outlander 402 – do no harm – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, and the book adaptation


NOTE: Spoilers ahead, so read no further if you haven’t seen the episode or read any of the books, especially “Drums of Autumn.”  

Screencap courtesy of Outlander Online.


Set in 1767, this episode was based on Chapters 10, 11, and 12 of ‘Drums of Autumn.”

Written by Producer Karen Campbell, this is probably one of my least favorite episodes, ever, of the series. 

The episode is basically faithful to the source material.  And the acting was as good as ever, as far as I can things go, but actions and events which had relayed in a more measured manner in the book are exaggerated here to such an extent that I am perplexed by this episode.

In the book, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) didn’t take much convincing to realize that saving Rufus’s (Jerome Holder) life would immediately lead to his death-by-hanging.  Added to that, it was her idea to use poison to give the slave a kinder, less painful death.

I can understand why the writers changed that, it gives more emphasis to Claire’s role in what happened with Rufus. It made it far more apparent why Claire and Jamie couldn’t stay compared to what had happened in the book.  In the books, Diana Gabaldon has an unlimited amount of time and space to explain things so usually major events in the show are simpler and compressed.  Change can’t be avoided, but Karen still probably could have been handled this situation in a far more nuanced fashion than she did.

Jamie and Claire had several good reasons for not wanting to hold slaves, I can think of half a dozen in addition to the fact that Jamie had essentially once been a slave to the British: doing forced labor in prison and later during his parole at Helwater.  Yet, none of those were mentioned by either Claire or Jamie (Sam Heughan).

For whatever reason, instead of being subtler, the writers and producers wanted to hit the viewers over the head with a SLAVERY IS VERY BAD two-by-four.  Whatever the wisdom of that particular decision, which I suppose is debatable, it did come at the cost of the storyline making sense.   Worse, it caused Claire and Jamie to act completely out of character.

Claire’s intelligence and ability to remain rational and (usually) make the right choice, even under extraordinary pressure when no one else understands the facts of a situation the way she does, is often key to her ability to save lives. This is true in the books and (again, usually) in the series.

However, Claire did not exhibit any intelligence or rational thinking in this episode.  Instead, she tried to save the life of a man, despite the fact that everyone told her he legally could not be saved.  The law required he die and she if tried to keep him from his fate, the lives of innocent slaves and everyone in the house would be at risk.  

It makes no sense Claire did what she did.  Why would she act so recklessly even after several people warned her of the danger her actions could put her and others into? Was the witch trial, where she was under threat of a different crowd of angry white folks, really that much different?  Did she learn nothing from that experience about the dangers of angry mobs?

And Jamie was little better.  He was too cautious.  He should have recognized earlier Aunt Jocasta (Marie Doyle-Kennedy) wouldn’t be so emphatic about anything less than extremely dire circumstances.  Jamie isn’t always on top of things, but usually, when he sees things which need getting done he does them far more decisively than he did here.  His hand-wringing in this episode seemed to be added solely as a plotline expediency.

His indecisiveness seemed meant to reinforce the urgency of the midnight deadline for turning Rufus over, which was likely added as a way to insert extra tension into the story.  Which usually (in and of itself) is not a bad tactic, as such things go.  Yet, the way it was handled here was awkward and it seemed to drag.  The actors did what they could with this, but everything surrounding Rufus and his death just came off as stilted and forced, which made everything about this particular storyline worse.

The script also had some general technical problems, aside from what I discussed above.  The dialogue was at times ‘on-the-nose’ (the characters saying exactly what they’re feeling or thinking).  For example, did Jocasta really need to lay out how she knew Claire disapproved of slavery? (“The cadence of your voice tells me what ye’re no sayin’…”)

And did Claire really need to lie to Jocasta about why she and Jamie disapprove of slavery?  Her explanation came across as a lie, which is actually mostly thanks to Caitriona Balfe’s acting since Claire is a notoriously bad liar.  Jocasta said in her first scene that she can tell when people are lying, so she probably would see through the lies, so why have Claire do it? Will this come up again in a future episode? It might because that seemed like such an odd comment, given Claire was going to lie to her later in the same episode, but who knows what they’ll do with that.

And did the writers really have Claire say she could sew an ear back on if she hurried? Reattachment of missing body parts requires microsurgery Claire is technically incapable of doing.  There was a line in the book where Claire wondered about what happened to the man’s ear, but I doubt Diana Gabaldon had intended that to mean Claire would attempt replantation.

Also, some details of the script were derivative from past episodes.  The desperate-surgery-in-a-crowd-under-desperate-circumstances scene?  It’s been done numerous times before in this show, so it felt tired especially since it was completely without having any real point, aside from plotline expediency.

I mean, Claire didn’t know Rufus, and yet her desperation to save him reminded me of how she acted when she saved Angus (Steven Walters) back in season two’s “Prestonpans.”  The main difference is that everyone was invested in Claire’s actions back in season two because Angus was a loved character.  Why was she so invested in saving Rufus, so far beyond reason?  Yeah, he was going to be unjustly executed, which is a tragedy any feeling person might work to avoid, but in a literary sense, the emotional urgency just didn’t make sense.  He is not an important character in the long term. 

And did they really need to show Rufus’s corpse being strung up?  I get they wanted to show the horror of slavery and the lynch-mob mentality, but was it completely necessary?  It felt gratuitous because the sequence lasted as long as it did and it didn’t emphasize the reaction shots more.

As much as I loathed this episode, I did like that Karen had Jamie pray at the end.  I dislike how sanctimonious religious observance can sometimes come off on TV or in movies, but it’s good to see Jamie be a faithful Catholic like he is in the book.  There is too little true faith shown in the series, unlike the books, where it is a key part of many characters’ lives.

In the end, I have to ask what the hell were the producers and writers thinking?  The episode was heavy-handed and depressing when, after the extremely dark ending of the last episode, something lighter was sorely needed.  I am looking forward to what will hopefully be a less angsty episode with 4.03, “The False Bride.”

I usually talk about the acting and crafts here at the end, but for the second review in a row, I just don’t have the heart.  The acting was capable, at times even beautiful, but I disliked the episode so much I did not want to view it the extra time or two I would need to flesh out any commentary on anything other than what I’ve already said about the script.  I really hope next week’s episode is better.  (ETA: It was FAR better, thank goodness.)

I give this episode 1 out of a possible 5 two-by-fours.


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