Outlander Season 3: Does the Battle of Culloden Live Up to Expectations?

Outlander continues to avoid romanticizing war — with one notable exception — in its bloody Season 3 premiere.

Outlander is a TV show known for its romance, but, for those who actually watch it, there’s an important distinction to be made between the topics Outlander chooses to romanticize and the ones it refuses to.

Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager, the novel on which Outlander Season 3 is based on, know that the next chapter in the Outlander story includes a climactic fight between Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) at the Battle of Culloden.

Given all of the pain and violence Randall has inflicted on Jamie, this confrontation is a big turning point for Jamie’s character arc and the show in general. This fight also happens to be a major part of the Outlander Season 3 premiere, which premiered last night on Starz. (Here’s our full review.)

“So we basically begin the season at Culloden,” teased Menzies at San Diego Comic Con in July, where the episode was first publicly screened. “We see the encounter at Culloden between Jamie and Black Jack.” Menzies categorized the encounter as “surprising, actually” and “not entirely what people expect from it,” adding:

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[It’s] what I think we’ve tried to do all along with the relationship between those two is kind of constantly invert cliché or like surprise the expectation. I hope we’ve done the same with this.

Speaking about the scene to Collider, Sam Heughan said: “It’s a slight departure from the books, which is that, obviously in Diana’s book, Jamie doesn’t remember the battle. And actually, in the battle, Black Jack Randall appears, and there was sort of the final showdown between them.”

Heughan named the Battle of Culloden, along with the episode that sees Jamie years later as “just a shadow of a man,” the most difficult to film this season. “Cullodon is colossal,” he said. “It was like being in a war movie. In a sort of second World War movie. It was great fun. It’s probably the biggest action thing we’ve done.”

It’s true. The encounter between Black Jack and Jamie is novel in its depiction of the climactic battle, even as it sticks close to the events of the book. Most reassuredly, as with the books, this show is not interesting in giving us yet another sugar-coated, glory-driven depiction of war. In Outlander, romance is saved for other subjects.

The Outlander Season 3 premiere wastes no time reminding us of its particularity when it comes to doling out its romantic framing. While the entire hour of television is mesmerising, an emotional roller coaster that rarely lets up on exploring the complicated, tragic situation Claire, Jamie, and Frank have found themselves in, it is the premiere’s first 10 minutes that especially pack a punch, asking viewers to stay with Jamie as he suffers through the immediate aftermath of the terrible Battle of Culloden.

This battle not only marks the beginning of the end of the Highlander way of life, it is the end for many of Jamie’s loved ones. Here, however, the historical context doesn’t matter as much as the immediate physicality of the horrors. Jamie’s perspective of the Battle of Culloden is told not in a linear, matter-of-fact fashion, but rather in glimpses of painful memory Jamie recalls as he lies clinging to life following the battle. Here, he is not a man loved by a rare woman. He is simply one more in a pile of broken bodies — English bodies, yes, but mostly Scottish. 

Outlander is not a show that glorifies war — it glorifies romance, sure, but it gives us combat not as a test of glory, but rather the senseless hacking up of bodies. It is a kind of pain where time has no meaning. While minutes or hours pass in Jamie’s world, months and years pass in Claire’s. 

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We may believe in the Jacobite rebellion after Season 2, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see the waste in where it eventually ends. This is more a massacre than a battle, Scottish men sacrificing themselves for a hopeless cause. Outlander revels in the disappointment of that waste, in the horrific senselessness of war… until it doesn’t, yet another example of Outlander‘s unmatched ability to shift tones and, in this case, romanticize a subject it previously depicted with such clear-eyed grittiness. Never let it be said that Outlander doesn’t know how to have its cake and eat it, too.

When Jack Randall comes onto the field of battle, the tone shifts somewhat. The fatigued desperation of war is still present, but the scene takes on some of those more romantic elements Outlander so usually avoids when it comes to its scenes of bloodshed. While the encounter between Black Jack and Jamie is still part of a larger montage that highlights the PTSD that comes with witnessing the horror of war, there’s something else here, too.

The frame blooms into softer pinks and blues, the scene of battle goes from one of horrific, desperate death to the more artistically-rendered field of battle common in oil paintings hung in institutions to celebrate our most murderous pasts. There is romance here, perhaps because it is already something Jamie has contextualized (after all, these are Jamie’s reimagining of the encounter, not just the war itself). And, after everything Jack has done to Jamie — his torture and rape — Jamie can remember this battle however the hell he wants.

If Jamie is to lie, frozen and half-dead amidst the bodies of his countrymen, then he will at least have this and Outlander, the show that so ardently refuses to romanticize war or battle, will give it to him.

Read our full review of the Outlander Season 3 premiere, “The Battle Joined,” here.

Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!

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