Last time on Outlander, we found out Jamie (Sam Heughan) was married to Laoghaire (Nell Hudson), Laoghaire shot Jamie, Jamie and Laoghaire’s marriage was nullified and Young Ian (John Bell) was kidnapped by pirates. By comparison, “The Doldrums” is a welcome relief with just one major story arc.
Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie have made the natural progression from seeing Young Ian kidnapped to securing passage on a ship so they can pursue and retrieve him. They’ve pretended to Jenny and Ian that they’re going to France, but in truth they’ve done some detective work to determine that the ship that took their nephew was heading to Jamaica, and they’re going, too.
Cousin Jared (Robert Cavanah) hooks them up with cabins and jobs on The Artemis, and they sail with two of Jamie’s Ardsmuir pals, Mr. Willoughby (Gary Young) and Fergus (César Domboy). Once they’ve set sail, they discover, to Jamie’s chagrin, that Laoghaire’s daughter, Marsali (Lauren Lyle), is also there– and that she and Fergus have secretly been courting and have gotten married.
The marriage hasn’t been consummated yet, and it can still be annulled. Jamie is determined to keep Marsali’s virtue intact towards that end, so he bunks her with Claire and himself with Fergus for the journey, vowing to return her to her mother as soon as they reach their destination. This means that Marsali finds some moments to spew bile borrowed from her mother at Claire when they’re alone, although something in her demeanor suggests that she’s not really like Laoghaire.
Life at sea eases into routine, with days blurring into each other. Jamie’s chronic seasickness is managed by acupuncture Mr. Willoughby administers. Claire serves as ship’s surgeon and tends to everyday cuts and scrapes. Everything is relatively calm… until it’s too calm.
One day the wind dies suddenly, and as the ship lingers in the doldrums for weeks, superstitious panic takes hold of the crew. They decide that one of Jamie’s men from Ardsmuir is responsible for the wind having died, because he didn’t participate in a shipboard ritual of touching a mounted horseshoe when he boarded. They are ready to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard, and perilously close to mutiny, when Mr. Willoughby correctly reads indications from seabirds that the wind will return any moment.
Instead of alerting the hysterical men to what he has perceived, he rings the ship’s bell to get their attention, then passionately tells them his life’s story. He was a gifted poet in China, summoned to live in the household of the Emperor’s second wife. In order to accept this honor, he would have to agree to be castrated. He could not give up sex with women, and refusal was a death sentence, so he fled. His choice led him to a strange land with coarse women who disdain him and refuse to lie with him. Keeping his manhood meant losing everything else.
The drama and color of his story captivate his audience, and they are distracted from their murderous intent long enough for the wind to pick up. They attribute this to Willoughby, but he confesses to Claire and Jamie that he could tell from how low the birds were flying that rain was coming. Indeed it does, and the ship regains speed.
Some time after this, a British ship, The Porpoise, shows up behind them. It comes close enough to signal that their crew wants to board The Artemis. The captain is concerned, because legally a British ship can commandeer any crew members it desires from amongst British subjects at sea. When The Porpoise’s captain arrives on The Artemis, though, he is hardly old enough to qualify as a man. He explains that a plague is ripping through his crew, that it’s killed so many men in leadership that he’s risen through the line of succession to take over, and that he desperately needs a surgeon because his has died.
Claire, bound by her Hippocratic Oath, volunteers her services. Based on what the young captain has described, she believes his men are dying of typhoid– something she was inoculated against in the 20th Century.
She travels to the other ship with its captain and confirms her suspicions. She offers to stay on board long enough to oversee the implementation of her recommendations, and the captain gratefully accepts. He says he’s going to send word to her husband and the captain of The Artemis that she’ll be a while longer, but in reality he tells them that he’s keeping her and will see them in Jamaica. Claire is trapped on board The Porpoise, and can only hope that The Artemis really will catch up to her and reunite her with Jamie.