"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."
- Wilfred Owen, 1921
“Prestonpans,” Outlander’s tenth episode this season, is bookended by scenes of death - sharp, visceral, gutting death witnessed on a personal level. “How many men had I seen killed in war?” Claire asks repeatedly to an invisible audience upon finding a lone Highlander dead and rotting in the woods, “Far, far too many.” Her experience as a field nurse removed her from the administrative meetings of the senior officers who argue and plot their side’s moves across the chess board. Regardless of century, Claire has never left the chess board; all she can do is try to detect an opponent’s weakness and keep moving one step forward.
Back at the camp, the Scottish and English armies are separated by a large, muddy bog, and the troops grow restless and bored while their officers strategize within the tents. Jamie wisely hangs back and watches as Lord General Murray (Julian Wadham) and Quartermaster O’Sullivan (Gerard Horan) huff and puff their way to a stalemate over questions of time and distance. While Prince Charles points out that Perth and Edinburgh were taken without gunfire, Jamie reminds him that those were instances of surprise attacks.
Charles Stuart’s sense of self-preservation and entitlement is none more felt than this episode, as his style and approach nears almost pantomime. With his crisp jacket and kilt made from the vividly red Stuart tartan, festooned with gold embroidery not only down the lapels but on the pockets and rear flap, he might as well have worn a sandwich board with a giant bulls-eye on each side. Compared to the more somberly dressed clansmen in their earth tones, the Prince looks like he studied portraits of Scottish leaders with a Parisian tailor and said, “Make me ten of those, but ADD MORE GOLD.” Add that to his tenderly coiffed wig and porcelain skin, and he makes a rather pretty picture compared to the rugged, muddy Scots.
One of the many things I love about this show is how it consistently gives its seedier characters opportunities to display their most unfavorable traits. Andrew Gower’s performance as Charles Stuart is wonderfully smarmy as the Prince has evolved from petulant exile drowning his self-pity in wine and women in a French brothel, to tenaciously resolved monarch with delusions of grandeur and glory and God’s will. Charles is immersed in a romantic affair with himself, his dearest love, and no amount of reason or accountability will prevent him from taking his rightful seat at the throne (because if he has to return to Rome or God-forsaken Poland, he will kill himself, remember?). Hearing his delicate, singsong voice warble, “Why must the Scots be such intractable people?” encapsulates his character perfectly.
Indeed, this entire episode should be commended for the extraordinary way it captures the essence of each character, no matter how major or minor a role. Whether we have traveled with these people from the beginning or just a few episodes, no one is flatly drawn. Writer Ira Steven Behr has taken the faceless army “not afraid to face shot or shell” that the commanding officers push and pull across the topographical map, men whose love of God and country are manipulated for selfish gain by leaders desperate for reinstatement back in the competitive spotlight, and given an insight to their personal viewpoints and sacrifices.
Charles again looks to Jamie to end the stalemate, embedding his future schemes within his diplomatic agenda as he suggests generous terms of surrender and instructs Jamie to tell Claire to place priority on British soldiers before Jacobites in her field hospital. The Prince wants to send a message that “the Scots wage war with the greatest of reluctance,” and that they and the English will soon be friends again. The look on Jamie’s face is one of exasperation and bewilderment to find words crafty enough to both placate the Prince and get him to stop talking.
The wide shots of the two armies, separated by a bog, is deliberate: it makes the Jacobite army appear bigger than it is, reflecting the aims of its leader. A dirty and torn Scottish flag waves above ramshackle tents, the infantry tense and agitated. Dougal is asleep on the ground with his whisky bottle nestled safe on his chest, while Angus - the errant, hyperactive child of the group - antagonizes Ross (Scott Kyle) and Kincaid (Gregor Firth), trying to provoke a scuffle. His behavior is half because he’s a scamp, but the reactions he expects are partly from a deep anxiety and fear of what is coming, and a desire to display the boldness he hopes he will have when the real fight comes.
Poor Rupert, ever the faithful friend, knows when to calm Angus down and when to stay back and let him roll and tire out. He endures the fat jokes with a calm demeanor that his friend requires like a warm blanket, and the bond between the two friends goes back years. This time, it takes threats by Murtagh, Dougal, and finally Jamie to make Angus back down.
Jamie has come to the camp for Dougal, as he has a task for the war chief that he knows will not be refused. Someone must scout the terrain and do it quickly, in full view of the British troops on their side of the mud. If the bog is too wet and muddy, sending troops across to get stuck will be a death sentence. One man on a horse can test the ground, but who has the guts and grit to risk that? Only a man honed by experience in the field, whose character is defined by cocksure belligerence, and who is positively itching to “prove (his) mettle to the Prince.”
Director Philip John ensures that Dougal remains a dynamic character, not to be underestimated or easily defined. He approaches the bog with his arms outstretched, at once summoning the Scots behind him to watch and taunting the British on the other side. He is careful and cunning, controlling his horse as the British troops are told to fire at will. As the horse steps in some deep mud, Dougal struggles for control but never once loses his cool, even when his bonnet is literally shot off his head, grazing his bald scalp. He calmly looks at the bonnet on the ground and back at the troops as if pissed off that he now has to mend the bullet hole. A genuinely bad-ass moment for the war chief who has waited a long time to publicly display his feathers.
Back at the Scottish line, the troops cheer as the rosy-cheeked Prince gleefully shouts, “Surrender!” Charles greets Dougal with a startlingly fierce hug, proclaiming him in good favor as Jamie looks on in amusement. Once he is back among friends, Dougal admits that he needs to find new breeks as “the hero of the hour has shat his pants.”
Claire is busy setting up her hospital, as the doctor of the town has fled. She commands a small team of women (and a mopey Fergus, who doesn’t want to be relegated to “women’s work”) on how to make field dressings and tonics such as honey-water. Claire’s skill and experience are evident as simple things such as well water and sterilized instruments prevent the infections that kill more men after battles than during them.
A young man named Richard Anderson (Alex Hope) provides the break the Scots need to infiltrate enemy lines by advising the leaders of a hidden trail through the hills roundabout the bog. Actually, he came to Claire first and asked her to tell Jamie, and it is Claire who thanks him on behalf of the group. Though Anderson admits he is “not much for fighting,” he agrees to take them through the trail and the leaders agree that they have to move now.
Thus, after days or weeks of stasis, suddenly everything is happening very fast. Ross and Kincaid agree to look after each other’s families if anything should happen to one of them, and Angus proposes a similar bachelor’s oath to Rupert, saying he can have his sword, dirk, and the contents of his sporran as well as Scarlet the “part-time whore, full-time barmaid.” Rupert shrugs off his friend’s oath, partly out of superstition and partly because he can’t bear to think of the terms.
Each man handles the impending battle in his own way, but Murtagh possesses the gravitas that Dougal lacks and he admits to Jamie that he isn’t sure of his part amidst several thousand soldiers. “In a raid,” he says, “Every man has a part to play… (and) its success or failure is dependent on your actions.” In an army, your slice of the pie is much thinner: how would your death have meaning to your clan? Jamie admits the toll trying to stop the rebellion took on his marriage in France, and that he failed to prevent them from being where they are at that moment. Murtagh acknowledges his participation in Jamie and Claire’s schemes and thus, he failed as well.
As Jamie is preparing to leave Claire in the hospital, Fergus interrupts a tender moment to request to join him on the battlefield, perhaps stealing General Cope’s sword from his tent (and you know he could do it). Jamie denies his request, instructing him to guard Claire instead.
When the three men - Murtagh, Angus, and Rupert - come to fetch Jamie, there is an air of finality to the scene. These are the men who, with Jamie, first encountered Claire in the series premiere, who took her to Leoch. Angus requests a kiss from her, while Rupert will have nothing of condolences or parting gestures. “We shall embrace in victory,” he tells her, “and share a stiff dram.” When she has to face Murtagh, Claire hesitates a bit to look him in the eyes, as her own are filled with tears. Murtagh rescued her first from Jack Randall, and he and Claire share a bond over their love for and protection of Jamie, as scene in episodes such as “The Search” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” He is also the only man other than Jamie who knows Claire’s true identity and place. When Claire asks him to watch over Jamie and he responds, “Always,” it is enough to rip out your heart.
Jamie is the last to leave the hospital, and their farewell is without words. The “promise of history” Murtagh mentioned is that the Jacobites will win the battle, but as such it further solidifies what will come down the road. The shared burden of this knowledge is seen in their eyes as the couple embrace, and then Claire sends him off with a whispered, “On your way, soldier.” Solemnly, Jamie bows to his wife, a gesture reminiscent of their wedding day, and departs.
The intensity of the battle is matched by cinematographer Neville Kidd’s attention to the stillness of nature and stealth of the Jacobite troops as they creep through the forest towards the unsuspecting British army. As they approach the morning fog covering the field, the metaphor is made explicit: will history come to pass? What is waiting for them on the other side? What will be the fate of the man to the right or left? Young Anderson has done his job and, before he departs, Jamie assures him that “All of Scotland is in your debt.” Further displaying his leadership, Jamie instructs Prince Charles to remain behind the lines. At first, the Prince protests as Fergus would, but Jamie reminds him that his father would not want his heir to be killed on the battle field, to which the Prince admits that his father doesn’t like him very much. Ultimately, Charles stays back with the Lord General while Jamie leads the troops into the fog.
The battle scene closely resembled the forest ambush in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, after the fall of the British fort to the French. The solitary British sentry, asleep at his post in the middle of the swirling fog, is unaware of the steadily pounding footsteps approaching until it is too late. Yes, of course there are comparisons to the battle scenes in Braveheart with the airborne streams of blood and sounds of metal crushing against bone, but the alternating use of chaotic noise and extreme silence, combined with alternating frame speeds illustrate the frenzy of the fifteen total minutes of the battle. It’s like being in a car crash where time seems to slow down, or a dream where an entire day can be lived in a few real-time minutes. The blur of horses and guns and swords are spliced against a young boy petrified on the field. A young British soldier stares hopelessly at his severed arm, while another curls in the fetal position in fear as men run around him, the camera hovering and rising above the bodies in the mud.
From inside the hospital, the women can hear the sounds of fighting and only wait for the onslaught of wounded and dead.
Kidd's camerawork is as beautiful inside as on the field, where his attention to light and shadow illuminates the casualties of war in frightening detail. From gaping wounds amidst the hairs on a man's leg to puddles of blood along the floor, from one man anxiously studying the rise and fall of an injured friend's chest, to another man standing guard over a body, his shots unapologetically but respectfully linger.
Early on, Ross carries in Kincaid on his shoulders, but there is nothing Claire can do for the man. Soon, Angus arrives supporting Rupert, whose side had been slashed. Before he passes out from pain, Rupert asks Claire if Angus got blown up, but Angus brushes it off. In a flashback, we see that the man on horseback who slashed Rupert was coming back to finish him off but Angus shot him before a cannonball exploded behind him, hurtling him to the ground before Rupert falls unconscious. Claire sews up Rupert’s wound and checks Angus for signs of concussion, leaving him to keep watch over his friend.
Jamie and Murtagh, arrive in a flurry of elation and overwhelming adrenaline, as if they were trying to slow down a charging horse. The Jacobites have lost about 50 men, and Cope is in retreat with his remaining troops. “The day is ours, Sassenach,” Jamie says, his voice huskier than normal, his face and chest mottled with blood. Only when he kisses Claire and looks into her eyes does he slow down. Claire checks him over and asks about Fergus, who is sitting outside. He killed an English soldier, he tells Claire, his eyes dazed and voice mechanical. Claire hugs the boy who seems in shock from the day’s events.
Back on the field, Dougal is canvassing the field for injured British soldiers, stabbing each in turn. “Is your thirst for slaughter not quenched yet?” says a young, injured officer, leaning against a wagon. He is Lieutenant Foster (Tom Brittney) who first encountered Dougal and Claire in season one when he escorted them to Brockton. Dougal sits next to him and in a moment of truth, Foster tells him that though the Jacobites have won a battle, they will never win the war and that a war chief should know better. Dougal promptly issues a “see you in Hell” pledge and stabs the young officer through the gut.
While Claire is making her rounds, she notices a hoof print on Jamie’s shirt and he admits that he was stepped on, so she orders him to urinate into a glass so she can check it for blood. To ease the tension in the room, Jamie sets the glass on the ground and accepts a wager from a British officer that he can aim right into it. In mid-stream, Charles enters the room to congratulate Jamie on his victory, assuring him that his deeds today will be forever remembered. Crashing into the room, Dougal whoops and hollers his triumph over the British and is swiftly reprimanded by the Prince for his lack of “Christian charity” and is removed from the muster roll due to his “wanton disregard for Englishmen in (my) army.”
Jamie publicly defends his uncle to the Prince, describing his uncle as a “true warrior” and suggesting that they “use his abilities” as Captain of Highlander Dragoons. True to his smarmy form, Charles gives Jamie a slight pinch on the cheek and commends him for his ingenuity, though once he departs, Dougal tells his nephew that he is on to him for building him up to the Prince and getting him exiled at the same time. A very brief smile appears at the side of Jamie’s mouth, but he stares his uncle down and says nothing.
Amidst the drama, Angus collapses and Claire rushes over to cradle him on the ground. The explosion on the field had caused internal bleeding and there is nothing any one can do but watch the man choke on his own blood, his gasps and gurgles filling the room. As he dies on the floor, Rupert forces himself to rise and remove his best friend’s sword, taking it back to his sick bed and leaving the small band of friends to mourn the first of them to die.
Against a shot of the worn Scottish flag against a smoky sky, the survivors drink and sing their victory songs. Murtagh admits to Jamie, who looks suddenly older, that he “expected the flavor of victory to taste sweeter,” to which Jamie replies, “My war tastes bitter no matter the outcome.” Even Claire looks upon the day with darkened eyes, as being right about Prestonpans means the inevitability of the Culloden outcome. As Rupert and Ross sing for their fallen friends, Jamie and Claire survey the scene with countenances that seem, as Angus once said, bone-weary.