The return of Outlander (after a longer-than-usual hiatus) brings with it some good news: In its fifth season, the time travel period romance has truly found its footing. While the early seasons had a habit of wavering in quality, especially when it came to the pacing and an over-reliance on voice-over, the series has now found a new level of maturity which matches its central characters.
It’s still a bit odd to remember that over the past four seasons, one-time highlander Jamie (Sam Heughan) and unstuck-in-time Claire (Caitriona Balfe) have experienced over 20 years of life, and now have a grown daughter and grandchild. (What is the grandfather version of “zaddy”? Grand-zaddy? Whatever it is, Jamie is that.) After surviving the brutal battles of the Jacobite uprising, a long separation across time, and a harrowing journey from Scotland to America, Jamie and Claire are now trying to build a home for themselves in a dawning nation — despite knowing that bloodshed will soon come to these lands.
The show’s narrative thrust no longer revolves around the state of Claire and Jamie’s relationship, which means that Outlander has the opportunity to do something that too often feels rare for a long-running television series: depict a stable and loving marriage between adults. However, while the series has reached a point of stability, it does bring with it concerns about what’s to come in the future. As Jamie and Claire are now actually living as man and wife, the primary obstacles to their happiness have become external ones, the most notable of which is the looming Revolutionary War.
This was a growing factor in season four, but season five has to confront this even more directly: Whereas Claire’s original trip to the past was an accident, one which sent her to a time period she wasn’t that familiar with, when she returned to Jamie’s time (give or take 20 years) she did so knowing full well what was in store for their future, and also what it would mean for her, as a trained doctor. The dilemma of how much she might “tempt fate,” as she puts it at one point, weighs heavily upon her, with her making a few bold moves in season five to not just accept the status quo of the 18th century.
While moments like that do exist, otherwise the first four episodes of the season feel somewhat distracted from that central question — what would you do with knowledge of the future?
There’s the complication of Roger (Richard Rankin), who followed Jamie and Claire’s daughter Brianna back to the past for love, but now finds himself facing life as a soldier (something he’s not at all prepared for). Meanwhile, Jamie has to deal with his responsibilities as a landowner in colonial times, including the burden put on him at the end of Season 4 to hunt down his beloved godfather Murtagh, by order of the King. However, those responsibilities do lead down some interesting tangents which push the show into slightly more episodic territory than usual.
Lest you forget that Outlander is produced by standards-and-practices-free Starz, there’s plenty of graphic content, though in the first four episodes, the balance is far less geared towards sex than it is towards other material, including the show’s usual glee for the grotesque realities of 18th-century living. (There are a few particularly gruesome sequences in the third episode that will make you yearn for something as prosaic and chill as a childbirth scene.) The attention to detail across every level of production, from costumes to sets to cinematography, remains as impeccable as ever.
It’s still a little hard to buy Balfe and Heughan as a woman and man in their 50s and late 40s, respectively (though every time Jamie does put on his glasses, it does help a bit), but the pair retains the chemistry that’s been the ultimate engine of this series from the beginning, heightened by the perceived passing of time. Also, while Brianna’s storyline this season is unfortunately so far still centered around the aftermath of her assault by Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers), Sophie Skelton has improved a great deal from her initial introduction. She even sounds somewhat more comfortable with her American accent, which has always been the weakest part of her performance.
Claire and Jamie may know the future, but their own fate is in flux: Without reading the books, to which the show has been relatively faithful over the years, it’s hard to anticipate what exactly is to come for these characters. The first four episodes take their time with the plot, bad things clearly hover on the horizon. (When stories end with a wedding, it’s a sign of good things to come. When stories start with a wedding, it never bodes well for the future.) However, at this point, Outlander has created a solid foundation of engaging characters and quality production design — one which can likely support any surprises the characters might face.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good