Outlander
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Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser has lived in many times and places over the course of Outlander’s second season. In the beginning of the season, Claire and Jamie were wealthy wine merchants in Paris, moonlighting as political schemers trying to dismantle a rebellion from within. But when they realized history is much harder to change than they thought, they went back to their lives in the Scottish Highlands, joining the very rebellion they were trying to stop. I write often about Outlander’s ability to balance and blend many genres at once. Season two has been even more successful than the first in that endeavor. So much has happened this season, and the show has taken varying approaches to its production design, writing, tone, and structure episode-to-episode, bringing different aspects of the show to the surface.

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As the rebellion gathered steam, Outlander’s historical and political scope grew significantly. But never once has the show lost its voice, lost its essence, even while bouncing around different times, places, genres, moods. Because Outlander is a show so deeply rooted in and driven by its characters. This season of Outlander has piercingly portrayed the intricacies and contradictions of war, rendering death as something both deeply personal and depressingly indiscriminate. And all the while, Outlander has been a visual masterpiece. But it isn’t one of the most immersive dramas on television because of its gorgeous cinematography. It’s one of the most immersive dramas on television because it populates those sweeping landscapes, those gory action scenes, and those steamy sex scenes with compelling, visceral, deeply human and imperfect characters who, like the show, don’t fit into any fixed category. Its supersized and ambitious season-two finale relies on those characters and their relationship dynamics to make an otherwise chaotic narrative come together. Fantasy may be one of Outlander’s many genres, but its depictions of violence, grief, trauma, and love are far from fantastical.

After trudging through the lead-up to Culloden all season, the fated battle arrives at last. But “Dragonfly In Amber” doesn’t just stick to Culloden and Claire and Jamie’s last moments together in 1746. The finale also brings us up to speed on Claire’s life after she returned through the stones back to Frank. We last saw Claire returning to her own time in the season premiere, and the finale jumps forward to 1968. Claire’s a surgeon now, sporting a 60s long bob with scattered gray streaks. She has a daughter named Brianna, a history student at Harvard with Jamie’s hair, smile, and determination. Sophie Skelton makes her debut as the highly anticipated character, and even though I can’t speak to how her Brianna lives up to Brianna in the books, I was immediately struck by just how perfect the casting was. Skelton expertly brings elements of both Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan’s characterizations of their respective roles. Her performance makes Brianna really seem like the offspring of Claire and Jamie, and that familiarity is crucial to making the character work here, because we barely get to spend any time with this new character before we’re thrust into an emotionally tumultuous storyline centered on her. But Skelton brings the same vivacity to the character that Balfe often brings to Claire and the same playfulness Heughan brings to Jamie. Brianna’s flirtations with Roger (Richard Rankin)—another patiently awaited character debut—inject some levity into the heavy, grim finale.

It’s hard not to wish there had been a little more world-building leading into the 1968 timeline going on throughout the season. Several times, the 1968 scenes here refer back to events from the season’s premiere. Outlander doesn’t do too much handholding when it comes to these far-reaching references, but that ultimately ends up being a good thing. There’s simply too much for this finale to get through, and there isn’t time for the show to more thoroughly bring us back to the time and place we saw Claire in during the season premiere months ago. “Dragonfly In Amber” makes use of every second, and when characters do refer to past events—like the witch trial of Claire and Geillis—they do so succinctly and without making it just seem like a recap. In fact, throughout the episode, Claire hears voiceovers play in her head—dialogue we’ve heard before from Jenny, Jamie, Frank. It’s a simple and fairly obvious framing device, but it pulls us back into the past and gives us that same eerie nostalgic feeling that Claire feels during her reunion with Scotland. Notably, Claire’s own voiceover is absent from the finale. As a result, it all feels a little more urgent, a little more in the now, even as we keep jumping back to the past.

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While the Culloden scenes all happen within a very tight timeline, the 1968 scenes unfold much more leisurely. That structural dissonance runs the risk of making “Dragonfly In Amber” feel overstuffed and disorienting, but the script—co-penned by Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts—is tightly executed and never once veers into chaos. There’s clear and effective intention behind the varied pacing. The scenes at Culloden all take place over the course of only a few hours, which brings all the tension and urgency of the battle day to the forefront. The 1968 scenes allow more breathing room to make the full weight of Claire’s grief and of Brianna and Claire’s confrontation really land.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the time-travel aspect of Outlander. It’s so rarely talked about on the show, and while it’s certainly indelibly linked to the show’s premise, it isn’t really the foremost driving force of the plot. But time-travel bubbles up to the surface of “Dragonfly In Amber” when Brianna goes digging for the truth about her parentage. Claire finally tells Brianna the truth about Jamie, the stones, all of it. And for once, Claire’s met with doubt. Brianna’s headstrong like both her parents, and she doesn’t buy her mother’s “fairytale” at first. It isn’t until she sees the stones in action for herself that she realizes the truth.

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And on that note: Geillis Duncan is back. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, I’ve been waiting for this moment even since Geillis was ripped away from us during the witch trials. The Geillis reveal is nothing short of grandiose, but it’s totally deserved. There she is, a Scottish nationalist by the name of Gillian Edgars, slightly younger than the Geillis Claire knows because she hasn’t quite yet made her journey through the stones. But she’s still the same electric and charming husband-killer we know and love. And even though she doesn’t share the screen with Claire, the implications of their relationship still play into the story, with Claire desperately trying to save Geillis from the pyre this time around. She’s too late though, and Outlander’s fatalism persists.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on in this finale. It certainly earns its feature-film length. But the mother-daughter drama, the burgeoning romance between Roger and Brianna, the final desperate and bloody acts that lead into the Battle Of Culloden, the time-traveling, the history lessons—they’re all connected and heightened by the finale’s most lasting and prominent force. It’s the same force that keeps this story alive. I’m talking about love—true, unconditional, full-bodied love. Whenever I think or write about Outlander’s depiction of romance, I start to feel a little corny. But you know what? There’s actually nothing corny or indulgent about Outlander’s depiction of love. It’s just as grounded and real in its depiction of love as it is in its depiction of all its other major themes.

It’s the kind of love that isn’t often seen on primetime cable television, which largely prefers infidelity, betrayal, abuse, and darkness to steadfast love. Outlander is dark and violent just like the rest of today’s prestige dramas, but it believes in love, too. The kind of love that defies time and space. The kind of love that can’t be broken, even through the horrors of war, death, trauma. “What Jamie and I had was a hell of a lot more than fucking,” Claire erupts when fighting with Brianna. She’s right. Outlander has become known for its very hot, very pleasure-driven sex scenes, which are remarkable for their emphasis on female desire and pleasure. But again, it’s a lot more than just fucking. Claire and Jamie fucking love each other. Jamie loves her so much that he kept track of her menstrual cycle amid all-out war. That detail serves as a testament to Outlander’s subversiveness as well as to the connection between these two characters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male character on television say anything to a female character about her menstrual cycle that wasn’t negative or played for laughs.But Jamie and Claire are no ordinary television couple. They’re on equal footing with one another, equally devoted, and equally willing to make sacrifices for the other. Jamie suggests he would let Claire die with him if not for the child she’s carrying.

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So they have to say goodbye. The whole finale is an emotional hurricane, but that goodbye scene by the stones is especially powerful. Like a dragonfly in amber, it’s beautiful and harrowing all at once. There isn’t even time for a proper goodbye. Everything about their final minutes together feels rushed. The sex they have is tinged with desperation and anxiety. Outlander isn’t just a remarkable romantic show; it’s a remarkably violent one, too. So it’s fitting that Claire and Jamie are so violently torn apart by their circumstances. Claire and Jamie knowingly listen to the sounds of war in the distance. It’s a farewell that almost defies language. Indeed, neither of them even says “goodbye,” something that Claire later laments as she speaks to what she believes is Jamie’s burial spot. The writing is so strong, and Balfe and Heughan are so present, so evocative. Over the course of covering this show, I’ve almost run out of ways to say how great they are—individually and together. To sell the kind of love Outlander believes in, it takes two powerhouse actors, and Balfe and Heughan are the real deal.

The finale ends on a hopeful note—the stones of Craigh na Dun quite literally lighting up as Claire discovers Jamie survived Culloden after all. It’s far from a happy ending by any means, and it hardly dulls the blow of all the anguish that comes before it. But again, it reflects Outlander’s notable and unrelenting sense of romance. Claire and Jamie were not exactly successful in changing the course of history. There are some things they do not have control over, including their own lives. But the connection they share is not so easily broken. It can even withstand something as inescapable as the passing of time.

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Stray observations

  • “Truth is, I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye,” Claire says to Roger near the beginning of the finale. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, the words rang particularly true for me—as a person who is also not very good at saying goodbye and as a person who must now say goodbye to writing these reviews for TV Club. As most have heard by now, weekly coverage at The A.V. Club is being significantly reduced (you can read more about that here). So while Claire will presumably return to Jamie at the end of the “droughtlander” next season, TV Club coverage of Outlander will not return. I love this show so very much, and I’m sad that coverage is coming to an end.
  • Dougal’s death scene is also great. When Jamie can’t quite overpower Dougal on his own, Claire comes through with the assist. I guess they really, truly are partners in all aspects of life, even when it comes to murder.
  • I’m surprised Claire didn’t have the idea to kill the prince earlier.
  • Brianna and Roger could both hear the buzzing at the stones, suggesting that the ability to time-travel is hereditary. Does that mean they’ll be joining Claire on her journey back?
  • There’s really stunning cinematography and direction throughout, but I especially love that fade from Brianna’s hair to Jamie’s.
  • The scene between Roger and Brianna at Fort William also stands out. The world-building on this show is so strong that places like Fort William cary so much weight and history with them. Brianna feels a chill when visiting Fort William, and that same unsettling feeling is palpable to us as viewers because we’ve seen the horrors that have happened there. The Outlander writers are really great at putting us in the same headspace as the characters.
  • I hope to see more Gillian/Geillis in season three. I’m always hoping for more Lotte Verbeek.
  • I hope Fergus survived his journey as well.

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