“I am bending my knee in the eye of the father who created me. Pour down from Heaven the rich blessing of Thy forgiveness. Be Thou patient wi’ us. Grant to us, Thou savior of glory. the love of God, and the will to do on Earth, at all times, as angels and saints fo in Heaven.
Give us Thy peace.”
If we thought last week’s episode of Outlander was the last of the pain we’d see this season, we were both wrong and fools. This is Outlander, after all, and pain is part and parcel.
“Do No Harm” picks up just after Claire and Jamie were robbed by Stephen Bonnet, the man they helped escape the noose in the premiere. Jamie blames himself for helping and trusting him, but Claire won’t let him be too hard on himself and takes a share of the blame, as well. They make it to River Run, a huge and lavish estate. Claire mentions how lucky they are to have family (especially if said family has money, especially when you’re newly broke (again)).
The family gets a warm welcome from Jocasta, Jamie’s now-blind aunt, and the reunion is sweet. Jamie tells Jocasta of their misfortunes and she assures them that her home is theirs as well, for as long as they wish. Everything is very polished and warm. Jocasta’s relationship with her constant companion, Ulysses is respectful and it’s clear she depends on him. The tranquility is mildly disrupted as Ian storms in with a stinky Rollo while Jocasta was telling the Frasers she’s holding a “wee gathering” in their honor. Poor Ian had never seen a skunk before and his description of the “Devil’s arsehole” is hilarious.
As with all grand southern estates in the 1700s, there is a “staff.” Claire meets Phaedre and Mary when she and Jamie are shown their bedchambers and the veneer is slightly scraped when she asks the house slaves to call her by her first name. Claire voices her upset at seeing the slaves to Jamie, who tries to comfort her by reminding her that it will all be over… eventually, which is small comfort, indeed.
Outside, Ian is trying to de-stench Rollo with a man named John Quincy Myers, who is apparently one hairy beast. He teases Ian about the “beard” he’s been growing for weeks, and the discussion turns to the Natives. John tells Ian that the Native women tend to dig the bear look, and Ian asks what the Natives are like. John tells him that some tribes are friendly while others not, and Ian makes the comparison to the Highland clans back home, noting that they don’t seem much different, which is a unique view at the time, to put it mildly, although I doubt the English soldiers and high-falutin’ folks see much difference in the groups of “savages” on either side of the pond, either.
While Ian learns about the Native tribes, Jamie and Claire learn more about River Run. Turns out it’s just as profitable as it looks, earning income from several high-yield crops. We also get to hear about the famed “benevolent slave owner” as Jocasta proudly talks about her 152 slaves. She tells Jamie that she bought them in lots, so as to keep the children with their mother, but lest you think it’s because ripping children from their mothers is cruel, Jocasta explains that she finds her slaves more productive if families are kept intact. It’s almost as if the anguish of losing your children (or your parents) hurts. Weird. Claire’s tongue is practically bleeding with the effort to bite it as Jocasta talks about how she’s come to view some of her slaves as friends when finally, she just can’t take it. “Do you think they feel the same way, since they have no choice in the matter?” she asks, which takes Jocasta aback a bit, but not much as she tells Claire that she thinks her slaves are happy to have food, and lodging, and “a purpose” as is evidenced by the fact that only a few have tried to escape. The whole exchange is infuriating to watch because this myth of the “good slave owner” is something that persists today, as if feeding people and “treating them well” somehow negates the fact that you think you have a right to own other human beings. Claire’s as pissed as we are and heads to the garden as Lieutenant Wolff pops by for a chat with Jocasta. Wolff tells Jocasta to plant wheat on her shores, and Jamie annoys the Leftenant by disagreeing with him, telling Jocasta to plant rice, instead. Jocasta is tickled by this idea since it pays over twice as much as wheat and will feed the slaves! Yay!
Later, Jocasta and Phaedre are getting Claire sorted with a dress and Jocasta is wheedling Claire to tell her what she thinks of River Run. Claire is trying to be diplomatic AF by mentioning never have been to a place like it, but when Jocasta can tell she disapproves of something, Claire can’t hold in anymore that she thinks owning slaves is, ya know… shitty. It points to the privileged dilemma of white people even today: do we voice opposition or quietly seethe in order to “keep the peace” within our families, workspaces, and social groups? At what point do we finally tell someone that their views and way of life is abhorrent to us? And yes, it’s a privilege to have this dilemma. Claire’s not risking anything but an awkward dinner party as of right now if she speaks up. Her views are seen as “odd and naive” to Jocasta and the other guests at the party. She suffers the mild awkwardness many people deal with today when we speak out, but that’s it. So far.
Things get quite a bit stickier for Claire and Jamie (as they always do) when Jocasta publicly, and without warning, announces that Jamie is to be her heir. It’s clear a lot of the neighbors aren’t thrilled with the idea, especially Lieutenant Wolff, who has been trying to marry River Run– er– Jocasta. Once they’re alone, Claire reiterates that they cannot own slaves and Jamie agrees but suggests that maybe, as the owners of River Run, they can work to set them free, thereby being a spark to ignite the flame of Liberty. God, I love Jamie’s optimism.
Agreed to a plan, Jamie the next day tells Jocasta (and Farquard McDickface aka Campbell) that before he formally accepts to being her heir, he wants to free the slaves and, should they choose to stay on, pay them a fair wage. Jocasta is shocked, while Farquard is pissed. It’s one thing for Jocasta’s visiting relatives to spout their “ridiculous” ideas about freedom and equality, it’s a whole other thing for the heir apparent to one of the richest and largest plantations in the area to do so. Farquard explains to Jamie the damned near insurmountable hurdles needed to free the slaves (a meritorious act from each one, bond posted for good behavior, sureties and £100 sterling per slave, which is about £15,000 in totality). And that is just with the government. Then there is the matter of the neighbors, who don’t want their immense profits messed with, not to mention their own slaves seeing that there could be another way. Farquard tells Jamie that others before him have talked such things and those folks were disappeared. Jamie assures him that threatening his life is just another Tuesday, but later voices his concerns to Claire about just how heavily the odds are stacked against them. It’s an interesting scene, especially for those of us who are watching through the modern lens. I can’t count how many times I’ve wondered what it would be like for abolitionists in the south. Reading about the stranglehold and deep institutionalization of slavery and watching, through Jamie and Claire’s experiences, about it are two very different things. The hopelessness of the two to help change the fate of Jocasta’s slaves is felt deeply as Jamie suggests again taking Tryon’s previous offer of land grants. Claire tells him that it would mean a little peace before all-out war (which, is gonna happen no matter where you’re living, Claire. Not to mention Jamie wouldn’t be the only landowner and grantee to fight for the Patriot cause, but I digress), and before they can get too deep into it, there’s a commotion as Jamie is summoned to the timberlands. Turns out Overseer Byrnes got his ear sliced off by a slave (who was apparently not a fan of being whipped). Claire joins them to offer her medical help and off they go, but not before taking some guns as “these things” tend to stir up unrest. Again, I’m shocked.
Once they, along with Farquard, arrive, it’s explained to them what happened, and Jamie and Claire do a quick double-take upon hearing that they’re there to oversee the execution of Rufus, the slave who “attacked” Byrnes. Their surprise turns to abject horror when they see that Rufus has been “hooked” through the abdomen and is being strung up by it in a tree. It’s gruesome and awful, and a hard scene to watch, but Outlander doesn’t shy away from it or cater to our sensibilities. Jamie demands, with his guns, that they cut Rufus down, while Farquard tells Byrnes he was wrong to take the law into his own hands which, yeah sure,I guess that’s the real crime here. Rufus is cut down and taken back to the main house, where Claire and Ian work tirelessly to save him. And this is where my emotions really start to get to me.
Jocasta sees Claire working to save Rufus and asks why, since by the “law of bloodshed,” he must be hanged, either way. Claire doesn’t answer her, as her medical training and need to save and ease a human being has taken over every part of her. Meanwhile, in the parlor, Wolff and Farquard are incensed. They tell Jamie that by law, he has a duty to not only maintain order but to deliver Rufus for judgment. They tell him that Byrnes and his men are in jail and that for the grave misjudgment of placing Rufus under their protection, Jamie and Claire are headed that way, too. Jocasta tries to keep the peace by offering Jamie’s ignorance of the laws as the excuse, but she is told that they have until midnight to hand Rufus over.
Claire, meanwhile, has managed to save Rufus, who tells her that he shouldn’t be there, and begins to talk about his sister and what it was like when they were taken from their home in Africa. Ian and Claire are both moved and deeply affected by his story, but when Ian goes to bed, Ulysses asks to speak plainly to Claire. He tells her that her saving Rufus has only condemned him to a worse fate. Whereas before he would have gotten a fairly quick and painless death by hanging, her defiance has meant that he needs to be made an example of, to warn the rest of Jocasta’s “friends” of what happens when they disobey the law. He tells her they will literally tear him limb from limb, and that it would have been better for everyone if Rufus had died on that hook. It’s a brutal truth that Claire, with her whitewashed view of history, has yet to comprehend.
Later, while Claire still tends Rufus in their bedchamber, Jamie tells her about the midnight deadline and the tension mounts. Claire, even as there is a mob forming outside, is still trying to find a way to save her patient. She suggests saying he’s escaped, but Jamie tells her that will only condemn the others, as the polish of River Run and veneer of the benevolent slave owner is completely torn away. They are as powerless as Rufus in this matter. Nothing they can do to save him will work. His life will come at the cost of everyone else’s, including their own, and all of it will be for nothing, since Rufus would surely be tortured and killed, as well. Jamie tells her all they can do at this point is save his soul and asks if she can do for him what she did for Collum. Clearly devastated, Claire makes Rufus a “tea” and asks him to tell her about his sister and his home after he drinks it. It’s also important to note that Rufus doesn’t ask Claire to kill him to spare him the pain of the lynch mob, and that’s intentional on the writer’s part. To have Rufus ask this of her would give Claire the “easy out” when the pain for her as a physician comes from trying to decide which harm is less. In the end, the kindness of a friendly face is all she can offer the man as he slips away. The Frasers pray over Rufus’s body before handing it over to the mob outside, who then drag it through the yard and string him up. It’s an abrupt and horrific end, and it’s meant to be.
Outlander has had some episodes that are gruesome and hard to watch in it’s four seasons, but none has hurt and affected me quite as much as “Do No Harm” did. It’s agonizing to watch with the modern eye and, as I said before, the show does nothing to make it easy on us. It’s also infuriating to watch Claire, to be honest. I completely understand and empathize with her rage and disgust with the situation and awful choice she ultimately has to make. What I can’t understand is how, as a woman who was living in Jim Crow America before going back through the stones, she is surprised at it. The only thing I can think of it is, again, the distance and the whitewashing of America’s utter brutality. We now can look back on slavery with a distance and detachment of a “it was so long ago, and no one would do the now” attitude, because it’s likely that there’s no way our grandpa owned other people, and we fail to understand the many forms of slavery still in place now. However, to look back now at the Jim Crow era, most white people still see the sanitized version of it. We see Rosa Parks and sit-ins. We think of Jim Crow and think of drinking fountains and bathrooms. We are not ready to have the mirror of the true violence and pain held up to us, yet. And it needs to be. Claire in the beginning of “Do No Harm,” has the arrogance and naiveté to hold her opinions on slavery when it costs her nothing and when she hasn’t seen the true horror of it. She’s not ready to see that yet. She, like us, does not want to think that the people she’s met and liked, could be capable of such atrocities. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to watch her come to terms with the fact that the option with the least harm is to kill the man she just spent hours trying to save. There is no absolution. There are no heroes, there is only heartache in the end.