The penultimate episode of Outlander‘s second season feels rather appropriate at this moment: More than any other episode so far, “The Hail Mary” has an atmosphere of inevitable doom as the Jacobites inch ever closer to the disastrous Battle of Culloden. “Our worst nightmare was coming true,” Claire says in voiceover. “And I felt completely helpless in the face of it.”
The Highlanders are camped just outside Inverness, just a few miles away from Culloden Moor, where Prince Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army was defeated by the Duke of Cumberland’s loyalist troops on April 16, 1746 — just three days from when the action of the episode begins. Worn, tired, and running out of food, the Scots aren’t looking so hot.
Jamie tries one last time to convince Charles that to go ahead with the battle would be suicide. “The men are too exhausted to fight a major battle,” he argues, but to no avail: Charles insists he’s not a frightened dog, but a soldier. “The men will rest and then we shall march to Culloden,” he decides.
Claire heads to Inverness to replenish her medical supplies and comes across Mary, who rather than go back home after the misadventures of last week’s episode, has joined Alex Randall. The two are engaged, but Alex is deathly ill, more so than Mary realizes. Claire offers to help, but she realizes after taking a look at Alex — who’s coughing up blood — that he can’t be cured.
To Claire’s surprise, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall arrives. Mary informs her that he’s been paying their bills — and that she’s pregnant with Alex’s baby. Claire has to gently tell Mary that her beloved won’t survive to see the birth of his child. Jonathan follows Claire out and demands that she cure his brother; when she says it can’t be done, he asks her to ease his pain. She agrees, but on one condition: That he tell her the location of Cumberland’s army.
Jamie’s not happy when he finds out what Claire’s done, but her information — that the duke’s army is camped at Nairn, 12 miles away, and that he’s planning a birthday celebration two days from now — turns out to be helpful. Dougal’s scouts confirm the intel, which allows Jamie to plan a final “Hail Mary”: The Highlanders will surprise the loyalist army on the eve of the party, hopefully avoiding the Battle of Culloden.
“The Hail Mary” features two characters who die with their brothers by their bedside: Alex Randall and Colum MacKenzie, who arrives at the Highlanders’ camp in rough shape. “I’ve been dying for years,” Jamie’s uncle tells him and Claire, before he asks to speak with Claire alone. He apologizes for not supporting her marriage to Jamie, and informs her that Geillis Duncan — who was sentenced to death in the first season after being charged with witchcraft — gave birth to Dougal’s child before meeting her fate. Then, he asks for a favor: He wants to be put out of his misery. Claire grimly agrees, leaving him a vial of yellow jasmine that she promises will “be like drifting off into a deep sleep.”
From one deathbed to another: Back at Alex’s bedside, Claire tells Mary and Jonathan that there’s no more she can do for him. Between ragged breaths, Alex imparts his dying wish — that his brother marry his fiancée and therefore ensure that she and her child will have a safe, comfortable life. Jonathan does not look pleased. “Do you think I am unaware,” Alex wheezes, “of the density of the wall you’ve built to protect the world from your better self?” Jonathan just apologizes and leaves the room.
Claire tries to convince Jonathan to go through with the marriage, for Mary’s sake; according to Frank’s genealogy books, Black Jack Randall will die in the Battle of Culloden anyway, and if he marries her just days before then, she’ll reap the benefits of his good name without having to actually live as his wife. Drunk, Jonathan brings up Wentworth, to Claire’s horror: “I know the sound [Jamie] makes at the last when he has lost himself. And I regret none of it. The pain. The fear. I revel in it. Do you really want Mary in my bed?”
It’s pretty incredible that after all we’ve seen Jonathan do, Outlander can still approach the character with, if not sympathy, at least a modicum of understanding for who he is at his core. He knows what he’s capable of, and if he doesn’t feel bad about it exactly, he doesn’t want to inflict his sickness on an innocent girl. But Claire says that if he loves his brother, he’ll “stay [his] impulses with Mary.” Jonathan and Marry are wed in a sombre ceremony at Alex’s bedside, with Claire and Murtagh serving as reluctant witnesses.
“The Hail Mary” presents two death scenes, with two starkly different reactions by those who witness them. First, Colum dies with a conflicted Dougal at his side. These two have never had what you would call a healthy relationship — Colum’s degenerative disease rendered him impotent, and his son, Hamish, is really Dougal’s. Before he dies, Colum announces that Jamie will advise the young Hamish, his successor, rather than Dougal, a choice that greatly upsets Dougal. When his older brother dies, Dougal murmurs, “So you turn your back on me one more time. And you leave me in the dark.”
The next scene shows Alex succumbing to his illness. As soon as he takes his final breath, Jonathan shocks Claire and Mary by springing back and punching his dead brother in the face, over and over.
If those scenes weren’t grim enough, the episode ends with the realization that the Battle of Culloden will most certainly take place. Jamie and Murtagh reach Nairn before dawn, but the general tells them that the others lost their way in the dark and have all turned back. With day about the break, he calls off the attack and orders the troops to turn back to Inverness. All of Claire and Jamie’s desperate attempts to prevent the battle all season long have been for naught. In the words of Claire, “How the bloody hell did we end up here?”