'Outlander' Season 2: TV Review
Season two of the Starz series changes scenery but maintains its epic, engaging sweep.
That Starz was able to take Diana Gabaldon's historical romance books (which are also time-traveling books and burgeoning feminist books and...the whole thing is ambitious) and turn them into Outlander, a kind of genre-blending epic that helped make the pay cable channel a bigger player in the scripted field, was one of last season's biggest industry (and series) achievements.
The show made rising stars out of Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire Randall, a British WWII nurse who falls through time and lands in 18th Century Scotland; and Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, the Scottish clansman who meets her on the other side and saves her from the clutches of the terrorizing British soldier Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), who looks exactly like Claire's 20th-century husband Frank Randall (also Menzies), because they are, in one of those awful mind-bending twists, clearly related — something that causes all kinds of woes when Claire pops back up in 1947. Pregnant. And now Claire Fraser, Jamie's wife. Got all that?
Menzies — who is terrific in his dual roles of old evil and modern-day sweetness — was already established, but the series put Balfe and Heughan on the map. Together, this trio and a large supporting cast made the first season a successful romp, going from love story to war story and back to time-travel story, warping Claire's devotions, clanging her ahead-of-its-time feminism squarely against Old World Scottish traditions and then topping the whole thing off with a what-the-hell-just-happened, male-on-male revenge rape.
Split into two halves, Outlander was all over the map in season one, but mostly in a good way and only slightly jarringly, ranging from lighthearted banter to bloody confrontation and intriguing gender battles, upsetting the cart of expectations rather nicely. All told, even though Outlander could be slow, it managed to weave a better-than-expected tale out of what were often dismissed as "historical romance books for women"; it was a sexy little epic that defied expectations.
It will be interesting to see how season two does, not only because it's departing from Scotland at the outset and decamping in France, where Claire and Jamie are working to thwart the Jacobite rebellion because Claire knows it will fail, killing thousands of soldiers and wiping out the Highlander culture — but also because the mood seems drastically different.
Of course, being in France as opposed to the forests and muddy glens of Scotland, you'd expect that. But nonetheless it's a fundamental change. On the plus side, it's a moving feast of fashion and if costume designer Terry Dresbach isn't talked about extensively for Emmy consideration, something went horribly wrong. Beyond the fashions and the shift toward French high society (Claire and Jamie meet the king, conspire with British royalty and generally muck about with elites), the core story is subterfuge and political chess, which doesn't — at least in the early going — have the same sense of physical battle as season one.
Basically the brawn has been reduced and Outlander plays a more mental game — as Jamie (and Claire) try to recover from the torture and rape from the finale in ways that start to wreak havoc on their marriage. Also, both of them, so used to torment mixed with sweeping drama (their lives are basically sex, weeping and displays of loyalty), are now put in roles they are uncomfortable with (Claire feeling useless in high society and Jamie stressed about trying to stop a rebellion that, at his core, he's really all for and will end up fighting — and dying — in if they can't change history). Jamie's weighed down by enormous mental machinations and that might not be what season one fans want to see.
On the other hand, you can see how creator Ronald D. Moore is pulling the audience's strings by playing up the fashion (Balfe has never been more ravishing in these amazing costumes) and embracing the change (as any ambitious creator would).
And you don't have to scratch the surface much to find that Outlander embraces naughtiness as it winks at modern-day pubic hair removal and historical dildoes, among other gestures meant to remind you that sex is a byproduct of romance. So the show keeps some traditions from season one alive.
But the move to France will be huge. And there are odd time jumps and plot movements here and there that really prove how much that voiceover narration from Claire is really needed. Not all of these are good things.
And the season kicks off with some big-time revelations for Frank (which should prompt everyone to conclude that Frank needs more screen time). Menzies, meanwhile, remains a vastly underrated actor; he really does a fine job of reminding the core audience — who love the Claire-Jamie storyline — that, "hey, she's actually my wife in the present world and I miss her dearly."
They are not deal-breakers, exactly, but it will be interesting to see if season two can match (or exceed) the lofty achievements of season one. Perhaps the important thing to know is, despite these shifts, Outlander remains as sweeping and addictive as ever, which goes a long way.
Cast: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Tobias Menzies
Created by: Ronald D. Moore
Based on the books by: Diana Gabaldon
Saturdays, 9 p.m., Starz