‘Outlander,’ Season 4, Episode 4: Bear Killer
Season 4, Episode 4: ‘Common Ground’
“It’s said the Highlander has much in common with the Indian savage. You think it so?”
“Outlander” has several times drawn parallels between the Scottish Highlanders, who fought English occupation of their land, and Native Americans, who are fighting occupation by the English and other newly-minted Americans. In this week’s episode, it is drawn by the governor as he gifts Jamie 10,000 acres of His Majesty’s land — and warns him about the welcome he can expect.
Jamie’s reply, as he stares the governor down: “Savagery can exist in many forms, Your Excellency.” It’s a beat of Jamie at his best: a natural leader, keenly aware of injustice, and determined to speak truth to power.
But his early days with Claire and Ian on the homestead are punctuated by warning visits from the Cherokee. They’re understandably unhappy about the Frasers moving onto their ancestral lands. And the Jamie who refused to buy the governor’s opinion of “savages” is the same Jamie who refuses to move when Claire suggests they build further from the shared border.
“From what you’ve told me, there are Indians all over these lands,” he says. “So no matter where we settle we’ll have the same problem.” Whether he likes it or not, Jamie is buying into the English mind-set. When they first rode through this land, Jamie nodded when he heard it was Cherokee territory, sympathetic to their fight. Now it’s his land, and they’re a problem.
It’s a conflict the show can’t quite get a handle on. The parallels between Highlanders and Native Americans don’t hold up so well when the Highlanders are shown as brave heroes and the Cherokee are introduced as a threat, down to the ominous music and drumbeats. The episode does seem aware of the friction between framing Jamie as its hero and the fact that he’s settling on ancestral Cherokee land, but fleetingly: John Quincy Myers nods along with Jamie’s good and peaceful intentions, but when he hears that the Cherokee hurled the Frasers’ own boundary sticks into the ground at their feet, he doesn’t sympathize much with Jamie’s frustration.
“The Cherokee gave you a warning,” he explains, and then suggests that Jamie reconsider this whole homesteading gig: “Next time they might not be so courteous.”
There’s just no easy way out of the position they’re in: Eventually, the episode has to find some other way to resolve the tension. So Jamie kills the violent “bear spirit” roaming the woods — a Cherokee outcast who has lost his mind — and wins the respect of the tribe.
This reconciliation is clearly meant to undercut the image of Native American characters as the “savages” the governor described. We see them here in the context of a community rather than as mere antagonists for our heroes. But the upshot is still that Jamie did what the Cherokee were unwilling or unable to do. Apparently, that move is heroic enough to end the territory dispute with one stroke. Jamie is honored with the name Bear Killer. The Frasers welcome the Cherokee visitors to their fire (a Cherokee elder even tells Claire she “has medicine” and gives her blessing) and all, it seems, is well.
It feels a little too neat. But the Cherokee will be in ever more danger as more settlers arrive, and Jamie and Claire will have plenty of chances to prove their commitment to the new friendship. The governor’s warnings alone suggest Jamie and Claire may yet struggle with their privileges in this New World. After all, “There is the law, and there is what is done” is good news only to people in power.
And “Outlander” is clearly ready to put its tangles with race and colonialism behind for a while and settle into its settlers’ lives. We get plenty of the Frasers in woodsy domestic bliss. Claire, Jamie and Ian gut trout, chop trees, mend nets and plan for the settlement. (Jamie’s surprise housewarming gift for Claire: a clinic.) In particular, Claire and Ian have settled into a comfortable rhythm. He has turned into a handy surgical assistant, and Claire is clearly fond of his cheerfulness.
The only one missing from the family portrait is Brianna.
Saying farewell to a pregnant Marsali in Wilmington sends Claire down a guilt spiral about Brianna, who is far more separated from her mother than Marsali is from hers. At last Claire admits to Jamie, like a terrible secret, “Sometimes I worry it was wrong to leave her.” Leaving Brianna to go back for Jamie remains one of the most loaded decisions Claire has ever made, and it’s no surprise she is thinking of it now as she starts over yet again.
In 1970, the first step of Roger’s redemption is the best apology gift a man can give: Documentation that your mother definitely found her first husband after she traveled 200 years back through time. His phone call to Brianna to give her the news is really well done, full of awkward small talk and the strange intimacy of sharing a secret, even if they’re not on great terms.
The second step of Roger’s redemption is more loaded: He has to decide whether to tell Brianna that Jamie and Claire’s happiness was short lived because they died in a fire on Fraser’s Ridge sometime in the 1770s. As it turns out, however, there is no time to worry about that: Roger’s second phone call to Brianna ends with its own revelation.
Brianna has gone to visit her mother.
• Speaking of knitting, Claire’s shawl really sells its serviceability as a garment here. It echoes her earliest, most practical Scottish clothes — a deliberate visual tie between her old world and her new one.
• I laughed out loud as Claire and Jamie gazed out at a green screen talking about paintings. Sometimes breaking the fourth wall is fun!
• I’m always delighted to see Tantoo Cardinal, who plays the Cherokee elder, on a cast list. She’s great — very happy to have her here.
• “You must not be troubled. Death is sent from the gods. It will not be your fault.” Well, that’s cheering!
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