The Season Two finale of Outlander is only days away, ye ken? Viewers are preparing for the vicious Battle of Culloden prophesied by Claire as the figurative end of Highland culture. Last Saturday’s episode of Outlander, “Hail Mary,” featured the inevitable return of the complicated villain Black Jack Randall. “Hail Mary” also cleared up a question viewers may have had about Claire’s 20th-century husband Frank‘s lineage. And, viewers said goodbye to two recurring characters in this episode, one who’s been around since Season One and one who appeared in Season Two.
“Hail Mary” – My Recap
Claire, Jamie, and their entourage of weary Scotsmen arrive in Inverness, and after Charles Stuart arrives the Scottish chiefs have a war council. Jamie’s plan, he assures Claire, is to discourage Stuart from fighting at Culloden, and he makes his case to Stuart. The Jacobite Quartermaster Sir John O’Sullivan says that Culloden is the perfect place to fight. Jamie and Lt. Gen. Lord George Murray, though, disagree. They think that a fight at Culloden will benefit the English’s cavalry and firepower since Culloden is a flat and open area.
But, because Stuart is a pretentious ass trying to impress his dad’s old buddies, he sides with O’Sullivan. Stuart describes himself as a soldier and says he wearies of retreat. He once again entreats his war chiefs to mark him: they do God’s work and God will provide for them (just the level-headed rhetoric you’d hope to hear from a man you’re going to follow into battle).
Meanwhile, Claire heads over to the apothecary shop to get some supplies. There she meets her old friend, Mary Hawkins. Living as a fugitive from justice seems to have helped Mary gain some autonomy and self-confidence. That said, things don’t appear to be going too well for Frank’s grandmother. Mary is at the apothecary shop purchasing a variety of things, among them her second bottle of laudanum this week.
Mary rightly guesses that Claire is in town with the Jacobites and reports that she is in Inverness with Alex Randall. Mary reports that Alex secured a position as an overseer’s assistant in town and that she and Alex are engaged. Claire congratulates the young bride-to-be but Mary accuses Claire of having tried to convince Alex to leave her. Claire apologizes and explains that her position was complicated (as in you’re supposed to marry his brother or my future husband won’t exist complicated). When asked about Alex’s health, Mary assures Claire he is fine. But, Mary eventually accepts Claire’s offer of assistance and tells her the boarding-house they’re staying in.
Claire’s visit to Alex and Mary’s room proves an interesting one. It becomes apparent to her that Mary was lying: Alex’s health is very poor and getting worse. Claire does what she can: she tells Mary to stop giving him arsenic tea and begins working on a poultice. Then we hear a surprised Alex say a name we were all waiting to hear, “Johnny!” Claire turns around and sees her husband’s tormentor Black Jack Randall in the doorway.
Claire and Randall stare at each other for a couple of moments until Alex breaks the tension, saying he didn’t expect to see his brother again so soon. Claire makes a break for the door but Mary stops her. Mary explains how generous Black Jack has been: Alex has been unable to work for weeks and his brother has been paying the bills. Mary asks Claire when Alex will be healthy enough to work again. Claire, a bit dumbfounded, replies that Alex will not be returning to work ever since there is no cure for his illness. Mary is distraught. She symbolically grabs her tiny belly and says he must be cured (cue very mixed emotions in Claire).
Claire manages her escape when Mary returns to Alex’s sickbed. Black Jack catches up with Claire in the street and, after violently grabbing her by the arm, asks for her help to cure Alex. Telling Jack what she told Mary, she says she cannot cure the young man. He then asks Claire to ease his brother’s suffering but she refuses to help unless Black Jack provides information on the whereabouts of the English army. Black Jack remarks that he’s impressed that Claire would barter for information over a young man’s suffering. Claire replies that she has changed.
Back at the Jacobite encampment, Jamie is raving about Black Jack’s unwanted return to their lives. That said, he’s happy to get Black Jack’s information: Cumberland’s army is nearby and his army will be throwing a birthday celebration for him shortly, during which they may be taken by surprise. Jamie is a bit skeptical but very hopeful: he will investigate the truth of the claim shortly. Claire also says that she intends to keep her word and help Alex but agrees to take Murtagh along in case Black Jack gives into his darker side.
A surprise guest shows up at camp that night. Colum MacKenzie arrives but his business isn’t to join the Jacobite rebellion. He asks for a bed and to see Jamie and Dougal. Dougal, currently following up on Black Jack’s information isn’t available but Jamie and Claire find “the MacKenzie” in his room. Claire gives Colum an examination but Colum tells her there’s no use in continuing to poke at him: he knows he’s dying. When Jamie explains why Dougal isn’t there, Colum compliments Jamie on his shrewd leadership in giving Dougal just enough responsibility to keep him happy, but not enough to cause a problem.
After asking Jamie to leave them, Colum asks Claire for something to end his life. And, after some discussion, Claire provides Colum with a potion that she instructs him to take when he’s ready, saying that death will be like falling asleep. Colum then tells Claire that her friend Geillis Duncan‘s child is alive, having been born before Geillis was burnt at the stake. The child is safe and living with William and Sarah MacKenzie, a formerly childless couple.
Claire seeks to lessen Alex’s suffering back at the Inverness boarding-house. Things aren’t looking good. Black Jack doesn’t make the best nursemaid and this is made obvious when he nearly refuses to allow Claire to treat his brother’s cough. A somewhat refreshed Alex starts making his case: he wants Black Jack and Mary to marry. Jack, his brother tells him, can provide a position in society for Mary better than anything Alex could ever provided. But, Black Jack coldly refuses his brother’s heartfelt plea and leaves.
Dougal tells Jamie, back at the Jacobite camp, that Black Jack’s information is good. Cumberland’s army is indeed camped nearby and, based on the food and drink they’re purchasing, it seems they plan on throwing a party soon. Jamie tells Dougal that his hunger will have to wait, Colum has called them to a meeting.
The meeting is a tense one. Colum tells Dougal that he has chosen his own son Hamish as successor to be Chief of the MacKenzie clan. Dougal asks Colum who will advise the boy and guide him into adulthood. Here’s the big blow, Colum chooses Jamie rather than Dougal even though Dougal is the boy’s biological father. Colum explains that the key difference between Jamie and Dougal, though they’re both Jacobites, is that Jamie wouldn’t sacrifice his men to a lost cause where Dougal may.
Outside the boarding-house, we see Claire and Murtagh Frank-ly discussing Mary Hawkins’s future. Murtagh is offended that Claire is parceling Mary off to Black Jack in an effort to ensure the continued existence of a “mythical prick”. Claire assures Murtagh that Frank is neither mythical nor a prick (Yay, Frank!). Claire also explains that above all else Mary needs a husband. Murtagh manfully steps up and says that he will take Mary as his wife then. She may not be the kind of woman he pictured sharing a life with but he wants to help.
Claire reminds Murtagh that, as a soldier, he may be dead in a couple of days and unable to provide much stability to young Mary. And, though Randall is also a soldier, at least Black Jack’s pension could provide for Mary if Randall dies. Murtagh as a Scottish rebel has no such pension. Eventually Murtagh concedes. He waits outside a tavern while Claire tries to talk some sense into Outlander’s de facto villain.
Black Jack has drunk himself into quite a state: hair mussed he makes his argument to Claire. He asks her to tell Alex that he will care for Mary as her brother-in-law, but not as her husband. Claire reminds Randall of his imminent death (she whispered it to him earlier in the season), only days away. She suggests that Mary would be taken care of as Black Jack’s widow but not as the sister-in-law of a dead Captain. Claire asks Black Jack if he ever hurt his brother. He replies that he hasn’t.
Randall takes another tack, asking Claire if Jamie ever told her what Black Jack did to him. Claire replies nervously that he did, and Randall asks if she’s comfortable sending Mary to bed with a man who reveled in her husband’s pain and fear. Claire replies that she trusts that the love Randall has for his brother will overcome his baser instincts. So, back they go to the boarding-house for the worst wedding ever. Black Jack and Mary join in marital ennui while Murtagh and Claire look on as witnesses.
MacKenzie clan matters dealt with, Jamie brings the news of the English encampment to Charles Stuart. Jamie explains that a surprise pincer attack could negate the need for a battle at Culloden. Jamie outlines a plan to surprise the English during Cumberland’s birthday party, himself at one side of the pincer and Lord Murray at the other. Stuart and Sir John both agree to the plan with one exception. The Quartermaster demands that one side of the pincer be led by Jamie and Murray, the other by him and Stuart. There being no use to argue with a Pretender to the throne, Jamie agrees to the Quartermaster’s change of plans.
Later that night, Dougal, drunk as usual, returns to his brother’s chamber. Dougal, feeling maudlin, sets upon his ailing brother. Dougal subjects Colum to a well-planned diatribe in which he blames his brother’s boyhood injury and subsequent weakness for Dougal’s own fear of weakness. But, when Dougal gets no response to his unfounded abuse he finds that Colum has died, an empty poison bottle in his hand. And, continuing to make everything about himself, Dougal accuses his dead brother of again leaving him alone in the dark.
With Colum dead, we return again to Mary Hawkins and Alex Randall’s boarding-house room to watch another death. Alex, Mary, and Claire hover around the bed awaiting the inevitable. Alex looks around, Mary steps closer, his eyes rest upon hers, and he expires. Choked sobs, silence. But then, Black Jack leaps upon his freshly deceased brother and starts pummeling him. Claire looks on in horror while shielding Mary from her deranged groom. But, after getting his bizarre beating in, Black Jack climbs off the corpse, composes himself, and walks out of the room.
Jamie is surprised that Claire supported Mary’s marrying Randall but Claire reminds him that Black Jack will die at the Battle of Culloden so Mary will be fine. Jamie responds that if the attack they’ve planned for tonight goes well, there won’t be a Battle of Culloden. Claire says that if Black Jack avoids his historical death, she will keep the promise she made to Jamie in France: she’ll help Jamie bleed him. Like Jamie says, don’t get on her bad side.
Jamie and Lord Murray, in the forest with their men, await the arrival of Sir John and Charles Stuart. It is the night of Cumberland’s birthday party. The Scots are primed to attack but Stuart and Sir John’s forces are nowhere to be found. They see a couple of riders approaching. One of the riders is Murtagh who tells Jamie and Lord Murray that the bonny prince has turned back. Stuart’s forces got lost in the forest. Jamie still wants to attack the English, knowing that fighting tomorrow at Culloden will mean their deaths. Lord Murray, though, says an attack without the other troops is out of the question. He signals his men to retreat to Inverness. As Murtagh points out to Jamie, the prince and Sir John will have their battle tomorrow at Culloden Moor … (dun-dun-duh!)
“Hail Mary” – My Critique
On Season Two
Although I’ve enjoyed the journey for the most part, Season Two of Outlander has been a bit strange to watch, “Hail Mary” included. The Battle of Culloden is a dramatic event that the show has stressed the importance of. So, it makes sense that Season Two would end with the historic battle that’s been a focus of Outlander’s narrative so far. If this is the case, why start Season Two with Claire’s return to her own time to find that the outcome of the Battle of Culloden remained the same?
This season’s presentation as a kind of months-spanning flashback of Claire’s has made it feel plodding at times. “Hail Mary,” like a couple of previous episodes in Season Two, has a kind of stop-gap feel. We know Claire will return to a relatively unchanged Frank so why worry about Mary Hawkins? We know the English will defeat the Scots at Culloden so why worry about the surprise attack during Cumberland’s birthday party?
I suppose that a good response to these questions would be that there’s still a lot of room for great acting and complicated tension between characters once something’s ending has been spoiled. We generally know that the villains will fail (spoiler!), but if a story is good enough and if that story’s told well, the knowledge of that outcome can improve the experience of interacting with the story. Season 2 of Outlander seems to have tried this tack but failed. I’ve felt impatient more than anything else.
On “Hail Mary”
Aside from having a stop-gap quality, “Hail Mary” is a good episode. “Hail Mary” gave Graham McTavish as Dougal and Tobias Menzies as Black Jack Randall chances to shine. It was also good to see Gary Lewis cap off his portrayal of Colum MacKenzie. “Hail Mary” was chock full of dramatic tension. Black Jack and Claire’s interaction at the tavern reminded viewers who the bad guy is. Randall’s choice to assault his brother’s corpse reminded viewers that Black Jack’s not evil, he’s perverse.
On top of the good acting, “Hail Mary” was a well-conceived episode. The parallels between Dougal’s and Randall’s stories was a good touch. Dougal and Randall have lived similar lives, each resenting his brother’s weakness. The different but similar paths they’ve taken and each man’s vastly disparate reaction to his brother’s death provided insight into both characters’ motivations. Aside from character development, though, thematic parallels like the ones in “Hail Mary” improve episodes by giving them episodic appeal. When episodes are without themes, like brotherhood or revenge, they fade into a season’s background. “Hail Mary,” stop-gap though it may be, is under no threat of fading.