We gave it a B
The transporting Starz phenom Outlander is many engrossing genre-blending, genre-bending things at once: a meticulously realized period drama; a feminist-framed portrait of survival and intimacy; a star vehicle for Caitriona Balfe as Claire, a WWII-era British nurse who time-travels to 18th-century Scotland, as well as for Sam Heughan as Jamie, a scarred Highlander wanted by a sadistic British soldier, Black Jack Randall. He’s played with terrifying lustfulness by Tobias Menzies, who might be the best thing about the show, as he also plays Frank, Claire’s tender and tortured 20th-century husband. This is a series that teaches you things, too, like the utility of warm urine in treating wool. Helpful!
Outlander is often called a romance, sometimes dismissively, but mostly because it’s a love story with much hot humping. But showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his writers seem interested in deromanticizing and complicating the genre’s nostalgia, escapism, and sentimentality, no more so than in season 1’s flawed finale. Black Jack’s protracted torture and rape of Jamie—an iconic moment from Diana Gabaldon’s first novel—was harrowing to a fault and a poor climax to a Claire-centric season. How does Jamie recover? How would his trauma affect his rapport with Claire? Are Moore & Co. even interested in these questions?
Season 2 shows that they might be. The story, adapted from Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, sends Jamie and a pregnant Claire to Paris to sabotage a burgeoning rebellion against Britain’s Protestant king, an effort that Claire knows will fail and destroy Highlander culture. The production’s vision of prerevolutionary France is impressive, albeit skewed toward decadence and retrograde attitudes. The royals warp themselves with divine affectation, while women of all estates resign themselves to satisfying the male appetite as Madonna or whore, sex object or kept object. Their folly flatters Jamie and Claire, a relationship of equals marked by fidelity and comfort with their humanity.
Still, Claire and Jamie lose themselves in their hoity-toity lives as wine merchants and in the parlor games of their subversive work—it’s Outlander does The Americans—but the intoxicating buzz quickly fades. Thoroughly modern Claire grows bored with her conventional “lady of the house” days. Jamie, already toxic with self-loathing, hates himself even more for conspiring against his own people. Claire might be pregnant, but impotency reigns. She and Jamie struggle for more meaning—and more meaningful connection. Black Jack’s violence has poisoned their intimacy. An opportunity for vengeance is presented as a fleeting fix.
Interesting? Yes. But fitfully involving. The intrigues are small, slow-moving, and fuzzy, and if not for Claire’s voice-over, I’d be lost. Jamie, and especially Claire, are more passive this season, perhaps intentionally. Being “dragonflies in amber” might reflect their personal and cosmic condition, but it makes for tepid drama. I’m not convinced the show is well served by faithfully following Gabaldon’s books. Some of the best choices are deviations, including one that allows Claire’s present-day predicament to mirror Jamie’s plight. Season 2 could represent an epic allegory on sexual healing, as well as acquiring grace for what can’t be changed. But let’s get it on already. B