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Every good story has a theme. It stands to reason, therefore, that a series which is based around one of the most successful stories of modern times would follow suit with a theme of its own. In episode 1 of the 4th season, that theme is a circle, symbolising the cyclical nature of life. In just one hour, the past is paralleled with the present and viewers experience virtually every emotion possible: from grief to happiness, from joy to despair. It is brilliantly crafted stuff and sets up the season perfectly.
The episode begins, unexpectedly and poignantly, in a totally different time period: 2000BC. A group of ancient Native Americans are building stone cairns, rock by rock. Once finished, a group of women perform a dance around the stones, reminiscent of the women who danced around Craigh Na Dun. Claire’s voiceover speaks of humans’ fascination with circles over the centuries - from the movement of planets around the sun, to clock hands, to a simple wedding band. The camera pans out and we see the circle in its entirety. Claire comments that she, more than most, knows how much a circle can affect one’s life or death.
The image changes then to a different circle, that of a hangman’s noose. It is a sober beginning to the new season. Jamie strides through the streets of North Carolina in 1767, bribing a watchman to allow him to bid farewell to a friend. On entering, we discover that the friend is none other than Gavin Hayes, who has fallen foul of the authorities for sleeping with a woman and killing the husband who interrupted them. But Jamie has come with a plan. As another condemned prisoner listens in, Jamie tells Hayes that he and Fergus will cause a distraction as Hayes is unshackled near the gallows, allowing him a moment to escape. Hayes tells Jamie he is mad: as he risks being hanged as well. Jamie counters by saying that he can’t let Hayes die, particularly when Hayes had only come on the journey to aid him. But Hayes tells Jamie that he doesn’t regret it. What he does regret is not listening to Jamie, who had warned him against bedding the woman, but Jamie observes that men do things drunk that they wouldn’t do sober.
Hayes recounts the incident, admitting that he didn’t know the woman was married until her husband appeared with the pitchfork. He had kicked the husband down the stairs to save his neck, but is now about to lose it at the gallows. Resigned to his fate, Hayes asks Jamie for two things. The first is whisky, in the hope that with enough of it he won’t notice the noose tighten. Jamie has not been able to procure whisky, given that it is not common in America, but gives him rum instead. Hayes comments that he has always been able to count on Jamie. Overcome with emotion, Jamie takes a swig as well, for Hayes’ soul.
There is one slight change to the books, in which Hayes is hanged for theft, rather than murder. But the stakes are higher here, and the scene serves to illustrate the point that the Jamie of North Carolina does not have the same authority of the Jamie in Scotland. In Ardsmuir, Jamie had been the protector of the men, able to negotiate successfully on their behalf. In Edinburgh, he had regularly warned Hayes and Lesley to stay out of trouble, but there was still the belief that he would be able to save them if they did. Here, for the first time, Jamie’s pleas have been unsuccessful. The best he can do is bribe a watchman to bring rum to his condemned friend, but he cannot save his life. Even so, he feels compelled to try, by devising the plan with Lesley and Fergus. But at the last, it is Hayes who warns Jamie. To try such a plan would be foolish and Hayes won’t risk their safety. He has learned his lesson, but it is too late. He looks so vulnerable and resigned that it adds heartbreak to the realisation. There can be no reprieve. There is nothing to be done. This is wonderful acting by James Allenby-Kirk and deserves special mention.
With the flask being passed between the two men, another prisoner asks for a swig as well, for his own soul. After a moment’s hesitation, Jamie passes him the flask and he makes a toast to all of their souls. Hayes’ final request is a poignant one: that his final sight can be of a friend smiling at him. Jamie places his hand over that of his friend’s, telling Hayes, “You have my word.” It is an emotional farewell, faintly reminiscent of Rupert’s farewell in the farm house after Culloden.
Outside, a crowd is gathering. Many are happily awaiting the spectacle of an execution, but Fergus and Lesley are anxiously awaiting Jamie’s return. When he appears, he tells the two kinsmen that they are to do nothing when Hayes is unshackled. Fergus asks if there is another plan, but Jamie tells them that it is what Hayes wants. It is clear that they are not happy with this, and Jamie lays a hand on Lesley’s shoulder in sympathy.
The drums begin and the condemned men appear. Jamie, Claire, Fergus, Marsali and Lesley stand together, while Claire’s voiceover explains that 4 months have passed since their arrival and that they had been making their way up the coast when they heard about Hayes. Despite Jamie’s best efforts, the magistrate would not listen. Hayes is pushed up the stairs to the gallows, and it is clear that there is to be no last minute reprieve. As the sentence is read and the noose is placed over Hayes’ head, Jamie pushes his way into the centre of the crowd and into Hayes’ line of sight. The two men smile in farewell, Jamie’s smile immediately faltering as the lever is pulled and Hayes drops to his death, neck snapping in one motion. The sight of his friend’s lifeless body swinging at the end of the rope is too much for Lesley, who strikes out at the redcoats. With great irony, the remaining prisoners follow the plan that Jamie had spoken of, using the distraction to try and disappear into the crowd. Two are recaptured, but the third, the man who had shared the rum, succeeds in escaping. With a final look at the face of his friend, Jamie turns away and the new season theme song begins, complete with an American folk music treatment and a long shot of an eagle flying majestically over the water .
Later in the tavern, the group are discussing Hayes’ burial. Fergus and Lesley have been to the local minister, who refuses to have a convicted felon in his graveyard, without a good deal of recompense. Young Ian suggests burying Hayes in the wood, but Jamie and Lesley discount this, explaining that their friend had been afraid of spirits. This is another slight change from the book, in which Hayes had been afraid of the dark, but it is a small detail. Jamie says that they will not bury him in unconsecrated ground, but take care of the burial themselves that night and lay Hayes to rest with other souls. Lesley speaks of the need for a proper lament to be sung for Hayes. This he performs, with the assistance of Jamie, Ian and all the other Scots in the tavern. As a side note, the fine singing voice of actor Keith Fleming should be mentioned.
Under the cover of darkness, Jamie, Claire, Lesley and Young Ian pull the wagon containing Hayes’ body. Claire’s voiceover laments that Hayes would never make it back to Scotland and indeed their own return depends on the sale of a gemstone. Conversation turns to this, with an upcoming dinner serving as the best chance to make a sale. Arriving at the burial ground, Lesley and Claire stay with the body, while Jamie and Young Ian go to dig a grave.
The next scene is a spectacular piece of acting by John Bell and Sam Heughan. While digging the grave, the two men are confronted by ghosts of their own. The dark rectangular shape of the plot reminds Ian of the bath of blood that “The Bakra”, aka Geillis had been bathing in when he was taken to her. He begins to experience flashbacks and scrambles out of the grave in a panic. He tells Jamie that he doesn’t want to summon the memories, but Jamie replies that sometimes ghosts can only be banished by speaking their names and foul deeds aloud. He tells Ian that he had a festering pain inside him too, but only by sharing it with Claire was he able to feel better. In halting tones, Ian tells Jamie of his ordeal with Geillis and how he had been forced to do unspeakable things against his will. Tearfully Ian asks Jamie if he has ever lain with someone when he didn’t want to. The spectre of Jack Randall is raised when Jamie tells Ian that he has. Bitterly, Ian says that Jamie will understand then, the feeling of detesting what he is doing, even though it feels pleasing. Jamie lightens the mood a bit by telling Ian that what it comes down to is that Ian has a conscience, even if other parts of his anatomy do not. Taking a more serious tone, he adds that Ian had done what he had to do in order to survive. Again, we are reminded of Jamie’s ordeal with Randall, to ensure the survival of Claire. Comforted by his uncle’s words, Ian embraces Jamie, and the two go to collect Hayes’ body.
For a moment it looks as if a third ghost is about to appear. As Lesley prepares to take Hayes’ body from the wagon, a figure inexplicably rises from underneath the cover. Lesley and Ian start to panic, while a more practical Jamie punches the supposed ‘creature from hell’ in the stomach. The cover is pulled off to reveal the escaped prisoner from the gallows. The Irishman admits to having been hiding out in the wagon since that afternoon, in the hopes that if the group left town, they would take him with them unawares. He introduces himself as Stephen Bonnet (a name that sends a chill down any Outlander book reader’s spine), stating his crimes as thieving, smuggling and piracy and saying that he has never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill him first. He asks them for assistance to convey him past the watch, so that he can make good his escape, promising to then trouble them no more. Echoing Jamie’s prison promise to Hayes, Bonnet says, “You have my word.” When no one seems to be convinced, Bonnet changes tack, asking them for the sake of the life of Gavin Hayes, who had told him that Jamie would never turn his back on a friend. This sways the them and Jamie agrees to take him where he wants to go. Claire says she will accompany them, as a husband and wife travelling together will seem less suspicious. And so a plan is made: they will bury Hayes, then Ian and Lesley will return to the tavern, while Jamie and Claire transport Bonnet. A seemingly grateful Bonnet then offers to help “bury a friend.”
The next scene opens with Jamie and Claire being stopped by redcoats. Both are nervous, but state that they are on family business when questioned as to why they are out so late. Jamie lists the contents of the wagon: a side of venison, sacks of oats and a body. Explaining that a man was hanged that afternoon, Claire tells the officer that they are taking him for a proper burial. Unconvinced, the officer orders his companion, Griswald, to stab the supposed corpse in the leg to check that it’s dead, a request that alarms Jamie and Claire, who jumps slightly at the sound of the bayonet striking flesh. But there is no cry of pain and they are allowed on their way. Once safely out of the sight of the officers, they stop to check on Bonnet, who has emerged from the incident with only a slight cut, the majority of the damage being inflicted on the venison. Jamie tells Bonnet that Claire will attend to his leg, given that she is a healer.
The scene between Claire and Bonnet is a very clever parallel to the one between Jamie and Young Ian, similar in that both characters share personal information about themselves that establishes a bond between them; different in that while Ian and Jamie are related and already have a relationship of trust and respect; the usually cautious Claire is sharing important personal details with a complete stranger. Bonnet comments on her two wedding bands, complimenting her by saying that she had married two lucky men. He states that he has always been partial to rings, and fascinated by the notion of an infinite circle. Claire observes that the hangman’s noose is also a circle and one that he should avoid. After a moment in which Bonnet observes Claire closely, he shares his personal fear - it’s not the noose he fears, bur drowning. It is a fear that haunts his nightmares, from which he is unable to wake. He says that he knows that drowning will be the death of him. Claire replies that nightmares can’t cause actual harm, but Bonnet counters that he feels the sea pulling at him and asks if she has felt the same. Claire then shares her personal story, about nearly drowning in the storm. They have undoubtedly made a connection, but there is something strangely uneasy about it. Ed Speleers, the actor playing Stephen Bonnet, shows particular skill in demonstrating Bonnet’s guile. Bonnet is a people watcher - observing them intensely, then charming them with personal stories. It remains to be seen what will be done with them.
Jamie reappears and asks Bonnet where he will go. Bonnet mentions meeting up with friends who will be nearby, Jamie remarking that these men will undoubtedly be pirates - an observation that Bonnet does not exactly dispute. He offers Jamie a reward, which Jamie refuses, saying that he saved Bonnet for Hayes’ sake. Bonnet offers them a piece of parting advice, saying that they should be careful in the woods, in case they are set upon by thieves. When Claire says she hopes his good luck continues, Bonnet replies that he has always felt a man makes his own luck.
Determined not to make the redcoats suspicious by passing them again so soon, Claire and Jamie decide to camp in the woods. The next scene gives Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan the opportunity to show how Jamie and Claire’s relationship has changed. They constantly touch each other throughout the scene, but they are the tender touches of a couple taking comfort from the familiarity of each other and the closeness they share, rather than the passionate embraces of new love. They stroke each other’s face, kiss briefly, interlace their fingers and smile and gaze at each other as they talk softly. Although still a passionate couple, this is a different mood. We see just how strong their bond is. They speak of treasuring the moments of just being together, as they know how fleeting life can be. When Claire says she can’t help feeling that it could all be ripped away in a moment, Jamie replies that death is a small thing between them. They were separated by 200 years, but all the time he was “dead”, he still loved Claire. When his body dies, he tells her, his soul will be hers. A favourite quote from the book appears here: “Nothing is dead, Sassenach, only changed.”
“That’s the first law of thermodynamics,” Claire whispers.
“Nah,” he replies. “That’s faith.”
The following lovemaking is every bit as passionate as their wedding night, but this time the passion is fuelled by simply being alive, and the joy of being together.
The next morning, Claire and Jamie sit and look at the view ahead of them. Claire tells Jamie that they are looking at the start of what America will become. North Carolina will be just one of 50 states, filled with people from countries all over the world, hoping to live the American dream. When Jamie asks if it is the same as their dream, she answers , “I suppose it is. The chance to live in a place where the only limitations are a person’s own abilities and the will to succeed.” Thousands will come, she says, and then millions. Jamie asks about the country’s native inhabitants and the picture Claire paints is more disturbing, telling him that many will be forced from their lands, killed or forced to live in reservations. It is a disturbing parallel with the Highlanders after Culloden. Indeed, Jamie’s next observation that “a dream for some can be a nightmare for others” is portentous, not only for the Outlander story, but for the world at large.
That night, Jamie and Claire prepare for the Lillington dinner, hoping to sell the ruby. Jamie presents it as a necklace for Claire, which has been set into a simple design. The two discuss the chances of one of the dinner guests, known for a love of beautiful things, in being interested in the stone. Again, the two display the easy closeness of their relationship. Jamie wraps his arms around Claire’s waist, she leans into him, he requests the pleasure of her company.
The Lillington dinner is also somewhat reminiscent of the dinner party that was given in Paris. In Jared Fraser’s house, the stakes were high and the dinner guests irritating - and the same can be said here. But Claire and Jamie are surer of themselves this time, the desperation of Paris is missing. Claire easily holds court, charmingly putting the men in their place and dealing with the jealousy of one of the female guests who sarcastically insults her hairstyle. When Baron Penzler attempts to examine the ruby by boldly staring at Claire’s cleavage, she merely removes the stone and hands it to him. At all times, she is totally in control. Jamie too is receiving attention, confirming to the men that he is indeed the nephew of Jocasta Cameron, a woman of some influence, who fellow guest Governor Tryon is also acquainted with. They discuss her property River Run, on the banks of the Cape Fear River at the foot of the mountains. When Jamie comments that as a highlander, mountains are like home, the governor replies that the Blue Ridge mountains are some of the most majestic in the world. Jamie adds that he will see them when he visits his aunt before returning to Scotland, and the Governor invites Jamie to join him after dinner, as he has a matter he wishes to discuss. Jamie agrees and he and Claire share a brief curious glance.
Jamie doesn’t have to wait long to discover what the “matter” is. In front of the fire with pipe and brandy, the Governor makes Jamie an offer. As both a farmer and a soldier, Jamie fits the criteria of “industrious, God fearing family men” that North Carolina is looking for. Large land grants are available, Governor Tryon tells Jamie, for men who would encourage emigrants to come and settle on such land under their sponsorship. Jamie baulks at the amount that would need to be paid in coin, but Tryon leans forward conspiratorially to tell him that “there is the law and then there is what is done.” It is a distinction not lost on Jamie,and we are reminded again of Hayes. It further underlines the power Jamie does not yet have. Perhaps, if he did, he could indeed have saved his friend. Exceptions can be made, the Governor says, as long as the man concerned swears an oath to the King, if not already done so. With the spectre of Culloden raised, Jamie answers the Governor’s hinted question: as a pardoned Jacobite, he has sworn the oath, adding that like so many others, he did so to keep his life. He takes his leave, but nevertheless, the seed has been planted.
Back in their quarters, Jamie is counting the 100 pounds sterling that Claire has received for the sale of the ruby, whilst commenting on the lechery of the Baron who purchased it. They have enough money to secure passage to Scotland and purchase a printing press. Claire is silent, which Jamie interprets as worry for their safety. He reassures her that he is no longer a wanted man, thanks to John Grey. But it isn’t that: Claire has been thinking about the Governor’s offer. Jamie admits he has too, but is suspicious of the Governor’s motives. Why him, he asks. An outsider with few ties and no loyalties. Tryon is a soldier and a man of strategy who has had trouble with the regulators, men of the wilderness who have had issue with Tryon’s tax collectors and taken matters into their own hands to stir up a spirit of resistance. He needs Jamie to help restore order. Claire reminds Jamie that the American Revolution is a mere 8 years away and that if Jamie accepts the offer, he would be expected to fight for the Crown against the revolutionaries. Jamie is not overly concerned, saying that he has fought in wars before. But unlike Culloden, Claire tells him, the British will lose. They would be on the wrong side of history, yet again, and the land would be taken from them. But Jamie has another thing to consider. America will become Brianna’s country, he says. He doesn’t wish to fight, or to endanger Claire, but if he can help to make the land good, so that his presence can be felt by Brianna later, then that would be something. He may not have power in the present, but perhaps he can affect the future. Claire agrees. Their decision is made.
Approaching the tavern, Jamie and Claire meet Ian, who is sitting outside with an enormous dog, so big that it must be part wolf. Ian has won it in dicing and has named the creature Rollo. Jamie admonishes him against dicing with sailors, but Ian is unperturbed. Jamie gambles too, he says, and besides, he has won. He has contributed money for the journey home,but promises not to do it again. Claire tells him he doesn’t need to anyway, as the sale of the ruby has provided them with plenty of money. Jamie tells Ian to bring the dog inside, as they have things to talk about.
Inside, Jamie and Claire share their news with the others. They have decided to make their home in North Carolina. When Jamie tells Ian he will still be returning to Scotland, Ian begs to be allowed to stay. He doesn’t have much luck though, as Jamie is determined that Ian will amount to something, for Jenny’s sake. Jamie gives Fergus his share of the profits. He tells Fergus that it is enough for he and Marsali to return to Scotland if they choose, as well as some alimony money for Laoghaire.
Next Jamie offers money to Lesley, but Lesley tells him to keep the coin, as he wishes to travel with them for a moment longer. In a parallel to Murtagh, Lesley declares his place to be by Jamie’s side, reasoning that North Carolina is wild country. Touched by the gesture, Jamie agrees. Fergus and Marsali also declare they want to stay, as Marsali would not be suited to a long journey - she is pregnant. Given Claire and Marsali’s conversation during season 3, Claire’s comment about it being a happy surprise is loaded with extra meaning for Marsali. Marsali acknowledges this, but adds that they are delighted. They plan to stay in Wilmington, where they both hope to find work. Jamie asks God to bless them both, with a heartfelt comment to Fergus that he will make a fine father. While Claire congratulates the young couple, Jamie suggests that Lesley and Ian accompany them to River Run, until Ian’s ship leaves in a fortnight’s time.
The trip to River Run is a gentle one along the water. Claire asks Jamie what his aunt is like and he replies that he hasn’t seen her since he was a young boy. She is a McKenzie, his mother’s sister, and has been widowed three times, all to men named Cameron. Claire asks what the fascination with Camerons is and Jamie remarks that they have a way with words, adding that Jocasta and her third husband had come to North Carolina after the Rising. Claire says she hopes the message reaches River Run before they do, so that Jocasta will be expecting them. A grumpy Ian, who is helping with the rowing, remarks that a messenger could get there faster than them even if on hands and knees. Jamie laughs, telling Ian to keep going and he will have them there before nightfall. Claire, meanwhile, is looking critically at the boat captain, who has a black man steering the vessel. She assumes that the elderly man is a slave, who is being forced to work without a break. But the captain corrects her: the man, Eutroclus, is being paid. Eutroclus was once a slave, but had saved the captain when he had fallen asleep with the lamp burning and the cabin caught fire. The captain immediately petitioned the court for his slave’s release and offered surety for his freedom. Dubbing him the best water man on the river, the captain explains that Eutroclus has worked for him ever since. Claire looks at the captain with more respect, commenting that he must be grateful every day.
As the sun begins to set, Jamie sends Ian to take his turn at steering. Claire has been getting a lesson from Eutroclus, remarking that the current is stronger than she imagined and that the job is harder than it looks. Jamie asks Claire to join him and a breathless Claire agrees. Jamie then presents her with a present, asking her to open the wooden box in front of her. Claire is overcome: it is a beautiful medical chest, filled with all sorts of supplies. Jamie asks proudly if she likes it and she immediately embraces him, declaring it to be wonderful. She asks where he found it and Jamie explains he saw the box when he went to have the ruby set. Somewhat wistfully, Jamie says that maybe one day he will be able to deck her in laces and jewels, lamenting that he has never been able to give her very much, except for her wedding ring and his mother’s pearls. But Claire disagrees. He has given her so much more, she tells him, Brianna being the most important. Claire says that she gave the pearls to their daughter, and that the ring is all she needs. Jamie replies that it has been 24 years since they were married and he hopes that he has never given her cause to regret it. Tearfully, Claire replies: “Not for a single day”. They smile at each other as the boat continues down the river.
It is night now and everyone is asleep. Suddenly Rollo sits up, growling. As Ray Charles’ version of “America” plays throughout the action of this final scene, terrible brutality occurs. Rollo races onto the deck, pushing an intruder into the water, as Stephen Bonnet bursts into the cabin, with the words: “Mr and Mrs Fraser, a pleasure to see you again.” He swings a punch at Jamie, who lunges at Bonnet, but Jamie is then lured outside where his other pirate companions await. Tragedy after tragedy follow in quick succession. Jamie is restrained and relieved of the gemstones, Ian and Lesley are attacked by another pirate,with Lesley briefly knocked unconscious. Claire is held at gunpoint. Regaining his senses, Lesley tries to come to her aid and attacks her captor, but a horrified Claire is then forced to watch as Bonnet cooly slits Lesley’s throat in front of her. Jamie is beaten up outside and Bonnet advances on Claire, screaming at her to remove her two wedding bands. Shakily she does so, but at the last minute attempts to swallow them. Bonnet grabs her neck and forces his hand into her mouth. It is a violation that seems almost as shocking as a sexual assault, and the look on Claire’s face is heartbreaking. Bonnet manages to recover one of the rings: it is Jamie’s. With a final look at both the body of Lesley and the restrained Jamie, Bonnet leaves. He has what they came for and the reason for his earlier friendly encounter becomes clear. Bonnet had gained their confidence and learned enough from his time hidden in their wagon to know precisely when and where to strike. The warning he had given them was actually for himself and they have paid dearly for their act of kindness towards him. The attackers gone, with the gems, money and ring, Claire and Jamie have lost everything once again. Jamie staggers back into the cabin, to find Lesley dead and a sobbing Claire, Frank’s ring lying in her shaking hands. Their American dream has turned into a nightmare.
This scene was a truly stunning and disturbing one, every bit as dramatic as the battle for Culloden and with Stephen Bonnet proving every bit as evil as Black Jack. Partly this is due to the amazing acting, performed with no audible dialogue but incredible emotion, but the atmospheric choice of music also plays its part. Some viewers of the episode have criticised its choice as being a thinly veiled political statement for the current American climate. As an Australian reviewer, I can say in all honesty that this didn’t cross my mind. I was more impressed by the genius at which writers, director and actors conveyed the circle theme once again. Life is indeed an infinite circle - a mixture of past, present and future, joy and tragedy, happiness and loss, plenty and poverty, despair and hope. If this episode is any indication, season 4 is going to be every bit as amazing as the previous 3.
This episode recap was written by Susie Brown, a teacher-librarian and writer who lives in Australia. She was left speechless by the final scene and marvels at the talents of all who created it.
A huge thanks to FarFarAway.com site for sharing their high res photos!