Outlander swaps kilts for couture and bloody Scottish battlefields for French ballrooms in its second-season premiere. But it’s managed to keep all of the sex, scandal, and romance that had fans falling over themselves last year while giving its stars more to work with in the way of juicy storylines and meaningful character journeys. Forget the mind-numbing overload of costume porn (we’ll talk about that later), what makes the second season of the series based off the bestselling books by Diana Gabaldon — which follows a World War II British nurse thrust back in time to the 18th century Scottish Highlands — superior to the first isn’t the change in scenery or plot but the change in the characters themselves.
The second season picks up where the first left off, with Jamie (Sam Heughan) fresh from his torture at the hands of vicious British officer Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) pushing for the pair to venture to France in order to prevent the Jacobite Rebellion — an uprising she knows spells disaster for all of their friends back home because, well, she’s from the future.
Jamie’s still healing from his scars — both emotionally and physically — and a shout-out should go to the show and its writers (led by showrunner Ronald D. Moore) for not flippantly dismissing Jamie’s rape by ignoring the traumatic after-effects and psychological damage it would undoubtedly leave on the brawny Highlander.
Starz knows its audience and because this is a show with a dedicated and vocal fanbase (especially when it comes to spoilers) there’s not too much we can give away about the first half of the season. Book fans might know how season two will end but I guarantee the first episode will shock everyone. (The first 40 minutes of the premiere are especially jolting.) The show’s decision to deviate from the books by introducing a major time jump earlier than expected feels, at best, off-putting and at worst like a deliberate attempt to cause unnecessary anxiety for its viewers all for the sake of drama.
Instead we’ll focus on the Frasers, who, once safely in France, begin plotting how to undermine a cause while pledging loyalty to its leader at the same time.
In a bit of convenient timing, Jamie’s uncle Jared Fraser (Robert Cavanah ), a Jacobite supporter and wealthy wine merchant, is in need of someone to run his business while he takes a trip to the West Indies. The Frasers are able to use Jamie’s new position to gain entrance into French court and access to Bonnie Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower), the man hoping to stage this little war. The prince is an overgrown man-child with a major God complex — what King in waiting isn’t? — but he’s just clever enough to make the married pair’s mission difficult.
Because this is a period drama on cable, all of the important conversations tend to happen in a brothel. This seems a bit contradictory since the last place I’d want to plan a massacre is a room filled full of drunken men with loose lips and half-naked women parading gilded dildos around for purchase but hey, C’est la vie! (Or, more accurately, C’est la télévision.)
While Jamie’s living the high-life, betraying his countrymen and fending off women with low-cut bodices and moles painted on their faces, Claire’s playing housewife which, you guessed it, really isn’t her thing. Tired of having tea and watching ladies of the court get Brazilian waxes, or their 18th-century equivalents, in their parlor rooms, Lady Broch Tuarach makes herself useful by befriending a drug dealer — sorry, apothecary owner — who will probably come in handy later thanks to his knowledge of poisons and the like. She also volunteers her time working with nuns at a local hospital. Who knew cleaning up pus and sipping urine like you’re at a wine tasting could be so fun?
There’s plenty to laugh at this season, despite the heavy intrigue and more layered dialogue. Duncan Lacroix, who plays Murtagh, finally gets more of a spotlight and it’s when he waxes poetic about missing the mud of Scotland and France smelling like a chamberpot that we realize just how much Jamie needs a bro who tells it like it is. There’s also a scene involving the particular struggles of a king’s bowel movement that makes absolutely zero sense but then again, watching some guy try to dump one out on a golden throne in front of a roomful of people is never not a good plot filler.
What really works for Outlander in its second season besides the lavish dresses star Caitriona Balfe seems to don in every scene (sorry, still sporting a fashion boner here) is its leading trio. I say trio because, though Tobias Menzies’ role has been pared down, in the scene-that-shall-not-be-named he proves why he’s the most underrated part of this series. Jamie and Claire are the stars, however, and Balfe along with Sam Heughan play them more comfortably this second time around.
While fans hoping to see some chest-heaving, bodice-ripping, rug-humping action get their fill a few episodes in — I kid you not, a good five minutes is dedicated to the sweet pillow talk that is Jamie marveling at Claire’s newly-bare lady bits — it’s the mounting tension between the two brought on by Jamie’s rape and the double-life they’re leading at court that makes the show worthy of a watch. We’re used to seeing Claire in a position of power (or at least knowledge), yet here she’s thrown into an environment where she’s forced to sit somewhat on the sidelines and rely on her husband to steer the course of history.
For Jamie, ruffled collars and pretentious dinner parties aren’t what he’s used to either. He goes against his moral compass in lying to his would-be king while still reeling from what happened back at Wentworth prison. It all comes to a head in a scene between the married pair after Jamie’s frequented a brothel (this time just for fun) and Heughan and Balfe play the moment grippingly. The two have obviously grown in their familiarity with their characters and each other and the chemistry between them is even more intense this season.
Of course the show does have some flaws. Jamie has always been painted as good-natured, honest, perhaps even a bit innocent and naive throughout the series, so it’s understandable that lying is something he’s not fond of. But after about the fifth time complaining to Claire — who’s also lying to everyone and having to wear corsets while pregnant — I found myself frantically searching for a violin. We get it. Lying’s wrong. You don’t like it. Can we move on to where you back-stab your king and betray your country now?
As for Claire, her entire struggle, at least for the first half of the season, comes from adapting to her new role. She’s a modern woman and life on the run in Scotland let her hold on to her independence, up to a point. In France, she’s sidelined to sitting rooms and deep-plunging ball gowns. Still, it seems a bit absurd for her to complain to her apothecary master about being fearful of leading a conventional life. Girl, you’re from the future and you’re trying to change the course of history. I think conventional flew out the window a long time ago.
Ultimately though, season two of Outlander carries just as much action and excitement as its predecessor with plenty of romance, scheming and bloody good fun thrown in. It’s nice to see a show that could have been pegged as just another period romance push past its comfort zone by focusing less on juicy love scenes and more on the ever-evolving motivations of its main characters. Season two feels like a different show and in an age of television where reinvention is often the key to a longer shelf life, that’s a good thing.
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.