As if you could have possibly forgotten how Season 3 of Outlander ended (with Sam Heughan’s Highlander Jamie Fraser and Caitriona Balfe’s time-traveling doctor Claire Randall Fraser washed up on Georgia shore), a new twist on the Season 4 theme song heralds the show’s location change. And with that change comes a major overall shift for the series. With twangy, Appalachian roots, the reworked Outlander theme introduces Claire and Jamie to America the Beautiful — and very quickly the not-so-beautiful — as the two and their makeshift family begin to explore what will become the United States.
That family includes Young Ian (John Bell), who was the cause of the two ending up on these shores to begin with, as well as Fergus (César Domboy) and his now-wife Marsali (Lauren Lyle). And while Jamie and Claire make their way north in the hopes of returning to Scotland, there are innumerable diversions along the way, including a memorable stop to visit Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a South Carolina plantation owner.
Now that the Frasers are back together (forever, let us hope), the show is less about defining what true love is or the sacrifices that come with living for it so boldly, and instead asks “what makes a home?” And in America, Claire and Jamie are on equal footing for the first time; though the location is familiar to Claire and the time period contemporary for Jamie, both are immigrants deciding what home looks like for them wherever they are. Now they have the freedom to define it as they choose, in a way that suits them best. They want peace, and God knows we also want it for them.
While that’s a cozy thread to follow (with last season truly making Outlander one of the coziest series on television), it certainly doesn’t feel that way at first. The season starts off abruptly, with hardly any time for Claire and Jamie to take for themselves. As engaging as some of the other stories in the show can be, Outlander is always at its strongest when it focuses on the core couple. That might seem like an obvious thing, but Season 4 begins in a scattered and not altogether convincing place. For those who (like me) have only watched the show and not read the books, one major appeal has always been the setting. Despite those brief Parisian and Boston diversions, Scotland has played such a key role in every part of Outlander that its narrative relocation is already a difficult one to accept, and isn’t made easier by this awkward beginning. Nothing feels quite right — the dialogue is stilted, the editing is distracting, and the amount of B-roll of bald eagles is overwhelming (it’s America, we get it).
Another hesitation in those early episodes is having Claire and Jamie dealing head-on once again with slavery, one of the weaker storylines of Season 3. It’s an important subject to broach, but one wonders yet again if Outlander (at least the series) is the right forum for it. Ultimately the show addresses Jocasta’s plantation practices with a lot of fire from Claire and then moves on, with Jocasta herself a formidable and charming character who is nevertheless unevenly presented (particularly in her feelings towards Claire). There’s not enough time to unpack all of that, though, before our heroes are onto another challenge, which puts them in the middle of rising tensions between the Cherokee and the settlers. Here the show does better work of introducing a marginalized and misunderstood people, mostly by comparing them to Highlanders (as warriors, mystics, pioneers, protective of their clans). And once Outlander fully embraces American frontier life, it also settles down into a better rhythm, one that again becomes cozy and focused on Jamie and Claire working together.
The use of natural settings (the crunch of snow or the snap of twigs on the ground, babbling brooks, the crackle of a hearth fire) along with outstanding costuming and an eye for small details continues to makes the world of Outlander an immersive one. That, at least, has not changed, nor has the chemistry between Jamie and Claire. Though they’re supposed to be quite a bit older now, a few cursory grey hairs don’t really help how jarring it is when someone mentions they were apart for over 20 years. And yet, you would have to do a lot to try to make two people as radiant as Balfe and Heughan look like frontier fogeys, so I’m pleased the show doesn’t really try. Claire and Jamie’s partnership, where each supports the other’s strengths and calls into account their weaknesses (although there aren’t many, or any, that can be seen so far), is always one of the strongest parts of the show. And again, once the focus returns to that, it starts to feel like home again for viewers.
Starz sent six episodes to critics out of an eventual 13, and while most of the major plot points are embargoed, I can say that it makes sense why we were given such a selection. The season does get better as it progresses, as the show also starts pulling together threads from seasons past that make for satisfying and occasionally thrilling reveals. Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) return to the edges of the story again as well, contributing some intriguing and very emotional (mostly on Roger’s side) arcs that feel the most akin to Outlander’s past themes of sacrificing for love. The season also closes the chapter on certain storylines, or seems to, but time travel does leave doors open that can maybe never be truly closed. It’s an important step, since so many more things are looming for our heroes, like the American Revolution. But Jamie and Claire will weather it, like they do all things. And no matter what the road is like to get there, so will we.
Outlander premieres Sunday, November 4th on Starz.