Great love stories live or die by their timing. When do you meet the person? Are they already in a relationship? Is it the right moment for either of you to commit? And that’s just the beginning of the story — timing continues to play a huge role in whether two people can actually make things work, long-term.
So it’s no wonder that “Outlander,” one of TV’s most intriguing love stories, is also obsessed with time, especially in Season 3. This is, of course, a literal obsession, given that this adventure began when former combat nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) fell through a crack in reality and found herself transported from 1945 to the 18th Century, where she ends up falling in love with rogue Scotsman Jamie (Sam Heughan).
However, the show is always smartly engaged with the fact that the best characters are those who are changed by events and time, just like real people. And Season 3 takes that theme even further, capturing the journeys of two lives over a span of decades.
To think of “Outlander” in romance novel terms undercuts how much the show aims to root the show’s toughest moments in real human complications. This isn’t at all to disparage classic romance novels, but the genre is a form of storytelling that emphasizes emotion over dense plotting and complications that aren’t resolved by the end of the story. Meanwhile, “Outlander” dives deep into all the aspects of Claire and Jamie’s mutual worlds which both bring them together and drive them apart.
“Outlander” has at times been a searing drama about sexual assault, a comedic farce, a war story, a supernatural tale, and a political thriller, and Season 3 doesn’t lack for those aspects. However, in many ways Season 3 is also a mystery in its own right.
In Season 2, Claire returned to her future after approximately three years in the past, believing Jamie to have died in the climatic Battle of Culloden. But at the end of the season, after 20 years have passed, she regains hope that he might just have survived that battle and could still be alive in her past, if the amount of time which has passed for both of them is the same. (One of the best/worst things about “Outlander” is that while it keeps its approach to time travel relatively simple in comparison to other narratives, at this point in the series, the rules still feel a bit up in the air.)
Claire’s newfound hope, as well as the events which occurred in the 20 years skimmed over by the Season 2 finale, drives Claire’s storyline for many of the six Season 3 episodes provided to critics. Meanwhile, Jamie’s own quest for survival, as a man persecuted by the English government for being a rebel and a “stinkin’ Papist” in the 1700s, runs concurrently with hers, dosing the show with bloody violence and harsh truths about life in those brutal times.
The drama for both of them is heartbreaking in its own ways. When Claire returned to the 1940s and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) while pregnant with Jamie’s child, it had a major impact on their already uncertain marriage. And as “Outlander” pushes us through the years into the “Mad Men” era, the show pulls no punches in showing us the full impact that Claire’s time away had on both her and Frank. Meanwhile in the past, Jamie’s physical and mental scars only get worse; even when met with touches of kindness, his life without Claire is truly a difficult one.
The ultimate question generated by all this — will Claire and Jamie eventually reunite? — is one that wouldn’t be fun to spoil. Devoted fans of the books by Diana Gabaldon probably have a good sense of the answer already, thanks to how executive producer Ronald D. Moore has always been extremely loyal to his source material.
It’s that loyalty to the books which makes talking about “Outlander” in a completely spoiler-free context complicated: While things, of course, have been changed in minor ways, readers have known that certain events from the third book, “Voyager,” will take place during the third season. (Just say the words “the print shop” to them and see how they react.)
However, this might be the most brilliant touch of Season 3: Because “Outlander” is still deliberately a love story, audiences can go in with the expectation that the show’s central couple will see eventually each others’ faces, in one way or another. But here’s what keeps “Outlander” forever gripping: Nothing ever happens easy. And nothing ever happens the way you’d expect, or when you might think. The end result is a rapturous experience — a blend of fairy tale and real life that defines the best, most authentic love stories, the ones that keep us on the edge of our seats.
This is a show that’s grown and matured since its initial premiere in ways that defied our initial expectations. It was, after all, first announced by Starz as “a time travel romance.” We didn’t know how much both romance, and time, could make us feel.