The previews for Sunday’s super-sized episode of Outlander leave little doubt that star-crossed lovers Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) will finally make it back to the bedroom, now that Claire has found her way back to the 1700s. It’s been a long time coming: In the time-traveling story, 20 years have passed since the Frasers had their post-coitus parting at Craigh na Dun in season two’s finale. For Claire especially, this reunion can’t come soon enough — she’s spent the better part of the past two decades being celibate.
In the time since she last saw her one true love, Claire has returned to the 1940s, reunited with her first husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), moved to Boston, given birth to Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, and gone to medical school to train as a surgeon, stomping out sexist behavior along the way. She’s been busy in season three. But she hasn’t been getting busy.
Still pining for Jamie but determined to make the most of her marriage to Frank, Claire takes the lead in reigniting the couple’s lovemaking. In the season’s second episode, she stops shying from Frank’s touch, and gives up on fantasizing about Jamie while masturbating in bed next to her sleeping husband. She’s a sexual, flesh-and-blood being, and she needs a sexual, flesh-and-blood partner. She straddles Frank in bed. In another scene, she removes her underwear and seduces him within moments of saying goodbye to their dinner guests. It’s erotic and empowering to see a woman take control of her sex life.
It doesn’t last long, though. Frank quickly realizes that the sex isn’t about him; he’s merely a proxy for Jamie. “Claire, when I’m with you, I’m with you,” he says at one point, withdrawing from her embrace. “But you’re with him.”
Over the course of the season’s first four episodes, the gulf between the now-platonic spouses grows far wider than the distance between the twin mattresses that replace their marital bed. Frank eventually finds a loving relationship outside of this marriage of convenience.
Yet Claire remains celibate, even after Frank’s sudden death in a car accident in the late ’60s. Until Scottish historian Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) convinces her otherwise, she’s also under the impression that Jamie died two centuries ago in the Battle of Culloden. She’s under no real marital obligation to stay loyal to Frank, and she assumes a reunion with Jamie is impossible. So why wouldn’t she take a lover?
The easy answer is love. Viewers are presumably meant to see Claire’s denial of bodily pleasures as a romantic gesture of fidelity. It’s apparently acceptable for her to have sex with Frank because while thinking of Jamie because, well, she and Frank were married first, before she and Jamie got hitched in the 18th century. But to pursue a new relationship, or to have a no-strings-attached tryst with, say, her doctor pal Joe Abernathy (Wil Johnson) — even if he does regard her as a “skinny white broad with too much hair and a great ass” — is, presumably, disloyal.
No Outlander fan would deny that Jamie and Claire’s love is one worth waiting for. It’s just that Claire seems to be the only one waiting. While she’s shopping for twin beds, Jamie’s stops rebuffing advances from Mary (Emma Campbell-Jones) at Lallybroch after she convinces him that sex wouldn’t be a betrayal.
“What I want is to share something different, something less mayhap, but something we both need,” she tells Jamie. “Something to keep us whole as we move forward in this life.”
There’s no doubt of Jamie’s devotion to his absent wife, even as he spends the night with Mary and, years later, Claire lookalike Geneva Dunsany (Hannah James). His one-night stand with the latter — which, yes, came after she blackmailed him into her bed — produces a son, Willie. In exchange for Willie’s protection, Jamie offers to sleep with the closeted Lord John Grey (David Berry), who respectfully declines.
In the Diana Gabaldon books on which the Starz series is based, Jamie also remarries, taking Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson) — the very woman who nearly had Claire burned as a witch — as his bride. As yet, it’s unclear if that unhappy union will surface in the show.
Claire has been presented as a confident, fiercely feminist woman who owns her sexuality. It is she, after all, who schools a virginal Jamie on the art of lovemaking on their wedding night — which takes place, incidentally, while she’s still married and besotted with Frank. For her to sacrifice her natural sexual impulses feels out of character.
It’s also a familiar trope that dates as far back as The Odyssey. Like Jamie and Claire, Odysseus and Penelope are separated for 20 years. She remains chaste and ignores the suitors beckoning at her door; he has dalliances with Circe and Calypso. Penelope is presented as a paragon of virtue, and while there’s certainly no shame in pledging a lifetime of fidelity, it doesn’t really jibe with Claire’s sex-positive persona.
Granted, the sexual politics on this show are tricky to unravel. Both Jamie and Claire are survivors of sexual assault, and both have used their bodies as bargaining chips. Both also value lovemaking. If Jamie can indulge in physical relationships without compromising his love for Claire, it seems only fair that she would be allowed to do the same.
Perhaps a flashback will reveal a steamy fling in Claire’s past. Until then, we eagerly anticipate episode six’s horizontal homecoming. For Claire’s sake, we hope it’s mind-blowing — she’s been waiting since 1949.