UK TV review: Outlander: Season 2, Episode 2 (Not in Scotland Anymore)
Ivan Radford | On 17, Apr 2016
This is a spoiler-free review. Come back after the episode’s release for additional, spoilery notes.
The title of Outlander Season 2’s second episode promises new horizons – and it certainly delivers on those fronts. Well, in the bedroom department, anyway. (If you’re now looking back at the word “fronts” and tittering at the unintended innuendo, this episode is for you.)
Sex has always been a commendably natural part of Outlander’s fabric, used both to reinforce Claire’s own authority and control in her life and to express the connection between her (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan). In Season 1, it was also a vital part of making us invested in Claire and Frank’s (Tobias Menzies) relationship. Here, that gentle echo becomes a more explicit nightmare, as we start with a surprising (and steamy) moment of intercourse that takes us back to the romantic days of Scotland, but also to the trauma of Jamie’s experience with Jack – nightmarish flashbacks continue in a way that’s genuinely unsettling and hugely effective.
That sets the tone for this chapter of Outlander, in more ways than one. Mostly, it reminds us once more of the show’s ability to unite the personal and the political – Claire’s torn emotions in Season 1 were directly intertwined with her torn existential and political state, just as her determination to change history is driven by her desire to save Jamie’s life. And so, after leaving the 1940s behind us in Episode 1 (the show’s continued willingness to change the books’ structure and tell the narrative in a way more suited to television is extremely promising), we move on to Paris with Claire and Jamie – where they move ahead with their political goals by day, but are pushed backwards, emotionally, by night.
What follows is a fancy piece of world-building from showrunner Ronald D. Moore and the team, which continues to find believable locations to conjure up French life and nails the transition to period continental dress. That sewing in of details is just as intricate when it comes to stitching together a new supporting cast – with the Highlands a distant memory, Season 2 now has to introduce a whole ensemble within which our couple can operate, and it does a fine job of it.
In no time at all, we’ve met Claire’s new friend, Louise (Claire Sermonne), who has a penchant for personal grooming a la mode (ouch), and Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day), the young English girl Louise is chaperoning about town. We also get a brief detour to a local apothecary, called Master Raymond (Dominique Pinon), who trades herbology tips with Claire. It’s hard to believe that her claim to be a professional “healer” would carry much weight abroad, but it’s an extremely fun conversation, with Pinon full of rubbery faced charm and smiling wit – it’s a demonstration of both the programme’s skill at casting these supporting roles, and of its careful use of characters to join up the stories. (Raymond, we realise, is also an enemy of Comte St. Germain (Stanley Weber), so we can hope for some entertaining potion-based plotting in the future.)
Likewise, Louise becomes a gate for our pretend wine merchants to ingratiate themselves with Paris’ social circles, from a ball at Versailles to a trip to a brothel. It’s in the latter, tellingly, that we first meet a royal figure, as Jamie and Bonnie Prince Charlie himself (Andrew Gower) bond over ribald women waving dildos around behind closed doors. Gower is a brilliantly snivelling Bonnie Prince, all entitled snobbery and boyish naivety – a fact that leaves Jamie struggling to sew seeds of doubt in his mind that Scotland might support the Jacobite Rebellion. It’s early days and who knows how their campaign will proceed, but we get our first sense here of the weight of history pushing back – in the most amusingly petulant form.
Murtagh makes for an entertaining contrast to Charlie’s youthful features, his grizzled, bearded groans and sighs saying more about Scotland’s reluctance to support outsiders as it does his excitement at the titillating fashion around him. He’s not quite as sleazy as Lord Joseph Duverney (Marc Duret), though, France’s Minister of Finance – and owner of the world’s most hilariously awful wig. Him crossing paths with the modern-thinking, forthright Claire is worth watching the episode for alone, as Balfe’s incredulous independence clashes with his muttering, sycophantic naughtiness.
But only one episode in, and Outlander Season 2 is already wheeling out the big guns, with the appearance of King Louis XV himself – in extremely comprised circumstances. It’s another conversation that Outlander smartly plays more for laughs than drama; it’s much easier for us to swallow this fantastical voyage through history while we’re chuckling at the exchanges. After all, only Jamie Fraser would introduce himself to a monarch with the word “porridge”.
That overly ripe dialogue is delivered handsomely by a cast who are clearly having a whale of a time – one of the best bits of the episode is just seeing a nonplussed Caitriona Balfe surrounded by excited women chatting animatedly about nicknames for the male member. The voice-over, though, remains a lingering problem, as we hear Claire describe her feelings in ways that are already obvious from her performance. “Even after several weeks, Paris remained a source of fascination,” she tells us, despite us being able to see that on her face as she looks out of a carriage window. The difficulties of running a house and business (also vocalised), meanwhile, are also apparent from her conversations with her maid.
Just as the show doesn’t always trust its leading lady to communicate her internal conflict to us, it also strains one step too far in trying to establish Paris for us: Episode 1 smartly restricted events to interiors and simple streets, but Episode 2 steps up the CGI one notch too far in trying to recreate Versailles’ expansive gardens (the extravagant ballrooms are enough to set the scene). With each new face foreshadowing future narrative strands, though, from duels with old friends and chess with new allies to, erm, fibre-heavy diets, this second instalment of Outlander’s second season makes it clear that the show has enough storytelling smarts to match its ambition – and enough surprises up its sleeve to continue blocking Jamie and Claire’s political battle with unexpected personal obstacles. Costumes, social scandal and smut? Outlander isn’t in Scotland anymore. And it’s making itself feel right at home. Allons-y!
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.