Season 3, Episode 10: ‘Heaven & Earth’
One of the things “Outlander” has always done well is to make sure that Claire doesn’t have the 20th-century advantage. Time and again, she runs up against how hard it is for her to actually be of any use in the past, even with a modern education. There are so many moving parts that even anticipating the outcome is a gamble. And trying to affect the outcome, more often than not, turns her into a Cassandra. This week’s episode gives Claire one of her most frustrating challenges yet, trapping her at sea on the Porpoise in the midst of a typhoid fever outbreak.
Claire’s enemies have so often been men with terrible intentions. So it was a fascinating change to see her struggle against a situation and have those in power wholly support her methods. Yet none of it matters. Sickness doesn’t care who’s kind; all the medical knowledge of a surgeon’s career can’t force hygienic equipment into an 18th-century boat. (Just trying to get sailors to dip their hands in grog to save their own lives is an uphill battle.) The sheer helplessness of hundreds of seasoned sailors against a fairly common disease is all the suspense this episode needs. Watching Claire race to save lives before they turn on her is just a bonus.
And what a bonus. I complained, earlier in the season, that the show hadn’t adequately conveyed the idea that being a doctor was a real calling for her. We never got that feeling in her 20th century scenes, but there’s plenty of it here. Caitriona Balfe has to carry this episode, and she does it with aplomb, from handling a ton of medical stage business to Claire’s struggle to keep herself together as things start falling apart. David Moore cannily directs the camera through the bowels of the ship in a way that emphasizes both its tight quarters and its seemingly endless ecosystem. (I sympathize with Claire’s bafflement here: “Onboard Goat Manager” was not something she could have anticipated.)
With so much time to spend in close quarters — and so much emphasis on Claire’s story with almost no Jamie — this new round of characters gets enough breathing room that we connect with them. Anneke, the goat manager, turns into a staunch ally for Claire; the young Capt. Leonard ends up an antagonist while never losing his sense of duty in the face of overwhelming odds. Even the extras at the onboard funeral are well cast, with older, weary faces and younger, overwhelmed ones making a composite portrait for Claire of the people who stand to die if she can’t pull off a miracle.
And have you ever met anyone as doomed as the young Elias Pound (Albie Marber)? It’s immediately clear that this sort of beatific, self-possessed youngster isn’t long for this world, yet Marber delivers a performance that skirts any Dickensian flourishes and is simply charming. His quiet death, with Claire standing in as his mother, could easily have seemed forced. Instead, on the heels of Claire’s triumph over sickness and Elias’s endless, good-natured efforts to assist, we feel the weight of this exhaustion and grief. Bear McCreary’s mournful score nudges the moment into something genuinely affecting.