Warning: This contains spoilers.
As Outlander nears the end of its second season, it has to start delivering on all of those promises it made at the start – and then some. Unlike most programmes, Ron D. Moore’s take on Diana Gabaldon’s novels trades in forecasts and predictions; the entire plot hinges upon the weight of the future, as Jamie and Claire struggle to change it. It’s all very well talking up the battle of Culloden, but if you can’t make the conflict convincing on screen, where’s the tension? Judging by Episode 10, which depicts the smaller battle of Prestonpans, that’s not a problem Outlander is going to face: this is an excellent demonstration of Outlander’s knack for intimate action, and the tension is turned up to 11.
A few weeks back in the Highlands and the benefits are clearer than ever: Jamie has looking more and more like the man he used to be in Season 1 and Sam Heughan is clearly enjoying the chance to stride around in a kilt and get some mud on his legs. (No doubt some in the audience will be enjoying it too.) He’s a new man in many ways now, with the loyalty of all the soldiers behind him and the ear of the Bonnie Prince – we’re a long way from the wreck tormented by Black Jack.
The enemy, of course, is of a different type here: the English. After marching to Prestonpans at the end of the previous episode, we’re thrown almost immediately into battle against the Brits, with the two armies lining up, ready to do each other in. If only there weren’t a marsh in the way.
“A marsh?” you cry. “That’s nothing.” And compared to the horrors hounding our protagonists in recent weeks, you’d be right. Last week’s depiction of Claire’s PTSD from WWII often veered into on-the-nose territory, but that means this episode is free to go all-out with its action without disruption – Claire finds her feet as head of triage, the underlying trauma that we’ve already seen adding layers to the straightforward events.
The warfare itself, meanwhile, is shot shrewdly, not only keeping the show’s budget low (presumably they blew a lot of cash on France), but also making a virtue of it. The central set piece sees Dougal volunteer to rise a horse into the boggy land that separates the two forces, aiming to test the ground – a simple, stripped-down challenge that captures the peril of the situation (he treads the line on the edge of the English troops’ shooting range, with bullets thudding into the grass by his feet and his hat getting blown clean off).
When he returns, the pay-off is satisfying: he’s welcomed by Charles with open arms. Alas, poor Dougal, though, he soon ends up disgracing himself in the eyes of the Prince, after celebrating killing their enemies, rather than bringing them back to have their wounds treated – Charles is keen to take care of his future subjects, as well as his Scottish fighters. (Andrew Gower, like Jamie, is transformed from petulant boy to imperious man – although if he says the words “mark me” one more time, we’ll personally head over there and send him packing with his lunchbox.)
Jamie, fortunately, is on hand to suggest Dougal head up a separate unit – The Highland Dragoons – which allows him to be exiled and saved at the same time. It’s a crafty piece of plotting, and it’s a nice demonstration of just how much Jamie is back in the saddle, not to mention Outlander’s continuing committment to politics as well as personal drama. But, of course, there’s that too, not just in the inevitable stowing away of Fergus to join the fray (spoiler: he kills someone and is dismayed), but in the tragic loss of Angus, breaking up the double-act of Angus and Rupert. The fact that it’s a genuine shame to see the familiar face depart is a mark of how well Outlander is able to balance emotion and excitement – and, with the Jacobite rebellion still marching on, the finale (which will, presumably, involve Culloden) promises genuine thrills. Not bad for a story about something that we already know the outcome of.
Outlander Season 2 is available to watch in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Sunday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.