When Outlander returns to Starz for its fourth season on Sunday, it does all the things that we’ve come to expect from Outlander.
It shows us the improbably beautiful Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), whose romance has literally transcended space and time, loving on each other the way anyone involved in a relationship with either of these perfect human specimens would undoubtedly do. It places Claire and Jamie in yet another new setting — since the series has reached the Drums of Autumn portion of Diana Gabaldon’s book series, it’s North Carolina circa 1767 — where they must establish a home and ingratiate themselves with the locals. (This time, the locals include Native Americans and other New World immigrants who resent the Native Americans for encroaching on what they perceive as “their” land. American settlers: totally misunderstanding the immigrant experience since the 1700s!)
The fourth season features gorgeous views of the then-unsettled and autumnally picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, and also places Claire in tons of fingerless knit gloves and meticulously wrapped thick shawls. (If you can watch Outlander without wanting to be ensconced in a blanket while drinking hot tea, more power to you.) And lest you be concerned that no one will fall ill in the forthcoming 13 episodes, take heart: People still constantly get sick on this show, enabling Claire to work her herbal and elixir magic as a healer and, in most cases, coax them back to good health.
In short, this season of Outlander is still highly Outlander-y, which will be heartening for its many fans to hear. But it’s also not without moments that drag and some choppy narrative transitions. The season opener, “America the Beautiful,” is the most listless installment of the six episodes provided in advance to critics, in part because it doesn’t introduce a compelling conflict. Every story is driven by a problem of some kind, but the new obstacles designed to keep Claire and Jamie apart (or prevent them on some other front from fully enjoying happiness) are too transparently constructed.
After the first episode — in which they begin to head toward River Run, the North Carolina estate of Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta (the wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy) — I was worried that the stakes might not be high enough to give season four adequate momentum, now that Claire and Jamie are firmly reunited after spending part of the uneven third season apart. It also doesn’t help that the premiere closes with a betrayal by a fellow traveler that leads to a violent confrontation scored anachronistically to Ray Charles’s “America the Beautiful.” It’s an odd choice for Outlander, which usually maintains the spirit of each time period it occupies. Obviously, the point is to convey that America will not necessarily live up to the promise it represents. But the sequence is a bit too heavy-handed, even for a show that isn’t exactly subtle.
Fortunately, things improve from there. When Claire and Jamie first visit River Run, they almost immediately find themselves disagreeing with Jocasta about how to deal with that whole nasty business of owning slaves, and they later move into Cherokee territory with perpetually wide-eyed Young Ian (John Bell) to establish a permanent home they dub Fraser’s Ridge. It’s not surprising that Outlander casts our hero and heroine as, at least philosophically, on the right side of history. One might question whether that’s realistic, though. It’s understandable that Claire, who has recently traveled here from civil-rights-era Boston, is uncomfortable with the notion of owning black people, something she makes known to both Jamie and to his aunt. As a “modern” woman, she also might have a more enlightened perspective on the way Native Americans are treated in America’s earliest days. But would Jamie? The series argues that he sees a kinship between the Native Americans and his own Scottish Highlanders who had to fight off British redcoats, and that Claire’s influence allows him to recognize what’s so morally wrong about slavery. But Jamie is a white man who has never set a toe in the 20th century. It seems like ingrained prejudice would still, at the very least, percolate beneath his surface.
The last thing Outlander wants at this point, though, is to villainize or overcomplicate its protagonists, which is both a negative and a positive. More nuance would certainly do Outlander some good and deepen its impact. But it’s also true that the key pleasures of watching the series come from surrendering to its romantic, adventurous sweep and enjoying Claire and Jamie simply being in each other’s presence. (The chemistry between Balfe and Heughan, who remain snugly and satisfying immersed in their characters, continues to crackle.) When faced with a choice between becoming a drama that unflinchingly confronts history and serving as period-pace escapism, Outlander is always going to lean toward escapism. This show knows what its own strengths are and it sticks to them, even when that hurts its credibility on matters like slavery and racism.
Time travel, which is what brought Claire and Jamie together in the first place, has not been back-burnered either. Starting in episode three, the season begins to show us what’s happening in 1970, where Brianna (Sophie Skelton), the daughter of Claire and Jamie, is still situated along with her Scottish boyfriend Roger (Richard Rankin). The two, whose chemistry, I’m afraid, is no match whatsoever for the sparks between Bree’s parents, find out some information that suggests one or both of them may try to fire up the flux capacitor at Craigh na Dun later in the season.
That means there will be more decade-hopping, more of Clare being torn between her life in the past versus the one she built with her daughter in the future, and more of Claire and Jamie snogging in a way that speaks to the timeless beauty of love and also every viewer’s loins, which obviously will be aflame while buried beneath several layers of quilts and afghans. (I’m telling you: If you’re watching this show without swaddling yourself in a blanket, you are doing it wrong).
Outlander is back, and it’s going to keep on Outlander-ing. Everyone who loves it can take comfort in that.