3.5 out of 5 stars

By taking young Ian (John Bell) back to Lallybroch, Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) may have assumed their troubles were over for a while in Outlander. However, the implication of “First Wife” is that we’ll find out exactly who is Jamie’s other wife, a mention of whom was dropped into last week’s episode. Despite Claire’s stirring memories of past and future times at Lallybroch, her reception and the fall-out from her return to the 18th-century is extremely awkward. The romantic notions of “here I was at the place that had forever been imprinted in my head and on my heart” are rather tarnished by the end of this week’s instalment, and even Claire feels that things change without knowing their true significance.

Jenny (Laura Donnelly), Jamie’s sister, is rather stunned to see Claire alive. It’s a pleasure to see this excellent actress back in the series as Jenny, and she’s certainly the highlight of “First Wife”, making Claire work very hard to earn back the trust and affection they’d mutually developed since Claire’s last stay at Lallybroch. She’s none too pleased that Claire’s suddenly popped back out of the woodwork, telling a tale of living in the Colonies after presuming Jamie was killed at Culloden.

Neither is she impressed with Jamie’s abilities to keep her son Ian out of trouble, what with all the tales of violence, a “wee fire” and smuggling or, as Ian puts it, “earning a wage”. Ian gets a slap for his troubles from Jenny and she is boiling with anger when he waxes lyrical about how Claire fought the Crown’s agent and “killed him good”. Claire insists that Jenny’s boy wasn’t witness to the death and she had no choice when the agent attacked her. Jamie offers that Jenny has had no complaints about the money he’s sent her but she’s not impressed with these ill-gotten gains. She brings them down to earth with some very sharp observations about their behaviour.

Ian’s father (Steven Cree) hands his leather belt to Jamie and insists he punishes the wayward lad. Jamie suggests there are other ways to reprimand him, and young Ian is eventually landed with the job of using dung to make patties for fuel. Jamie concedes that he should have sent word about Ian back to Lallybroch but his father continues to worry that Jamie has too a strong influence on his son. It’s bound to lead him into more trouble and he’s not wrong there by the time “First Wife” concludes.

In the lively Lallybroch household, bustling with a generation of children and grandchildren, Claire is reminded again that 20 years have passed and, in their passing, life has changed and moved on. Jenny regards her as “a strange face” in the corridors of her home and this leaves Claire feeling adrift. It’s only in the conversation between Jenny and Jamie in the courtyard that we get a sense of what’s really bugging Jamie’s sister about Claire’s presence. At first, Jamie observes that young Ian is no longer a child and as an adult needs to fulfill his wanderlust and asks Jenny to give him “a taste of freedom” while she still has the power to do so.

But then Jenny cuts to the quick and reminds him it is a mortal sin to take another wife while his first wife is alive and well. Despite his reluctance to face the music, she encourages him to unburden about his post-Culloden trauma and Claire’s departure. He explains that he arranged for her to hide at an inn until it was settled enough for her to “gain safe passage to the Colonies.” Jenny’s not convinced by this half-truth and knows in her heart that Claire “would never have stopped looking for you.” She’s bothered about why it has taken 20 years for Jamie’s first wife to reappear.

Writer Joy Blake is very adept at getting beneath the surface of Jamie’s late night pleasantries about settling down in a cottage on the estate and Claire’s growing anxieties about Jenny’s chilly welcome. What’s central to this scene is that we have two characters in denial about their past, about the 20 years of life they have lived without each other. Both have failed to acknowledge the changes in themselves and in their circumstances. They simply can’t pick up where they left off because they are now different people. Claire thinks telling the truth is the best way forward but Jamie believes their time-travelling saga would be akin to convincing Jenny “ye’re a mermaid.”

He tells her about his escape from Ardsmuir after hearing the story, from the dying Duncan Kerr, about treasure guarded on an island by a “buidseach ban” or white witch. Thinking Claire had returned, he swam out to Silkie Island, as we saw in “All Debts Paid”. What we didn’t know was that he did find all of the treasure rather than the one sapphire he gave to John Grey. He hid the treasure and returned to the prison out of concern for the rest of the men there. Jamie compares their long search for each other to the mating-for-life greylag geese. If one of the geese loses its partner, it’s considered wise to kill the other to save it from grieving to death. For all his heartfelt poetry, Jamie is still concealing his secret and, knowing him well enough, Claire can sense it.

However, before he can explain why he would need to see old Ned Gowan (Bill Paterson) about their legal status, a child bursts in and addresses Jamie as “daddy” with an older girl demanding “daddy, who is that woman?” The hat trick is completed by the sudden appearance of Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson) spitting “sassenach witch!” in Claire’s direction. We last saw her in season two and she was instrumental in the plot of season 1 when, having fallen for Jamie, her jealousy of Claire saw her not only place an ill-wish under Claire’s pillow, but also implicate her in the witchcraft trial of Geillis Duncan. She is Jamie’s other wife, it seems.

And all hell breaks loose. After Jamie has to explain to his youngest step daughter Joan (Layla Burns) about Claire, and we learn that he and Laoghaire are estranged (“we dinnae have a bond that keeps people together”), he returns to a distraught Claire. She’s packing for a non-refundable, one way ticket back through the stones to the 20th-century. Once again, we see the hypocritical side of Claire on show. After Jamie’s own anguish about her relationship with Frank and not being able to bring up Brianna, Claire’s pragmatism, which surely she has in spades as a fully trained surgeon, goes out the window. She has not seen this man for 20 years and, as the episode has taken great pains to demonstrate, people change in a generation. Yes, he’s grieved her loss but he emerged from his fugue and started living his life again. She’s terribly naive to have expected Jamie not to do otherwise.

We’ve had moments like this in previous episodes and it tends to paint Claire as an unreasonable, impulsive, and often inconsistent character. Is Jamie being unreasonable too? If you think about it, he sent Claire back to Frank. Frank was good enough to take her back and bring up a child that wasn’t his. Jamie was left to die and couldn’t even return home until he’d served his prison sentence. If the scene that follows illustrates one thing, it’s that anger never makes for a rational argument.

Despite Jamie’s explanation that he’s not the father of Laoghaire’s children and that he was never in love with her, the love-hate scenario descends into cliché. Jamie declares himself a coward for not telling her the entire truth, but blame ricochets back and forth and they descend into a squabble about who was hurt the most during their solitary years, airing their worst imaginings about Frank and Laoghaire. Before we know it Jamie and Claire wrestle each other to floor and the fight turns into frenzied sex. Thankfully, Jenny pours a bucket of water over the silly buggers.

outlander - first wife

Jenny reveals that she sent for Laoghaire and tells Claire a few home truths. She’s puzzled as to why Claire has suddenly returned but never once informed the family, with whom she wishes to be reunited, about what happened to her. Jenny precisely observes of Claire’s attitude, “what, did you think we were all frozen in time waiting for you to return?” Claire can only excuse her inaction by the fact that she took another husband after she fled to the Colonies and spent her efforts trying “to make that marriage work.” She came to Scotland after his death to seek out Jamie’s grave only to find him alive. Jenny is canny enough to see some of the truth in this but detects certain matters are being withheld. Her relationship with Claire remains in disrepair.

Jamie attempts a reconciliation while indicating to Claire that they “canna take back those 20 years. Or the life we’ve lived.” She admits that she expected he would be a different person but she does remind him that he promised to tell the truth and “we could have secrets but not lies”. However, before he can persuade her not to leave, Laoghaire returns and, in the heat of the moment, accidentally shoots Jamie in the shoulder. Claire leaps in and undertakes a minor operation to remove the pellets from Laoghaire’s attempt to “make a nice Swiss cheese of” Jamie’s arm. Recovering, Jamie takes an opportunity to explain his relationship with Laoghaire after his return from Helwater. “I was a ghost” he explains of the loneliness he felt and tells her it was his first Hogmanay at Lallybroch when he emerged from his isolation and joined the land of the living again.

There he met Laoghaire and, in the flashback to that evening, we get to sympathise with her. She has had a hard life, “twice widowed and two bairns aching for a father”, and, like Jamie, is trying to find joy and tenderness after a fight for survival. Encouraged by Jenny, Jamie saw the match as a way of sublimating for the loss of caring for Willie or Brianna and, even though he grew very fond of Laoghaire’s daughters Marsali (Lauren Lyle) and Joan, his relationship with his wife deteriorated, her capacity for tenderness and receiving Jamie’s touch hindered by the cruelty of her former husbands perhaps, and they separated.

Tentatively, bridges are built again between Claire, Jamie and Jenny. Jenny still feels Claire will never tell her the whole story but Claire reassures her that she loves Jamie deeply and that she “never forgot him. Or any of you.” It’s a gorgeously played scene, culminating with Jenny’s heartfelt view that Claire was as a sister to her. Claire simply asks for a second chance to be that person again. Meanwhile, Ned Gowan, the legal adviser to Clan MacKenzie, returns to negotiate the tricky situation with the two Mrs. Frasers. Jamie rejects punishing Laoghaire with a court summons for possessing a firearm and possible transportation to the Colonies, for the sake of her daughters. She is “amenable to alimony” according to Ned and, to pay the outrageous sum she demands, Jamie decides to recover the hidden treasure on Silkie Island, trade it for sterling in France and fulfill his obligation.

The upshot to this more confident episode, only marred by the two main characters insisting on baring their souls umpteen times, is that, because Jamie’s in no fit state to swim across to the island, it’s young Ian who volunteers for the duty. Jamie also agrees to take Ian to France with him, promising to take better care of him this time. “You can trust us,” Jamie reassures Jenny. You can see what’s coming, can’t you.

While Jamie and Claire continue to rake through the embers of their troubled reunion, Ian’s reckless swim to the island is rewarded, not by being “carried away to the New World” with the treacherous currents but rather in accompanying the sailors from a ship that appears on the headland. Ian and the treasure go sailing away to goodness knows where as Jamie and Claire look on, utterly powerless. The Frasers are in trouble. Again.