How far from pleasure into pain can one feisty heroine tumble in a mere 58 minutes of cable television? This question was answered in last night’s episode of Outlander, which we can safely say has roared back from its mid-season break with oomph and vigor. “By the Pricking of My Thumbs” begins with Jamie Fraser roaming enthusiastically from his wife Claire’s highland peaks to her fertile, um, glen, but — after some dueling, some noble repartee, and a little touch of moonlight satanic ritual — it concludes with what our ancestors deemed appropriate for free-thinking and independent women like Claire: imprisonment for witchcraft.
I am a bit nervous to offer a full-throated assessment of the series because very recently, my qualified enthusiasm for Outlander‘s diverting yet occasionally nonsensical tone earned me the ire of a group of dogged superfans on Twitter (who have needless to say bedecked their social media presences with photos of a kilted Sam Heughan). They have deemed my reviews not appropriately worshipful of the series’s utter perfection, and cast me into outer fangirl darkness — which is presumably somewhere far away from Scotland.
Nonetheless despite these assaults on my honor, I shall persist in recapping. And while we’re on the subject of persistence, Jamie Fraser begins the episode where we left off last time, persistently pleasuring a moaning Claire, despite the loud rapping and tapping on their chamber door. From this congenial scene of soft-core pornography, we are all abruptly yanked — but not until Claire has reached a happy ending that recalls Samantha’s best Sex and the City climaxes.
The urgent news is this: the Duke of Sandringham has arrived in the vicinity, and he is partial to Jamie (and apparently to Jamie’s hindquarters) while wielding great influence in court. Jamie hopes to use said influence to obtain a pardon and shed his outlaw status, but Claire, being from the future and all, possesses secret knowledge of the Duke’s alliance with Black Jack Randall and urges Jamie to take care. Jamie is so excited at the prospect of a pardon, and of being the Laird back at Lallybroch — “and you can be my lady” he tells Claire — that he’s not hearing any of her Debbie Downer predictions.
The lawyer Ned Gowan puts forth a complex scheme for a petition, and a pardon, and Jamie is simply chuffed, but Claire is preoccupied with telling that saucy minx Laoghaire to keep her hands off of Claire’s man. Laoghaire is hardly friendly in response, calling Claire a “cold English bitch” and worse. But after a well-administered slap from Claire, the lass admits to planting the ill-wish under the newlywed’s bed, a token of evil procured from local herbologist and Claire’s pal Gellis Duncan.
Claire later finds Gellis shooting an R-rated Florence and the Machine video, writhing half-naked under the moon amidst torches and prayers. She’s also visibly pregnant, and her incantations have one purpose: to enable she and her baby daddy (cough cough! Dougal McKenzie!) to be together, with no inconvenient spouses in the way. She begs Claire to keep her secrets.
They’re interrupted from their occult communion by the sound of a crying baby. It turns out to be a changeling child, left out for the fairies in an old superstitious custom, and Gellis hisses at the meddlesome Claire to stay away. But thoroughly modern Claire is naturally appalled and cradles the dying baby, weeping hserlf. Only Jamie can gently pry her away, explaining that even if the custom seems cruel, it helps parents of sick infants get comfort to think the changeling has died and the real infant is happy with the fairies (see W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” for an idea of this folklore).
Unbeknownst to Jamie, Claire pays an advance visit to the Duke of Sandringham at a fancy house that seems extremely out-of-place in the neighborhood (gorgeous fainting couches though!). She doesn’t ask the Duke for decorating tips, but instead thrusts and parries witticisms and veiled threats with him. He even has an assistant to whom he dictates his choicest bon mots. “You have the most gorgeous neck; it holds your head so prettily. I’d hate to see them parted,” he tells Claire. But she has some blackmail-worthy information of her own, and soon the embroidered slipper is on the other foot. Our heroine leaves with the Dukes assurances that he’s happy to advocate for Jamie and consider his pardon.
Back at Castle Leoch, Dougal lurches about in a drunken rage because his wife has taken ill and died, and Claire helps sedate him after he starts swinging his sword at everyone around while weeping simultaneously. Talk about a case of The Feels! Gellis on the other hand, is thrilled by the tragic news. One spouse down, one to go.
At a stately dinner, The Duke of Sandringham “meets” Claire and enlists Jamie’s help as his second in a duel of honor, an assignation which starts off being genteel enough but ends in a clan-on-clan brawl, with Jamie doing his share of havoc-wreaking. “Just one more scar, Sassenach,” he says as Claire binds his wounds. The precarious situation at Castle Leoch has deteriorated too, after Gellis Duncan’s flatulent husband Arthur straight up died in the middle of the banquet. Claire smelled arsenic on his breath, while Colum caught a fleeting glance of triumph ‘twixt the barely ten-seconds-a-widow Gellis and his own brother Dougal. To keep the conniving lovers apart, he promptly sends Dougal and his men away, and boots Jamie out with them for good measure (he brawled!).
Alas and alack, with the men gone, our pair of herb-gathering women are left in quite a vulnerable spot. Despite a “stay away from Gellis Duncan” warning from Jamie, a false note tricks gullible Claire into showing up at Gellis’s place moments before she’s arrested for witchcraft. Claire is taken into custody too for good measure, and as the bars close around her she sees Laoghaire smirking wickedly at her, and realizes she’s been set up. Her cold cell is a far cry from having Jamie Fraser in bed with her and a roaring fire in the hearth.
But it’s certainly enough to lure us into tuning in next week.