Outlander, Season 1, Episode 6: “The Garrison Commander”
The official synopsis, courtesy of Starz:
Claire’s unexpected meeting with a British general turns tense when Captain Jack Randall arrives. Claire finds herself alone with Randall — a dangerous man determined to uncover her secrets.
I am firmly convinced that this is one of the most powerful episodes of the series, and the first episode that really goes all-out to create a mood that builds and builds from start to finish. And in case I forget to say it later — this episode should have earned Caitriona Balfe an Emmy. Period.
Now then, the synopsis:
We open exactly where we ended the previous episode, with Dougal and Claire at a stream, surrounded by redcoats. Claire faces a moment of truth — ask for rescue by the British officers, and thereby bring violence and punishment upon the men she’s been traveling with, or deny that anything is wrong, and possibly miss out on her best chance for escape and an ultimate return to her own time?
After a tense moment, Claire smiles and thanks Lt. Foster for his concern, but reassures him that she’s a guest of Clan MacKenzie. He doesn’t seem terribly convinced, and states that his commanding officer would like to meet her. It’s less of an invitation that a non-optional order for her to accompany him, and Dougal insists on coming too:
“Well, if the lady goes, I go.”
Off they ride to the town of Brockton which, despite being a Scottish village, seems to have been taken over by British troops. Claire reflects that even though it’s a different century, there’s something familiar to her about being in company once again with the British army which she, in her own time, so recently was a part of. As they reach the town, Claire realizes that the shoe is on the other foot, as it’s Dougal who is now the “outlander” and she who fits in.
In the inn’s upstairs dining room, Claire is introduced to General Thomas and a gathering of officers, all sitting down to a sumptuous meal. Claire is invited to join them, and the General fawns all over Claire, complimenting her on her beauty and exclaiming over what a treat it is for them to have an “English rose” join them. The officers are rude and insulting toward the Scots, and mock Dougal’s accent (“damned offensive to the ear”) and appearance. He takes it all for a time, standing by Claire’s side in a posture of protection, until finally he’s basically kicked out. Dougal leaves with dignity, headed downstairs for some “good Scottish ale”.
The men seem enchanted by Claire, who tells her (make-believe) story of how she came to be stranded in the Highlands. General Thomas offers to have Claire escorted back to Inverness, and she’s delighted, so much so that she decides to have more wine. Uh oh. Claire has shown that she doesn’t hold herself together very well when she drinks. But all is well, right? Everything is set, she’s been promised an escort back on her journey, and the whole unfortunate Highland business is done. Right? Right? Oh, Claire.
Claire’s prospects take a decidedly downward turn with the sudden intrusion of Black Jack Randall, who bursts into the room full of dust and bluster, annoying the General no end. BJR is a man who is an obedient soldier while making his indifference and independence abundantly clear. He defers to the General at the same time that he makes it obvious that he has no respect for the man.
BJR and Claire recognize one another from their initial encunter, but both deny having met before. Tension mounts, particularly as BJR informs the group that a group of British soldiers has been attacked by a band of Scots. BJR dominates the room and the conversation, and skillfully plays Claire, maneuvering her emotions and subtly egging her on until she finally makes a statement that turns the room against her. He insinuates that Claire has been sleeping with Dougal, choosing “barbarians” over her own people, and Claire takes the bait, angrily denying his accusation and declaring that the Scots just want freedom:
“It is their land, and we are occupying it.”
Thud. Claire has really stepped in it. The General’s reply says it all: “I believe it is the king’s land.” He tells Claire that he finds her loyalties “extremely puzzling”. Without doing much of anything, BJR has won.
There’s a flurry from below — a man wounded in the ambush has been brought into the tavern, and Claire dashes downstairs to help. Dougal pulls Claire aside and tries to get her to leave. He saw Randall go upstairs and knows that the man is highly dangerous. Claire disregards Dougal’s attempt to take her away (foolish Claire) and insists on treating the injured man, who needs his arm amputated. Close-up on the arm. Ick.
By the time Claire makes it back upstairs, the situation has changed dramatically. All of the officers have left to deal with the recent ambush, and she walks in to find BJR sitting alone at the table with a very nervous corporal giving him a shave.
Flashback! Claire recognizes the straight-razor as the same one that she use to shave Frank. Now simply a tool belonging to BJR, it will become a 200-year-old family heirloom by the time it belongs to Frank.
Back to the dining room, where BJR scarily intimidates the young corporal before sending him out of the room, leaving Claire very much alone with a man she realizes is very dangerous to her well-being. He insists that she’s been lying to everyone, shows utter disdain for General Thomas, and informs Claire that she’s going nowhere until he gets the truth. She spins a sad story of being a woman who was a fool for love, following a lover to Scotland only to realize that what he felt was not love, but lust. Her heart has been broken, and she begs BJR to ask her no further questions, as she does not want to sink to her ex-lover’s level by exposing him to scandal and disgrace.
BJR isn’t buying it. He leaves Claire hanging while he sketches a drawing of her, then tells her it’s called “Beautiful Lies”. BJR is weirdly scary. He never raises his voice, but the danger is so clear. Finally, we come to the crux of the matter: BJR knows that the MacKenzies have been raising funds for the Jacobite cause, and wants Claire to give him proof. She insists that she has no knowledge of his, and has never seen them doing anything of the kind. If she will not comply with his demands, BJR tells her, “I shall be forced to use methods less pleasant than talk.”
Once again, Claire falls into his trap. NOOOOOOOO. Claire rises to the bait and says that she knows all about his “methods”, and that while at Castle Leoch she heard about a poor “Highland boy” who received 100 lashes upon 100 lashes. NOOOOOOO. Claire, stop! Don’t bring up Jamie! Wow, is BJR eager to jump into this topic. And now he knows that Jamie is with the MacKenzies.
This brings us to the centerpiece of the episode, in which BJR recounts to Claire the story of Jamie’s flogging. We’ve heard a brief mention from Jamie, but here we get the sordid, bloody details from the man who carried it out, and it’s scary and disgusting. In an extended flashback, we hear BJR’s narration as we see the events — Jamie chained to the whipping post in the courtyard, a crowd of Scots forced to bear witness (including Dougal and Jamie’s father), and the stubborn courage Jamie shows in the face of overwhelming fear, as his already destroyed back is subject to another round of flogging only days after he received the initial 100 lashes. It’s horrifying.
BJR is challenged, intrigued, and (we can surmise) aroused by the fact that Jamie takes so much abuse and pain without crying out. BJR is determined:
“I will break you.”
His language in describing the events is sickeningly full of wonder and awe:
“I was hurting him. The sheer judder of the whip coursing up my arm, exploding in to my heart.”
The flesh hangs from Jamie’s back. He can barely keep to his feet. But BJR’s words are a stark contrast to the horror:
“I could see the beauty. I saw the truth. That boy and I, we were creating a masterpiece. An exquisite, bloody masterpiece.”
Claire listens with tears streaming down her face, but insists to BJR that “it is not too late to win back your humanity”. She tells him there is hope yet for his soul, and that he can return to the goodness that must still be inside him. He seems to consider her words and take them to heart, offers her a hand to help her stand… and then sucker-punches her in the gut, leaving her gasping on the floor. He proclaims to Claire that he dwells in darkness, and that seems to be where he wants to remain. He calls his corporal into the room and orders him to kick Claire, which he does.
Dougal bursts in, scares off the corporal, and raises Claire to her feet, putting a protective arm around her. He’s going to take her away, but BJR says no… until Dougal threatens war on the spot if BJR tries to stand in their way. BJR backs down, and orders Dougal to bring Claire to Fort William by the following evening for further questioning, or he’ll hunt Dougal down and punish him and all the MacKenzies who get in the way, “even unto death.”
Dougal and Claire leave, and ride off on their horses as fast as they can. Dougal calls a stop by a hidden spring, and while Claire is drinking, asks her one more time if she is a spy for the English or French. Claire denies it, then sees that Dougal had been holding his dirk behind his back in case she gave the wrong answer. He can finally trust her, because this is St. Ninian’s spring, and if you drink from it and tell a lie, it will burn you from the inside out. Claire is still alive and well, so she must be telling the truth!
Claire is upset and believes the MacKenzies will have no choice but to turn her over to BJR, but Dougal tells her there’s another way. The British cannot compel a Scot from clan lands, so Claire needs to become a Scot. Huh? She must marry a Scot, and thereby become a Scot herself. What, marry Dougal? Nope, he chuckles. He might like the idea of having sex with Claire, but he’s not going to marry her — he has someone else in mind as the bridegroom.
In the final scene, we see Claire drinking (again!) while reading over a marriage contract. Jamie comes to sit by her side, and he seems perfectly willing to follow Dougal’s orders and marry Claire. Claire is unhappy, but sees no way out. She tries to get Jamie to change his mind or object, but he rationally responds:
“You’ve mended my wounds more than once. Besides, what kind of friend would I be if I left ye to that mad bastard Randall?”
All seems settled. All Claire can do at this point is keep drinking.
The flashback scene to Claire shaving Frank — him shirtless, her in a sexy nightgown, all framed by an open window — is sweetly sexy and loving.
Claire wears that beautiful pleated green dress throughout this episode, with and without the shawl over her shoulders:
Her nightgown in the flashback scene is lovely (the picture doesn’t really do it justice):
Major facts that the episode gets on the table:
- Black Jack Randall is a sociopathic, disgusting, amoral sadist.
- Basically, he’s the worst thing in the world.
- Like, rotten to the core.
- Jamie is brave, strong, and true, and has lived through hell.
Putting the emphasis on the positive, I’ll just include the concluding dialogue from the episode:
Claire: “Doesn’t it bother you that I’m not a virgin?”
Jamie: “Well, no. So long as it doesn’t bother you that I am. I reckon one of us should ken what they’re doing.”
The sadistic nature of Black Jack Randall is revealed, and it’s horrifying and scary as hell. This is a bad guy way outside the typical TV versions of bad guys. Through quiet talk and intimidation, he does more damage to Claire than any show of force could.
Dougal is seen here as strong and defiant. Even as a man being mocked, he maintains his dignity and pride. He could easily have dumped Claire, but he takes on a protector role and won’t leave her to BJR’s mercy. Of course, we know as well that he has a vested interest in keeping Claire out of BJR’s hands. She’s seen a lot on their travels, and does know about their Jacobite activities. I don’t believe Dougal’s protection of Claire is only mercenary — he does need to keep her from informing on the MacKenzies, but he is also a gallant man who cannot abide seeing a woman abused so brutally.
Jamie is very matter-of-fact about the upcoming marriage, and seems to see it as the duty of a friend to marry a woman in need. He points out to Claire that he really has no marriage prospects, as no father would want a man with a price on his head as a husband for his daughter.
This is a breathtaking episode, with all action centered around the table in the dining room. All events stem from that set piece, as Claire’s fortunes rise and then fall again over a brief period of time.
Claire is often described in the books as having a “glass face”, meaning that her emotions are always obvious to anyone looking at her, and Caitriona Balfe makes that so true in this episode. I absolutely believe that you could watch this episode with the sound muted and you’d still know exactly what was happening just by watching the changing expressions on her face. It’s an astounding performance.
As I said earlier, this episode has an intensity and dramatic arc throughout that build and build and build, a cohesive, powerful approach to storytelling that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s quite a masterpiece, and despite the lightness of the ending scene, the stakes are high and the danger is real.
From here, we know that there are two overarching stories to pay attention to: Jamie and Claire’s relationship, and the threat of Black Jack Randall. We may not see him again immediately, but we’re now on notice that BJR thrives on pain and would love nothing more than to continue to hurt and threaten Claire and Jamie.