“The Doldrums” and “Heaven and Earth” take the third season of Outlander off in a new direction. We see Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) leave Scotland behind to embark on a perilous sea voyage to Jamaica. They’re determined to find young Ian; kidnapped and, based on Cousin Jared’s (Robert Cavanah) information, faced with the real possibility he’ll be sold into slavery by the Portuguese for a measly £30.

Outlander’s shift in location is first intimated in the rejigged opening titles, full of images redolent of the West Indies atmosphere and accompanied by a tribalistic version of Bear McCreary’s theme. The tide has turned and Jamie and Claire’s story will take a long hiatus from chilly Scotland. The switch in location (Outlander’s production moved to South Africa for filming), and the altering focus of the story, is a great way of refreshing the series after the navel-gazing into Jamie’s family secrets at Lallybroch in “First Wife“.

“The Doldrums”

4 out of 5 stars

“The Doldrums” doesn’t let Jamie off the hook with Laoghaire MacKenzie, the estranged wife for whom he must provide alimony. As the sea voyage to find young Ian gets underway on the Artemis, Fergus (César Domboy) drops a bombshell: he’s fallen in love with Laoghaire’s eldest daughter, Marsali (Lauren Lyle), and has brought her on the trip in the hope Jamie will give his blessing for them to be married. They’ve participated in a ceremony, of sorts, but it isn’t actually binding. It’s a bit of a jolt in terms of character progression, as previous episodes haven’t hinted at any amorous connections between Fergus and Marsali.

outlander - the doldrums

Her reappearance in the story does, of course, complicate matters. For one, the Artemis’ crew are a suspicious lot and it’s terribly bad luck if you’ve got one woman, never mind two, on your ship. As Jamie reminds Claire, “women are bad luck on ships, Sassenach. Redheads, too.” Doubly doomed then, and the Artemis’ crew touch the ship’s lucky horseshoe more fervently at the prospect. Despite Claire’s own experience of, you know, travelling through time with the aid of magic, she pooh-poohs their superstitions. Even Captain Raines (Richard Dillane) begs Claire to respect them, otherwise she and Marsali may end up, according to such lore, spending the journey to Jamaica bare-breasted. However, these superstitions eventually lead to blame for all manner of difficulties that start to spiral out of control.

For the time being, and much to Jamie’s chagrin and disdain, he allows Marsali to remain aboard but forces her and Claire to bunk together. Although a lot of fireworks are expected between the two, this potential clash between them is never really developed, and the focus of the story shifts away from Fergus and his wife to be. In Diana Gabaldon’s book this enforced sharing of the cabin is what bonds the two women together, and it seems a shame that the tentative concord they develop out of discussions about sex don’t make it into the episode. Mind you, although Claire is indignant at the prospect of protecting Marsali’s virtue she’s probably better off doing that than putting up with Jamie’s sea sickness and constant retching into a bucket.

outlander - the doldrums

The crew’s fears escalate when the ship is becalmed for days on end. A witch hunt commences and they’re determined to root out the cause of their predicament. They must find the one person who didn’t honour the lucky horseshoe ritual, and this scapegoat (or “Jonah”) will be thrown off the ship for cursing the voyage. Meanwhile, we keep being drip fed little moments featuring Mr. Willoughby (Gary Young), be it his acupuncture treatment for Jamie’s sea sickness or his calligraphy scrawled on the ship’s dry deck in water. When Claire asks him what he’s written he simply responds that he’s been chronicling his life in China so that it isn’t forgotten. “A story told is a life lived,” he offers but when she asks if he’ll share his life story with her he is mysteriously precious about it.

That story comes in handy when one of Jamie’s men, Hayes (James Allenby-Kirk), drunkenly attempts to commit suicide by throwing himself of the mast of the ship. He’s petrified that, having failed to pay due homage to the lucky horseshoe, he’s doomed them to their fate as the Jonah the crew’s been looking for. Captain Raines is content to let the men act on their superstitions, but Jamie’s having none of it and climbs the mast to rescue Hayes. As an angry crew threatens to overwhelm Jamie and Hayes, Willoughby pitches in with a strange story to beguile and distract them. In China, the emperor’s wife lauded him for his poetry but to become her personal wordsmith, he would have to become a eunuch. He waxes on about refusing this castration because he fell in love with women and goes on to sex up the tale: “Their beauty blooming like lotus flowers. The taste of breasts like apricots. The scent of a navel in winter. The warmth of a mound that fills your hand like a ripe peach.”

outlander - the doldrums

It’s enough to get their hearts racing and keep them entertained. As he throws the papers on which his story is written, the wind they badly need for their sails returns and the ship is able to get underway. Order is restored. He also tells Claire that he was able to forecast the change in weather by observing the behaviour of the gulls swooping across the water. It’s a lesson in sacrifice that Claire reflects upon because Willoughby is just as much an alien in this century as she is, and both must use their guile, knowledge, and creativity to survive. It doesn’t shed a huge amount of light on Willoughby as a character, but I suspect the show’s writers are proceeding cautiously to avoid some of the racial stereotypes that mark him out in Gabaldon’s book.

It never rains but it pours in Outlander. Just as Jamie and Claire settle down to some on board smooching, a British naval ship, the Porpoise comes along side. There are concerns that Jamie and his men aboard the Artemis will be conscripted but its young Captain Leonard (Charlie Hiett) is actually in desperate need of a doctor. The crew’s been wiped out by what Claire suspects is typhoid and she agrees to help. She allays Jamie’s fears that she’ll catch the disease by reassuring him she was inoculated in her own time. Jamie understands her Hippocratic Oath is her duty and realises, from experience “there’s no talking you out of this, is there Sassenach?”

On board the Porpoise, Claire finds boys in charge of dying men on a ship reeking with death and disease. But, as she sets about her task to create a makeshift hospital and quarantine area, the Porpoise suddenly moves off and she and Jamie are separated once again…

outlander - heaven and earth

“Heaven and Earth”

4.5 out of 5 stars

“Heaven and Earth” picks up immediately after this cliffhanger. To be honest, I think Outlander actually works better when Jamie and Claire are separated. It gives the show an impetus and prevents it from becoming too entrenched in their sexual exploits. Clearly, the latter appeals to many of its viewers and is an established ingredient of the show, but the strongest episodes by far this year have been those where their stories and their characters are developed almost in isolation from each other, working in tandem with the tension generated by that separation.

It’s another powerful example of this structure as it concentrates on Claire’s dreadful experiences aboard the Porpoise as she fights to restore the health of the crew’s survivors and prevent the further spread of typhoid. Jamie, angry that his wife’s been kidnapped and Captain Raines has allowed it, is thrown into a cell in the hold for his belligerence. He stays there for most of the episode, back to throwing up into a bucket.

outlander - heaven and earth

The episode not only boasts another exceptional performance from Caitriona Balfe, but she’s almost eclipsed by her fellow actor Albie Marber as the 14-year-old third mate Elias Pound. In Pound, Claire finds an advocate and willing assistant, and he helps her to ensure that the crew disinfect their surroundings and themselves as she sets up the temporary hospital ward on the ship. It’s Elias’s idea to distill pure alcohol from the ship’s rum to aid in their task and he works with Claire to tend to the sick.

During his rounds he finds his friend Jim Quigley has died. He oversees Jim’s preparation for burial at sea, telling Claire it’s traditional for a friend to complete the final stitch on the canvas wrapping the body, passing the needle through its nose to ensure the friend truly is dead. The relationship is professional and parental, Claire is a mentor and he is an eager student. They become friends but we all know on Outlander that this is doomed from the start. It’s clear from their discussion about coping with death and how Claire’s learned to compartmentalise her feelings as a professional “so you can do your work.” She reveals that “if you let yourself be affected by every death you’d never save a life.” It’s still upsetting even though we know what’s coming and the rabbit’s foot he gives her for luck simply adds to the poignancy.

outlander - heaven and earth

As she attempts to track down the carrier of the typhoid, Claire ruffles a few feathers. She demands that the galley assistant Howard is quarantined and locked up much to the cook’s hostility. Cosworth’s (Lawrence Joffe) not inclined to take orders from a mere woman, and he’s certainly going to cause her some trouble if her measures don’t turn the situation around aboard ship.

Claire later discovers in the ship’s log that the Porpoise’s captain knows about Jamie and his work as seditious pamphleteer ‘A. Malcolm’, having been recognised and reported on by one Harry Tompkins (Ian Reddington), last seen exiting the burning remains of Jamie’s shop. The captain has orders to arrest him. Cosworth discovers her in the captain’s cabin and threatens to turn her in. She calls his bluff by proposing to tell the captain he raped her and she will scream the ship down to prove the point.

outlander - heaven and earth

Meanwhile, Fergus wrestles with his conscience. He either follows Jamie’s suggestion to steal the keys to his cell and let him out to organise a mutiny to take over the ship or he sticks to his gut instinct, believing a mutiny isn’t going to help the situation. Jamie is incensed that Fergus has doubts about fighting to recover Claire. He points out if Fergus knew the value of true love, he would join that fight and admonishes him, saying “you would move heaven and earth, you would risk arrest and death. Even hell. Until you risk all you cannot speak of love.” Jamie’s logic isn’t running true. Both ships are headed for Jamaica so a reunion with Claire is bound to happen eventually. However, he tells Fergus that if he carries out the plan he’ll give his blessing to the union with Marsali.

It’s Marsali that persuades Fergus that the risk is too great when, on his way to steal the keys, he overhears the captain and his crew making some rather lewd overtures about Marsali. Fergus fears for her fate if she is left alone on the ship after a mutiny. He loves her too much to let that happen and he even manages to spurn her advances, determined to remain honourable until they are married.

outlander - heaven and earth

Back on the Porpoise, with Elias’s help, Claire finds Harry Tompkins (a wonderfully grisly turn from Ian Reddington). During her confrontation with the one-eyed, badly-burned former associate of customs agent Percival Turner, she discovers that Jamie is now wanted for treason and murder. The body of John Barton was discovered in that barrel of crème de menthe that young Ian and Fergus flogged off cheaply. Claire desperately needs to warn Jamie that he’ll be hanged as soon as he sets foot in Jamaica.

But tragedy strikes. Just as Claire seems to be winning in her battle against the spread of the disease, Elias Pound becomes its final victim. She simply thought he was tired, misinterpreting the signs he was also infected. At his demise, she tucks the rabbit’s foot into his shroud and completes the final stitch in the canvas because, “it should be done by a friend.” A beautiful little scene, very moving and brilliantly played.

outlander - heaven and earth

Claire finds help in the unlikely form of Annekje Johansen (Chanelle De Jager). Annekje, who looks after the ship’s goats and supplies their milk to the crew, was grateful to Claire for saving her husband from alcoholic poisoning. When the ship anchors at an island after Elias is buried at sea, she persuades Claire that she could sneak to the port under cover of leaving the ship to graze the goats.

Meanwhile, on the Artemis and at Marsalis’s petitioning, Jamie’s freed on condition that he’ll not attempt to escape because Captain Raines needs all the able-bodied men he can muster to bring the ship into Jamaica. Jamie’s touched by Marsalis’s efforts and grants them his blessing to be married by a priest in Jamaica. If they actually get there…

Her own escape attempt having failed, and caught by the captain and his guards, Claire’s told in no uncertain terms by Captain Leonard, “I cannot let you warn your husband.” He’s bound by duty to carry out the order for Jamie’s arrest. She finds herself back on board the Porpoise, mournfully staring out to sea at the lights on the horizon, when Annekje Johansen turns up again and persuades her to jump for it. She bundles up her clothes and Annekje provides a barrel for flotation.

Leaping off the ship into the blue with a declaration of “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ” is certainly one way to conclude another highly enjoyable instalment of Outlander.