About midway through “Vengeance Is Mine,” the 11th episode of the second season of “Outlander,” I realized that nearly every issue I’ve had with the season boils down to a single element. That element? The very first scenes of the season.
Back in “Through a Glass, Darkly” we see Claire (Caitriona Balfe) return to the future to take up with her original husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). Claire is newly pregnant, unsure whether or not the love of her life, Jamie (Sam Heughan), survived the battle she left behind, but she is determined to raise their child in a loving environment, committing to a new life with Frank in America.
This choice to begin the season in this fashion, a departure from the narrative established in “Dragonfly in Amber,” the second book of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, was a necessary one. The series couldn’t have an entire season without Frank, as the book does, so it adapts in this way to create a more cohesive narrative for its characters.
But that narrative comes at a price. Because the show decides to open with Claire in the future, the audience knows a few things for certain going forward:
1. Claire survives.
2. Frank survives.
3. Claire is pregnant with Jamie’s child.
We learn as the season continues that Claire successfully gives birth to said child and is raising her in Boston.
We know, because there are eight books (and counting) in Gabaldon’s series and because this is a television show, that Jamie survives and that he and Claire will find each other again some day.
With all of that established, the question becomes a matter of stakes.
While generally that wouldn’t be a problem, so much of the show’s second season has been bound up in Claire and Jamie’s attempt to change history, a plot that we already know they fail at. It creates an imbalance in the show and leaves the audience antsy for “Outlander” to tell them something they don’t already know.
This is why so much of the show’s time in Paris felt rather aimless, as though the series was just killing time before getting to the place we always knew it was going and why so many plot points since have felt merely like stuff that happened, as opposed to moments we could invest in.
Which brings us back to “Vengeance Is Mine.” While the first half of the episode suffered from the same largely perfunctory moments that have plagued the entire season, things took a turn for the interesting once Claire allows herself to be taken by the British in order to protect Jamie and his men.
The reveal that Sandringham (Simon Callow) was going to betray Jamie and Claire wasn’t surprising as far as a character beat goes, but it was thrilling. Almost as thrilling as the revelation that Sandringham orchestrated the attack on Claire and Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) in Paris.
In these moments, it was unclear what would happen next, and it was delightful. That Jamie and Murtagh were able to make their way back to Sandringham’s house and rescue both Claire and Mary was electric to watch, as was the moment when Murtagh was able to lay Sandringham’s head at the feet of the women, fulfilling the oath he had made to them in Paris – that he would avenge the attack he was unable to prevent.
But perhaps the most moving moment of the episode was when Mary took matters into her own hands and stabbed Sandringham’s hired man, her rapist. It’s a moment that allows for Mary to have some form of catharsis for the attack that upended her life and it served as a necessary beat to acknowledge the long-lasting effects of what she’s suffered.
Beyond the back half of the episode providing catharsis, it also doesn’t hurt that so many of the scenes with Sandringham were low-key hilarious. From him recounting the increasingly bizarre rumors about Claire killing the Comte to his repeated demands that Mary Hawkins just “go to bed,” Sandringham was a character who was terrible on every level and, yet, will be missed in his own special way.
With the episode ending on such a high, it’s easy to be hopeful heading into the final two episodes of the “Outlander” season, if not that everything will turn out okay, then in the fact that the journey to a conclusion can still be compelling even if you know how it ends.
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