“Outlander” is back on Saturday! This is great news, only slightly marred by the fact that the Season 2 is loosely based on Diana Gabaldon’s second book, which is — how do I break this to you? — less carnal than the first.
A shallow complaint this may be, but come on, one of the things that made this breakout Starz hit so popular was its steamy, feminist rendering of the relationship between time-traveling WWII nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and hotheaded 17th-century Highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the latter of whom was the blushing virgin on their wedding night.
But then again, maybe that complaint’s not so shallow. Balfe has spoken about how much of an impact the show’s female screenwriters — and female author of the source material — have had on the tenor of the scenes. Particularly in the show’s raciest episode, the wedding, these women and the episode’s female director made all the difference, Balfe has said.
So it feels like a loss that sex doesn’t play much of a role in the first episodes of Season 2, of which I’ve viewed four episodes. Fortunately, there’s plenty of other action going on, not to mention a Parisian setting that makes even the gorgeous, Highlands-shot Season 1 look drab in comparison.
A quick primer: Claire and Jamie have come to Paris following his escape from Wentworth prison, where he was brutally assaulted by Black Jack Randall. As Jamie lives with the trauma of that event, he and the pregnant Claire move into an aristocratic mansion belonging to his wine-trader cousin, where they plan to work their way into French high society, befriend Bonnie Prince Charlie — Charles Edward Stuart — and somehow undermine his plans for the Jacobite uprising that will, as Claire knows from the future, wipe out the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
It’s a lot of history, and I will admit that reading “Dragonfly in Amber” made my eyes glaze over repeatedly. The show is much better than the book in this respect, in particular its portrayal of the unreliable Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower, who looks uncannily like portraits of the real man). Seeing Gabaldon’s minor historical characters fleshed out in Ronald D. Moore’s sprawling, scrupulously set-decorated epic makes them — for this viewer, anyway — far more compelling than they were on the page.
But the through line of the show — Claire’s experience as an “outlander” in unfamiliar earlier times in which women are often more glaringly second-class citizens than in her own era — continues as boldly as ever, as she and Jamie adjust to life as Parisian socialites and erstwhile spies. Their marriage, sex aside, is as nuanced and egalitarian as ever, and Balfe and Heughan have a terrific chemistry that makes them unfailingly fun to watch together.
Unfortunately for Claire, society being what it is, Jamie is the one who gets to do most of the juicy sleuthing, meeting with Charlie in brothels and playing chess with noblemen while she’s left to run their enormous house and its staff of servants. Claire, of course, goes out of her mind with boredom, and takes a job volunteering at a charity hospital. (If you’re pus-averse, her bedside scenes may be your perfect opportunity for a bathroom break.) Playing the role of the head nun here is the fabulous Frances de la Tour, who looks at Claire as if she can sense her secret; likewise the owner of the pharmacy (Dominique Pinon) whom Claire consults for various herbal concoctions.
The show is as generous with intimate, weird historical trivia as it is with breathtakingly beautiful costumes and opulent settings. In one scene, Claire visits a high-society friend who’s casually getting her everything waxed while carrying on a conversation. In another, dildos make an appearance at a brothel where Jamie is drinking with Bonnie Prince Charlie. And when our couple visit Versailles, Jamie is invited to watch the king himself — sitting on the toilet, in front of a large crowd of onlookers.
It’s all fascinating, but as far as our heroes and their chemistry goes, nothing much doing, not in the early episodes, anyway. This is largely because of Jamie’s PTSD: He can’t keep Jack Randall and the rape out of his head, which is killing their sex life. That the show doesn’t have him simply get over it is both more realistic, and true to the languid pace “Outlander” has actually always had — let’s not forget the slow burn of the first season. This is a show that’s meant to be savored, not devoured. In an era of binge-watching, that’s actually a welcome change of pace, though I won’t complain when these two finally get things going again.
“Outlander” Season 2 premieres on Starz on April 9.