This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 2, Episode 1
Outlanderis a show that is totally comfortable moving at its own, lingering pace. This is in full display in the first half of the show’s season 2 premiere, which takes its time indulging in the heartbreak of Claire and Frank’s tragic situation. He loves her. She loves Jamie. He happens to look exactly like someone who tried to rape her and who did rape her husband. The situation isn’t anyone’s fault, but that doesn’t make it any less intractable. These be the breaks when you accidentally travel through time.
But something else Outlanderhas also always been good at is understanding that life must go on. Life does go on. Claire’s heart may be back in the 18th century, but she doesn’t have the power to travel back there. One of the things that makes Claire such an admirable, realistic romantic heroine is that she is unflinchingly aware of the things she can and cannot control, and plans accordingly. She doesn’t allow delusions of how she wishes her life would be to obscure her understanding of what her life actually is.
This character trait is in full effect upon her return to 20th century Scotland. She doesn’t initially confide in Frank, nor Reverend Wakefield, but rather Mrs. Graham. Sure, some of this probably has to do with Mrs. Graham’s proven belief in the mystical, but a lot of it seems to have to do with the way men and women are taught to socialize — who is allowed to be empathetic and compassionate and who must be stoic and “strong.”
While Claire shares her memories of Jamie with Mrs. Graham in the garden, Reverend Wakefield and Frank stay inside of the ordered, relative darkness of the house discussing the nature of fatherhood and how Frank might try to gain back control of the situation. Frank is haunted by the things he cannot control, while Claire recognizes them and vows to move on. This is a different, perhaps more impressive kind of strength.
Readers of Outlanderbooks will note that showrunner Ronald D. Moore decided to change the time travel structure. Dragonfly in the Amberbegins not in 1948, but 1968, when Claire is bringing her daughter, Briana, back to Scotland on holiday. It is Briana and a grown-up Roger Wakefield (aka the adorable little boy in 1948 who prompts Frank and Reverend Wakefield’s conversation about fatherhood) to whom Claire tells the story of her and Jamie’s rebellion-stopping shenanigans in France.
I think I would have preferred to keep the frame tale aspect of this story in 1968 rather than 1948. As riveting as it is to see Frank and Claire’s first meeting following her return to the 20th century, there’s not much to do in this specific time period past that. The episode lingers a bit too long. I can see what the story was trying to do: reintroduce us to the character — and perspective — of Frank after so long away from him.
The instinct isn’t a bad one and it isn’t entirely unsuccessful, but it feels wasted if we will, presumably, not return to 1948. If 1968 is our next 20th-century destination, then why not start there? We not bring Frank along on that emotionally-revealing 1960s holiday to Scotland? We could have learned everything about Frank and Claire’s post-time jump relationship — i.e. that they decide to make a go of it, with Frank raising Claire and Jamie’s child as their own — from the state of their 1968 relationship.
Many of the weakest parts of this premiere episode came in Outlandertrying to give us Frank’s perspective quickly and complexly. But, when we got to spend so much more time with Claire and Jamie over the course of lasts seaosn than Frank, who faded in prominence in the second half of the season, it is nigh impossible. We understand where Frank is coming from, but we don’t know this Frank. Not anymore. He has obviously changed in the years of Claire’s disappearance. And, in that mean time, we have seen a man with the same face, his ancestor, do unspeakably cruel and sadistic things. We viewers have been changed, too.
We can make assumptions into what Frank’s life might have been like during those intervening years from his comments: Others treated him as if his wife had ran off with another man. Even Frank must have had some doubts, even if he didn’t believe that possible of Claire. But Frank believed in his future with someone enough to have his ferility tested. And how did that news of his infertility affect his state-of-mind? We see a frustrated, heartbroken, betrayed Frank almost hit Claire, which does nothing to ingratiate him back into the hearts and minds of the viewers (at least this one).
The episode does a good job of creating a sense of emotional distance in the 20th century. As was the case when Claire first traveled back to the 18th century, the 20th century feels like an alien world. For Claire, it is too loud, too judging, too Jamie-less. When we flash back in the narrative to 18th-century France, the dirty chaos of the docks are somehow warm and welcoming. After a season introducing both Claire and the viewer to this strange, centuries-dead world, this feels like home.
Claire doesn’t waste anytime making enemies in France, her strong sense of justice causing her to get involved in a smallpox outbreak on the docks. Things might not be easy — Jamie, Claire, and Murtagh are trying to change the course of history, after all — but they are imbued with familiarity and a sense of family that the 20th century was lacking. More than that, they are imbued with a sense of purpose for our protagonist. Where she was adrift, rudderless in the realization of the life she could not have in the 20th century, Claire is a woman with a cause in the 18th century. Though her marriage is haunted by the specter of Jack Randall, it is still a happy one. It has hope — a hope reflected in her unborn child. A hope that spills over to her history-changing mission, inherent in the knowledge that she could change the future.
If Claire’s 20th century reality is made claustrophobic by the sheer weight of things she cannot change, then Claire’s 18th century reality is buoyed by the sense of the things she can. Claire may ultimately fail in her mission — the 20th-century context tells us that — but her 18th century self does not yet know that. Yes, this gives the storyline a sense of tragic dramatic irony, but its nascent optiism is still infectious. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts. Nothing stays gold for long on Outlander.