This contains spoilers for previous seasons of Outlander and minor spoilers for the set-up of Season 4. Not caught up? Click here to find out how to watch it online in the UK.
“This is the start of what America will become. People will come here in their thousands,” says Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) in Outlander Season 4. Because yes, Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan) have come to America – and yes, they’re still together, after Season 3’s long-awaited reunion. Such a geographic shift marks almost a soft reboot for Starz’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novels, but our couple’s new beginnings in the USA actually mark a return to roots, as the series rediscovers its central focus.
That focus, of course, is Claire and Jamie, but the couple slipped out of view in Season 3. The show spent so long building up to their reunion halfway through that the question of what to do with them once back together seemed to be an afterthought, and an excursion to the Caribbean left the season’s sudden reveal of Geillis’ return, and equally sudden storm that ship-wrecked them on the shore of Georgia in the 1760s, feeling disjointed and poorly paced. (We’re still sad that Tobias Menzies was so rapidly ushered out of the ensemble cast.)
Season 4’s beginnings are notably slower and smaller scale, as Claire and Jame head to North Carolina to settle and fashion themselves a new home. Things take a while for them to find their feet, as they ingratiate themselves with he locals and (ahem) re-ingratiate themselves with each other. But first, there are family discords and violent assaults to contend with – this is Outlander, after all. The promising former comes courtesy of Aunt Jocasta (played with brilliant vigour by Maria Doyle Kennedy), who finds herself at odds with our forward-thinking couple, who disapprove of her estate’s use of slaves. The less promising latter comes courtesy of a nocturnal encounter, and unfolds to strains of Ray Charles’ America The Beautiful. It’s a jarring sequence that feels like it’s come from another TV show, rather than Starz’s idiosyncratic time-travelling romance, and leaves the message that America ain’t so beautiful for immigrants rather unsubtly brandished in the direction of our heads.
But there’s genuine meat in the show’s transposition stateside, as its themes of identity, displacement and belonging take on a new resonance – the show is sure to brush shoulders with Cherokee territory too, finding a parallel between Scotland’s conflict with the English and the Native Americans’ own treatment by colonisers that works surprisingly well. And that’s nicely echoed by the future subplot involving Brianna Randall (Sophie Skelton) and Roger Wakefield (Richard Ranking), as the latter also heads to America (in the 1970s) for a celebration of Scottish settlers; a roll call of clans that made home on US soil, and shaped the country’s history, is an unexpectedly rousing sight, bolstered by the simmering chemistry between Rankin and Skelton’s fiery lovebirds, whose bond is given a chance to develop some welcome additional complexity.
No torch can hold a candle to the flame that burns brightly between Claire and Jamie, though, and Balfe and Heughan’s chemistry smoulders with a gorgeous intensity – with every season of ridiculous obstacles they put behind them, the cumulative staying power of their love is endearing enough to make you swoon, but also comforting enough to make for a reassuring constant in Outlander’s oft-shifting playing field. (There’s also an impressive moment given to Young Ian (John Bell), who talks to Jamie about the trauma of his experiences at the end of Season 3 – the kind of conversation that has been earned after the groundwork laid by Heughan’s Jamie in Seasons 1 and 2.)
No doubt Claire and Jamie’s tie will once again be tested, as Brianna and Roger’s retrospective musings link up to our couple’s 18th century adventures, plus there’s the small matter of the American Revolution on the horizon, which again sees Claire and Jamie trying to find themselves on the right side of history (in this case, siding with their home nation would leave them on the losing end).
But you’ll have to be patient for the cogs to start clicking into place: Season 4’s antagonist and unavoidable time-travelling shenanigans take a little too long to be unveiled properly. Nonetheless, after the haphazard third season, there’s a simple pleasure in the show pausing for a moment to catch its breath, take in the breathtaking landscapes, and reorient itself around the relationship at its core. Yes, Claire and Jamie have come to America, and yes, they’re still together – and for now, that’s all that matters.
Season 4 of Outlander is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive weekly on Mondays, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.