How Outlander Seduced Us All Over Again

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire. Photo: Aimee Spinks/Starz Entertainment, LLC

The end of this week’s episode of Outlander is delicious. It’s a headlong rush into “finally the good parts again,” and the episode concludes with the kind of scene that makes you want to clasp your hands together and wriggle like a puppy. After time apart from one another that can be measured in decades, in centuries, and in five whole TV episodes, Claire finally travels back through the stone circle and reunites with Jamie. It’s been long in coming for Outlander’s third season, and it’s a relief to feel like the show is back in its wheelhouse once again.

But the time away from Jamie and Claire’s relationship hasn’t been wasted — far from it. Instead, the intervening time has been a careful narrative dance, teasing and suggesting and priming the audience for the reunion that would come. It’s taken a relationship that had already been consummated and turned it back into a seduction. And where the first season’s giddy seduction was between Jamie and Claire, this second seduction has been between the show and the viewer. It’s worked. I’m in love again.

Romances have a problem, especially in the context of a long-running TV series: Your characters get together, and then the will-they-won’t-they tension is gone. Outlander (both the books and the TV series) deals with the post-union doldrums by throwing a lot of other obstacles in Jamie and Claire’s path, complications ranging from witch trials to the prevention of a cataclysmic war to a lot of sexual assault. Their trust of one another waxes and wanes as their personal motives diverge.

But the show’s second season struggled to balance their relationship with the dozen other stories it tried to tell. There were highlights, but many of them were muffled by two significant flaws. The first one, and probably the more insurmountable issue, was that Outlander got caught in a time-travel tangle that seriously hampered everything from its internal logic to its interpersonal emotional stakes. But the deeper difficulty was that it couldn’t figure out what to do with the central relationship. Jamie and Claire were together, and they loved one another, but Outlander had a hard time finding any kind of momentum in their shifting marital tension. The best moments of the season were about the subtle builds of frustration and release between them, and those small scenes tended to get lost in the movements of armies and the byzantine court intrigue.

Season three has had no similar issue with momentum, although it may have seemed that way at times. It’s been full of things that may have felt like unnecessary, extraneous stuff. Jamie out in the woods, hiding from the British, and endangering his family. Jamie in prison, chatting up Lord John and turning away his advances. Claire in Boston, attending medical school. Jamie fathering a child out of wedlock, becoming enmeshed with this British family. Roger, digging up ancient history. It’s been kind of a slog, to be frank. (And this isn’t even getting into all the stuff with Frank.) But it’s been purposeful. We’re not just running quickly through the years that separated Claire and Jamie. We’re understanding the people they’ve become and the pain they’ve experienced. We’re learning about lives they’ve led.

And we are primed for their reconciliation. Everything is pointed in that direction, and even if you somehow missed the promos for the season showing Claire walking down an 18th-century street, or if you haven’t read the books, the structure of this season leaves little room for doubt. Why continue to follow these two people in their two separate lives if they’re not coming together again? Why bounce back and forth between the two stories, weaving them together in our heads? What else could this show possibly be heading toward? The certainty of their reunion is written into the season’s central conceit.

But Outlander has been holding back. It’s been seducing us all again, hinting and teasing about the inevitability of Claire’s return and then making us wait. The fifth episode is masterful at this, almost to the point of cheekiness. Roger returns, produces the crucial knowledge of Jamie’s whereabouts, and then … he and Brianna chat about history while wandering under some attractive archways. Roger watches Dark Shadows. Claire has a chat about some skeletal remains. Claire agonizes about leaving Brianna behind, receives permission and absolution from her daughter, and then still doesn’t go right away. They have Christmas! There is an entire montage of Claire constructing a dress, set to the Batman theme! It seems like this reunion will never come.

If it were just simple withholding, though, we’d all lose our minds and give up in frustration. Instead, the effectiveness of Outlander’s fifth episode allurement is the product of a thoughtful, controlled dance between moderation and excess. We’ve been moving so slowly, making such painstaking, tentative steps through Claire’s reluctance to even tell Brianna they’ve found Jamie, through these careful scenes where mother and daughter come to an understanding. The episode could’ve ended with Claire’s decision to go back. But, no — here we go, marching forward through the leisurely Christmas scene, then barreling forward through Claire’s montage, and then the farewells. The episode could’ve ended here, with Claire setting off for the stone circles again. But with one simple, almost gleefully direct cut, it’s done. Claire’s stepping into a 1960s taxi, and next she’s stepping out of an 18th-century carriage.

What felt like digressions and side stories and dawdling for four and a half episodes suddenly goes charging forward, sweeping us along with it in glee and disbelief. Another end point comes, as Claire opens the door to Jamie’s shop, and still we keep going. Another potential end, as she sees him for the first time, but no, we get even more, all the way up through her line, his look at her, and her apprehensive smile back at him. It is a narrative shape we all know by heart: the first parts feels so hesitant and measured, and then everything happens all at once, in one plunging, sprinting dash. And finally, just as it seems the sequence is going to ignore every good cliffhanger opportunity handed to it on a platter, Jamie collapses and we cut to the credits.

It’s not that this has been a romance of remarriage between Jamie and Claire — that will need to come next, as they come to terms with the people they’ve become in their time apart. Instead it’s been a romance of remarriage between the show and the viewer, a slow and exacting give and take of satisfaction and frustration, holding our two players at a distance for so long and then finally uniting them in one glorious, adrenaline-fueled thunderclap.

It is a reunion and a re-seduction that the show earns, and hopefully it will give the series lots of material for what comes next, as Jamie and Claire’s relationship once again needs to shift from “when will they?” to “what happens now that they have?” But for now, the first part of this Outlander season has been a delightfully effective reminder of just how good this show can be, and how fun it is for a TV show to actively court our attention. Too often it feels like television can either patronize its audience or willfully repel it, putting up walls and being deliberately opaque. Outlander has been wooing us. It’s really nice to be wooed.

How Outlander Seduced Us All Over Again