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Warning: spoilers ahead for the Season 4 premiere of Outlander on Starz, called "America the Beautiful." If you haven't caught the episode yet, feel free to check out some of our spoiler-free stories until you get the chance to tune in.
Outlander has finally returned to the airwaves after nearly a full year without new episodes, and the Season 4 premiere delivered the introduction of none other than Stephen Bonnet in America. The new villain was teased as somehow being even worse than Black Jack Randall, but it was hard to say based on just the trailers and Ed Speleers' look whether or not Bonnet could really fit the bill. Now, "America the Beautiful" revealed Bonnet in all his villainous glory, and he could be Outlander's most terrifying villain.
I'll be the first to admit that Black Jack Randall will be difficult for any villain to surpass on pretty much any show. Tobias Menzies was horrifying as the sadistic soldier who spent years menacing Claire and especially Jamie, and everything from his violence to the cold, dead expression in his eyes made him awful enough to haunt anybody's nightmares.
Outlander made a smart move by not trying to make its newest villain simply a more extreme version of the already-sickening Randall. Instead, the show went with an entirely different kind of bad guy, and his methods may unnerve viewers more than Randall ever did. When you saw Randall, even if he wasn't doing anything especially despicable, a chill might run down your spine and put you on the edge of your seat. With Bonnet, you might not feel that chill until it's too late. He's just so... well, charming.
If you didn't know Stephen Bonnet from Diana Gabaldon's book saga and hadn't kept up with news over hiatus, you probably had no firm idea that he was a man to be feared until the moment he made his move. He debuted early in the premiere, when Jamie visited his friend Hayes in prison when he was moments away from being hanged. Bonnet was also among those to be hanged, and he innocently asked Jamie for a slug of rum before heading to the gallows after Hayes.
Well, Hayes did go to the gallows and hang, but Bonnet didn't follow. In the commotion following Hayes' death, Bonnet was able to make a run for it and escape the noose. He was nowhere to be found until later, when Jamie and Co. were on a mission to bury Hayes in the consecrated ground of a church graveyard in the dead of night. They discovered Bonnet hiding in the cart that carried Hayes' body.
Given that Jamie isn't a fool and has been betrayed more than once, he naturally attacked Bonnet and held him pinned until Bonnet explained himself. Bonnet freely admitted that he'd been set to hang because of theft and piracy, and he didn't deny that he'd killed men before, although he did state that he only killed men who were trying to kill him. His explanations were enough for Jamie, and he further earned trust when he asked to help them bury Hayes.
Jamie and Claire agreed to transport him past redcoats that were guarding the roads, on the lookout for the escaped prisoner. There was a close call when the British soldiers decided to hassle Jamie on the road, perhaps sensing that Jamie was marked by the universe to be harassed by anybody in a red coat other than John Grey. Jamie revealed that they were transporting a body, although he claimed it was a corpse.
Despite Jamie and Claire's protests that it would be sacrilegious, one of the soldiers stabbed the body in the leg with a bayonet. Bonnet didn't cry out, and the Frasers discovered that the redcoat had only slightly scraped Bonnet, mostly stabbing the slab of meat he had been lying on.
As she patched his wound, Claire and Bonnet had a heart-to-heart that is quite sinister in hindsight. They bonded over their shared experiences of almost drowning, and Bonnet admired Claire's two wedding rings, prompting her to explain that she'd been married twice. She and Jamie parted ways with Bonnet, with Bonnet sharing that he was heading down the river to reunite with some of his associates, a.k.a. pirates.
Bonnet warned them of bandits in the forest, but that didn't stop the lovebirds from making camp and and having sex in a scene that can only be the show's twist on the infamous Drums of Autumn "slippery rock" scene. Bonnet was out of sight and out of mind... for a time. Jamie, Claire, and the rest of their party (including Young Ian, Jamie's friend Lesley, and the wolfish Rollo) were traveling down the river by boat.
On board, they went to sleep, only to be woken by the arrival of pirates on board, led by Stephen Bonnet. Jamie was dragged out of the cabin and beaten, Lesley had his throat slit, and Claire was cornered by Bonnet with nobody (and not even the dog) able to help her. He came to her, clearly wanting the only items of jewelry she had on her: her two wedding rings.
At first, although Claire seemed too terrified to do anything but hand them over, she acted quickly and popped them both in her mouth, intending to swallow them and keep them from Bonnet. She managed to get one down, yet Bonnet grabbed her by the throat and forced the other out of her mouth. She saved the ring Frank had given her; Bonnet made off with Jamie's. The whole frightening sequence went down with a dissonant version of "America the Beautiful" playing.
On the one hand, Stephen Bonnet's actions are horrifying, but they're nothing on Jack Randall's cruel scourging of Jamie and then his vicious rape, not to mention what Randall did to poor Fergus. This is hardly the first time anybody on the show has been attacked and/or robbed. On the other hand, we have the performance of Ed Speleers and those around him to up the ante and establish him as truly chilling. Claire was terrified of him, and her fear translated through the screen. (Kudos to Caitriona Balfe!)
The terror of Stephen Bonnet comes from how truly charming and likable he comes across until the awful moment when he turns up on the boat with his pirate pals. It's disarmingly easy to understand why Jamie and Claire fell into his charming trap and trusted him. I've read Drums of Autumn and knew what was in store with Bonnet, and even I wanted to trust him based on Ed Speleers' performance!
His openness about his piracy was just enough for the Frasers to believe that he was no more than what he claimed, and the sense that they bonded may have given viewers the impression that Bonnet could be a handy ally to have if they ever needed to be smuggled out of danger. A pirate could be a valuable friend, assuming he didn't betray, rob, and murder people in your party!
There's also the fact that Bonnet isn't the most physically imposing bad guy, and it's easy to understand how he can lure people into his trap. Black Jack Randall was a visible villain as a member of the British military, and people had reason to give him a wide berth, even if they didn't know what he had done to Jamie and others. Stephen Bonnet can be anybody's friend until the moment in becomes inconvenient for him, and that bodes poorly for any characters who haven't met him yet.
If there's a villain that you may not be able to see coming, how can you protect yourself against him? We already know of at least one character who will suffer horribly at his hands, and we can bet that he has more in store, whether or not the show follows the events of the books. Personally, I find that the pirate assault on our heroes was all the more frightening for the episode's use of "America the Beautiful," which muted out the rest of the sound.
We couldn't hear Claire screaming or Bonnet yelling or Jamie being attacked, and that should be only the beginning of Bonnet's reign of terror. We'll have to wait and see how Bonnet continues to compare to Black Jack Randall, but all signs point toward him being as terrifying, if not more so, as Outlander's first big villain. Tune in to Starz on Sundays at 8 p.m. ET for new episodes of Outlander.