‘Outlander’ Season 4, Episode 7: Her Fathers’ Daughter
Season 4, Episode 7: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’
This was an episode full of absent things.
In fact, we don’t see Jamie or Claire at all. Instead, their daughter, Brianna, heads back in time to the Scottish Highlands (also absent from this season so far) and runs into some very familiar faces. Even then, this episode seems defined by those missing rather than those present. She gets to meet her uncle Ian, but Aunt Jenny — her direct blood tie to her father — is gone. She gets the best of Laoghaire’s hospitality, but they are haunted by the missing father figure who left them long ago. And in Brianna’s most important memories, Claire is a ghost in another room — it’s her father Frank she misses.
The focal characters in this episode, Laoghaire and Frank, both have particular positions in the overarching “Outlander” story. Laoghaire was so jealous of Claire she accused her of witchcraft. Later, she took advantage of her marriage of convenience to Jamie to extract some alimony. Frank was a better partner than that, but he also demanded that Claire never discuss Jamie, and he ended up an alcoholic, depressed about the ghost he felt had ruined any chance at a happy marriage.
Often, Laoghaire and Frank have been antagonists by default — they are obstacles in the way of our heroes. And they’re more openly flawed than Jamie and Claire. We tend to know exactly when Laoghaire and Frank have made mistakes. But some of the reason they create such tension in the story is because they remind us in absentia that Jamie and Claire are imperfect, too.
Jamie left Laoghaire. We know he had reason, and Laoghaire’s bitterness seems over the top, but Joanie hasn’t forgotten her temporary dad, so perhaps there’s some truth to that family dream. Laoghaire is also difficult about the alimony, but it’s not surprising that a woman by turns widowed, abused and abandoned would want a household without the risk of a fourth husband.
And this episode deliberately shows Laoghaire as a gracious host who helps a stranger in need. It is only after Brianna reveals her family connections (and suspicious foreknowledge) that Laoghaire throws a spanner in the works. It’s a deeply uncomfortable position for Brianna. No wonder she looks strained when little Joanie asks her to make Jamie come home.
And that strain is nothing compared to Brianna’s last moments with Frank.
Claire and Frank’s marriage last season was a fascinating collapse because it wasn’t inevitable at first. Claire knew Frank was a good man — supportive of Claire’s career, an excellent father and not sexually threatening (rarely guaranteed among the characters on this show). We understand why Claire never got over the trauma of leaving Jamie, and how she felt Frank was the interloper. But this setup asked us to consider how devotion to the absent ideal prevented any present contentment. Claire and Frank drove each other away in a rift of their own making. In a show in which things often seem predestined, this was unique: It felt character-driven and realistically messy.
Revisiting that collapse from a different perspective is fascinating. Here, Brianna remembers Frank as the comforting parent she turned to. They sometimes seem to be stating their connection rather than showing it, since so much depends on the deflection and lies surrounding the obituary. But we also see the prison Frank has built for himself, hunting ghosts and unable to be honest with his daughter. (Tobias Menzies lends depth to every loaded silence.)
Thanks to Joanie, Brianna manages to yank victory from the jaws of defeat, escape Laoghaire and board a boat for North Carolina (with a ladies’ maid, no less). But she went back centuries to find her blood family and experience Jamie’s world, and it seems at times (to her and to us) as if she were a tourist rather than a participant — the connection she is looking for is never quite there. This first foray into understanding Jamie certainly hasn’t made her feel any closer to him yet: It’s Frank she imagines at the crossroads, before she gathers her nerve to set sail.
“Outlander” is best when it allows characters to have deep, nuanced relationships that don’t always sit easily in all directions. Brianna is forced to consider two absent fathers this episode, both of them hers. Jamie’s absence seems sort of mythical to her, especially given the quest she’s on now. Frank’s love for Brianna was a much more practical scone-sharing sort, but it held strong even when he was going down some ignoble paths. Her farewells to him, both at his graveside and at the port, reflect an abiding love. Jamie, to her, is still the stuff of fairy tales — and now, some very awkward family stories. Let’s see what happens when she compares her father of memory to her father of myth.
• The fact that Brianna saw Claire’s painstaking blue ensemble last season and still chose that rickrack Hobbit bodice (a genius bit of insufficient costuming) was the first red flag about how ill-prepared she was. By the time she’s eating a PB & J — the one snack she brought, it seems — you don’t know whether you’re more boggled that she brought peanut butter and Wonder Bread back in time, or that she only brought one.
• That said, the shot of that one lonely sandwich was a poignant reminder Brianna was alone in the world in the 20th century. Claire is a ghost this episode, but that doesn’t mean she’s not in it — she’s in this sandwich as much as she’s in the obituary Frank finds.
• The next step of Roger’s penance to get back into our hearts: Shaving that beard. (Saving a woman and her baby from Stephen Bonnet’s shipboard wrath is a close second.)
• The writers seemed worried we’d forget that Stephen Bonnet is bad news, so they made sure he pushed a little girl overboard. (Not that Ed Speelers is phoning it in: He gave that Ye Olde Two-Face coin-flip monologue everything he had.)
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