If you stopped watching Outlander before Season 2, or you haven’t finished it yet, go and do so immediately. Not just because this article is full of spoilers, but also because the show was quietly one of the best series of the year. Though Season 1 had its ups and downs, Season 2 had a very strong sense of its story, a good pace, and (despite a confusing start) a fantastic finale that wrapped everything up in an emotional yet satisfying way — one that should make us desperate for Season 3.
For those who haven’t read Diana Gabaldon’s book series, the premiere of Outlander Season 2 was off-putting. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) was suddenly back with Frank (Tobias Menzies) in the 1940s and carrying Jaime’s (Sam Heughan) child in a way that defied all logic as far as what we had seen so far. Of course, book fans knew what was coming. After an exceptionally emotional season — with Claire and Jamie doing everything they could to change history — the battle of Culloden Moor took place after all, and Jamie took Claire back to Craigh Na Dun to send her back to her own time.
It was a massive sacrifice for Jamie to choose to say goodbye to Claire in “Dragonfly in Amber,” knowing that he would need to charge into battle and almost assuredly die there. But as Claire tells the Fraser grave at Culloden Moor in the 1960s, he was right. Their daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton) was able to stay safe and was raised well, in comfort, with Frank as her loving father. But as we learn through Brianna talking with sweet Roger (Richard Rankin), she was never able to really connect with her mother — Claire was always “in her own world.”
Outlander’s first season was rocky in places (during Part 2 in particular). The pacing of the story wasn’t always the best, and spending two full episodes focusing on Black Jack’s brutalization of Jamie was a lot to take — especially when the season seemed to end so incredibly abruptly afterwards. A move to Paris felt uncertain to kick things off in Season 2, especially with Claire was shown to be briefly back in the 1940s. But the season quickly righted itself, and brought us an entirely new dynamic of Claire and Jamie’s relationship.
Whereas Season 1 had the pair just getting to know each other and was heavily focused on their romance, Season 2 saw a more practical couple who were truly partners. Instead of having to volley back and forth from saving one another, Season 2 saw the Frasers able to work together towards their desire to change history. There wasn’t much sex in Season 2, but it was replaced with something far more intimate between them. Jamie’s association with Charles Stuart (Andrew Gower) also showed a new side to him, and in particular, a wit and cunning that was more fitting of Parisian society.
Outlander Season 2 created a sense of urgency each week to want to return and see where Claire and Jamie were with their plotting, yes, but it was also more than that. Murtagh’s (Duncan Lacroix) role became essential this season, and Jamie’s position within Prince Charles’ coterie (including the role of Graham McTavish‘s Dougal) explored their personalities and relationships in new and wonderful ways. Further, the certainty of the Frasers’ relationship and their purpose imbued the season with a confidence and a drive that was much stronger than Season 1.
Emotionally, Season 2 was all over the spectrum. While there was some happiness and some very satisfying resolutions this year (like with Simon Callow‘s squirrely Duke of Sandringham) there was also that whole business with the faux witchcraft with Claire and the King, and an overwhelming amount of sexual assault. The Parisian story closed with the unbearable loss of a child in “Faith,” though also included the gaining of a child in Fergus (Romann Berrux). What the Frasers had to go through in Paris and through the loss of their child was excruciatingly heartbreaking, but it was only laying the groundwork for more pain to come. “Prestonpans” brought a fantastically rendered battle (utilizing fog and slow-motion to keep the battle intimate for budget reasons, and yet, it felt much larger), as well as several devastating losses among the core cast. (Though thankfully not Murtagh, who was my favorite this season).
The finale — “Dragonfly in Amber” — was something else altogether, and introduced us to the brink of Culloden Moor’s battle, while spending most of its time in 1968. And yet, unlike the disorienting jump to the 1940s in the season premiere, our vision of Claire and her daughter back in Scotland in 1968 was just as fascinating — and connected — as a regular episode. It was seamlessly woven together (even though I would have liked to have seen more time given to the aftermath of Dougal’s murder — something I understand we’ll return to next season), and Caitriona Balfe matched her devastating performance in “Faith” as an older Claire who still pines for her lost love, and struggles to explain it all to Brianna. (While some of Brianna’s protestations over her mother’s “delusions” were overly petulant and grating, her budding romance with Roger made up for all of it).
Claire’s journey to the places she knew through Jamie were heartbreaking, particularly seeing Lallybroch in ruins. It was so emotional in part because it put Claire almost in the viewer’s position — as she walked through the museums and the ruins and the battleground, she scoffed at inaccuracies (like the exalting of Prince Charles) and both smiled and was somewhat wounded by the reminders of those she knew and loved (Murtagh’s signature on the document, the wedding gift found on the battlefield that she had given to Jamie). It felt personal and knowable.
The re-introduction of Geillis (Lotte Verbeek) and her history was another fascinating diversion that helped bring home the fact that time — to quote another great show — is a flat circle. But the revelation at the end that helped Brianna believe her mother and Claire coming to understand that Jamie might have survived Culloden Moor after all (and still be waiting for her on the other side of the stones) made this viewer in particular desperate for Season 3. Like the end of Season 1, there are the portends of a sea change, but unlike the uncertainty that that season ended with, Season 2 concluded on a firm foundation of hope and excitement for whatever new adventures come next.
Often wrongfully dismissed because of its focus on time-traveling romance and wish-fulfillment in Season 1, Outlander is a series that spends a lot of time on its politics, elaborate scheming, and action. Season 2 is absolutely one of the year’s best run of episodes thanks to a more focused narrative, but also because of how it so successfully married together its plotting and affecting drama. “Dragonfly in Amber” was essentially over 90 minutes of deeply emotional feelings, because the show has done such a wonderful job of making us really believe in the power of Jamie and Claire’s love and connection, and even more than that, to feel invested in it.
Though the series doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, after Season 2, that has become inexcusable. Outlander isn’t perfect, but it has a very strong sense of itself and of what it wants fans to feel while watching it, and in that, it’s extremely successful. Fittingly, “Dragonfly in Amber” was both an immense payoff and the buildup of even more greatness to come — and it cannot come soon enough.