This week’s Outlander episode, "Monsters and Heroes," is certainly the best of the season so far. It has brilliant, sensitive, tender acting by Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Rik Rankin is especially good while Lauren Lyle and John Hunter Bell bring so much heart to their performances. While it was filmed months before COVID-19 appeared and upended our lives, I could not help seeing parallels to what’s going on in the world right now.
Dr. Claire Fraser (Balfe), a 20th century surgeon now in the 18th century, is battling a deadly illness without the tools she needs. Just as today’s frontline doctors and nurses are changing practices and protocols to fight the Coronavirus, Claire is forced to adapt what she has in front of her. She is not facing a pandemic. She’s only trying to save one life–that of her husband Jamie Fraser (Heughan). But in what seems like an echo of what you hear today’s heroic healthcare workers say, Claire knows she was meant to be a healer. “That’s what I was born to be and will be until I die.”
The story begins on an ordinary day. Women are dyeing cloth while some of the men have gone out to hunt game. Jamie takes a shot at a herd of buffalo he and his son-in-law, Roger (Rankin), were tracking. While he’s reloading, he’s bitten by a venomous snake. Roger is in a way a first responder–sucking out the venom and keeping Jamie alive through the night until they are rescued. Both Rankin and especially Heughan give compelling performances. Jamie, knowing he could be facing death, gives Roger instructions. “If I die…tell Bree I’m glad of her. Give my sword to the bairn. Tell Claire I meant it.” Roger is distraught and prays, “Dear Lord, hear my voice, don’t let this man die.” How many such prayers are being said today?
When Jamie is finally brought to Claire’s surgery, she is shocked. His leg is swollen and inflamed. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” Jamie, sense of humor intact, tells her she needs to work on her bedside manner. Claire has managed to distill penicillin–200 years before it is actually discovered. But she has no way of injecting it because a vengeful, ignorant man has destroyed her only syringe. She may have to amputate Jamie’s leg to save his life. He knows it and tells her he would rather die than live without his leg. Balfe gives a subtle, nuanced portrayal of the agonizing choice before her. This is fiction. But for me, it was a reminder of the terrible choices physicians are facing today. To intubate or not. To try an unproven treatment that may prove harmful. To expose oneself to a deadly virus.
The most emotional scene, the heart of the episode, comes as Jamie, slowly dying, asks Claire to sleep beside him. To touch him. Realizing how close to death he is, she strips off her nightgown and lies naked on top of him, holding onto him, begging him not to die. “No, don’t leave me. Stay with me.” It is only the power of her love that brings him back and makes him accept that he must lose his leg in order to live.
But there’s one more MacGyver moment: Roger saved the head of the snake and Brianna realizes she can engineer a makeshift syringe from its hollow teeth. Claire is able to inject the penicillin into Jamie’s bloodstream and save his leg. Later, in a tender scene, Jamie tells her that he chose not to die because he knew she needed him. “Not because you love me?” she asks. In words that so many can relate to in this crisis, he answers her. “Whether I’m dead or you. Whether we’re together or apart. I will always love you.” Love in the face of death. Human ingenuity. The courage to do what must be done. This episode had it all.