Outlander Season 2 Finale Review: Dragonfly in Amber

Outlander delivers its best episode ever by embracing the tragedy of time travel and history you can't change.

Outlander Season 2 Finale

This Outlander Season 2 finale review contains spoilers.

Outlander Season 2, Episode 13

I’ve written before about Outlander‘s ability to be more than one show — the bold, gloriously reckless way in which it flits from genre to genre without so much as a commercial break. Sometimes, it’s a romantic fantasy. Sometimes, it’s a historic war drama. Sometimes, it’s a relatively straight time travel drama. In those most glorious episodes, it is all three. “Dragonfly in Amber” was one such episode.

It all came together in tonight’s season 2 finale. The specter of Claire’s inevitable trip back to the 20th century has been hanging over Claire and Jamie’s love story for the entire season, and Outlander finally took the plunge — giving us what may be the show’s best episode ever. This may be my time travel narrative bias showing (after all, we all have our favorite genres in the genre-mash, right?), but Outlander is at its best not when it is focuses specifically on Claire and Jamie’s love story (though that is, of course, at the heart of this narrative), but rather the tragedy of Claire being ripped through time, and the strength our heroine shows in moving forward no matter what.

Brianna Fraser

Brianna (Fraser) Randall is all grown up.

“Dragonfly in Amber” opens with a clip from the 1960s Avengers TV show, immediately cluing viewers into the fact that we are not in Kansas — er, 18th-century Scotland — anymore. As we’ve seen previously on the show, Outlander is just as adept at creating a distinctive ambience for other non-contemporary timelines as it is at grounding us in Highlander Scotland. You’d never now that this was Outlander‘s first time visiting the 1960s, so lovingly does the show ground us in this specific time and place.

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It helps that we’re given (mostly) new characters to get to know and to see this new world from — namely, Claire’s daughter Briana. Brianna is kind of a brat — but in a believable sort of way. In the way that you might expect from a privileged young woman who grew up as the only child to two doting parents and who currently has the world as her oyster both at Harvard and in her Scottish travels. It’s believable that she would be annoyed with her distant mother and be swept up in the chase for the truth, never really stopping to think about the weight of that truth — either for her grieving mother or for her own grieving self.

Of course, appreciating Brianna as a good, believable character didn’t preclude me from wanting to reach through the television and shake Brianna sometimes when she was yelling self-indulgently at her poor, heartbroken mother. This is to be expected for a character who is not the audience surrogate. We’ve been through so much with Claire; we are still inside her head. The Battle of Culloden is fresh in our minds because it is literally being intercut with Brianna’s Scottish adventure. To Brianna, this is just a game. She is still a child. To Claire, this is life and death and love and heartbreak. This is personal, intractable history (even if Bonnie Prince Charles is taller).

If this were TV series pilot for 99 percent of female-driven shows currently on television, Brianna would probably be the young, witty, Nancy Drew-type protagonist trying to solve the mystery of her own identity. And her mother would be there, too — a supporting, mysterious character who isn’t so much a character in her own right as a plot device to help us understand something about Brianna. But this isn’t the TV’s pilot and Brianna isn’t our heroine (yet). Claire is still the character we relate to and defend most of all, which makes Brianna come off as a spoiled brat at points — which is not the same thing as saying she is a bad character or someone I didn’t love seeing on screen. It’s another way of saying: I can’t wait to see her character grow up from this point. I can’t wait to see this character being to understand what her mother went through and where she came from.

Geillis Duncan

Smashing the Bechdel Test.

When I say Outlander can often feel like a different show from episode to episode, it isn’t just in its genre-mashing. It’s also in other narrative dynamics: such as which characters get to play main roles. Part of the reason why “Dragonfly in Amber” was so refreshing was because it gave us a great mix of new and familiar characters — many of them female.

Outlander gets touted a lot as a feminist show and, in some ways, it is. Most notably, it has a complex, flawed, far-from-stock-character female protagonist. It also has love scenes shot from the female perspective. However, one feminist box Outlander often doesn’t tick is relationships between women. Sure, you’ve got Claire’s relationships with Louise or Mary or Mother Hildegarde, but — more often than not — Claire’s social interaction is most developed when it comes to the men in her life, and that’s a shame. This was especially true during the war drama arc in the middle of season 2, which saw Claire hanging out mainly with the dudes of the Jacobite army. Sure, she’ll hang out with the occasional random nurse, but said her dynamics with Jamie, Fergus, and Murtagh are all better developed and, therefore, more interesting.

That all changed in the season 2 finale, which saw Claire’s maternal relationship with Brianna as the most important dynamic of the episode, but also saw the return of time traveling anarchist Geillis Duncan (or should I say Gillian Edgars?). Geillis may have seemed in her element in 18th century Scotland (you know, before she got burned as a witch), but it turns out Geillis can demand the attention of a crowd no matter what century she’s in. When we first reencounter her, Brianna stumbles upon her nationalist rally at a local college. Here, she is still Gillian Edgars, but we can see the same wild-eyed determination Geillis would later demonstrate in her efforts to get Claire off of the witchly hook, as it were.

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Running into Geillis again gives the same thrill of excitement we felt in season 1’s “The Devil’s Mark” when Geillis revealed to Claire that she, too, was from the future, moments before being led to her death. It’s that thrill of time travel, of having one more piece fall into place and seeing something that has happened before take on greater meaning. I want to go back and watch all of the Geillis scenes over again knowing what I do about her nationalist campaigning, her domestic life, her research into time travel, and her (totally unnecessary) decision to sacrifice her husband in order to travel through the stones. That feeling proves Outlander is doing something right.

Roger Wakefield

The Importance of Being Roger Wakefield (MacKenzie)

Roger Wakefield is an understated, but all important character in “Dragonfly in Amber.” The episode even starts with him, Roger drawn into that episode of The Avengers in the kids room during his father’s funeral. It’s the funeral that draws Claire (and with her Brianna) back to his corner of Scotland, but it’s apparent from the way Roger was staring at the screen at the start of the episode that this man is looking for an adventure to pull him out of his grief.

Roger and Brianna’s early flirtations and friendship is fun to watch, but it’s Roger’s scotch-laced conversation about death that stood out as one of my favorite scenes of the night. How do you say goodbye to the person who means the most to you? Roger asks Claire, pleading for guidance in the early, terrible days of his father’s not-aliveness. Claire admits she has never been terribly good at goodbyes, but that — at a certain point — it doesn’t matter. The person who is gone is gone whether you figure out how to say goodbye or not. For much of the episode, even if we viewers sense it won’t stick, Claire is trying to figure out how to say goodbye to Jamie. It comes in her visits to the various, crumbling sites that were so important in their story and it comes in Brianna’s demand that she know the truth. Ultimately, of course, Claire doesn’t end up having to say goodbye at all.

Dougal MacKenzie

The Death of Dougal MacKenzie

Before we get to that suspenseful conclusion, let’s talk about what went down circa the Battle of Culloden because, even with everything else that was going on in 1968 Scotland, we still managed to get the conclusion to what has been the bulk of the season 2 story arc: Jamie and Claire trying to avert the battle that would spell the end for Highlander culture forever.

In the hours leading up to the battle, Jamie and Claire are increasingly panicked, but Claire has one last, crazy plan: they could kill Prince Charles. No king, no Jacobite rebellion. It’s not a terrible plan as far as plans aimed at changing history go; it is, however — as Jamie points out — cold-blooded murder. Claire and Jamie have made a lot of morally questionable decisions in the course of trying to evade this very battle, and it says a lot about how much Jamie not only loves, but trusts in Claire’s stories of the future, that Jamie basically agrees to go along with it.

Before the two can enact any plan, however, Dougal interrupts them, accusing Claire of being a witchly whore and planning on killing both husband and wife for their betrayal of the Jacobite rebellion. Dougal is obviously still reeling from the death of his brother and from the exhaustion the last few days (not to mention months) of fighting has wrought on his already delicate temperament. Still, this feels like a major jump to make in an episode that doesn’t show us Dougal up to this point. For such a shocking, game-changing event to be shoehorned into an episode primarily focused on other things was one of the only narrative missteps the Outlander season 2 finale took. R.I.P., Dougal. I’ll miss your battle cries the most.

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It says a lot about Outlander‘s unique priorities that, after a season of building up to this battle, Culloden isn’t even shown. It doesn’t matter, really. That’s not what this story is about. It’s about Claire and her love for Jamie and the tough decisions she has been forced to make. Ultimately, Jamie convinces her to go back through the stones for the sake of their unborn child. (Yes, Jamie has been keeping track of her menstrual cycle because he is going for the Best Bodice-Ripper Boyfriend Award for the second consecutive year and he will not be thwarted.)

Jamie and Claire’s goodbye scene is perfectly heartbreaking. The two make love in front of the stones while the first shots of Culloden are heard in the background. These two are giving Romeo and Juliet a run for their money when it comes to starcrossed lovers. They have the young, foolish Shakespearean couple beat, however, when it comes to the three “S”s: scheming, stubbornness, and sex. In their final moments together, Jamie walks Claire back towards the stone almost as if she were a child. He knows that, if she has to face a future without him, she might not choose it — even if it means risking their unborn child. As is the case with much of the dramatic irony Outlander spins like Rumpelstiltskin on crack (and, just ask The Time Traveler’s Wife, the best time travel stories are chock full with dramatic irony), this moment manages to have its cake and eat it, too: it is heartbreaking to see these two say goodbye, but we viewers also have a sense that this isn’t the end for Jamie and Claire…

Jack and Kate

We Have to Go Back, Kate

Yep, that’s a Lost reference. No, the reveal that Jamie survived the Battle of Culloden isn’t as much of a shock as Lost’s reveal that we were seeing flash-forwards and Jack and Kate had left the island, but that didn’t make Claire’s episode-ending declaration that she was going back to 18th century Scotland to find the man she loves any less fist-pumping. Frankly, I half expected (slash hoped for) her to make a break for the stones right then and there. Instead, we must wait until season 3 to see any more time traveling adventures.

Ultimately, however, I am left with the all-too-rare construction of Outlander‘s time travel. So many time travel stories these days seem to utilize the parallel futures idea, the theme that you can change the past if you try hard enough. These stories may be more empowering in some ways, but, more times than not, the most affecting time travel narratives are the ones that don’t let their characters get off the hook so easily.

Claire is an agent of change in the world of Outlander, she isn’t one to sit back and let things happen to her, but she is not superhuman. She isn’t special in any Chosen One way. She has to play by the rules of cause and effect, just like any other human on the planet. She cannot stop the ones she loves from dying. Sometimes, though, she is very lucky, which is where the magic comes into Outlander‘s mash of gritty realism and romance-driven fantasy: She was lucky enough to find Jamie, and a love she says is stronger than any emotion she has ever felt before. And she is lucky enough to have a chance to reclaim that love. Bring on season 3.

Memorable Quotes

“Have you been?” “Once. Didn’t much care for the place.” — Claire, on Fort William

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“I’m a history student. I like watching history be made.” — Brianna

“They’ve taken a fool, turned him into a hero.” — Claire, on Prince Charles Stuart

“Goodbye, Jamie Fraser, my love. Rest easy, soldier.”

“I said I won’t have you dying for nothing.” “I won’t be. I’ll be dying with you.” — Jamie and Murtagh being best friends.

“Are you a Fraser?” “Yes, I am.”

Rating:

5 out of 5