Spoiler alert: This post contains plot details from the season three Starz “Outlander” episode titled “The Doldrums.”
It means that one week we’ll get an episode like “All Debts Paid,” where it feels like half a season is crammed into a single hour, and another week, we’ll get something like tonight’s episode of “Outlander,” called “The Doldrums,” which dragged until we got to the big climax at the end (and no, I’m not talking about Claire and Jamie’s below-decks sex scene).
There is no doubt this is a tough balancing act on the part of showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his writing team. But the stark difference between certain episodes can cause an unsteady feeling not unlike Jamie’s persistent seasickness.
“All Debts Paid” covered the 10-year dissolution of the Randall marriage, Frank’s death, Jamie’s imprisonment at Ardsmuir and his discovery of the treasure that would eventually lead to Young Ian’s capture. If that weren’t enough, the same episode also includes the Highlander’s borderline-sexual relationship with prison governor Lord John Grey.
Then we have “The Doldrums,” which spent most of its time on a tiresome superstition subplot until finally landing on Claire’s kidnapping by a British man-of- war ship. The bottom line is the episode served as a transitional point in the story and there was no getting around that.
We had to establish Claire and Jamie’s voyage to the West Indies in pursuit of Young Ian, who was abducted by pirates last week. It was a bummer to not have more excitement until the end– especially considering “The Doldrums” is the first of the five “Outlander” episodes shot in South Africa.
That as well as the latest incarnation of the opening titles, now highlighted by a far more rhythmic version of “The Skye Boat Song” with more drums and less bagpipes, and lush beach imagery, suggest the Frasers are heading into their own “Pirates of the Caribbean”-type adventure.
They are. But we just had to wait almost the entire episode for it to happen. So now we have said excitement, and it’s in the form of yet another forced Claire-and-Jamie separation.
Just as the Frasers’ ship, the Artemis, caught wind following weeks of a standstill – long enough for Claire’s dye job to grow out and to provide the episode with its title – and was able to continue on its journey toward Jamaica, the crew were set upon by the Porpoise, the aforementioned man-of- war.
The Porpoise is in bad shape, because a mystery fever is slowly killing off the men on board. As a result, the only captain available is only a few years older than the teenage Young Ian, and he needs a doctor.
Once again, against Jamie’s wishes that his wife not be so damn selfless, Claire’s loyalty to the Hippocratic oath gets the better of her and she volunteers her services. I knew it was a dumb move because I’ve read the book, but I don’t blame Claire for agreeing to treat the sick men.
It would be against her nature to refuse and once she diagnoses the illness as typhoid fever (it didn’t have a name in 1766) she knew she could walk onto that ship with better protection than anything Jamie could provide – a modern-day vaccination.
What Claire hadn’t expected was for the pubescent Captain Leonard, desperate to save his own neck and what little crew he has left, to take her warning to get to his destination “as quickly as possible” as literally as he did. He orders the Porpoise to continue its own voyage to Jamaica without her consent, or even the opportunity to tell Jamie, “Don’t wait for me – go rescue Young Ian and then meet me on the beach for piña coladas!”
Right before the credits roll, Claire is promised a safe return to her husband once they arrive in Jamaica, but judging from her face, she’s probably wise not to take Captain Leonard at his word.
Even though “The Doldrums” lived up to its title, there were saving graces to the episode, primarily how Claire and Jamie set about repairing their still-fragile relationship. Before they boarded the ship, it felt as if Claire continued to doubt whether or not she wanted to remain with the Scotsman for the long haul; her focus was more on saving Young Ian than her marriage.
But despite the nagging presence of Laoghaire’s older daughter, Marsali, who has brought her mother’s disdain for Claire along for the voyage to Jamaica (Marsali and Fergus are in love and have stowed away on the Artemis, much to Jamie’s chagrin), Claire manages to regain a tenderness with her husband again during a few stolen moments.
As hot as their celebrating-the-wind’s-return sex scene is, Jamie and Claire’s best moment this episode is when they are gazing up at the night sky from the ship, and Claire recites lines from “Goodnight Moon.” It’s a beautiful way for them to reconnect over Brianna; Claire, like so many parents since the 1940s, read the popular Margaret Wise Brown children’s book to their daughter.
She also tells Jamie about witnessing the Apollo 8 mission just before she went back through the stones. It’s another cool example of how the 18th-century Highlander is capable of taking this kind of space-age information in stride, despite making references to the mythical “man in the moon.”
Perhaps that’s why Jamie was so amenable to his Chinese associate, Yi Tien Cho (like Claire, I refuse to call this character by his “English” name, Mr. Willoughby), performing the-still- foreign- in-the- Western-world technique of acupuncture on him in a successful effort to relieve his seasickness.
“The Doldrums” may have been a forgettable episode, but it still provided one of the most indelible, hilarious images in the history of “Outlander”: Sam Heughan’s face riddled with acupuncture needles.