Searching for your lost husband can be a real drag. It’s certainly so for Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, who learned last episode that her highland hunk Jamie had been seized by the redcoats in an ambush. In this week’s Outlander outing, “The Search,” she and her sister-in-law Jenny discover that the lost Laird of Lallybroch escaped his captors and is now on the run through the Scottish countryside. So she and Jamie’s right-hand-man Murtagh concoct a novel plan to track him down: They’ll find him by helping him find them. If she’s got to perform a song-and-dance routine while dressed as a man to pull it off, so be it.
You’ve got to give the series this: I’ve never seen a search-and-rescue mission play out quite like this before. Particularly not one that started out as traditionally as this one did, with Claire and Jenny following crude maps, tracing tracks, examining horse droppings for freshness, torturing stray Englishmen for information and so on. Why it didn’t occur to them to read the letter they’d seen said redcoat carrying back to his superiors before torturing him, or refrain from naming the man they’re looking for out loud and thus force themselves to kill the courier to keep him silent, is beyond my sassenach understanding of their queer foreign ways. But it’s also a bit beside the point, since the entire opening act turns out to be misdirection.
The real hunt begins when Murtagh steps in, relieving Jenny so she can return to, uh, the baby she gave birth to like three days before riding off-road through the Highlands on horseback to find her missing brother which let’s not give too much thought to whether that was a great idea okay? Given Murtagh’s rough-and-tumble mien and extensive experience with martial matters, it seems like we’re in for more of the same tried-and-true tracking techniques. Instead, Murtagh suggests a more novel approach. Since there’s little chance they can find a lone warrior attempting to evade pursuit with the whole country as his hiding place, why not attract enough attention for him to find them instead?
So Murtagh and Claire ride openly from town to town, being as conspicuous as possible. At first, Claire establishes herself as a travelling healer, while her companion drums up attention as a dancer. (Which he sucks at, which I thought was the whole point, but it seems he’s sincere in his pursuit of the Terpsichorean muse — a bit hard to swallow, given how miserable he looks with every step, but okay.) When that fails, Murtagh seizes on an unexpected inspiration: Claire’s anachronistic rendition of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” Outlander is never more delightful than when its title character’s 20th-century background erupts into the forefront, and hearing her sing this familiar tune in such an unfamiliar setting is no exception. With Murtagh’s help, she rewrites the lyrics to sound more Scottish, and to be a good deal dirtier, and sings them to adoring crowds while dressed as a man. That’ll attract attention, alright!
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind. A band of gypsies, who apparently know a hit when they hear one, steal the song for their own, and continue to perform it even after promising Claire they won’t. When they get a message clearly intended for her, they do at least have the decency to relay it — but the hoped-for rendez-vous with Jamie turns out to be bogus. The message was from Dougal MacKenzie instead, who brings bad news: Jamie’s been re-captured — off-screen, within the same episode where we learn he’d escaped after having been captured last episode, because the redcoats have as little disregard for narrative pacing as the makers of Outlander do — after being drawn to the wrong drag performance, and he’s slated for the noose asap. Dougal’s indecent proposal to Claire that they marry in order to preserve her safety and that of the Fraser lands, which have been his true target all along, incenses the sassenach, who gathers up a small band of Scotsmen who’ve had speaking parts in past episodes in order to spring Jamie from the gallows. A last-minute rescue? In MY Outlander? It’s more likely than you think.
If I’m spending more time on plot recap than usual, it’s because the plot here is this episode’s distinguishing feature, for better and for worse. Outlander is built on a herky-jerky rhythm of reveals and reversals — people are captured and freed, threats are made and rescinded, people fight and make up, over and over and over. Since those plot points so rarely rise above the level of cliché, a storyline that takes things this far in the direction of the unusual and unexpected deserves spotlighting, if not outright praise. The problem is that only on a show this frustrating would a raunchy 18th-century rewrite of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” be seen as a bold storytelling maneuver, instead of what its in-world performers intend it to be: a novelty act.