The wide sweep of the Starz television series 'Outlander' has left Scotland behind and this new season, called 'Brave the New World,' is now set in America, specifically North Carolina, in 1767. Nevertheless, it was filmed in Scotland. All art forms, to some extent – television included – comment on the conditions of their making, sometimes obviously so, at other times there is a sub-text. 'Outlander 4' is no exception to this.
The focus of the previous three seasons was the relationship between the two main characters, Claire and Jamie Fraser (16 May 2018
), which ended with their love and loyalty intact, soon to join other Scots in settling in 18th-century America. Once a story has reached the point of the 'happy ever after' stage, where do storytellers take their audience? Where will the threats and suspense now be positioned? There are the expected tropes here, yet there is an edge, an element that subverts this genre so successfully at the very start that, whatever follows, the audience is aware that beneath the action there is a deeper commentary about the world in which we are now
Bringing the series of books by Diana Gabaldon to the small screen is a tricky assignment, which, in consultation with the author, Ronald D Moore and Maril Davis as executive producers seem to relish. Choices of language, glance and gesture, create the nuances that can subtly shift expectations in viewers. The order of scenes builds the structure for the storyline to follow, giving the viewer information with which to interpret what comes next.
These are decisions that have repercussions when telling any tale. It is clear from the chapter headings that 'Outlander 4' does not follow the sequence of the book, 'Drums of Autumn.' This is a decision that affects the narrative flow and immerses the viewer immediately in the themes which, one imagines, the producers felt needed to be established. These themes have resonances in the 21st century also.
There is always a strong moral compass to the 'Outlander' stories, and so it remains. The theme of 'faith' is bedrock. In the first episode, 'America the Beautiful,' the idea of the soul is mentioned in relation to the living and the dead, and in a quiet but strong scene between Jamie and Claire, Jamie says that his soul will still be hers when his body dies. Faith – the Frasers are Catholic – informs their relationship, and also their relation to the world around them. When Claire expresses the opinion that she does not believe in owning another human being, she is asked if she is a Quaker, as only they hold such outlandish ideas.
What we learn from these early scenes is, above all, that Jamie and Claire hold their marriage sacred; that there is corruption among the clergy – as when Jamie is asked for a bribe to bury their friend in a churchyard – that members of one religion are against slavery and others find it acceptable. The moral integrity of the story rests with the Frasers, and circling around it are the tangled ways in which religious differences – often the source of conflicting social beliefs – create tensions.
Today, in 21st-century America the role of religion is harnessed, even hijacked, in order to build on those tensions, to support any number of issues that are more politically motivated than they are faith inspired. Indeed, there are those today in politics who would claim that faith is the defining feature of their life, as they defend highly questionable moral positions. Without spelling it out, 'Outlander 4' hints that issues such as this are already evident in this place and at this time in the American past.
Nevertheless, there is also 'hope'. The first few episodes stay in the 18th century, which is a directorial choice, away from the trajectory of the book. This clarifies the political situation in North Carolina, including immigration and the allocation of land. Politics and immigration, a powerful mix. It was hope that brought so many settlers to America from Scotland in the 1730s, even before the deprivations in the years following Culloden: Highland Scots, who settled in the area of the Cape Fear River, as did Jamie's Aunt Jocasta. They wrote letters home, telling of opportunity. In the early 1770s, thousands of Highlanders emigrated from Scotland and settled in the colony of North Carolina. There were, as well, the Lowland Scots and the Ulster Scots, who came to be known as the Scots-Irish, mostly Presbyterian, and other nationalities. It was the English, however, who were in charge.
By the time the Frasers arrive in the New World, counties had been established, representatives were elected (among the wealthy landowning class), and a governor and council men formed a general assembly. Governance depended on the integrity of the local officials, and this was often called into question. Unrest stemmed from anger against what was seen as unfair taxation and lack of equality.
How is this situation conveyed in the episode 'America the Beautiful,' and what of it echoes down the years? Jamie is drawn to the country, for his greatest desire – like that of 21st-century men and women – is to provide a living for his family. Claire looks out over the wooded hills and tells Jamie, from her knowledge of the future, how the country will grow, how immigrants will come in their thousands, taking ancestral lands and destroying lives. She relates it to how the Highlanders were treated by the English. Jamie's reply is succinct: 'A dream for some can be a nightmare for others.' The land itself is almost a character in the story. It is beautiful, and it invites respect from those who settle upon it. It is not unlike Scotland.
Politics and sexism come to the fore when the Frasers are dinner guests of Governor Tryon and the elite of North Carolina. In a discussion about taxation, Claire dares to express her opinion, unheard of in a woman, that she is against taxes that 'bear disproportionately on the poor.' In the second episode, 'Do No Harm,' Claire once again is at odds with current thinking concerning slave ownership. Jamie's Aunt Jocasta herself vouchsafes that she wishes she could speak her mind but that 'the unsolicited views of women are not welcome.'
In the final scene between Aunt Jocasta and Claire, in the third episode, before the Frasers leave for the mountains, there are modern echoes of gender politics. While Jamie (the man) is seen as blameless, Claire (the woman) is criticised for undue influence (power) over her husband (any man), as if he were unable to make his own decisions, or take responsibility for the choices made. Jocasta is looking to blame someone, and so is opprobrium easily cast on women, even by women.
Land distribution becomes a loaded issue as the governing powers have decided that Jamie is the 'right kind of settler' to whom they can make an offer of acreage. The governor, over a glass of French brandy, says to Jamie: 'There is the law and there is what is done.' In those few words the corruption at the heart of the removal of land from those living on it is made quite clear. He says, furthermore, that there are requirements, one of which is a payment and the other is loyalty to the king. This is a purchase of loyalty, which, as Claire points out, will leave them on the wrong side of history once again. Jamie's desire to stay stems from his belief that he can make it a better land for the next generation, and for those who follow, including his daughter.
What has happened to the 'American Dream'? The phrase was coined in 1931 by the historian James Truslow Adams, and it centres around the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, and how hard work can achieve success. It was an appeal especially to families, and it became a national ethos. Being born in America conferred this privilege on children. Deviating again from the book, the characters of Marsali and Fergus have not been left behind in Jamaica, but instead have come as part of the Fraser family, and their child will be born in America, of immigrants. In telling the story for television, what pointers lead to the current day? How has 'hope' held up?
Immigration is a fraught issue, not only in America, but across Europe, including the UK. The idea of 'a nightmare for others' depends on who says it and where, and what people believe is at stake. Politicised language obfuscates the significance – positive and negative – of proposed immigration. In 18th-century America, it suited the Crown financially to increase the population. In America today, there is much value placed on the idea, the ideal, of 'family', and, while there has been outrage at the separation of illegal immigrant children from their families, leadership from the government has sadly been lacking. The spectre has even been raised of removing the right to citizenship of children born in America.
'Outlander 4,' in coupling the usefulness of immigrants, politically and economically, with the 18th-century seizure of land from the indigenous people, shows how little honest analysis went into the structuring of the system to oversee this development. Instead, we see greed, bribery and political lobbying from the very beginning. A form of neo-colonialism exists today: politico-business interference, with little concern for conservation of the land or benefit to the locals. The use of the word 'savages', implying inferiority, finds its echo today in talk of 'the poor' in the UK, or the 'forgotten' in the US, as if somehow their situation had been of their own making.
The early episodes of 'Brave the New World' also show how the 18th century set spinning a series of positive events, the repercussions of which are felt today in America and around the rest of the world. The ideals of the 'American Dream' have inspired in generations the belief that democracy can prevail, that decency and fairness will eventually reap rewards, that virtue is admirable. Love of the land and the tenacity to protect it from degradation continue, sometimes against all odds. Nevertheless, the final scene of the first episode sees this dream of Jamie and Claire shattered by death and violence, to a soundtrack of 'America the Beautiful,' sung by Ray Charles in 1972, thereby crossing the 200-year gap in one bound. The dialogue is silenced. The music says it all, and how ironically prescient to make the choice of Ray Charles: black, blind, but all seeing.
It is 'charity', Jamie’s sense of charity in misjudging the Irish psychopath-with-charm Stephen Bonnet, that has brought calamity upon them. He believes this to be a failure on his part, yet seeing good in others is one of the strengths of his character. 'Charity', as defined by Corinthians, rejoices in the truth. In the New World, charity is a little thin on the ground, and never is this more evident than in the treatment of the indigenous population and the ownership of slaves.
Any film team would approach these topics with trepidation. 'Outlander 4: Brave the New World,' is being watched by an audience that still hopes, as does Claire, that 'one day it will all be different,' while at the same time being subjected to an unfolding of current affairs that seem to predict otherwise. Slavery and trafficking have not gone away. In the 21st century the belief in truth is constantly undermined.
How, in 'Outlander 4,' can the rights of people, who at the time had no rights, flourish on screen; how can they be established without falsifying their positions; how can they be treated with respect while they are personifying those to whom little respect was given?
Jamie and Claire believe in the innate equality of all people. Against this are set accepted opinions and the laws of the land. Aunt Jocasta, for instance, says that the slaves are her 'friends', and that she believes in keeping the families together, which sounds as if it is a form of charity, but really it is to create a better, less fractious workforce. The legal system is so tied up in regulations that it is nearly impossible to free a slave. Not only would the cost be ruinous to the owner, but any changes to the system would shake the foundations of the structure of North Carolina society.
The river, like the land, can become an important character in a tale, acting as a metaphor. It is wide, beautiful, and strong of current. The Cape Fear River when we first see it is thus freighted with significance. Elevated above everyone and everything, on top of a barge carrying its Scottish passengers, stands a black boatman in charge at the tiller, looking ahead of him at the river. Time stands still while every aspect of his countenance can be appreciated. By such framing, his character is established. For having rescued his master he has been freed. He is the future, however distant.
Each black character is given physical space in the scenes, when they are central and even when they are virtually background figures. They are named in a way that causes the viewer to remember, and by their speech and gesture they create personalities that are recognisable. In this way the theme of equality is addressed through the filming, within the historical context.
It will not be until 1791 that Thomas Paine publishes 'The Rights of Man,' in which he posits that when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people then revolution is permissible. Even then there wasn't universal acceptance of his treatise, and now laws exist that could be said to undermine the values by which a nation might want to be identified.
When he was asked in an interview about how much current politics informed the filming of 'Outlander 4,' Ronald D Moore gave this reply: 'This is a classic story of immigrants coming to the New World, a retelling of the "foundation myth." Ultimately the show is about those characters and the story, so we don't choose to look at it as a platform for political ideas. But at the same time, we all live in this culture, we all live in this society and we have to be cognisant of the world, so we try to talk about it through the show, but not preach to the audience.'
Doubtless 'Brave the New World' will give its audience the roller coaster ride that it has come to expect, in adventure and suspense, as the wider cast of characters explores their new surroundings and the story travels in time and broadens in scope. These first few episodes provide more than a background, however, as everything rests on understanding more fully the circumstances in which Jamie and Claire – plus the wider family and all the other Scots – are attempting to make a new life in the New World.
As characters, they bring faith, hope and charity to the story and to their roles, and it is worth mentioning that, like the producers, the actors too live real lives in the real world. Both Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan run charities to improve the lives of others, and for that, and for their exceptional acting, they should take a bow.