This article centers on Season 3, Episode 12 of Outlander, “The Bakra.” If you’re not yet caught up with the show, be warned: Spoilers abound.
I am simply going to tell you, up front, that this week’s episode of Outlander is even more absurd than last week’s, which is saying something. A lot of the Frasers’ old friends and frenemies just happen to be lurking about in Jamaica, and it borders on hilarity because it’s not like air travel was a thing back in Ye Olden Days.
Young Ian resurfaces and is being kept alive by the Portuguese pirates because someone called The Bakra likes young boys. When the Bruja gets to Jamaica, Young Ian is thrown into a cave cell where he meets a couple other young men being held. There is some ominous talk about how the boys thrown in the cell keep being taken away, though to where, no one knows. Before long Ian is taken to a lovely estate, a colonial fever dream, where a woman is bathing in goat’s blood because “the protein and iron keep my skin young.” She is The Bakra, but we know her as Geillis Duncan. Yes. You just read that correctly. The same Geillis Duncan who was burned as a witch in Season 1—but not before Claire discovered she was also a time traveler. (And the same Geillis Duncan that we last saw passing through the stones in 1968 in Season 2.) As Young Ian watches, kind of dumbfounded, Geillis rinses the goat’s blood off, posing seductively, then dons a robe like this is all fine, nothing to see here. A manservant brings in some treats and tea, which after a brief pause, Young Ian takes to eagerly. He is a growing boy, after all.
Long story short, Geillis is looking for three sapphires, of which she has two. She asks Ian about what happened on Selkie Island while he was going for her treasure. Before long, he is spilling his guts. Turns out, there was some kind of truth serum in the tea and Geillis learns that Young Ian’s uncle might have taken the sapphire. She marvels at what a small world it is when she learns the identity of Ian’s uncle. Geillis also waxes poetically about how sex with virgins keeps her young, as it does for all of us. Ian defiantly shares that he isn’t a virgin. There was that one time, in his uncle’s print shop, and Geillis is fine with that because, she says, he’ll know what to do. (As if.) She reclines in bed and Ian crawls toward her, but they mercifully don’t show the sex scene. Young Ian is very young, after all.
The Frasers arrive in Jamaica and immediately start searching for Young Ian. As they are strolling through the streets, they see that slavery is alive in well in 18th-century Jamaica. Claire is appalled and rightfully so, but it highlights one of the realities of the Outlander premise. The show only works because Claire is white. A black woman would never want to return to the 18th century, no matter how dashing and handsome Jamie Fraser might be. It’s interesting that it takes until the third season for the show to try to grapple with this, but I suppose it’s hard to be an adventure romance and politically engaged with historical realities.
At the slave market, a young black man being sold by slavers captures Claire’s attention. She causes a scene and demands that Jamie do something to help the young man. Jamie ends up buying the young man. That’s right. The Frasers become slave owners, but the good kind so it’s fine I guess. Apparently it is easy to buy a slave but far more difficult to set one free. They’ll set the poor guy free, “when it means he truly can be,” Jamie says after detailing, for Claire, the difficulties of just giving a man his freedom. The Frasers then ask the young man, Temeraire, for his help. While they are mingling at the governor’s ball—to which they have been conveniently invited—he will go to the slave quarters and ask if anyone has seen Young Ian. He agrees to do so because, well, he is a slave! He has to! The show is just trying to make his slavery seem more palatable to our modern sensibilities.
Everything on Outlander always comes full circle in one way or another. Remember Margaret and Archiband Campbell, whom we last saw in Episode 7? They’re also hanging out in Jamaica, at Geillis’s invitation. Their presence is all part of an elaborate but nonsensical plot wherein Geillis is determined to find the third sapphire from her box of treasure because, apparently, if a seer holds all three sapphires, that seer will be able to predict when a Scotsman will finally sit on the throne. (Geillis is as dedicated to her people as ever.)
When the Frasers arrive at the ball, Archibald Campbell is the very first person Claire sees, and she greets him, somewhat stunned, as anyone would be. What are the chances that this random guy you met in Edinburgh would also be at the same party you’re attending in Jamaica, in the 18th century? There is no way this could ever possibly happen, so of course it happens. Willoughby, Fergus, and Marsali are also at the ball, and Willoughby is quite the hit with the local white women who have never seen a Chinese man before. Then Margaret Campbell catches Willoughby’s eye. Later they have a quiet moment on the grounds, away from it all, where Willoughby tells Margaret she deserves better than how her brother treats her and whispers sweet nothings to her. A love connection is made!
While Jamie is mingling, looking very dashing in his colonial garb, he sees a ghost from his past. You will never guess who the governor of Jamaica is. NEVER!
It’s Lord John Grey.
I guffawed audibly at this point, and then gave in and was simply delighted. Once Jamie gets over his surprise, he introduces Claire to John and John is equally stunned—both to see Jamie, and also and to learn Claire is alive. With Claire alive, John has less than no shot at his OTP. Claire quickly realizes John has feelings for Jamie and gets real territorial about her man. And of course Geillis is skulking about the party twirling her invisible lady-villain moustache, just in case you craved a bit more wild coincidence.
John Grey pulls Jamie and Claire into his study where they catch up on Jamie’s son, Willy, who is doing well. (Of course he’s doing well. He’s a rich white man with a title and a fortune to his name.) They chit and chat, then Jamie realizes John is still wearing the sapphire he gave him after escaping from prison that one time. It’s a tender little moment between the not quite lovers. Poor John Grey. He reminds Claire of how they met, when they have a chance to talk alone, and she makes a point of commenting on the sapphire. “Jamie gave that to you?” she asks, and pointedly makes it clear she has come back to Jamie, which is to say, that she is giving serious “back the hell off, Lord John Grey” vibes. I really wished they had scored this scene with Monica and Brandy’s classic hit “The Boy Is Mine.” What a missed opportunity.
Before they can continue their tense conversation, Claire spies Geillis Duncan, and the two women two catch up on what happened since Geillis was, you know, supposedly to be burned at the stake. She was kept alive until she had her baby, apparently, and then Dougal helped her escape. Geillis married a plantation owner and is now Mistress Abernathy of Rose Hall. I will give the show this: Everything is absurd, but there is always an explanation that makes you think, “Well, it could have happened that way!” Also, time travelers always land on their feet.
Geillis offers to help Claire find Young Ian even though she knows exactly where Young Ian is. “What are friends for?” she says, because Geillis always has a little venom on her tongue. That’s what makes her interesting.
The frenemies head inside to find Jamie, who is having a tender little moment with John Grey, and Geillis spies her sapphire. She is quick on her feet and orders Archibald and Margaret to start telling fortunes to the party guests. Then she ropes a reluctant John Grey into her shenanigans, has him hand Margaret the sapphire…you see where this is going. As I said, everything in this episode is so absurd that it becomes absolutely numbing. It is far less fun to watch a show like this when everything is overly convenient. A character needs something? Somehow, that something falls into their lap. Sure, there’s struggle, but always over the things we wish were easy—like Jamie and Claire’s being together.
Margaret doesn’t want to read Grey’s fortune, but she is forced to nonetheless. She mutters some things and finishes, “When the issue is cut down, then will a Scotsman wear a crown.” John Grey laughs it off and the ball continues. Geillis pulls Archibald outside and demands that he explain Margaret’s words. He tries his best, but it’s clear they have not yet made sense of Margaret’s meaning. Geillis is undeterred, though, which doesn’t bode well for Young Ian, or anyone in her path.
The young newlyweds, Fergus and Marsali, are being sweet and romantic to each other when they spy Captain Leonard riding up. They warn Jamie, and soon the Frasers and their compatriots are fleeing. They rendezvous with Temeraire, who spoke with some escaped slaves from The Bruja (of course he did) and learned that Young Ian is with Mistress Abernathy at Rose Hall. Temeraire, understandably, wants to be sure the Frasers are going to hold up their end of the bargain. Jamie assures him that once he can, he will set the young man free. Temeraire isn’t keen on waiting and tells Jamie that escaped slaves live in the mountains near Rose Hall, which is a plot convenience I am fine with because I really want this young man to be black and free as he should be. On their way to Rose Hall, they find a marked tree—the beginning of the Jamaican freedom train, if you will—and Temeraire is off, to hopefully live the rest of his life in peaceful freedom.
The Frasers decide to continue on to Rose Hall, but Captain Leonard rides up and takes Jamie into custody. Jamie hands Claire the pictures of his children to hold for him. Claire, for her part, calls Leonard a bloody bastard. “I am the only reason any of you survived,” she says, which is of course true. Captain Leonard is thoroughly unmoved. Ambition trumps gratitude, obviously. As he’s taken away, Jamie implores Claire to find Young Ian, and she is left, once again, to watch her husband being unfairly arrested. This is like the 10th time, though, so she should be used to it at this point. Lord knows I am. We all are!
Roxane Gay is the author of Bad Feminist, Difficult Women and, most recently, Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.