Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of Outlander. Not caught up? Read our reviews here.
Outlander is one of the best acted shows on TV, and the opening of the time-travelling romance’s third season is a stirring, powerful reminder. Not because it reunites our fiery lead couple, but because it does precisely the opposite.
The show picks up right after the events of Season 2’s finale – which, in the case of this history-bending series, means we’re jumping several decades into the future. That’s where former WWII nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) ends up, after she heads back through the magic stones that first transported her from 1945 to 18th century Scotland, where she fell in love with Highlander warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
Our lead couple’s chemistry is so good that it’s taken for granted by now, their hard-fought affection and loyalty in the face of history itself winning us to their side, through hell and high water, not to mention assault, political sabotage and more besides. But there’s more than one type of chemistry:= Balfe and Heughan also share an anti-chemistry that makes their affection even more obvious when they’re not sparking off each other. Splitting them up is proof that not only are they good at selling their romance on-screen, but they can also sell their romance apart.
For Jamie, it’s a case of struggling to stay alive in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. The climax of Season 2 largely went unseen, but we get to witness it here, in small flashbacks of violence – repeated fragments of trauma that invade Jamie’s head without warning. It’s a hugely effective way to tackle the conflict, with the show’s hefty budget (don’t forget Season 2 relocated to France) not skimping on the scale or spectacle of the battle. By presenting it through the filter of Jamie’s pain, though, Outlander ensures that war remains unromantic, in a show where romance is a battle. An opening shot of bodies piled upon bodies only adds to the feeling that Jamie isn’t the one-in-a-million man loved by Claire, but just another man on the pile of human collateral.
Of course, we all knew how Culloden would end, just as we all know that Jamie is the show’s protagonist and unlikely to meet his maker anytime soon (readers of Diana Gabaldon’s books will know much more than that). But Outlander has matured so much over its two seasons, and we’ve become so invested in its characters, that this is now a drama driven by emotions, rather than plot twists. The question isn’t whether Jamie will live, but whether he will choose to live.
The same decision faces Claire, as she goes back to her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), and is whisked away to 1948 Boston. There, she must face the challenge of fitting into the housewife role American society expects – and, as we’ve already seen in the 1700s, Claire isn’t one to be submissive and domesticated. It’s striking just how little difference there really is between the two: Claire is spoken over by doctors in hospital, who address Frank about her body, and is greeted with shock by academics, when she dares to venture an opinion. Both instances of dismissive sexism are even more outrageous as we’ve seen her demonstrate her smarts and medical experience again and again – for a show about time travel, the amusingly indignant, forthright Claire often feels like someone plucked straight from 2017, which says a lot about the modern world, as well as how sympathetic Balfe’s performance is.
Cutting between Jamie and Claire is not only essential for this story-juggling scene-setter, but also a welcome reinforcement of the series’ central theme: time changes us, just like relationships. The two are inseparable. The episode’s title, The Battle Joined, speaks about much more than Culloden itself.
And so every season gets more and more tangled in the pain and complication of old loves and new life challenges – a juxtaposition of history and the present that’s embodied by the unborn child that Claire is carrying. In nine months, that bump will become the daughter that we’ve already seen briefly in Season 2 – another time-warping hook that has well and truly sunk into our emotions.
Time, though, doesn’t just affect Claire and Jamie: it affects Frank too. Leaving Jamie behind is hard for her, but it’s difficult for him as well, as he patiently tries to reconnect with the woman who went missing for several years. It’s a pleasure to see that, after little screen-time in Season 2, Season 3 places even more focus on Frank. Tobias Menzies seizes the opportunity, his tightly repressed facial expressions quietly capturing the effort and restraint it takes for him to raise another man’s child, not to mention try to support his wife facing the reprimands of outdated social conventions.
Menzies’ double casting as Black Jack in the 18th century and Frank in the present day pays off in greater and greater dividends with every episode, and here, we see him mentally fighting Jamie’s memory, just as his ancestor went sword to sword with his enemy on the field of Culloden. Where that struggle is wrought large with swings and blows, generations later, it is evident in tinier gestures, from Frank’s thin-lipped smile to Claire silently flinching away from his touch. Spending time with them is a heart-wrenching demonstration of the difference in chemistry between Balfe and Menzies and Balfe and Heughan – one that leaves you pining for the latter’s lost love and sympathising with the former partners who are also having to process that grief.
Choosing to live is one thing, but, for all his insistence that Jamie not be discussed, Frank’s actions show that it’s impossible to live for the future without connecting with the past. Will Claire and Jamie ever reunite? It’s testament to Outlander’s emotional, as well as its historical, scope, that the more interesting question for now is whether Claire and Frank can make things work. There are three people in this marriage, and Outlander is generous enough to give room to them all. What a treat it is to submerge ourselves back in that nuanced, mature sea of expertly navigated feelings. The performances in Outlander are some of the best on TV. What makes Outlander great is that it has the heart to match.
Season 3 of Outlander is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Outlander Season 3 on pay-per-view VOD?