Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 12 and 13 of Outlander Season 3. Not caught up? Read our reviews here.
Let it never be said that Outlander, a TV series about a time-travelling nurse who falls in love with a Scotsman, tries to stop the Battle of Culloden, saves lives in 1950s Boston and cured a British vessel of typhoid, is lacking in ambition. Season 3 has, in many ways, been the show’s most ambitious yet, tearing our lead couple apart to agonising extremes, before bringing them back together across the centuries to explore the complexities and challenges of long-term commitment. It is, however, also the show’s most uneven season to date, as that ambition repeatedly stretched the story to breaking point.
The problem became apparent around the halfway mark, when Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) finally reunited. Scrutinising the way that their feelings, and personalities, had changed, and been shaped, as a result of their separate experiences, it was a bold, sincere, moving piece of television. But then, the season continued – and couldn’t work out what to do next. Excuse after excuse came up to separate our lovers once again, each one more contrived and trivial than the last. The result has been a string of rushed cliffhangers and speedy resolutions that have felt increasingly unsatisfying. But then pirates. But then prison. But then kidnapping. But then hiding a dead body. But then Jamaica.
Yes, Jamaica is where we have wound up in a season that is sorely lacking an overall antagonist – not even the man attempting to bring Jamie to justice is too nice and bland to warrant a villain status. (Black Jack has never been more sorely missed.) And with two episodes to go, Outlander’s third season suddenly races to fill in the blank that has plagued this season by introducing a new enemy – resulting in (you guessed it) another rushed cliffhanger a speedy resolution.
Our enemy in question is The Bakra, a sinister female figure who is introduced to us bathed in blood (don’t worry: it’s goat) and as being rather fond of seducing and playing with young men. The young man in question? Ian, of course, who becomes her latest bedroom victim – because Outlander loves nothing more than the threat of sexual abuse to drive up the tension. It’s an awkward opening to the season’s closing double-bill, what with her being nude and him being a boy, although the focus is distracted away from that just enough by the reveal that The Bakra is actually Geillis – her from the future who was burned for being a witch, or would have been, were it not for Dougal secretly rescuing her.
Now, Geillis is the one who got the box of treasure that was taken from Ian, and she’s aware that it’s missing one item: a sapphire. She needs all three of them so that she can unlock a prophecy that has something to do with a future king of Scotland. And so she poisons Ian with truth-serum tea, so that he divulges to her that Jamie has the sapphire and that he’s heading to Jamaica. This can only end well.
And so, to Jamie and Claire, who are now in Jamaica, where Claire is correctly appalled by the slave trade. Attacking a seller in a market, the kerfuffle she causes leaves Jamie and her with only one option to save the slave’s life: buy him for themselves. Is it really the only option? It’s hard to say, but Outlander is trying to cram so much in at this point that there’s no room for dissection of privilege, slavery and dehumanisation; there’s just enough space for a vaguely problematic gesture towards the issues, without pause for thought.
The same problem faces The Bakra too, and so Lotte Verbeek is left chewing every bit of scenery she can get jaws around just to try and make an impression in the short amount of screen-time she has. That includes swanning about a party hosted by the Jamaica governor, where she goes by the name Mistress Abernathy, and bullying Margaret and her weasel of a brother – Remember them? The fortune-telling duo from a few episodes ago? – so she can get that prophecy she’s after.
What of that sapphire, you say? Why, it’s worn by the governor himself, who turns out to be none other than Lord John, the former prison ward and continuing fancier of Jamie Fraser – because when you run out of plot ideas, you start bringing back all of your old favourite characters to make it seem like a more complex narrative. In all seriousness, though, it’s a pleasure to see John again, and he and Sam Heughan have excellent, twinkly-eyed chemistry, as he reveals to Jamie and Claire that Jamie gave him the sapphire, and that he’s worn it proudly and affectionately ever since.
Yes, Claire and Jamie are at the governor’s ball too, hoping to find word of Ian – but instead, end up coming across Geilis and being mildly disturbed. Her prophecy doesn’t help with that, as it predicts the death of a 200-year-old baby will bring about a new Scottish king. More on that in a second, because first, Jamie gets arrested by Captain Leonard, who also shows up at the ball. At least, he is until John orders him to be freed – a far-too-easy solution for the penultimate episode’s cliffhanger, which only makes the whole thing feel more redundant. (Although seeing John ruthlessly mock Captain Leonard is a joy.)
The finale sees Claire and Jamie rock up at Geilis’ place to rescue Ian, only to discover that the 200-year-old baby in The Bakra’s prophecy is actually Brianna – don’t act like you were surprised: how many other time-travel-related children do you know of in Outlander?
And so the whole story climaxes with a race to thwart Geilis’ plan to kill Brianna. By which point Geilis’ behaviour becomes rather frustrating. Does she like Jamie? Despise Claire? Respect her for understanding this whole time travel malarkey? And why is she so keen to enact this prophecy in the first place? Is she just really passionate about Scotland?
As a result of trying to squeeze all of her villainy into such a small space, her behaviour becomes an annoying string of uneven jumps – Claire trying to convince Geilis she’s been telling the truth by showing her photos of Brianna in the 1950s feels more like a clunky plot device to enable the finale, rather than a natural step for either person. After all, didn’t Geilis have that magic truth tea she fed Ian? It’s when you find yourself puzzling over such small holes that you realise how uninvolving Outlander’s Season 3 finale is – a vast change from previous instalments, where the engaging intensity of Claire and Jamie’s romance has helped us leap happily over any cracks in the pavement.
One positive side effect of Geilis’ quest to travel back to the future through Jamaica’s answer to the Scottish stones (a cave called Abandawe) is that we get to see Mr. Willoughby and Margaret strike up an unlikely affair – a wonderful answer to the problems posed by both characters. But like the rest of this rushed, meandering season, the resolution to Geilis’ storyline is wrapped up far too quickly, almost at the closing episode’s halfway point.
That leaves the writers with time to fill, and they do so in classic Outlander fashion: firstly, by giving us a steamy love scene (a reminder of how well the show does its central relationship), and secondly, by inventing yet another Really Big Threat for them to overcome. In this case, it’s a hurricane, which strikes the boat the pair sail off in. And, in one last attempt to up the stakes, Claire dies – literally saying in her voiceover, “I was dead”. And, in one last attempt to resolve that cliffhanger, she comes back to life a few minutes later.
The closing scene leaves our couple on the shores of Georgia, America, ready for a new set of adventures. After a season racing to take the epic scope of Diana Gabaldon’s novel and stretch it, or compress it into, 10 episodes, though, Season 4 of Outlander can take its time.
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?