At the end of Season 2, Outlander gave us two key scenes revolving around its iconic magical stones. In one of series’ most heartbreaking moments, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) sent his wife and true partner Claire Randall Fraser (Caitiona Balfe), back to the 1940s from 18th century Scotland to give birth to their daughter, knowing historically that he would die in the massacre that was the Battle of Culloden. But, we also saw a flash-forward to twenty years later, when Claire discovers that Jamie didn’t die at Culloden, and where she and Brianna (Sophie Skelton) then witnessed another time traveller disappear to the past, overcoming her daughter’s natural skepticism of the truth of her mother’s experiences.
All of this sets up Claire’s return to Jamie in Season 3, but the series doesn’t give that to us just yet. Instead, we first explore the intervening years, including the battle itself, Jamie’s many escapes from death (even a death he yearns for after losing Claire), and Claire’s life with Frank (Tobias Menzies) in Boston.
Outlander fans are used to skipping back and forth in time, but the leaps through the twenty years that Claire and Jamie are apart don’t happen in equal measure. For the most part we race through life in Boston, where Frank has taken on a position at Harvard, and he and Claire work to try and mend their marriage before finding another way forward (while staying married for the sake of Brianna, who Frank truly loves). These scenes are meaty and dramatic and sometimes excruciating; it is the crux of what makes an emotional series like Outlander so good. But there are many other things about the Boston experience — the story is overly heavy-handed with misogyny, American accents are stagey, and dialogue can be stilted and awkward — that are not as successful.
The truth is that Outlander is at its best, so far, when the story is in Scotland. There’s more energy and emotional intensity, the storytelling tends to be shaper, and there’s more humor and personality to the vignettes. Jamie faces innumerable difficulties and and unending line of foes and strange circumstances following Culloden, but it takes on the tone of an adventure tale. He is a brave warrior who has lost his true love, and who only wants to do what is right while seeking a heroic death to put him out of his misery. Thankfully for us he doesn’t find it, and slowly begins to embrace life again. So when the show jumps from that to a cocktail party in 1960s Boston, or Claire’s hop-skip-jump to becoming a highly regarded surgeon, it’s often jarring and not particularly satisfying. (However, 1960s Scotland remains extremely cozy, as does an American Christmas shared with Richard Rankin’s Roger).
Despite some of its shakier narrative or dialogue-driven moments, what always rings true with Outlander are its dramatic scenes and their inherent stakes thanks to the fearlessness of its actors. When Jamie makes a decision to protect his sister and her family, or when he has a quiet word with Fergus, or when Claire tells Brianna how much joy she has always brought to her life, this is when Outlander shines. Those moments are further augmented by a show that continues to be one of the most immersive and atmospheric on television. Setting is essential to the series, but it’s more than that — it’s the detailing of the costumes, the score, the consideration of every look and style from each era, and the very clear amount of care and detail given to every visual aspect of the show.
Outlander’s third season is a reunion of several kinds — for fans of the books, it will be a journey of catching the foreshadowing and the changes that keep the adaptation exciting, while for all fans it is a joy to see old friends again like Rupert (Grant O’Rourke), Ian (Steven Cree), Jenny (Laura Donnelly), Fergus (Romann Berrux), Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), and settings like Lallybroch and the Scottish moors. Yet most of all, it’s an anticipation of seeing Jamie and Claire reunited after two decades apart, after leading such different lives, and seeing if they can be connected again like they once were. Once they are together, nothing else matters. Here, the show finally slows down and records every single moment shared between them as they rediscover one another lovingly, awkwardly, and most of all truthfully.
Outlander has often been overlooked of dismissed for being a “romance,” even though it is full of adventure and political intrigue and historical insight. The show isn’t perfect; there are some issues with pace and continuity and the writing that keep it from crossing a threshold to top-tier television. But what cannot and should not be ignored is how pure its story is when it it comes to the nature of love and relationships. It doesn’t just portray the fantasy, but also the realities of the era, of growing and changing (together and apart), of loss and mourning, and of a faith in a connection so deep that time and space become irrelevant. When Outlander is at its best, there is not a more beautiful show on television. It feels like home.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …
Outlander Season 3 premieres Sunday, September 10th on Starz.