Everyone’s favorite bigamist is back! And she’s having a very bad day.
As Outlander season two debuts, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser finds herself in the same Scottish stone circle that initially sent her careening 200 years into the past, scrabbling at the ground and screaming at an indifferent sky. She’s in 1948 again. Within minutes, she’s back in a hospital, acting surly and withdrawn, as though she had crossed over to the set of Girl, Interrupted. You would think she’d at least be pleased to reacquaint herself with modern conveniences like vaccines and indoor plumbing. She doesn’t even seem happy to see her loyal, loving (first) husband, Frank, whose only sin is that he resembles a certain 18th-century English sadist who tortured her equally loyal, loving (other) husband, Jamie.
Well, if it weren’t soapier than a car wash, it wouldn’t be Outlander. At its best, the show — along with the addictive Diana Gabaldon novels on which it is based — is a literate fantasy, in which a strong-willed, intelligent woman gets to have great sex and fantastic adventures in two very different time periods. At its worst, however, it’s clunky melodrama. “Through a Glass, Darkly” delivers dollops of both.
The first thing Claire does upon encountering a 20th-century stranger is to demand of him who won the Battle of Culloden. Because she’s in Scotland, a place that values its history to the point of fetishization, the man is surprised but nevertheless able to tell her that England was victorious in 1746. (If she were in America, a stranger chosen at random probably wouldn’t be able to tell her who won the Civil War.) Claire emotes again. Later on in the episode, when we finally leave the postwar U.K. and join up with a much more cheerful Claire and Jamie in 18th-century Le Havre, we find out why: She had planned to change the course of history by preventing the Jacobite uprising, which doomed the Scottish Highlands clans. Despite Claire’s best efforts, she apparently failed. More than 1,000 fighters still went to their death on the moors — and Jamie probably joined them.
Still, as “Through a Glass, Darkly” makes clear, Claire’s vain efforts will be the focus of Outlander’s second season. We’re going to watch as she and Jamie try to undermine the rebellion from France, aided by Jamie’s dour but trustworthy kinsman, Murtagh, as well as his cheerful cousin, Jared. They get an inauspicious start when Claire alienates a local nobleman: She diagnoses his ship’s crew with smallpox, and a harbormaster forces the nobleman to burn the cargo along with the ship to prevent contagion. Claire thinks she is working on behalf of the greater good, because Claire always thinks she is working on behalf of the greater good, but she’s made a powerful enemy at a time when she and her husband are trying to accumulate friends.
Going forward, at least she and Jamie will have the power of booze on their side. Jared puts Jamie in charge of his successful wine business while he sails to the West Indies, and who will want to bite the hand that’s filling their cup?
Though we know in advance Claire and Jamie won’t succeed in wining, dining, and subverting the political intentions of the 18th-century French elite, it’s hard not to prefer this story. It has high stakes, intrigue, excitement, royalty, and oh-so-many bodices just waiting to be ripped. The 1940s story line, meanwhile, has … Harvard? Well, Harvard and a heartbroken Claire trying to forget about Jamie while moving to Boston to become a staid academic’s wife.
Almost the only thing that the 1940s story line has going for it is Tobias Menzies. Last season, he was terrifying as the charismatic villain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, and now he’s somehow also compelling as Randall’s much more decent descendant, Frank. Very few people could stand up to Sam Heughan’s Jamie as a potential love interest — from the eyes to the abs, Heughan is a Harlequin cover come to life (and he can actually act) — but Menzies isn’t intimidated. Dapper and trim in his three-piece suits, Frank serves as a perfect foil, like a chilled white wine next to Heughan’s full-bodied red.
Luckily, the show’s IMDB page is here to reassure us: Even in France, our heroes have not managed to escape Randall, so we have plenty more Menzies — in both guises — to look forward to this season.
The episode contains one final twist: Claire reveals that she returned to the 1940s in what people would tactfully refer to as a delicate condition. Yes, as was first revealed in last season’s finale, Claire is still pregnant. After smashing up a garage in a fit of rage, Frank returns to Claire and tells her he wants them to be a family anyway. But is white wine really ready to raise red wine’s baby?