aims and agendas, especially as her husband is working so tirelessly to preserve his country and kinsman.
The cinematography of Neville Kidd and Stephen McNutt make viewing this episode at least once on mute, simply for the breadth of shots, an essential companion to Roberts’s dialogue. Expansive views of the Scottish countryside (shot in amazingly clear weather) reflect Jamie’s love of the land as much as his intuitive knowledge of how to use it to his tactical advantage. As Jamie gains more of a foothold over how to improve the militia’s teamwork and behavior, he is often shot from low angles, illuminating him against the sunlight and making his figure look more imposing. As Jamie and Dougal butt heads over leadership, they are often shot over the shoulder to illustrate their connection as well as underlying message towards each other regarding the power balance.
The camera's focus on Claire is the opposite of Jamie, illuminating her post-traumatic stress from WWII as it flares up in Crieff. As Jamie's position grows in power and respect, Claire is crumbling under the weight of her long-repressed nightmares. When she scolds Angus about the dangers of trench foot, and has a flashback to a similar instruction during the War, the camera oppressively closes in on her face and she runs outside to escape the stifling air, the camera arcing and swirling around her as her mind becomes overwhelmed by the remembered sounds of bombs, gunfire, and rumbling tanks.
When she later passes by the soldiers practicing at a firing range, the ensuing volleys of gunfire cause her to slowly sink to the ground, transporting her to a Jeep that comes under fire and explodes, scattering her and the other passengers (including the two American GIs she had met in the canteen) into ditches on either side of the road. Private Lucas (Tyler Collins) is trapped and injured, screaming for help, while Corporal Grant (Billy Griffin, Jr.) tries to help his buddy and gets killed. The camera settles over Claire, alone and terrified in the ditch, trapped against the nearby German troops and helpless to the boy’s pleas for his mother as he slowly suffers. Jamie finds her against a wagon, still pressing her ears closed, begging an unseen soldier to “Please, shut up!”
“I closed the door on that night,” she tells Jamie, “walked away, and haven’t looked back ever since until now.” Hearing the sounds of the militia in training brought back her experience with Grant and Lucas, and she is unsure she is ready to endure that again. Jamie decides that she needs to return to Lallybroch, away from fighting, but Claire refuses, saying that would be like returning to the ditch, “helpless and powerless to move like a dragonfly in amber,” recalling Hugh Munro’s wedding present to her last season. Even worse, she can not sit at home while knowing that people she loves are on the battlefield, hurt and possibly dying. Jamie assures her that regardless of what happens, she will never be alone again.
The security of the camp is again breached as a young English soldier (Oscar Kennedy) attempts to cut Jamie’s throat and gets his arm broken by “Red Jamie” as a result. It appears the British have a nickname and persona for the Lord of Lallybroch, branding him an “unprincipled, traitorous rebel,” and Jamie uses his new infamy to his advantage as he tries to pry information out of the lad, who identifies himself as “William Grey, the second son of Viscount Melton.” Obviously, the boy is proud and places an importance on decorum and honor, so Jamie and Claire cleverly appeal to his sense of chivalry by staging a scene where Claire is a kidnapped Englishwoman and Jamie her brutish captor. As Jamie exaggerates his groping and kissing of his “helpless victim,” she plants a swift knee to the groin with a smirk that catches him hilariously off guard.
In defense of Claire’s honor, Grey reveals the whereabouts and extent of his outfit’s encampment. In exchange for the intelligence, Jamie spares his life, to which Grey responds that it is a debt of honor, and once he pays it back in kind, he will kill him. It’s not hard to guess that the men will meet again, sooner or later.
In what is probably the most powerful display of his leadership to the men, Jamie admits his involvement in the carelessness that allowed Grey to enter the camp unnoticed, and he demands to be punished for it by eighteen lashes. Murtagh has to do it, as he won’t allow fear or feelings to cool his blows. After his punishment, Jamie and Murtagh slip into the British camp and remove the cotter pins from the cannon wagons as well as the wheels, which they take back and burn. Wisely, he refuses to allow Dougal to join in the raid, as his uncle would probably go Sonny Corleone and start slicing into Redcoats and get them all killed, leaving an unprepared base camp at the mercy of 200 infantry and 30 cavalry. After he returns, he awakens a sleeping Claire and surprises her with his blackened face and a ring of cotter pins tossed onto their bed. She saved lives, he says, through her selflessness with William Grey, and now they must pack up and leave before the British wake and realize the state of their munitions.
The next morning, Jamie, Claire, and the troops arrive at Charles Stuart’s headquarters in Perth. Jamie allows Dougal to do the honors of presenting the militia to the Prince, both because he knows his uncle has been itching for the duty and also as a leader, Jamie identifies and utilizes the best traits of his soldiers. Claire admits to her husband, in French, that she is ready as he is, and they enter the camp together. To be ready, both for them and their soldiers, is to balance awareness of the bigger picture, the past and the future, with an engagement at present of how one’s actions can impact the unit, and how one’s conduct must reach beyond the self.
Afterword: Several scenes throughout the episode had a personal impact on me. The opening shot of jeep tires rolling and boots tramping through the mud and rain, followed by Claire’s scenes with the two American soldiers, reminded me of my grandfather who fought in World War II. He was seventeen when he entered Texas A&M in 1940, double-majoring in Agronomy and Accounting. During his junior year, the ROTC officer’s training program was accelerated so that he and other cadets could be sent overseas to Europe, where he spent the next two years.
Though "Papa" mostly kept his war experiences to himself, there were two brief stories he did share: one described when the troops would stop marching for the night and fall down around the campfires, frozen and exhausted, the lice would also thaw out and begin their onward crawl until dawn. The other took place as his outfit was marching through Austria near the Italian border - his motherland - and he asked his commanding officer if he could take just a few steps on Italian soil. His request was denied and he could only look down the valley as they marched on. Both stories fail to show the valor he would eventually display to earn a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, but there is an underlying romantic sense of detail in relaying even the most miserable part of his time there, barely out of his teens, or a wistful memory of home. When he returned in 1945 as a 1st Lieutenant, college life did not hold the same pull as before the war and he left College Station before graduation. He wanted to be home in south Texas on the family farm with its rows of cotton, carrots, melons, and onions. I wonder if he didn’t crave the smell and texture of the land and order of the seasons after what he had seen and heard and felt overseas.