Credit David Bloomer/Starz
Season 3, Episode 9: ‘The Doldrums’
After racing through 20 years of separation, “Outlander” spent three episodes setting up all of the issues underlying Jamie and Claire’s reunion. With this week’s episode, the season undergoes a literal sea change by lifting them out of any familiar ground and stranding them on a boat to the West Indies — a bottle episode on open waters. And as with many bottle episodes, it’s a chance to take stock of what’s working this season and what isn’t.
The strongest element of this episode is Claire, whose lingering doubts about how to reconcile with Jamie make a nice counterpoint to her easy assurance as a physician. Even her voice-over is revealing: Of the pleasant early days on the ship, she says, “It reminded me of a simpler time.” But because nothing she’s experienced has been remotely simple, we’re left to wonder what sort of story she’s trying to tell herself. (Perhaps she longs for another group of allies as loyal as that first Highland clan? She’s beginning to seem overwhelmed by the sheer number of supporting characters coming through the show’s revolving door.)
Also effective is the ship itself. Director David Moore makes us feel the claustrophobia — sailors crowding the frame, low ceilings, dark rooms, punishing sun and the wide, blank sea. The superstitions that Claire initially laughs at take on a sinister edge as we realize the truth underneath them: Facts lose their power when you’re desperate. By the time the sailors start muttering about throwing someone overboard, everything in the frame is designed to enhance the sense of the ship as a pressure cooker.
And speaking of desperate, Jamie and Claire are trying to regain some equilibrium even in the middle of the chaos. There’s plenty to draw from, given the rift last episode — in fact, it’s deeply unsatisfying how fast they smooth things over. Either Jamie and Claire are trying too hard to put these problems aside, or the show doesn’t like too much conflict between our lovers. (And as is becoming typical of the season, other subplots boil over before we get a sense of which one it is.) Still, we get a few much-needed moments of Claire’s missing Brianna and trying to reconcile the world she left behind with this world in which she’s still uncertain.
Which brings us to Mr. Willoughby.
Since his inauspicious introduction, Willoughby has been portrayed as a capable, unassuming background character waiting for his moment to shine. This was, apparently, that moment. The trappings around him, however — the vaguely-Asian flute music that accompanies his scenes (a rare misstep from composer Bear McCreary), his water calligraphy, the acupuncture — were so stereotypical that his life story would have had to be something special to get out from under the weight of those broad strokes. It was not.