During a streaming binge, an eerie scene from 'Outlander' foreshadows the conflicts of COVID-19

Michael Granberry
The Dallas Morning News

Sometimes, life imitates art. And, of course, art imitates life. But how can art imitate life years in advance?

Such appeared to be the case during an episode of "Outlander," which I watched only recently, during a Netflix streaming binge. The episode I speak of — the first of Season Two — aired in April 2016. More than four years later, it feels as though it had to be written for 2020, when "Outlander" taught me that the tug of war between commerce and caution was as ever-present and hot-blooded an issue in the 18th century as it is in modern-day America.

Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, who stars as Claire, the heroine of "Outlander," is "a healer." And yet, she's also a time traveler, a secret she shares with her husband, Jamie. Claire left Great Britain in 1945, after serving as a nurse in World War II, only to find herself teleported to the Scottish moors in the 1700s.

In episode one of Season Two, she and Jamie have sailed to France to seek refuge. Once there, she's asked to diagnose a lesion-scarred man whom she concludes immediately is already dead from the wildly contagious disease ripping through Europe — smallpox.

Sam Heughan, left, and Caitriona Balfe co-star in Starz's "Outlander."

During the 18th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year, including five reigning monarchs, and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Between 20% and 60% of those infected — including more than 80% of infected children — died from it. The first successful vaccine did not emerge until 1796, more than half a century after the scene depicted in "Outlander."

Which means, of course, that Claire is the only one in the "Outlander" scene who's immune to smallpox. It's a fact that she guards closely, lest she be revealed as a time traveler or, worse, a witch. That means everyone around her can get it, and in a scene that feels as though it was teleported from 2020, those who surround the dying man are, of course, wearing masks.

Claire persuades a local official to order everyone off the ship — now. "We must set up a quarantine immediately if we are to ... These men must be quarantined!" she shouts. This is not at all to the liking of Comte St. Germain, whose money floats the boat, as it were. He stares at Claire with a venomous gaze, muttering darkly: "My entire cargo and my ship — will be destroyed. The cost ..."

"The cost," she says, "is nothing compared to letting the disease ... spread through the city."

Not the words Comte St. German wanted to hear.

"You," he says to healer Claire, anger contorting every line in his twisted face, "will pay a price."

And there you have it — a line written for a television show that aired four years ago, before COVID-19.