When we left Outlander's Claire Fraser, she and her daughter Brianna had discovered that her long-lost husband Jamie had survived the Battle of Culloden and may still be alive somewhere in the 1760s.
Although 1960s Claire has resolved to return to the 18th century and find Jamie again, the season three opener, 'The Battled Joined', concerns itself with the immediate aftermath of Claire’s return. In Outlander, to go forward we must go back.
Full disclosure: 'The Battle Joined' is about as depressing an episode of Outlander as you can imagine. If you came here looking for Outlander’s standard fare, i.e. an abundance of Scottish landscapes and steamy romance, you’re in for a bit of a shock. From the notable absence of bagpipes in the opening titles to the tattered flag of St. Andrew, there’s no doubt that the Scottish culture that was so lovingly detailed in previous seasons has been irrevocably damaged by the Jacobite rebellion’s failure.
The Battle of Culloden has been foreshadowed for two whole seasons, and it feels a little anticlimactic to witness this infamous event unfold only in brief (if visceral) flashbacks. Personally, I could have watched a whole episode that handled the slow, inevitable defeat of the Highlanders at Culloden. Likewise, Jamie’s desire for revenge against Randall was finally enacted in 'The Battle Joined', but the moment is lost amongst the carnage.
Yet perhaps that’s what Culloden is all about - after two seasons of build-up, after years of Jacobite plotting, the rebellion is ended in brief and brutal fashion. The clans fall victim to the English army, and Jamie is left for dead under a pile of corpses with only visions of his lost wife to comfort him. He’s eventually rescued by Rupert, but ends up awaiting execution with the other Scottish prisoners of war.
If there’s any hope amongst these men, it is in their prevailing loyalty to one another. The relationships of the battle-joined “traitors all”, as Rupert described them, are what gives this episode its real heart. As Rupert and the other Jacobites go to their execution at the hands of an English firing squad, Jamie readies himself for the death he’s been chasing since he left Claire at Craigh Na Dun.
Yet Jamie is saved from the execution by Melton, the brother of a young English soldier named John Grey whose life Jamie spared. The debt Grey claims to owe Jamie results in him being carted off back to Lallybroch, whilst Melton secretly hopes he dies on the way. What a nice guy. However much Jamie may wish to die, he survives by the skin of his teeth once again.
If Jamie aims to die, then Claire’s goal is to live - both for herself and for their child. Back in 1948, Claire and Frank have moved to Boston and are attempting to save their marriage. The Randalls settle back into an uneasy charade; an approximation of what their relationship once was.
In their new home, Frank follows Claire from room to room as she surveys the house - as though he’s afraid she might disappear once more. When Claire gives birth to Brianna, they almost achieve a true reconciliation. But the moment is punctured almost instantly when a nurse asks about Brianna’s red hair. Jamie remains between them, and perhaps always shall.
Another challenge for Claire is her place in this new world, which in certain ways affords her fewer freedoms than her past as a wartime nurse or as a Scottish noble. Outlander has always done a good job of dispelling the idea that history is always progressing towards something better; although in many ways better off, Claire is belittled and undermined by the sexist men around her in a way she never was in Scotland. From Frank’s ignorant colleagues to the doctor who forcibly drugs her during labour, Claire is increasingly powerless to control her own destiny.
If the reunion of Jamie and Claire seems inevitable, that’s because it is. Outlander is above all else a romance - that’s not to say it doesn’t involve historical intrigue and thematic resonance, but romance is what it does best. Jamie and Claire will be together again, but the real arc of the third season will concern what their love will become.
Much like Frank and Claire’s marriage, the relationship between Claire and Jamie will be transformed by a twenty-year absence. The Jamie and Claire who reunite will be very different people than what they once were. 'The Battle Joined' does a great job of beginning this shift, whilst always reaffirming what a profound loss Claire and Jamie are experiencing.
'The Battle Joined' is not the most compelling episode of Outlander, but a show about time-travelling medical professionals and the highlanders who love them requires a lot of exposition to keep it grounded. If the episode seems a little plot-heavy at times, I can forgive it.
For now, the performances of Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are strong enough to sustain Outlander without their on-screen chemistry, but the writers will have to be careful not to keep Jamie and Claire apart for too long.
Outlander: Season 3 is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes arriving weekly.