Outlander’s third episode of the season, “All Debts Paid,” is as much an unapologetic appreciation for romanticism of masculinity as an examination of its constraints, its male characters attuned to their emotions and senses while also limited in their expression by the societal mores and expectations of the day. In a rather brilliant move, the primary female character in the episode assumes the traditionally male trajectory of career advancement over domestic life, and fights against a perceived lack of sympathy and natural sensuality. There is a constant ebb and flow within each character, male or female, to balance sense with sensibility, logic with intuition, and individual want with collective need.
The episode opens with a shot of a gaily arranged 16th birthday dinner for Brianna Randall with a rather frumpy cake in the center of the table, obviously homemade by well-intentioned if clumsy hands. Later, we see Frank on the side with the serving tools so I assume he made it, as Claire, who would by 1966 be an experienced surgeon, might have put her dexterity towards a more streamlined, if less personal, presentation. It’s a Daddy cake with little pink plastic flowers holding the candles in place, and bowls of popcorn and pretzels amidst the presents.
Who knows what myriad of details Frank Randall had adorned every birthday party with for his beloved daughter as she grew from infant to little girl to teenager; maybe a subtle but steady attempt here and there to inject “more Englishness into her life,” as he tells Claire in the first scene as they sit to eat the proper English breakfast he had prepared. Claire savors the black pudding, saying she has missed it, to which he responds “Maybe I’m onto something.” A glimmer is in Frank’s eye: triumph? Satisfaction? Then, when Claire suggests they catch a late movie together such as John Ford’s epic western The Searchers, Frank calmly points out that he has seen it already, as they had agreed to be free in their personal paths as long as it is discreet.
Writer Matthew B. Roberts and director Brendan Maher exhibit a lot of Ford’s style in The Searchers throughout this episode, including the framing of characters in and around doorways opening to the world in which they will inhabit, the gorgeously wide vistas of the moors, and the perspective of the outsider. As the episode switches back to 1755, a changing of the guard is taking place at Ardsmuir Prison, a secluded post in a harsh, unforgiving environment that seems like a last resort for a British officer, rather than a plum position in a more agreeable location. The outgoing Colonel Quarry (Jay Villiers), one of several over the last decade, is a portly, rather unkempt man who seems to be expending more energy at leaving his post than he ever did at managing it, but his successor has more tenacity and thus will have a harder transition as commanding officer.
With his perfect hair, large blue eyes, alabaster skin, and flawless bone structure, Major John William Grey (David Berry), otherwise known as Lord John, is a beautiful jewel on the otherwise gloomy landscape of the prison environs, like the one clean spot on a soiled windowpane that makes it look dirtier by comparison. As he is both overqualified in talent and unfit in temperament, his desperation at being walled up with officer and prisoner alike is keenly felt. There is only one prisoner whom Quarry both warns and advises about: James Fraser, who is also the only man in chains, as the others are “docile as sheep - no heart in them after Culloden.” The colonel had dined with Fraser once a week, as he is regarded as a leader amongst the prisoners, and urges Grey to do the same. Though Grey remembers “Red Jamie” from his embarrassing incident with him as a teenager where Jamie spared his life after eliciting military secrets, his deeper connection is when he observes the man in the prison yard, possessing the rare potential energy that must be physically restrained before it explodes. Grey knows about restraint and we see it in his measured deportment: he has perfected a very fastidious persona over years, and is very careful about what he reveals and to whom.
As Grey keeps himself at a distance out of defensiveness, so Jamie is often separate from the others out of deference, observing the welfare of his fellow Scotsmen as spokesman and caregiver, and he matches Grey’s intuitive and discerning eye. In the confines of a damp prison cell, we also realize that Jamie’s godfather, Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) also survived Culloden, though he is markedly aged and sickly. This isn’t the first or last change from the book, but since I’m reviewing the show as its own entity, I won’t deny I felt happily surprised by his presence, as Lacroix made the gruff but lovable character his own, and in his few scenes in Ardsmuir, he is as unafraid to show tenderness towards his godson as he was courage on the battlefield. That’s why I once referred to Murtagh as one of the most romantic male characters of the series: despite the pain and heartbreak in his life, he has the soul of a poet when caring for others - but woe to any man who mocks him for it.
In his current state, Jamie is more restrained when it comes to speaking of Claire and their child, saying “it only brings pain and suffering.” If he can focus his facilities on the needs of the prisoners, it may bring a moment’s reprieve from thinking about all he has lost before it consumes him again. It is a Sisyphean effort, however, as James Fraser is utmost a sensitive man and can not help being so to his own advantage or torment, and Roberts illuminates this quality on a visceral level: in the smell of milk thistle to treat Murtagh’s cough, the taste of pheasant on a deprived tongue, the feel of raw and bloodied skin beneath wrist irons, and the delicate rustling of heather between fingers on the moors.
Who recognizes this sensitive nature better than John Grey, whose meticulous appearance and demeanor belie a soul as attuned to love and loss as it is yearning for sympathy and connection. I love Jon Gary Steele’s production design of Grey’s quarters during his and Jamie’s first official meeting: delicate things packed with tulle inside trunks, rich carpets, and multiple stacks of books tied together with string and mostly unarranged since his predecessors didn’t seem to own a lot of bookcases. Watch Grey’s calculated stance amongst the possessions as he prepares to receive his guest: he is anxious and struggling mightily to remain composed, and he stands off to the side so he may turn around and formally “present” himself in a show of command and control. Fraser is unimpressed by the decorum and pierces through his facade by saying “God knows what you did to be sentenced here, but for your sake, I hope you deserved it.” Now Jamie is in control, and the young major realizes what Quarry advised was true: he must gain the Scotsman’s trust if he is ever to survive at the prison.
Back in the 1950s, Claire has officially become Dr. Randall after graduating from medical school, and she throws one of those harmonious cocktail parties of the period, perhaps modeled after a spread in House and Garden magazine, its hostess prim and confident in the clean lines of her silk two-piece dress complete with matching handbag and slingbacks. It is a momentous occasion for Claire: like Jamie, immersing herself in her studies and rotations has allowed her to grasp that momentary reprieve from the emptiness inside, knowing Frank would be there to pick up the slack. When a surprise visitor (Sarah MacRae) arrives early, she is shocked into realizing that Frank might be moving forward, too.
Several of Claire’s past labels resurface in Scotland as a lone man named Duncan Kerr (Murray McArthur), elderly and in ragged clothes, is found on a solitary road by a supply regiment half-mad and rambling about cursed gold in a mixture of Gaelic and French. Opportunist that he is, Grey summons Jamie, the one prisoner who can speak both languages, to decipher the old man’s mysterious words. At first, Jamie refuses to do Grey’s bidding, but after Grey offers to remove his wrist irons and provide medical attention for Murtagh, he reluctantly agrees to translate.
As a slightly drunk Frank returns to face Claire’s simmering wrath after her graduation dinner, their interaction closely resembles the verbal eviscerations of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, as played by Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, in Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter (1968), right down to the mise en scène of the furniture alternately shielding and aiding the combatants in their duel. They share that underlying connection of having once been in mutual love, but as their lives splintered and ghosts settled into the relationship, their connection is largely held together by Brianna, but for different reasons. Claire needs the stability from which to advance in her career while also securing Brianna’s wellbeing, while Frank sees this innocent child as the opportunity for him to attain a measure of unconditional love that Claire can no longer provide. Eventually, if he is to move beyond Claire’s expected stasis and grow as well, he will need a separate love of a partner or wife. Plus, this woman who came to the party, Sandy, is a PhD fellow in historical linguistics, which if Claire would calm down a bit might seem a bit telling as to his extracurricular pursuits (like I wrote before, Frank’s lines are subtly sneaky). Instead, Claire lashes out at him for daring to be progressive, and he reminds her of her choices, of her assumption of her own destiny to be a surgeon. “Green ain’t your color, Claire,” he says in his best Jack-Lemmon-in-Days of Wine and Roses-slur as she fumes on the couch, an odd-sounding remark for such a learned man, but he is reminding her that her attitude is beneath her according to the rules and expectations she set years back.
It is deliberate that Claire be the one to tell Frank to “stop with the pretense” and file for divorce. She sees him as violating their agreement - not in stepping out with another woman, but in not being discreet about it. Claire wants the image of her marriage intact, not because she necessarily cares about local gossip or watercooler talk, but rather to affirm her own justification of the necessary protocols that must be in place in order for her to “be a part of something bigger than myself.” When asked if her husband took Sandy up to their bedroom, he responds that “the bedroom is far too crowded already.” He could have lied out of spite, but I think he still wanted to gauge a reaction in her - anything but cold, polite indifference. A stable homelife and outwardly committed husband are part of that deal, and to flaunt his supposed mistress at her party is a huge crack in the foundation, even as Frank points out, “You’re not as good an actress as you think you are,” and admits that they are both “so terribly bad at charades.” That’s what brings about her tears in this scene: that she didn’t have it all together as she would have liked. Seems like no one in this series can both have that lopsided birthday cake and eat it, too.
Jamie does go to the dying Duncan Kerr to glean what he can from the man’s jumbled words, but clues of the “Frenchman’s gold" do little to stir his interest until names are mentioned: MacKenzie, Colum, Dougal, Ellen who “married a silkie from the sea,” and lastly, a “white witch…seeking a brave man.” You can see the urgency in Jamie’s eyes but he tells a hovering John only the basics of Kerr’s message. John is suspicious and tells Jamie that he can force him to talk, to which Jamie replies, “there is nothing you could do that hasn’t already been done to me.” Framed under the low arched entrance to the sick room, Sam Heughan’s posture, considerably taller than Berry’s, is slightly hunched in resignation and deference, yet his shocked and intrigued look return as soon as Grey leaves.
In 1964, it is Brianna’s 16th birthday, and the opening shot of the birthday spread at the dinner table in Boston is finally populated by the girl (Sophie Skelton) in between her parents. It is a rather hasty scene that only indicates a passage of time from the fight after Claire’s graduation, but also the continuing rift between the couple. I sense this is part of a longer scene that may emerge later, because it appeared a bit hacked off at the end and didn’t further the characters’ development other than showing Frank indulging Brianna to Claire’s consternation.
It segues into Murtagh and Jamie discussing Kerr’s confession about the gold, with an emphasis on the meaning behind the “white witch” detail. Notice how Jamie never refers to Claire by name to Murtagh: he mentioned her earlier in the episode as “a lass who knew a fair amount about healing,” and here they only speak of “her” or “she.” Jamie admits he tries not to think of her or “the wee bairn,” as it causes pain, but he doesn’t put up a convincing argument. Fortunately, he is called to Grey’s quarters, where again the Major has carefully prepared both the appearance of the table and himself for their first dinner meeting.
There is much to be observed in a character’s dining habits, and as the men are still in the appraisal stage of each other, their observations are heightened. Jamie asks for permission to set traps on the moors to supply the prisoners with food that the British obviously lack, as well as gather watercress to prevent scurvy. John is both surprised at his candor and intrigued to have such a learned, cultured man as his guest, especially as the pheasant is served and Jamie immediately tastes the Burgundy wine in the sauce. This indicates he has at least traveled if not lived abroad, and to a young man already boxed in, literally and figuratively, by his own society, the recognition of worldliness - even in restraints - is heartily welcomed. Even Fraser’s own men delight in hearing every tiny detail of the meal as they press together for warmth in the prison cell later that night.
Indeed, it is this mutual recognition of each other's outward persona, and the gradual reveal of each man’s true identity underneath, that form the strongest connection between John and Jamie: a constant oneupmanship of measured performances and disclosures that each man utilizes to his advantage. Jamie gains John’s trust in order to escape to the ruins on the silkies’ island to look for the treasure Kerr told him about, namely the “white witch.” In a reversal of the scene in Season Two where a teenage John catches Jamie as he’s urinating (and gets his arm broken by the larger and older man), so Jamie comes upon the adult John in the same awkward position on the island where a group of Redcoats have been searching for him for three days. Not only does it catch John in a moment of vulnerability, but Jamie again turns the tables by kneeling and asking for his promised death as a debt of honor. Though John is still ashamed of his naivety and embarrassment to his brother as a result of their first encounter all those years ago, he refuses to kill an unarmed prisoner, and we are left with the anguish on Jamie’s face.
As the men come to an understanding amidst the ruins, director Brendan Maher uses the first of several two-shots focusing on their burgeoning sympathy. Again evoking John Ford, the two are positioned in the lower-right corner of a wide shot of the windswept hillocks and valleys, looking out towards the expanse not as a symbol of freedom, but a shared prison in which their movement is restricted and obligations often fettered to one place. Jamie reveals the reason he escaped and went to the Island, in the hopes of finding his wife alive, and tells John that the only treasure he found was a box with one jewel - a sapphire, which he thought he could use if he were ever free. As he hands the jewel to John, he is admitting that he will never be free of her memory, and probably won’t ever leave a prison of some kind. John never bound Jamie’s hands for the journey back to Ardsmuir: what would be the need?
In 1966, Brianna is graduating high school, and I can’t help but focus on Tobias Menzies’s face during the ceremony. The actor talked about his features in a video interview for the Guardian in 2016, his lips and nose and vertical creases. How fortunate to have so many discernible features: it’s like Rex Harrison and Richard Harris had a baby that was blessed with the voice of 1970s Richard Burton (seriously, watch the way both actors form the letters within their words, then those words to other words, in this melodious ribbon that unites the cadence of the stage with the intimacy of the screen). Even though this scene begins with a shot from behind the audience looking towards the stage, the camera focuses on Frank first before widening to include Claire, so we know to watch Frank. As his daughter’s name is called, Frank inhales almost nervously, like a father preparing to walk his daughter down the aisle. This is a life transition for all three of them, but as Frank and Brianna are especially close, there is a bittersweet poignancy in the proud father’s sharp intake of breath and utterance of “That’s my girl!” With Brianna, Frank was allowed to demonstrate love and devotion that he wasn’t able to with his wife, and as the proud parents sit next to each other, their emotional distance might as well put them across the room. As Brianna takes her seat and looks back to find them, Claire mouths “I’m so proud of you!” while Frank bites his lip and glances at her wistfully - partly in reflex, partly in anticipation. In a way, it’s his graduation, too.
As three months go by after Jamie’s escape and recapture, he and John have settled into a comfortable routine, as witnessed by another two-shot of the men playing a regular chess game. In this scene, two instances of names indicate their level of honesty and trust. First, Jamie calls John a “cunning wee bastard” after he is bested in chess; later, after he reveals that the lady whose honor John rescued as a teenager was his wife, he says her name aloud for the first time in the episode. In this moment in the quiet solace near the hearth, John recognizes the faraway look in Jamie’s eyes, and probably feels true sympathy with someone for the first time since losing his “particular friend” at Culloden - the man who admittedly inspired and steered him on his current path. Lonely and desperate for connection, he lets his guard down and touches Jamie’s arm just a moment too long, searching his eyes for a response, only for the goodwill between them to snap as Jamie recoils in defense and anger. In a painfully tense end to an otherwise compassionate scene, John realizes that Jamie has been traumatized in the past and his tears fall for them both.
The heartache doesn’t end in Jamie’s time, as Brianna’s transition into adulthood spurs others to make changes. When I first viewed the scene in 1966 where Frank announces his move to England and plans to divorce Claire, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way Claire lorded over him and Frank seemed too submissive, but as I rewatched and focused on the interplay of their words versus their actions, I saw nuances that I had previously missed. “I’m finished with this, Claire,” he tells her. Brianna is old enough to choose where to attend school and probably would go with Frank if he asked. Claire realizes that Frank might have viewed his eighteen years with her as a cage that he can finally leave without fear of Claire holding Brianna as leverage, that the life she had carefully constructed may not have caused others to flourish as she had. Claire has had the chance to advance in her career and focus her energies for years, and now Frank has an opportunity to branch out, return to his home, and be with someone who loves him. He has Claire’s respect as a parent and provider, but she no longer needs him as a sexual man, and he needs someone who feels otherwise. When he asks Claire if she might have forgotten “him” with time, and she responds with “that amount of time doesn’t exist,” we are almost begging Claire through the screen to let Frank go. All this time, she could move forward as long as they stayed in place; now, she is being left behind, and that prospect must be terrifying. If you look closely at the wall next to the fireplace, however, there is a painting of a beach scene which foreshadows Claire’s future journey.
In their final scenes, both Jamie and Claire are framed in transition as they face new directions in their separate lives. Ardsmuir is closing as a prison and the remaining prisoners, including Murtagh, are being shipped off to the Colonies as indentured servants. Only Jamie is set aside and he doesn’t get more than a farewell glance at his godfather before they are separated, but it is obvious that we will see the popular character in the future, even if it is a change from the book (which I’m fine with as I love Murtagh). Jamie’s hands are bound and he is made to walk behind John, who is on horseback, for three days until they reach their destination: a house, not a prison, where Jamie will work as a servant for Lord Dunsany. There are no bars or shackles, but Jamie is a convicted traitor and as such must conceal his identity yet again. John will visit him four times a year to ensure his welfare, and Jamie knows that what happened to them has not yet been resolved. However, John points out their mutual understanding through honor and loss, and that connection is the most important relationship either has with another person at the moment.
As Claire concludes a surgery at her hospital, we see her most important relationship at the moment come to an end. It is her friend Dr. Joe Abernathy (Wil Johnson) who tells her the news of Frank’s fatal car accident, and the final moments between Claire and Frank’s body reveal the depths to which she has compounded her steely exterior. She allows herself to kiss his shoulder and touch the lines on his face, reminiscent of when she sought physical solace in him after Brianna was born, before she found an outlet for her pain. Frank didn’t prevent her from going to war as a field nurse, he didn’t prevent her from attending medical school. He worked hard and took care of Brianna. Neither of them were happy in their marriage or had been the perfect spouse, but they had happily parented a child, and Frank’s dying gives Claire one final choice: to remain still or move forward in her grief for both husbands, to return to the point at which they all intersected. As she kisses him one last time, her tears running down his face, she gives him the emotion he had craved for so long, and the final shot of her walking through the exit doors suggests she has found the courage to face her pain again towards closure.