This is a spoiler-free review. Come back after the episode’s release for additional, spoilery notes.
Season 1 of Outlander was one of the TV highlights of last year. Chronicling the tale of 1940s nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who found herself cast back in time to 1740s Scotland, where she fell in love with rugged Highland warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the show (based on Diana Galbadon’s novels) fused together history, fantasy, romance, action and Scottish accents to wonderfully unique effect – because it was so hard to pin down, it was simply unlike any other show around. The fact that running through it all was an empowering story of female identity was a bonus.
Season 2 starts this Sunday on Amazon Prime Video – Outlander’s exclusive UK TV home – within 24 hours of its US broadcast. And the series is as confident, and accomplished, as ever.
That confidence is evident from the moment the episode begins, and we find ourselves once more back in step with the love triangle of Claire, Jamie (Claire’s 1740s Scottish husband – if only we all had one of those) and Claire’s 1940s husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies). Their situation is almost impossible to sum up in a sentence, especially with the addition of their daughter to the mix this season, but the cast are all so attuned to their roles by now that it’s easy to follow the intricate, intimate entanglements. If Diana Galbadon’s second novel, Dragonfly in Amber, is even more complex when it comes to its time-hopping narrative, Ronald D. Moore’s screen adaptation is, if anything, even simpler – the focus here is, first and foremost, on our unhappy couple. Both of them.
As we already know, Season 2 will see Jamie and Claire head to France, hell-bent on infiltrating the Jacobite rebellion, led by Prince Charles Stuart, and stopping the battle of Culloden. Of course, it’s not as straight-forward as that, even with the help of Jamie’s cousin, a wine merchant, to get them underway. That’s partly due to the impossibility of overturning the hefty facts of history – and partly due to the trauma still hanging around Jamie’s neck, after Black Jack Randall’s cruel raping of him at the end of Season 1.
Outlander’s strength has always been its ability to weave together those parallel threads, using personal ties and emotional commitment as metaphors for time and the past. It’s there in the double-casting of Tobias Menzies as both Frank and Jack, visibly casting the spectre of the past over the face of the present. A brief hallucination from Claire sees her scarily confuse the two, but for the most part, it’s not explicitly addressed – it doesn’t need to be.
Menzies is magnificent in his dual roles, here getting a couple of scenes to play nice as concerned hubby Frank. He smiles, as they talk – perhaps the first smile we’ve ever seen on that face. It’s an unfamiliar, unnerving sight – it seems genuine, but there’s a flicker of nervousness behind it, as if he’s trying to reassure both her and himself. A longer, passionate monologue about what it was like for him after she went missing reminds us that the fierce Jack of previous generations is still lurking in there somewhere. It’s no coincidence that we get time to spend with Jack at the early stages of the season – Season 1 also made sure we had the chance to become emotionally invested in Claire’s marriage, before whisking us away, enabling us to share her conflicted feelings.
Caitriona Balfe is just as brilliant as the troubled nurse, who remains possessed with the idea of stopping all the Scottish fighters – including her beloved – from being wiped out. Her generation-spanning role (and occupation) means that the more we see of her in any timeline, the more she carries both the scars of romance and war – the idea of more violence is as abhorrent to her as the idea of a world without Jamie, who has become attached, on some level, to the naive, peaceful world of Scotland’s countryside, a place where the mechanised conflict of WWII must seem as harsh as the noise of traffic in the streets.
The use of music and background sound is testament to Outlander’s ability to make any period it takes us to so convincing – this is a show that takes pride in the smallest of details, from authentic period Scottish clothes to boats in a French port. Indeed, despite leaping across the Channel, this first episode doesn’t fill the screen with epic, sweeping sea sequences – the best moments here are closed conversations indoors. It’s a smart way to establish France as a location without blowing the budget, but also a demonstration of the show’s superb storytelling. Tiny touches, such as French lyrics in the theme song and Murtagh grumbling about foreign culture, have huge (and, in the latter case, entertaining) pay-offs. Sam Heughan speaking in French, meanwhile, is enough to leave anyone hot under the collar – it’s worth the price of an Amazon Prime Video subscription alone.
The result is a resolutely personal tale of relocation and moving on – one that understands that any relationship must shoulder the baggage of the past to tackle the future. With the high standards set by Season 1 behind it, Season 2 has a very promising future indeed.
Outlander Season 2 premieres in the UK on Sunday 10th Aprilexclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Sunday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.