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            In 'Outlander' a relevant search for cure

            Escapist drama sends modern medicine to 1770s

            Hank Stuever, The Washington Post
            Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan star as Claire and Jamie in
            Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan star as Claire and Jamie in "Outlander." MUST CREDIT: Mark Mainz/Starz

            For the greatest escape in times of unsettling emotional needs, what embrace could feel more satisfying than that of Starz's romantic, time-hopping drama series "Outlander?"

            Fans have been saying as much for years, happily falling into the attentive, 18th-century arms of Scottish highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Or into the arms of his brilliant wife, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a doctor from the 20th century. Or maybe there's a way to just squeeze in between them — an "Outlander" cuddle sandwich. (I presume fan-fic scenarios of just such an encounter already abound.)

            Working its way through Diana Gabaldon's popular novels, the show (airing Sundays) is seven episodes into its fifth season. You have plenty of time these days to start fresh from Season 1 and enjoy "Outlander" at your own pace; the rest of us are in North Carolina circa 1771, where, improbably (but intriguingly), the Frasers are caught up in the early skirmishes of the coming Revolutionary War. You ask: How does a story set in Scotland wind up here? Oh, my dears — it's beyond complicated.

            To be entirely honest, the current season reveals that even "Outlander" can occasionally lose some crucial steam, dragging along with a story line in which Jamie has been unwillingly ordered by British authorities to form a militia to aid the redcoats in their dogged pursuit of a revolutionary upstart (Duncan Lacroix) who happens to be Jamie's godfather and sworn protector. All of this is also complicated and overwrought — and, once it finally gets to a battlefield, muskety and macho.

            A far more interesting and topically prescient thread can be found, as usual, in Claire's world. A couple of seasons ago, she returned to Jamie from 1969, where she was working as a surgeon in Boston. She was ultimately followed to the 1770s by her adult daughter, Brianna Randall (Sophie Skelton), who was followed by her estranged Scottish fiance, Roger MacKenzie (Richard Rankin).

            They're all now trying to make a peaceful life for themselves in the newly established colonial farming community Jamie has dubbed Fraser's Ridge.

            In addition to a thousand chores, Claire has become the village's designated medic, treating injuries and ailments and also performing the occasional tonsillectomy or appendectomy, with only 18th-century technology to assist her.

            Although he marvels at her skills, Jamie long ago learned to refer to his wife as a "healer," because no woman in his time can be seriously considered as a doctor. It's now a recurring motif in "Outlander," whenever Claire steps in to cure one of several wretched characters who would have otherwise croaked. She knows so much more than they ever will, yet, for her troubles, she's been accused of witchcraft or, worse, watched helplessly as her diagnoses are disregarded.

            "I'll leave you to wage war with your wee invisible beasties," Jamie tells Claire, as he prepares to head out to work the land. A line of coughing villagers are waiting outside the door to see her.

            "Bacteria," she reminds him. "It certainly feels like a war."

            The people of Fraser's Ridge hold Claire in high esteem, though they laugh off her sound medical advice, preferring superstition, bloodletting and bogus elixirs.

            Claire's had enough. She starts cultivating mold samples under glass, in hopes of making an effective dose of penicillin. Under an alias ("Dr. Rawlings"), she circulates a list of good health practices (wash your hands!), which winds up being printed in a local newspaper — and roundly dismissed as the work of a crackpot.

            "It's bad enough that I'm fighting the disease," she says at one point. "But I'm also fighting the cure."

            Brianna challenges her mother on her willingness to practice modern medicine centuries before its time. "You can't do (this). ... Penicillin isn't invented for another hundred years."

            "157 years to be precise," Claire responds.

            "Pretending to be someone else and writing lists that go against the accepted wisdom is one thing," Brianna says. "But this? It's dangerous. What if it messes with the cosmic balance? Or breaks some rule of space and time? Isn't this playing God?"

            "I play God every time I save a person's life here," Claire says. She's already thought this through. Being that there's no scientific explanation for how she, Brianna and Roger were transported through time by touching the ancient standing stones at Craigh na Dun in Scotland, why stop there? She's made up her mind to use some science in the midst of magic. "Time, space, history? Be damned," she says.

            In other words, leave the paradoxes to the sci-fi nerds. In Claire's determination to save the lives around her, "Outlander" viewers can find an unexpected note of solace in the time of the coronavirus, believing that our own Claire Fraser is out there, experimenting with the cure.

            So, too, are history's blundering leaders and other charlatans, tossing around bad facts and rumored curative potions (hydroxychloroquine, anyone?). In one recent episode, a rash action by one of the militia's biggest rubes destroyed the syringe containing Claire's only successful sample of penicillin. It's a disappointing setback, but also a fitting reminder that a world that's so in need of healing very often thwarts its saviors.