As our own Keri Lumm noted in regards to Outlander, every season (especially the start of this one) is like a warm hug of familiarity. And though the third episode of its fifth season, “Free Will,” was the exact opposite of that, it also showed the series at its best.
To be clear, this was not an easy episode to stomach. It was gross. The foley artist was having a grand time with the buzzing of flies and squelching of flesh and creaking of rotten floorboards. “Free Will” started as a twin swap ruse, except that the twins turned out to be abused indentured servants. Then the hostile and reticent young wife of the abuser in question raised flags of her own when Jamie and Claire found their wretched cabin (that turned out to be a house of horrors) in an attempt to get the twins’ papers for release. But the real twist came in the discovery not of a rotting corpse, as all signs were pointing to, but of a rotting still-alive human. It put Claire and Jamie in the unenviable position of then deciding not only what to do with the man himself, but with his abused wife who had in turn become an abuser. Plus a surprise baby! All in an hour!
Despite Jamie and Claire battling fetid near-corpse air within the episode itself, there were three things that made the episode so unexpected, exciting, and fresh for the rest of us. The first was simply a focus on Jamie and Claire (of course). While Outlander has, with mixed success, continued to expand its roster of main characters, the show only truly shines when our central lovers are at the center of the story. And yet, so much of Outlander revolves around the two of them being separated and fighting their way back to one another or having to rescue one another. In “Free Will,” Jamie and Claire were on equal footing, neither in particular danger, but both going forward into the (wretched) unknown as partners. These rare moments where the two are able to engage an adventure together, just the two of them, are exceptionally rewarding. (More on that in a moment).
Secondly, “Free Will” was a fun (yes, fun!) genre-bending episode for a series that has incorporated elements of horror before, but never in this particular way. Outlander never lets us forget, in between our mooning over our beautiful leads, that the past was also pretty terrible. We’ve seen all of the show’s characters come to terms with this (through a variety of dangers and bodily harm, often due to the limitations of medicine and technology), but mostly in personally traumatizing ways. It’s not often that Claire and Jamie get to be sleuths in a horror mystery, which is exactly what “Free Will” provided. Did I ever fear that the Frasers were in mortal peril? No, but the aptly-directed hour took its cues from horror classics, incorporating pure dread to create an atmospheric, engrossing tale full of terrible twists. We knew from the beginning that something awful was happening at this house, but the flip that the abuser was himself being abused led to a moral quandary for Claire and Jamie that illuminated more about who they are and why they work so well together.
To that last point, in a series that takes place in the middle of so much swirling historical context, Outlander’s best episodes are usually ones that focus in on something intimate and personal. That typically takes the form of romance or trauma, so “Free Will” moving into horror helped shake up that formula quite a bit. Claire feels she cannot, as a doctor, assist in this evil man’s death (and Luke Schelhaas’ scripting here does help us understand her conflicted empathy—with Balfe, as usual, doing so much emotional heavy lifting). For Jamie though, compassion lies not in healing this man, but letting him go. Granted, that happens in a pretty intense way with a bullet, but again the script and Heughan’s portrayal of stoic duty make us understand Jamie’s choice. (One the man agreed with, even though he didn’t want to ask for God’s forgiveness beforehand). There isn’t necessarily a right and wrong here, just the practicality of the fact that Jamie and Claire have to leave, and they cannot abandon this man to suffer further despite his previous transgressions. Their mercy breaks the cycle of abuse.
As hard as it was to watch “Free Will” (I mean this episodes truly haunted me), it stands out among Outlander episodes not only for its satisfying standalone narrative, but also because it dealt with so many worthy questions. The episode was a kind of morality play disguised in a house of horrors, and allowed Jamie and Claire to again lean on what makes them so good together. Neither judges the other on their decision (Claire’s desire to tend to him versus Jamie assisting in his death—something he struggles with); they accept each other’s deliberations and ultimately agree that the priority is to free the boys and then move on (with a surprise baby!) In many ways, it’s a true embrace of their practical American pioneer spirit.
While “Free Will” was certainly a change from the opening two episodes of Season 5, I do hope that we see more of these episodic stories in the future. Outlander has had mixed results with them in the past, perhaps because they tend to only focus on Jamie or Claire, but (as someone who hasn’t read the books and therefore doesn’t know what to expect) I would love to see the show become, even briefly, a Dr. Fraser, Medicine Woman procedural.
At the very least, episodes like “Free Will” remind us why we’re so invested in this love story. It’s not just about the romance and the sweeping historical backdrop, it’s that these two people respect one another so deeply, and are always ready to step out into the unknown together in trust and love.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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