[This is not a spoiler-free review of the episode. If you have not seen the episode yet, read it at your own spoiler risk.]
Episode 404: “Common Ground”
Written by Joy Blake, Directed by Ben Bolt
Outlander season four might be the drabbest season so far, but considering it is only three episodes into the season, there is much room for improvement with ten episodes remaining. Thankfully, episode 404, “Common Ground,” is here to redeem the less-than-stellar start to a high-quality, well-regarded show, whether you are an Outlander fan or a casual viewer.
Relationships are still being established, settled, and finding their place in season four. Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) are married and have been reunited after a twenty-year absence, but they are still learning what they missed out on in their absence. Claire raised Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and had her profession; Jamie had William briefly, but also struggled as a wanted man and then an imprisoned one, never entirely safe (or playing it safe). It is with the land grant from Governor Tryon (Tim Downie) that the true beginnings of their new home begin. But with that land grant comes loyalty to the Crown, something Jamie has never fully given in his heart or mind but has done so with hollow words or a signature on a piece of paper. The Governor also likens Highland Scots to savages and barbarians, but Jamie throws one back at him saying even a prince can be one of those (*cough* Bonnie Prince Charlie *cough*). Claire has already warned him that taking on the Governor’s agreement for the land that they will be again on the wrong side of history.
Returning to Wilmington to sign the land grant agreement gives Claire, Jamie, and Ian (John Bell) a chance to meet up with Marsali (Lauren Lyle) and Fergus (César Domboy). Marsali misses her mother, especially with a “bairn” coming, and Claire sympathizes with her. Regardless of Claire’s feelings for Laoghaire, she has become a motherly figure (and mother-in-law) to Marsali. Marsali gives Claire the kindest compliment saying she would have no other healer than her by her side if things were to go wrong. This conversation leads to Claire reflecting with a bit of regret of leaving her daughter behind in the future, knowing she will never see Brianna pregnant, having Claire’s grandchild. Brianna is also going to be without her mother if she is ever married and pregnant. The longing for her daughter is a constant reminder for Claire of what she gave up for Jamie. She could never have both, only one or the other, and she made her decision and is still coping with the aftermath of it.
As Jamie is talking to Fergus of recruiting more men to settle at Fraser’s Ridge, he specifically mentions the men of Ardsmuir prison as prospective settlers. And I really hope a specific former prisoner is one of them. It’s setting up his eventual arrival this season.
Claire, Jamie, Ian, and Rollo travel back to Fraser’s Ridge to mark the land and begin to make it their own. At a set of witness trees (“that which witnesses a corner”), Jamie carves an F and R into the tree. No sooner has Jamie made his mark than a small group of young Cherokee men arrive. Jamie, unarmed, tells them his name, and the Cherokee leave without a single word. A warning.
This episode begins to deal with issues confronting new settlers in America and those Native Americans who were already here. The Frasers have a land grant from the government, but it is not from the Cherokee. As they set their home up and mark their land, the Cherokee make it clear that they will not take this intrusion lightly. The second time the Cherokee come, they hurl the land-marking stakes back at them, making a point; this is not your land to claim. The Cherokee yell a few words, but the audience does not get any subtitles. This lack of comprehension harkens back to season one when there were no subtitles for the Gaelic spoken by the MacKenzie and the Fraser clans, putting the audience in Claire’s shoes of not understanding a single word spoken. In this episode, we are taking in the scene just like Claire, Jamie, and Ian, not knowing what warnings or insults are being said.
One of the major plot points in this episode is the arrival of a bear in the area around Fraser’s Ridge. Already on edge because of the Cherokee, the bear threat is an added stressor for the Frasers. After already injuring a horse, the bear shows up again wounding John Quincy Myers (Kyle Rees). While Claire and Ian tend to Myers in their hut, Jamie goes out to find the bear. After a failed attempt to shoot it, the bear attacks Jamie, except it’s not a bear but a man outfitted in a bear pelt, skull, and claws. Jamie thankfully is able to kill him after being severely mauled by this man. Recognizing him as an Indian, he brings the body to the Cherokee camp (it is never made clear how Jamie can find this place). Stunned by this white man’s presence and what he has brought back with him, they tell Jamie of the man and what had caused his outcast from the camp. They are able to communicate with Jamie because Tawodi (Will Strongheart) reveals that he speaks perfect English.
While this man disguised as a bear is attempting to attack the Frasers, the Cherokee are meeting a large hut. They smoke, speak their language, and the lead healer Adawehi (Tantoo Cardinal) appears to conjure spells. The Cherokee mimic the movements of a bear and also it attacking someone or another bear. This meeting can be taken two ways: the Cherokee are aiding the bear man in attacking Jamie, or they are trying to keep Jamie safe from him. It’s never clear, but regardless, the Jamie gains their approval after he survives the attack. Although, Jamie tells a white lie to the Cherokee while making a promise to them.
With Jamie back with Claire, Ian, and Myers again at Fraser Ridge, the Cherokee make another unplanned visit although it’s friendlier. Chief Nawohali (Wesley French) comes with Adawehi and other members of their tribe. They have decided to call Jamie “Bear Killer,” which brings Ian to peak giddiness. Giduhwa (Crystle Lightning) is Adawehi’s granddaughter-in-law and translates as Adawehi tells her of a dream she had about Claire. Adawehi strokes her palm, and it recalls Mrs. Graham reading Claire’s palm in season one.
“She had a dream about you. The moon was in the water, and you became a white raven. You flew over the water and swallowed the moon. The white raven flew back and laid an egg in the palm of her hand. The egg split open, and there was shining stone inside, and she knew this was great magic, that the stone could heal great sickness.”
“She’s a healer.”
“A very powerful healer. My husband’s grandmother says that you have medicine now, but you will have more when your hair is white like snow. You will have wisdom beyond time. You must not be troubled. Death is sent from the gods. It will not be your fault.”
The other significant relationship of season four is Roger (Richard Rankin) and Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton). These characters only entered season four in the last episode, and things did not turn out well for either of them in their most recent meeting. That may be the last road trip for Roger and Brianna. Reflecting on their tumultuous time together in North Carolina while back at Oxford, Roger turns his attention to the book Brianna gave him about Scots in North Carolina. Not really having paid much attention to it at the time, Roger glances through it and notices a mention of a “Fraser’s Ridge” and writes to the author of the book to find out if it is indeed about that Fraser. Roger, the history nerd, is back at it again, and if he wasn’t interested (or in love) with Brianna, I don’t think he would be “a dog with a bone” with this particular subject, regardless of his career. He can’t stop thinking about Brianna, and hence, he can’t stop thinking about the continuing story of whether Claire found Jamie.
With further research in hand, including the land grant agreement signed by Jamie, Roger phones Brianna to tell her that her mother did find Jamie and are living in North Carolina. Brianna is elated yet subdued about the news. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the conversation goes. Fences aren’t mended too fast when both parties don’t get what they want.
When Roger is shown a historical notice of the death of Jamie and Claire in a fire with no legible date attached to it, he is torn whether to give Brianna this bit of news as it will surely devastate her. After sitting on it for a while, he rings her up only to find out that Brianna left for Scotland two weeks ago. The crescendo of music follows Roger hanging up and taking in what this might mean; it’s the same music that plays when a character goes to the stones.
I almost thought the episode was going to end with Brianna walking to the stones based on the music alone, but it is enough for those who picked up on this track to know that it is coming soon. “Common Ground” sets up the relationship between the Cherokee and the Frasers, while also showing the Frasers setting up the groundwork for their new settlement. On the other hand, Roger is coming to terms that he may not understand Brianna and their lives are too different to make it work, no matter how he pines for her, but all of that is about to go out the window as he realizes what Brianna is going to do or has already done.
Writer Joy Blake has expertly weaved the tales of the Cherokee, the Frasers, the relationship and pulls of a mother and a daughter, and a man desperately in love. Brianna is only in one scene, but because of Roger’s longing, her presence was felt even in her absence. The episode felt longer than it is but in a good way. It packed a lot of story into an hour of television, but it did not feel crammed — another hat tip to composer Bear McCreary for reoccurrence of themes, the introduction of his Native American-inspired score, and a prime example of how music can push a story forward and be a cliffhanger by itself. This may be the first episode of the season where I wish that I could watch the next episode immediately. With two episodes entirely focused on Jamie and Claire, there is a precedent set for the possibility for a couple of episodes only about Roger and Brianna so that their timelines meet up quickly. While this is just the fourth episode of thirteen, if you have read Drums of Autumn, there is a lot of material to cover to get the best parts of the book.
(And I cannot NOT mention that Jamie has short-ish hair again in this episode reminiscent of season one, but unfortunately, it’s the dreaded “W” word.)
NEXT WEEK, SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2ND AT 8 PM ET: EPISODE 405: “SAVAGES”
“Claire’s medical expertise proves invaluable for a family of German settlers, but she begins to fear for her life when tragedy strikes her patients’ household. Jamie and Young Ian travel to a nearby town to recruit settlers for Fraser’s Ridge, but find their progress hindered by a burgeoning political movement.”
Photos and clips are courtesy of Starz.