Warning: This contains spoilers.
“You’re keeping a secret to save his life.” So says Murtagh, after discovering that Jack Randall’s alive, and that Claire hasn’t told Jamie yet. Admit it. Was there ever any point where you actually thought Jack wasn’t going to reappear? Of course not. But Outlander is a smarter show than that: it understands that we’re not watching for the surprise of Jack not being dead after all; we’re watching to see what effect it has upon Claire and Jamie’s relationship.
Drink. Fancy clothes. Scottish accents. Rumpy-pumpy. The Frasers have always had it pretty good, save for the odd nasty incident of abuse and torment at the hands of their brutal enemy. But Outlander Season 2 subverts that for the first time in Episode 3, as we start to get glimpses of a relationship turning sour; Jamie’s off at the brothel most nights, trying to talk Charles out of invading England (he remains commendably faithful), while Claire is tiring of doing nowt but drinking tea with Louise and the others. The French word ennui has never seemed more apt.
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are as excellent as ever, as capable of convincingly breaking apart as they are uniting against the tide of history – and it’s a sign that the show, confident in their chemistry, is happy to put their issues aside and instead follow them down their separate story lines. France is the perfect setting in which to do it: the show has swiftly established a tightly-knit, yet expansive, ensemble of double-crossing and hand-shaking, one in which, as events unfold, every character and object proves crucial.
Jamie’s plan to dissuade the Jacobite rebellion is to harness the clout of everyone’s favourite Minister of Finance – who, after last week’s hilariously sleazy tumble in the lake, proves equally incompetent at the civilised game of chess, with Jamie beating him over and over again. After one match, he calls in the favour the minister previously offered – hold back funds from Charles until, he says, it’s definite that the whole thing can go ahead. Needless to say, the endeavour fails – but once more, it’s seeing the impact that inevitable twist has upon Jamie that’s most interesting.
On the other side of the narrative, Claire chats Chekhov’s poison with our old friend the apothecary, before learning of a charity hospital nearby that needs volunteers. And so she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work.
Enter Frances de la Tour as Mother Hildegarde, the skeptical boss of the whole place – and, in a scene-stealing performance, her dog, Bouton, who potters along beside her, as she tends to each patient. Frances is magnificent, as you’d expect, only showing signs of warmth towards the English outsider after Claire diagnoses someone with diabetes by tasting their urine – watch out, House, Claire Fraser’s coming for you. Even more miraculous is Bouton, who, it turns out, can sniff an infected wound from centimetres away, clambering all over Hildegarde’s patients to help determine their ailments. It’s ridiculous, it’s unhygienic and it’s absolutely adorable – frankly, Amazon should commission his own series called Bouton: The Marvellous Medicine Dog.
In Louise’s chambers, meanwhile, Mary is freaking out over Frenchmen and what they do to women in bed – a hilariously naive outburst of panic from the young Ms. Hawkins. While that could be a trivial moment of humour to lighten the mood, though, it emerges that Mary (according to Claire’s memories of studying history books in the future) is destined to marry Jonathan Randall, the brother of Jack Randall, whom Claire met last week. For Frank to exist in the 1940s, then, Claire needs Black Jack to stay alive for another year so that Jonathan can get married and get knocked up, and the family line can continue – remember how we said it was important to spend time in the ‘present day’ during Episode 1, so that we actually cared about Claire and Frank’s marriage? This is where that work starts to pay off, as we have no problem getting on board with Claire’s dilemma.
Murtagh, naturally, finds out about Jack, as Claire ends up spending more time with him while her husband’s away – although Murtagh’s also busy tossing the caber (so to speak) with her maid, Suzette. It’s another example of how well Outlander balances its mood, as well as its ensemble cast, throwing in laughs but also using those amusing scenes to bond Claire and Murtagh closer; the fact that Mary, who, like Murtagh, could have been incidental comic relief, has become so central to the plot, is testament to the complexity of the show’s storytelling, which is as rich here as the clothes Jamie and Claire so effortlessly slip into.
The same is true of Fergus, a young boy who is found to have stolen Jamie’s wooden sea monster sculpture, which he spends the first half of the episode looking for. The wee urchin boy (think Oliver Twist’s Artful Dodger) is promptly enlisted by Fraser to steal documents from Charles to copy, which contain encrypted information. What does Jamie do to solve it? He turns to Mother Hildegarde, after Claire mentions to him she’s good with music – one of those tiny throwaway remarks that subtly reinforces the attention that Jamie and Claire pay to each other, even when feuding. And so, our couple reunite to get Hildegarde to translate the documents, which includes a manuscript for none other than the Goldberg variations (you have to love the historical detail that goes into this programme – even the Versailles footage this week looks far more genuine than in Episode 2).
The resulting clue leads them to a mysterious “S”, who they decide must be Sandringham – more hammy Simon Callow please, Outlander, thank you. The problem? Meeting with him will surely reveal to Jamie that Black Jack’s alive and well. How to stop that happening, while simultaneously wooing Sandringham, pairing up Mary and Jonathan, and spending quality time with Bouton: The Marvellous Medicine Dog? Outlander nicely weaves together the personal and the political – the suspense her is as much to do with Murtagh and Claire keeping a secret, as it is saving lives or beating history.
But with the show’s bigger scale comes a welcome scope for more politics – rather than merely retread the emotional trauma of last season’s events, Ron D. Moore and his team dive increasingly deep into conspiracies and back-room deals, giving events an intellectual depth and the plot a gripping pace. If Season 1 occasionally felt wayward and uneven (see the episodes in which Claire is on trial for being a witch and then goes off singing for her supper with Murtagh), Season 2’s writing has never been tighter. All that and a bit with dog? Bravo, Outlander. Bravo.
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.