Last night's episode was mostly a two-person play between Black Jack Randall and Claire. And Black Jack, it turns out, is complete lunatic. This was an episode that elicited a lot of screaming.
A lot happened in this episode, so strap in: This is a long one.
Claire dispatches of last week's cliffhanger immediately upon the episode's start. Claire answers the "Are you with the MacKenzies of your own choice or not?" with the correct answer of "Yes, of course."
That doesn't get her out of going to visit the garrison commander, Brigadier General Thomas. Dougal insists on going with Claire, which gives Thomas and his other officers the chance to talk down to the Scotsman. I swear to god, the casting call for all these parts must have been for men for the poshest English accents humanly possible. Dougal leaves after a confrontation with one of the English soldiers.
General Thomas, as has been the standard for the men of the past, is first taken with Claire's tales of the Highlands and offers her passage to Inverness. Which seems like salvation, but of course that's when Black "Guy Who Tried Raping Claire in the Premiere" Jack shows up. Unlike the dandy General Thomas, Black Jack is clearly a working officer, covered in dust and "endangering the claret!" (He's also nominated to take Claire to Inverness, in a move that was instantly predicted in my house.)
He and Claire exchange a veiled exchange about recognizing each other, and Black Jack says that perhaps Clare's been sharing Dougal's bed. Claire, too angry to think straight blurts out: "The Scots just want the same freedoms we enjoy. Freedoms we take for granted. They are not the aggressors, we are. It is their land, and we are occupying it."
I'm going with the interpretation that Claire's too thrown off by Black Jack and his comments to watch her tongue, because this is not the canny Claire we've come to know and love. She's been very good about her words so far, and we can all recognize that what she just said, in a room full of English officers, was a giant mistake. She's perilously close to treason.
We get an interlude of Claire helping the surgeon amputate a soldier's arm, in a scene I had to watch through my fingers. This gives General Thomas and the others time to go out hunting for rebels, leaving Claire and Black Jack alone.
This interaction is the centerpiece of the episode, and rightly so. Catriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies give powerhouse performances. Balfe's been showing her range all season, but we've barely spent any time with Menzies, who is riveting.
Everything about the ensuing 25 minutes is beautifully composed, wonderfully acted, and disturbing as fuck.
Even the set-up works really nicely: We have Black Jack being shaved by a subordinate, as Claire flashes back to her doing the same with Frank. It's this point where I kind of wish we'd spent more time with Frank, just so the contrast would be even clearer. Part of Claire's disorientation with Black Jack has to be how much he resembles her beloved husband, and it would provide a better foundation for the series of errors that she makes during this conversation.
When Black Jack is cut during his shaving, he brings the razor to the throat of the soldier. Knowing that is was unlikely that Black Jack'd cut his throat, it was still unsettling to the extreme to see this casual violence to his own man.
Black Jack doesn't believe the "Mrs. Beecham from Oxfordshire" story that Claire's been using this whole time, saying there are no Beechams in Oxfordshire. Claire slips up again, saying that he can't know that since he's from Sussex. Something she shouldn't know, and only knows because of her husband.
Claire covers this up by weaving a new tale of following a lover to Scotland, a soldier who turned out to be a whore-monger. It's a well-acted performance, both on Claire and Balfe's part. She infuses it with real heartbreak and uses it to explain how Black Jack first found her. She's unsteady and her voice wavers as she describes the betrayal. Black Jack draws a portrait of Claire and calls it "Beautiful Lies" — not believing her for a second.
He then presses her for information for information about a rebellion being planned by the MacKenzies, which she denies knowledge of. Claire goes on the offensive, throwing what she's heard about his cruelty to Jamie back at him. This backfires massively, as Black Jack is in no way ashamed of what happened.
As he describes the scene, we see the whipping inflicted on Jamie. Black Jack says that the initial punishment was one hundred lashes, but Jamie didn't cry out. Jack found his lack of response to be an insult to the crown, and administered another hundred himself. "I will break you," he says to Jamie.
Except, he doesn't. I do, just watching the the scene. Commendations to the make-up and effects people on the Outlander crew, as this looked real and awful. There's so much blood on the ground, that Jamie slips in it. Flesh hangs off his back in chunks. And here, in all its glory, is Black Jack's explanation:
I had intended to pace myself. One hundred lashes is fatiguing to the arm. Again, the boy refused to cry out. I wonder, did he hope to stir me to pity. If so, he was sadly mistaken. I was hurting him, I could feel it. The sheer judder of the whip coursing up my arm, exploding into my heart. But the boy would not beg for mercy. The boy would not beg.
Then something changed. One of my men fainted like a woman. And the crowd barked in laughter. It was in that moment that I determined to bleed him to the bone. The world suddenly narrowed down to his arm and his back. The whip connecting us both. The laughter changed, first to gasps, then to sobs. The crowd has to look away. They were horrified. Blind fools. I think all they could see was the horror. I could see the beauty. I saw the truth. That boy and I we were creating a masterpiece. An exquisite, bloody masterpiece. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
But truth carries a weight no lie can counterfeit. I promised I'd reveal myself to you and I have.
You think me a monster, no doubt. It could be so.
(Claire: The fact that you care what I think gives me some hope for your soul.)
I know one thing madam, I am not what I once was. I came to Scotland to fulfill a soldier's responsibility to serve my kind and serve my country. And instead I find myself the watchman to of a squalid, ignorant people, prone to the basest superstition and violence. The darkness has grown within me. A hatred of the very world itself. I find myself doing such things. Radish (Edit: it's redish) work, till I no longer recognize the man I have become.
Claire makes a very easy mistake, and one that makes sense given her World War II background: she assumes Black Jack's been changed by soldier's work. But when you unpack this speech, that's clearly not the case. He orders the second lashing to prove dominance, and he did that before the whipping "changed" him. His focus isn't on Jamie when he starts, but on how tiring it will be for him to carry out the punishment he's ordered.
The "switch" turning the beating from punishment to art is internal, and part of his anger is the crowd not appreciating it. His hatred for the Scots looks more like a convenient outlet for a streak of sadism he already had. It's an excuse. We saw that in his earlier interaction with the other soldier. He's channeled it, but he's also reveling in it. And then there's the disturbing connection of his version of "art" to the "art" he made of Claire's face. A connection made even clearer when he answers Claire's articulation of a belief that his recognition of the change means he can still be a good man with a hard punch to her stomach.
He is not interested in a redemption arc: "I dwell in darkness, and darkness is where I belong." He calls in a soldier and says, "Corporal, have you ever kicked a woman? It's very freeing." He commands the corporal to kick Claire. Thankfully, the corporal only manages a weak prod of Claire before Dougal appears. No one has ever been more glad to see Dougal than Claire, I think. Even as he lets Dougal lead her away, Black Jack says he'll have to bring her for more questioning by sundown tomorrow or Dougal'll be accused of harboring a fugitive and killed.
If Black Jack's forgoing the redemption arc, Dougal has been rapidly completing one of his own. The death of his friend during the hunt did much to humanize him. And even if he's just interested in making sure Claire doesn't spill the secrets she's discovered, he's still full of righteous indignation when he saves her here. Finally, he has Claire drink from water that supposedly exposes liars and finally accepts her determination that she's not a spy. That determined: That she's not a spy and needs to be kept from the English, Dougal says that Black Jack couldn't demand she be handed over if she were a Scottish citizen. Something that can be accomplished through marriage. And who does he have in mind?
Of course it's Jamie. Beyond the "plot needs it" reasons, the price on Jamie's head means that no family wants him to marry their daughters. And on Claire's, "Doesn't it bother you that I'm not a virgin" and Jamie's "As long as it doesn't bother you that I am" we end the episode.
For an episode with a main plot of "two people talking," this was exhausting to watch. In a good way. We go from the highs of Claire charming the officers, to lows of the misstep with Black Jack and the support for the Scots, to another high in Claire's new story, to the lows of Black Jack's. Both Menzies and Balfe give intense performances: Balfe highlights Claire's compassion, as she aches during both her fake story of a love lost and her reaction to Black Jack. And Menzies highlighting Black Jack's darkness, giving an intensity and truly awful introspective look at his character.
Honestly, the most jarring thing was going from all this drama to the brand new forced marriage drama. Which I'm guessing will be next week's centerpiece.