It’s always a risky move to make a drastic change to a TV show, whether that means getting rid of major characters, adding them, or in Outlander’s case, packing up and moving to France. One of the major draws of the Starz series, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, has been its immersive,18th century Scottish setting. It’s beautiful, moody, romantic, violent … essentially, it represents turbulence in many forms, and a unique vista for TV viewers looking for some historical variety.
As book fans know, and as TV fans have been prepped to expect, the story goes through a major shift in Season 2, where time-traveller Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her now Highlander husband Jamie (Sam Heughan) have absconded to France after the brutal events of rape and psychological assault that capped Season 1. In Paris, the pair (along with the loveably grumpy Murtagh, played by Duncan Lacroix) find shelter with a French cousin of Jamie’s, where a pregnant Claire starts running the household, and the group begin to enact their ambitious plan to quash the Jacobite rebellion, thereby saving their Scottish friends and the Highlanders’ very way of life.
Season 2 immediately feels far more settled and comforting than any part of Season 1, save for Claire and Jamie’s respite at Lallybroch. And frankly, the show is better for it. Though the Scottish moors are missed, the show’s key elements remain — Jamie and Claire continue to deepen their relationship in new ways, and are surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast that includes the great Dominique Pinon and Frances de la Tour. While most of the first few episodes of the new season seem designed to provide many excuses for playing Parisian dress-up and exploring the proclivities of 18th century French royalty (including ornate dildos and watching the king make his bowel movements), they’re also unabashedly fun, and as visually rich and sumptuous as ever.
Still, there is a shadow that hangs over the Frasers, and that of course is Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). Jamie is still deeply scarred and haunted by the abuse he suffered in Black Jack’s dungeon, and Claire also feels those effects in a variety of ways. The two running into the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow) while at Versailles also brings up bad memories, and it would seem that Black Jack’s influence will remain an important part of Season 2.
Time moves quickly on Outlander, with small time jumps peppering the first few episodes, to help establish the Frasers quickly and easily into French society and towards their goal of discouraging Charles and the Jacobite rebellion. But there’s also a choice regarding time early on that feels like a huge misstep, one that is not only confusing, but narratively impossible to justify (at least at this point). I’m barred from saying any more about it, but if you are put off by it, rest assured that the next several episodes act like it never happened, and maybe that’s for the best.
For the most part, the first episodes of Season 2 focus on what Outlander does best: it’s lush, emotional, full of wit, and can find warmth in the smallest of scenes. It also sets up its character interactions in ways that often feel like they belong on the stage. There are extended conversations with fascinating layers, and real time given to explore thoughts, feelings, context, and the weight of reactions (a short trip to the 1940s highlights some incredible scenes between Claire and Frank, with Menzies continuing to be one of the series’ greatest assets). But more than ever, Outlander is using its time in Paris to further explore Claire and Jamie’s marriage and individual personalities through facing new challenges, and it merges that with both humor and romance in increasingly great ways. (There are a lot of things I am not allowed to reveal yet, but the story becomes incredibly complex immediately, both emotionally and politically).
Paris is fun, but where the sights and sounds of Scotland are perhaps the most missed are in Bear McCreary’s opening credits. McCreary has tweaked the opening theme to replace the bagpipes with a more traditional, antique French sound, and the second half of the lyrics are now in that Romantic language rather than English. While at first it feels a little jarring, even dissonant, that beautiful core song and melody remain intact enough to feel comfortable and familiar. Outlander’s new season, despite the change that the turmoil now is more within than without, feels very much the same.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good / Très bon
Outlander Season 2 premieres Saturday, April 9th on Starz.