Outlander review: It’s difficult to “Do No Harm” in pre-Revolutionary America


The Frasers inherit a slave plantation and are forced to face their own privilege, and limitations, in the second episode of the season.

I have to hand it to Outlander: despite my initial misgivings, I think it handled its slavery plot the best way it could’ve in “Do No Harm.” Yes, Claire arrives at Aunt Jocasta’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) plantation, River Run, with good, albeit naive, intentions. However, she eventually realizes pre-Revolutionary America isn’t a world she understands — and helping slaves is much easier said than done.

“Do No Harm” succeeds in conveying how intrinsic slavery was in American society in the 18th century. Not only are the citizens blithe about the overall morality of the subject, but the laws are also biased towards slave-owners and designed to prevent anyone from freeing slaves. When someone, such as Claire and Jamie Fraser, actually tries to challenge things, a mob literally forms. Those infuriated people aren’t so much offended by abolition as a concept, as they are worried their personal interests will be threatened. (I wish I could say this very American sentiment has changed in the intervening two-and-a-half centuries, but I can’t.)

Jocasta — who is totally a witch, by the way (more on that later) — welcomes Jamie and Claire to her home and wastes no time in announcing that her nephew, whom she hasn’t seen since he was a baby, will inherit River Run and will be its master, effective immediately. She makes this decision shortly after Claire politely but firmly voices her opposition to “keeping people as property.” So, Jocasta is either a) just over running a household and wants it to be someone else’s problem, or more likely, b) is bored and thinks it would be amusing to saddle Claire and Jamie with a home that functions because of an institution they’re both against.

I can’t say that’s a nice or even sane thing to do, but man, it makes Jocasta one of the more interesting characters Outlander has introduced in a long time.

Jamie manages to somewhat-convince Claire that, if the plantation is theirs, they can free the slaves. “Maybe we can make a small difference for those in our part of the world,” he says. “A spark that might light a fuse.” Claire doesn’t even realize how right she is when she replies, “Fuses often lead to explosions.”

That’s more or less what happens when, per Jocasta’s request, Jamie and Claire tend to an issue of justice involving a slave named Rufus (Jerome Holder) and the white overseer, Byrnes (Cameron Jack), he injures. During a lashing, Rufus retaliated. As it’s illegal for a slave to harm any white person in any way, he is sentenced to death. Instead of going through the court, Byrnes decides to lynch Rufus using a meat hook. It’s barbaric and upsetting not just for the viewer, but for the Frasers, too. They cut Rufus down and Claire performs a life-saving operation — thereby circumventing the law and the people’s sense of what is proper. Jocasta, Byrnes, the law officials and the rest of the townsfolk are not pleased.

This time Claire and Jamie don’t figure out a last-minute, disbelief-suspending solution to the day’s problems. The mob is incensed and Jocasta’s friends, Farquard Campbell (James Barriscale) and Lieutenant Wolff (Lee Boardman), give Jamie until midnight to turn Rufus over so “justice” can be done.

This yields the best scene of “Do No Harm” — and the one it desperately needed. Instead of framing the entire storyline from Claire and Jamie’s perspective, the episode includes input from Ulysses (Colin McFarlane), Jocasta’s most trusted and senior slave. Although he’s clearly surprised, and even a little touched, by Claire’s determination to save Rufus, Ulysses knows it’s a lost cause. “Saving that boy’s soul is all that can be done for him now,” Ulysses explains. “Once the overseers come, they will tear the limbs from his body and leave what little is behind as a warning for the rest of us.” He concludes letting Rufus die at the lynching would have been the best thing for everyone, especially his fellow slaves.

This marks an important moment for Claire. Outlander is acknowledging that Claire believes she is doing the right thing. But she’s only ever lived in her own skin: she can’t fully appreciate how a white person’s deluded act of kindness will affect the black lives around her. The surgeon in her thinks preserving life is always the best course of action. The realist in Ulysses — the black man who has been imprisoned and controlled by white people for his entire life — understands there are far worse things than death.

Claire can’t fully accept this until Jamie, who sees the writing on the wall, suggests she euthanize Rufus. As the mob throws rocks through River Run’s windows and midnight draws ever closer, Claire makes arsenic-laced tea that she tells Rufus will help him sleep. She gives it to him and asks him to tell her about his family. He soon slips away with his hands in Claire’s. Jamie then takes his body to the mob, who hang it from a noose. They don’t even seem to notice Rufus is already dead.

This is one of the darkest endings Outlander has had in quite a while. Claire and Jamie’s integrity is no match for the American people’s mindset, nor the behemoth status slavery held in 1767 society. They couldn’t help Rufus, and lighting an abolitionist fuse seems to be a Sisyphean task. In the coming episodes, the most they can hope for is doing as little harm as possible.

Related Story. Outlander premiere review: Claire and Jamie come full circle. light


  • Is Ulysses, like his Greek counterpart’s namesake, on an epic, strenuous journey that will ultimately lead him back home to his loved ones? Will he eventually find freedom, as his name — the same as the Union Army general and eventual president, Ulysses S. Grant — suggests? I truly hope so.
  • Jocasta’s blindness has honed her sense of hearing, and she’s particularly adept at recognizing when someone is lying. If she’s not actually a witch, she’s definitely been accused of it in the past.
  • Speaking of Jocasta, she comes to depend on Jamie very quickly. Is this another calculation? If not, how in the world did she manage before he turned up?
  • Jamie’s reading spectacles continue to be hilarious.
  • Between his affection for Claire’s cursing and his epiphany that Native American tribes are not so different from Scottish clans, Young Ian is well on his way to being one woke 18th-century lad.
  • The dude who washes Rollo with vinegar after the skunk attack, John Quincy Myers (Kyle Rees), seems fun and jolly. Although I’m not quite sure why he’s bragging about his backside’s hirsuteness.