“Dragonfly in Amber,” the season finale of Outlander, juxtaposes the search for fact and the quest for truth in a constant tug-of-war over what its characters believe. It is an examination of our personal, shared, and societal histories: what we accept in faith and what we construct out of belief. Jumping back and forth between 1968 and 1746, director Philip John deliberately alternates the pace of the scenes in the two time periods from frenetic to almost dreamlike, creating a sense of urgency with the different plot lines after so many long years of separation. In essence, Claire remains constant amidst the chaos of life in the 1700s and the surreal familiarity of life in the 1900s. By traveling back in time, she became a stranger in a strange land; once she returned to her old life, she became a Sassenach once again in a modern world where “so many things are the same and yet so different.” On the other hand, Jamie sacrifices his home, his reputation, and his title to save his wife, family, and clan. As he gives Claire the opportunity to be in a better place with their child, his own life is systematically dismantled.
The episode opens with a throwback scene from the 1960s crime show, The Avengers, with the refined spy John Steed (Patrick Macnee) paying a surprise visit to the apartment of his smart, stylish, and thoroughly modern partner, Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). Fun fact: the origin of the female lead’s name was an amalgam of “man appeal,” which the producers were looking for when casting a female spy for the show. Steed rings the bell and, true to the science-fiction/futuristic edge of the show, a giant, winking eye serves as the peephole as Mrs. Peel lets him in to witness her practice fencing moves as he helps himself to a drink. And, yes, her épée is as long as his umbrella-knife.
Writers Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts have focused on eyes throughout the episode as symbols of power, transformation, or illumination. From the first scene, Emma Peel’s door eyelet, complete with artificial lashes, is rather intimidating but also winks at the show’s tongue-in-cheek regard to female sexuality and appearance. Fixated on the television are a group of children and a young man in his late 20s, his face a mixture of adoration at the lovely fencer on screen in her catsuit and dismay at facing the parlor crowd outside the small study.
The gathering is in remembrance of Reverend Wakefield, the kind scholar who aided Frank and Claire both in research and support back in the 1940s. Two decades have passed, and the pastor’s adopted son, Roger Mackenzie Wakefield (Richard Rankin), gives an stumbling but heartfelt toast to the man who took him in after his parents died in World War II. In the back of the mourners is Claire, overwhelmed with the atmosphere of both the occasion and the place. Now in her late 40s, she is still delicately beautiful, her once wild curls tamed into a gentle medium-length bob. She has wisps of gray hair around the temples but otherwise her figure and countenance are the same, save for her blue eyes which seem shrouded in sadness, memory, and the weight of the past.
As Roger accepts his guests’ condolences, he notices a young woman with long, red hair wandering in the hallway. Amidst the plump, sensible-looking hausfraus, he can hardly look away from her, but it is she who approaches him with a boldness that catches him adorably off-guard. Claire introduces herself and her daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton), a history student at Harvard University, and at first Roger does not remember her. It is only when she brings up her late husband, Frank, that he remembers both of them. While Claire was a nurse when Roger was a boy, she is now a surgeon - a rare profession for a woman in the 1960s, but Claire rather transcends any time she lives in, doesn’t she?
Claire asks to look around the house, a historian’s dream of vintage furnishings and shelves crammed with books and papers, artifacts and old photos. The late housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, had urged Claire “not to spend (her) days chasing a ghost,” but in the Reverend’s house, with its familiar scents of furniture polish and book dust, the feel of the wooden mantle, and the view from an upstairs window, Claire admits that “the ghosts were starting to chase me.” Later that night, Roger finds her in the study sitting in the same chair where she confessed her whereabouts to Frank two decades prior, and the two share a dram and bond over the loss of a loved one and the search for that feeling of home. For Roger, the clutter is at once overwhelming and comforting, as if the presence of his father were surrounding him. As an orphan who was adopted and now orphaned again, you can sense how very alone he feels, and the Reverend’s genealogical research included his own family which gives him some sort of connection to blood and the past. This is the first time Claire is told of his real surname, and you can see the wheels spinning behind her eyes. When Roger asks her how she could “say goodbye to the one person you loved most in all the world,” Claire responds that “whether you want to say goodbye or not, they’re gone and you have to go on living without them, because that’s what they would want.”
Claire’s look in 1968 is very put together and refined, carefully chosen and stylish - even down to her pale blue pajama set and matching quilted robe. She is very guarded in how she presents herself to people, and her detached, ethereal air is both a matter of choice and product of her new/old environment, as she never fully fits back in her time. Her outward appearance becomes a defense mechanism, a silken surface that masks the steel underneath that she has built to live without Jamie…and yet he is with her every day in Brianna’s profile or mannerisms or personality. Brianna is Claire’s saving grace: she is what pulls Claire outside herself and keeps her from being consumed by her grief, but the constant reminders of Jamie and the life she left behind have also encapsulated Claire in a protective shell where her focus on her career has proven both cathartic and isolating.
And so the old ghosts continue to haunt her, as Brianna’s peaceful face in slumber dissolves into her father’s downhearted profile as Jamie trudges after a swaggering Bonnie Prince Charlie through the ramshackle camp towards Culloden House. The Prince anticipates his battle like it’s Christmas morning instead of April 16, 1946, and the haggard, freezing face of Jamie Fraser only exemplifies the detachment of Charles from reality. Drunk on his own predestination and ego, Charles responds to Jamie’s blunt prediction of the Jacobite loss by calling him a doubting Thomas, quoting from the Book of John: “Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” These are Jesus’s words, but clearly the Prince believes himself to be the Messiah of the Highlands, even though he is blind to the condition of his own men or the state of his cause. Murtagh informs Jamie that scouts have seen the British troops mobilizing and Jamie sends him to relay the information to Lord Murray, while Claire has one last idea for stopping it all.
Solomon Burke - Baby Come On Home
When your baby p
acks up and leaves you
You see her train d
isappear out of sight
What would you give i
f you had the power
To hold back that l
ong, lonely night
Roger and Brianna drive out to Fort William as part of his offer to show her the “sights,” driving along winding, hilly roads now paved and looking out and land neatly fenced, the signs of progress and industrialization as compared to the natural boundaries during the clan days. The Gaelic term for the prison was “The Black Garrison,” a British fortress against the “savage clans and roving barbarians” as Roger sarcastically puts it. He and Bree discuss heroes and traitors in American history, confusing famous quotations and debating the reputation of infamous figures such as Benedict Arnold. As the Revolutionary War is “practically a religious text in Boston,” as Bree says, what history has deemed heroic is venerated as gospel, while traitorous reputations can brand a scarlet letter across a biography. Conveniently, they are standing in the same spot where two men engaged in a battle of wills by the lash, the actions and reputation of each passing into legend in varying degrees of accuracy.
Talk of perceptions then turn personal as Bree compares her relationships with both parents. While Frank is described as “the kindest man in the world,” she says Claire “lives in another world.” At this point, Brianna’s attitude towards her mother both in public and private comes off as brattish and self-centered, but then I reminded myself that she is TWENTY and a college student, thus she knows everything and the world revolves around her. At that age, kids are loath to think their parents had lives before they came along, or that their births were anything but immaculate. Brianna has been very protected and doted upon by Frank, while Roger has experienced the deaths of both biological parents at a young age and is now established in his teaching career, so he possesses more reserve.
While they were exploring the garrison, a place of torture and suffering now sterilized as a museum, Claire ventures alone to Lallybroch, which once housed happy families and now lies in ruins. The voices of Jenny, Fergus, and Jamie echo through Claire’s mind as she sits on the desolate front steps, memories of new babies and harvests and beginnings. As Claire remembers how Lallybroch gave her the first sense of belonging and home, I thought of her looking through the shop window at Inverness in the first episode of the series and wanting a vase so badly because “I’d never lived in any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.”
“Strange, the things you remember,” she had said in that first episode, “Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.” As she looks out at the archway entrance to the property, a vision of Jamie stares back at her, his breath crystalizing in the chilly air. Jamie’s father had put his “blood and sweat into this stone,” and land and home were so important to Jamie and Claire who had been deprived of each for so long. As she recalls the lines from Catullus about amorous kisses as she presses her fingers to her lips before returning to the car and driving away, but not before looking back one more time.
With the 1968 scenes moving steadily across hours and days, the final preparations for the battle at Culloden speed along at mere minutes across one morning, a blur of exhaustion and hunger and desperation. Claire shows Jamie a vial of yellow jasmine to poison Charles, who she has been treating with tinctures for scurvy, admitting it was the same liquid she had given to Colum at his request the night before. Jamie is aghast at the news of his uncle’s suicide as it was “a mortal sin,” but Claire insists that “he knew his time was near.” That insistence upon choice before death will soon be directed at them both.
When Roger and Bree picnic at Loch Katrine, she asks him if he remembers anything about an “incident” between Frank and Claire while they were staying with the Reverend. He remembers the aftermath of Frank’s fit of despair in the tool shed, and Brianna admits she opened a lockbox belonging to Frank with letters from the Reverend alluding to a serious incident. Back in town, Claire drives past the same monument (actually in the town of Falkland) where Frank spotted Jamie’s ghost looking up at her at the bed & breakfast and parks across from a public records office where someone has painted the Saltire and “Free Scotland” on either side of the entrance: a prescient nod to the fluidity of history that can rush us up to 2016 but echo back to 1746.
Indeed, many facets of this episode swing back and forth like a pendulum. Claire, Brianna, and Roger all wear fashions that have come back a la mode at least once since 1968: a simple You Tube search of top makeup tutorials can instruct you on recreating Claire’s eyes, and the high-waisted corduroy trousers Brianna wears may be worn ironically this winter by many a tragic hipster (plus her green peacoat is adorable and I want it) . Every sports coat or cable-knit sweater Roger wears could be found in one of my brother’s closets (or they would if the boys would just dress better). Fashion goes through waves of nostalgia, ironically or not, and certain classic looks never go out of style. The fabrics that Claire wears, such as light cashmere, do not hug the form but instead drape the figure, while Brianna has a tomboyish side that avoids frills and ruffles.
Inside the office, Claire tracks the ownership of Lallybroch through generations of the Murray family back to the record of sasine that was witnessed by herself and Murtagh back at Culloden House. She also asks the clerk to perform a genealogical search on Roger Mackenzie. Later that night, she lightly prods Brianna about her date with the “handsome and intelligent” Roger, to which her daughter pulls the requisite embarrassment over her mother admiring a man’s physique. When Brianna asks her mother if she missed, or even loved her father, Claire’s affirmative response is truthful, though not divulging the whole story.
She still carries around a medical bag, just as in 1746 when she offers the vial of yellow jasmine to Jamie “to stop a slaughter…(taking) one life to save thousands. Dougal, still unhinged from his brother’s death the night before and a lack of food and sleep, is listening at the door and confronts Claire and Jamie on what he feels is a traitorous plan. To him, Jamie is an “ungrateful bastard” and Claire is a “filthy whoring witch” and he will not be swayed to reason.