The sweeping, verdant vistas and wide shots of battle fields that often fill the frames of Outlander are mostly absent from its third season, at least in the initial few episodes. After a season two that partially played out like a war movie, the latest chapter in the time-jumping saga often retreats into interiors, as Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the hunka hunka Scottish Jacobite who’s still in the U.K. circa the 1700s, ducks into hiding, and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), having taken the Stones of Craigh Na Dun train back to the 20th century, buries herself in home life and research that may help her determine what happened to her beloved after she left him prior to the Battle of Culloden.
It’s appropriate that the hero and heroine in this absorbing adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novels are so often depicted in more confined spaces than usual, a reflection of the fact that their separation has put up walls around their hearts. That physical and temporal distance between Jamie and Claire serves as both a positive and slight negative in the early part of season three; because Heughan and Balfe have such magical chemistry on screen, there’s a sense that something vital is missing from those first few hours. But that feeling also heightens the sense of anticipation that comes from watching Claire ponder the possibility of returning to Jamie while putting together the puzzle pieces that could lead her back to him. (Is it too spoiler-y to suggest that a reunion between them is inevitable? No, I don’t think it’s too spoiler-y, especially not when Gabaldon’s books exist in the world.)
As Outlander resumes and turns away from the war strategizing that characterized much of season two, it feels like a different, but no less compelling show, and one focused, to my delight, more on personal relationships than political conflict. Much of Claire’s story unfolds in the 1960s, and evokes that more contemporary (relatively speaking) period in ways that can be amusingly jarring given how accustomed we are to hanging out in the 18th century. As a general rule, one doesn’t turn on Outlander expecting to hear the theme song from Batman or see characters watching Dark Shadows on TV. But during that era we’re also able to observe what’s become of Claire’s strained marriage to Frank (Tobias Menzies), who has stayed with his wife to raise Brianna (Sophie Skelton), a daughter conceived by Claire and Jamie after she jumped through the space-time continuum. Frank knows he will never be the love of his spouse’s life, and he never quite gets over carrying that knowledge. Menzies, who played Frank’s ancestor, Jack Randall, with such flashes of menace in previous seasons, really rips the band-aid off his character’s resentment in some fine dramatic scenes with Balfe.
Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Jamie recuperates from his experience at Culloden and forges relationships that will prove crucial to his story going forward, particularly with Sir John Grey (David Berry), who becomes a powerful ally and, like practically every living, breathing individual who crosses paths with the man known as Red Jamie, not-so-secretly attracted to his new friend. Of the two parallel narratives that unfold in the first five episodes, Jamie’s is the more eventful and, because of when and where it unfolds, the one that feels more in keeping with the Outlander sensibility.
The least interesting characters in the show at this point reside in Boston in the Vietnam era, including Joe (Wil Johnson), a doctor and colleague of Claire’s who is essentially a human ping-pong table, i.e. he exists purely so Claire can bounce thoughts and feelings off of him, and, I’m sorry to say, Brianna, who functions more as a device to make Claire feel conflicted about leaving the present than a fully fleshed-out human being we genuinely care about. It doesn’t help that Skelton’s performance is often stilted, something that sticks out even more when she’s in the company of actors who so naturally embody their characters. (To the casting directors’ credit, every time you look at Skelton, you do see hints of Sam Heughan, although even more than that, I see a dead ringer for Michelle Dockery. If someone doesn’t cast her as the daughter of Lady Mary Crawley in some future incarnation of Downton Abbey, they are doing it wrong.)
Ultimately, though, what matters most in Outlander is the relationship between Claire and Jamie, and our relationship to each of them. Balfe and Heughan, the couple with the most enviable curls and bone structures on television, simply glow in front of the camera, even as they convey their characters at their most melancholic. Both of their performances feel deeper and more emotionally resonant than they have before. Without revealing too much, I’ll also note that episode six is a can’t-miss installment of this series, both for die-hard fans and anyone who believes that television has lost all its sense of romance. For real: you may want to block off some time on your Google calendar for a cold shower after watching that one.
This season, Outlander has wisely been moved from its Saturday night perch on Starz to a 9 p.m. Sunday slot, the one that, just a couple of weeks ago, was occupied on HBO by Game of Thrones. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence. While Outlander is a very different series than the one set in Westeros — for starters, its blood runs far warmer than Game of Thrones does — its ambition, sweep, and forays into brutal violence and explicit sex suggest that in the Venn diagram of current television, there should be some overlap between its viewership and the millions who tune into the Jon Snow Show every week. Perhaps this season will finally prove that to a greater extent. Outlander is already considered a phenomenon to those who have fallen under the spell of the books and this exceptional adaptation. In its third year on TV, it feels primed to break through even wider, not just as a filler of the Game of Thrones void, but as an emotionally rich, powerful piece of storytelling in its own right.