After a couple episodes detailing preparations for upcoming battle, we finally get some action this week. “Prestonpans” treats armed conflict as a necessary evil; the Scottish soldiers are not deified — they’re all too human — but they’re revered and respected. War is shown to be exhausting and painful, not glorious. When a restless soldier starts to speak of “gore and glory,” another reminds him, “It’s not pigs you’re slaughtering here but men.”
As the title indicates, this week’s episode is dedicated to the first official fight of the Jacobite Rising, between Prince Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army and British government troops. The Battle of Prestonpans is a real historic event: it took place near Edinburgh in 1745. The episode opens on a close-up shot of a dead body lying on the ground, maggots eating its flesh. “How many men had I seen killed in war?” Claire asks in voiceover. “Far, far too many.”
From Claire, Jamie knows that the Battle of Prestonpans is a victory for the Jacobites. But Claire only knows the outcome; it’s up to Jamie to figure out how to lead the Highland troops to the British, whose camp is separated from theirs by a boggy marsh. Jamie thinks the marsh will be too soft to carry the men and their horses across. Someone needs to go across and test the waters, so to speak, and Dougal welcomes the chance to “prove his mettle.”
Dougal sets off on horseback in broad daylight, as the soldiers gather in support. “Extraordinary fellow,” Stuart marvels as Dougal’s horse picks its way through the mud. It’s starting to get stuck, and the redcoats start to shoot at Dougal — one bullet pierces his hat, grazing the top of his head — when he decides he’s proved his toughness and turns back. “If I had a hundred men like you,” Stuart gushes, “this war would be over.” After the prince leaves, Dougal deflates the pomp of the moment: He turns to his men and declares, “The hero of the hour has shat his pants.”
Crossing the marsh is out of the question, but the Jacobites get a last-minute save when a young man who’s familiar with the area tells them about a little-known trail that’s not on the map but that will take them to the British side. The men have to strike quickly, in the middle of the night, to take the British by surprise. On the eve of battle, Murtagh shares his worries with Jamie in another beautifully written monologue: “You tell yourself the raid’s success or failure depends on your actions. And if you’re forced to wound a man, kill him even, chances are you stare into his eyes when doing it. And if you were to be killed, you’d die knowing your memory would live on within your clan. Your death would have meaning.”
But this war they’re fighting with the British is different. With an army of 2,000 men, the death of any one soldier is “meaningless.” “A thousand would have to be slain before our deaths take on any meaning,” Murtagh laments. “It weighs on me.” Jamie tells him that if it’s any comfort, he feels the same way. Murtagh says it is.
Claire and the other women she’s trained as nurses stay behind, anxiously waiting in the field hospital she’s set up as the men set off in the middle of the night. The scene of the men walking through the foggy forest before dawn is beautifully shot, with mist mingling through tree branches silhouetted against a deep blue night sky. The sense of anticipation — we cut between the men poised for battle and the women waiting behind for the inevitable injuries to come — is reminiscent of “Blackwater,” the Season 2 episode of Game of Thrones in which Cersei, Sansa, and the other ladies of King’s Landing’s court wait for Stannis Baratheon’s men to attack. When the fight begins, the women can hear the cries from across the marsh.
The Jacobites surprise the British with a Highland charge, running into battle. Director Philip John captures the chaos of the battlefield, the mist obscuring an assortment of bodies and limbs lashing out with weapons.
Back at the field hospital, the casualties trickle in, from both sides of the fight. The scene is gruesome and Outlander doesn’t spare us the details; that opening shot of maggots feasting on a corpse was an indication of the grisly scene to come. When Claire stitches up a gaping wound, we see close-up shots of the flesh being sewn. Jamie arrives back at the Scottish camp safe and relatively unharmed. Fergus, who snuck onto the battlefield with the men after being told to stay behind, emerges physically intact, but emotionally shaken: He tells Claire he may have killed someone. She hugs him tightly, saying, “I’m so sorry.” The experience has left him numb: “I’m just tired,” he says. “Very, very tired.”
“Prestonpans” underscores the human cost of war. Both the British and the Scots retreat to Claire’s makeshift hospital for treatment; off the battlefield, the men are just men. Jamie even jokes around with one of the redcoats, betting him that he can aim into a jar when Claire asks for a sample to make sure there’s no blood in his urine. On the field, Dougal comes across a wounded British soldier, Lt. Jeremy Foster, who had accompanied him and Claire to Lallybroch in Season 1, and he sits down beside him to chat. But things take a turn when Foster tells him, “You’ve won a battle but you will never win this war.” Dougal kills him with a stab to the guy. If that’s true, he says, “I’ll look for you in hell.”
When Dougal arrives at the hospital, he’s angry to see British soldiers there, too. But Stuart tells him that those are his father’s subjects, “and each one of them is your brother.” He’s about to make Dougal leave the army, but Jamie stands up for him, calling him a “true warrior” and suggesting he lead a team of 15 men to track the enemy; that way, Stuart can take advantage of his military prowess without actually having to look at him. Stuart agrees, and tells Dougal he’s in Jamie’s debt.
“War tastes bitter no matter the outcome,” Jamie says to Claire. While the Jacobites win the Battle of Prestonpans, they lose two beloved men: Angus and Kincaid. Claire reflects that if she was right about the outcome of Prestonpans, she must also be right about Culloden — the battle that will wipe out Highland culture as they know it. The men drink to their victory and their sorrow: “Come let us drink while we have breath/ For there’s no drinking after death.”