This contains spoilers for Outlander Season 4. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 4’s opening episodes – or find out how to watch it online in the UK.
There are two things Outlander is really good at: the emotional impact of people being brought together across generations and time, and sincerely charting the complexities of family secrets. Also, romance. And Jamie looking earnest. And casting. We’ll come in again.
After a run of episodes that was anchored in the pain and pleasure of reunions, Outlander’s fourth season continues to delve into the ripples of consequences that its unique family dynamics spread. Those have become more pronounced now that our characters are all in the same timeline, as Outlander’s renewed sense of structure and pacing after a loose, wayward third season feed directly into the emotional drama.
Episode 6 (Blood of My Blood) brings back one of the series’ most awkward family secrets: young William. Arriving at Fraser’s Ridge, he’s immediately pegged as Jamie’s bairn by Murtagh, and his reaction (not of surprise) sums up in three words exactly why Outlander makes for compelling viewing: “Does Claire know?”
This remains a show that is at its best when driven not by exposition or shocking plot twists, but by the impact each event has on the people we’ve grown to know to care about. And so it’s only natural that wee Willy should be accompanied by John Grey, a figure who holds a unique place in Jamie’s life. Prison governor when they were both behind bars, he’s had power over Jamie, propositioning him soon after he was appointed governor of the jail, but is also genuinely fond of the man – and Jamie of him, as evidenced by their fondly recalled chess games.
The tensions of John’s arrival becomes immediately apparent as the group sit down to dinner, and Murtagh and John clash over the taxation of the Scottish locals in the area – with Jamie, technically a landlord, caught between them. And, with John then catching a fever and unable to leave the house, we get the added friction of Claire looking after him – the man who got several years with Jamie away from her, and perhaps the only other person to have a claim to something approaching a romantic bond with him.
Caitriona Balfe is brilliant here, as Claire has to confront and recover from an emotional wound long thought forgotten, while Sam Heughan is just as wonderful at letting Jamie’s multiple, conflicting loyalties play out across his face – a face that has to be especially deadpan when John’s fever causes him and William to get out of the house and embark on a fishing trip in the forest, all the while trying not to give away the fact that he’s his dad.
Class tensions, meanwhile, raise their head once again, as Murtagh plans an ambush of a carriage full of tax revenue, only for the English spies to find out in advance. Claire and Jamie, however, aren’t on hand: they’re at the theatre. (Murtagh’s face when he discovers this is priceless.) And so, when the snooty Edmund Fanning begins to suffer pain from his hernia, Claire takes the chance to intervene and perform some emergency surgery in the foyer (two shows for the price of one!) – and Jamie takes the chance to use it as a distraction, so he can find Fergus and send him to Murtagh to warn him not to proceed with their robbery. Needless to say, it’s a successful operation, with the added fun of George Washington being introduced to Claire and Jamie before the play begins – if Outlander goes on to give us a glimpse of Alexander Hamilton in the future, we’ll be delighted.
But while all this unfolds, we know things are about to get a lot more complicated, as both Brianna and Roger have made it back to their time – her on a quest to stop the fire that will one day consume Fraser’s Ridge, him on a quest to stop her from coming to harm too.
This is where Outlander starts to stumble, as the show tries to position Brianna and Roger as a couple to stand alongside Claire and Jamie. Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin have very good chemistry, and it’s largely to their credit that their partnership has worked to date, with their awkward separation at the start of the season earning them genuine sympathy. They continue their charismatic performances as Season 3 works to bring them back together – but they’re given some of the season’s biggest missteps to overcome, to varying degrees of success.
Skelton’s daughter, as forthright and independent as ever, finds shelter in a house in the cold Scottish countryside – only to find out that it’s the home of none other than Laoghaire. Yes, she’s back again, and still bitter about everything that’s happened to her before now – just one of the signs that the writing fails here is that she hasn’t been allowed to move on as a person from those events. When she realises Brianna is Claire and Jamie’s daughter, then, she immediately seeks revenge, aiming to get her arrested as a witch. It feels like a coincidence contrived just to pad out some drama and add some threat – so it’s credit to the show, then, that it uses that situation not just for a shocking twist, but as a way to spark a completely unexpected flashback.
Brianna, talking to Laoghaire’s daughter, Joan, recalls the day before Frank died, giving us a chance to enjoy Tobias Menzies’ delicately repressed performance once again, but also opening up a surprising, nuanced and moving passage of generational drama. (Joan, fortunately, intervenes and whisks Brianna away to Lallybroch, and Ian, before this cul-de-sac of a subplot can do any further damage.)
Rankin’s Roger, meanwhile, doesn’t hesitate to run through the standing stones himself, in a likeable display of enthusiastic devotion. He, too, ends up on the wrong side of generational history, as he tries to help his ancestor, Morag MacKenzie, but only risks making things worse.
They end up together again in Wilmington – and, just when Brianna’s new servant, Lizzie Wemyss, looks away, he surprises her. Their energetic, excited reaction to finding each other in the past is rather endearing. But then, the show mistreats Brianna in a number of ways. Firstly, she quickly agrees to get married to Roger, despite the fact that his demands of all-or-nothing commitment haven’t changed (something she previously had a problem with). With Roger not undergoing any growth or learning experience, the resulting sex scene between the two – which clearly wants to be a Claire-and-Jamie-rivalling affair – is awkward and feels out-of-place, which is a strange thing to say about Outlander.
In a sign that logic isn’t entirely lost, she then pushes him away when she finds out he knew and hadn’t told her that her parents were, according to the history books, going to die. But while that seems to expose Roger as a problematic sort, the show goes on to apparently punish Brianna instead: while she goes off to recover her mother’s wedding ring, she winds up raped by the returning villain Stephen, a sequence that’s wholly unnecessary, given that we’ve already established the peril of the time with the brief interlude involving Laoghaire. The result leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and leaves questions less about where exactly Outlander is headed with this half of the story. There are two things Outlander is really good at – Brianna and Roger, it turns out, isn’t one of them. As their part of the plot is destined to collide with Claire and Jamie’s, here’s hoping that intertwining of the show’s threads will bring some sense and satisfaction back to Outlander’s shores.
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.