Photo: Starz

Outlander has a tendency to overpack its season finales to overwhelming proportions. That was certainly true of season three’s ending, a swirling clash of big events that left little room for reflection or ripple effects or the characters to really feel the full weight of the action. That’s not to say that season finales should be completely conclusive. Cliffhangers are, of course, welcome. But Outlander’s third season finale isn’t necessarily full of cliffhangers; rather, it throws so much at the characters with the whisper of a promise that we’ll see the ripple effects later, that all the processing and parsing out of meaning and emotional exhales will come eventually, when the show returns.

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And I should have trusted the show to untangle that overloaded finale and find its footing again, because now that it’s finally here, season four indeed delivers on everything that was missing in the season three finale, taking a moment to zoom in on Claire and Jamie and focus on character moments over action. In fact, there’s only really one big action scene, and it’s precisely because of how restrained and intimate the rest of the episode leading up to it is that it earns the right to go all the way out.

Season four sets Claire and Jamie on yet another new course, this time in North Carolina in 1767. As with any standout episode of Outlander, it hits an almost impossibly wide spectrum of emotions. It begins with Claire’s voiceover expounding upon the significance of the circle throughout time. A circle, as Claire herself notes, is a perfect symbol for Outlander. Time doesn’t follow a straight line for Claire and Jamie. Outlander then considers the circular shape of a noose, this one hanging in the square in Charleston, waiting to tighten its grip around Claire and Jamie’s friend Gavin Hayes, accused of murder (which he committed in self-defense). Yes, season four rather grimly begins with a public execution, one that unsettles deeply and defines the first act of the premiere, which is steeped in themes of death, trauma, and change.

When burying Hayes, young Ian starts having disturbing PTSD-like flashbacks to what happened in Geillis’ lair. With ghosts of his own, Jamie immediately recognizes what’s happening to the boy and advises him to talk about it openly, sharing that it was only when he spoke about his own horrors to Claire that he could finally start the very long, very complicated path toward healing. What unfolds is a candid and compassionate conversation between two male survivors of sexual assault—something I’ve never seen on television before. Jamie discloses to Ian that he, too, has been raped. There’s no macho veneer applied over any of this. Jamie warmly assures Ian that it wasn’t his fault, that he should not feel shame. It’s a raw and honest scene, and Sam Heughan commands it well.

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Claire, too, grapples with the traumatic events of season three’s conclusion. She almost died drowning in the ocean, and that has taken a very apparent psychological toll on her. Alone in a tent in the woods, she confides in Jamie about her fears. “We know how fleeting life can be,” she says. “All of this can be ripped away at any moment.” These fears and anxieties are of course exacerbated by her near-death experience, but Claire also taps into something else here, that feeling that can sometimes creep up when you experience true love, that underlying fear that good things end, that everything can change without warning.

But Jamie reassures her, reminds her that even though he felt like he died after he lost her the first time, he never stopped loving her. Outlander never leaves any room for doubt as to why Claire would go through such great lengths to be with Jamie, why she would give up a modern life and everything she knew just for more time with him. This show’s depiction of love and romance is so thorough and powerful that even in its most convoluted plot moments, the central couple keeps the show ablaze. This scene in the tent essentially boils down to two people just talking about how in love with each other they are, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.

And Outlander naturally does not waste the intimate lighting and confines of this tent. After their heartfelt talk, Jamie and Claire have passionate, sweaty sex in the woods. As if to say yes, we are alive, and yes, we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but fuck it all because we still know how to love each other and, most importantly, how to give each other simultaneous orgasms. Outlander doesn’t merely have one of the most convincing love stories on television; it continues to have the most alluring sex scenes—hot but not gratuitous, familiar but still exciting.

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Anchoring itself in its new surroundings, Outlander spends some time with the landscapes of 1700s North Carolina and dips its toes in some of the political ongoings of the time, including a mention of the Regulators, a group of North Carolina citizens that rose up against colonial officials. Claire futuresplains the Revolutionary War to Jamie, worries that if they stay and he accepts a parcel of land from the British that it means they will end up fighting on the wrong side of history. Jamie, with his pure heart, decides he wants to strive to make this country a bit better for his future daughter’s sake—a cute but rather futile mission unless he and Claire can somehow alter the entire course of history, something they’ve tried and failed to do before. Claire eventually tells him about the concept of the American Dream. Jamie, ever the naive and sweet ginger prince, asks what happens of the native people, and Claire has to explain that they’re driven from their land, killed, forced to live on reservations. “A dream for some can be a nightmare for others,” Jamie muses.

It’s a solid line, but Outlander does this a lot—tries to establish Claire and Jamie as morally superior to the people around them in a clunky and on-the-nose way. As I feared going into this season, Outlander doesn’t quite know how to handle the presence of slavery in its narrative. Of course Claire and Jamie are going to encounter slaves in their new home of 1700s America. And when they’re on the raft heading to visit Jamie’s aunt, Claire remarks to no one in particular that it’s cruel to have an elderly slave rowing the raft for so many hours on end. It turns out that the man is actually free, but if Claire really thought he was enslaved...suggesting that he get a break is literally the bare minimum for her to do. It’s barely anything at all. How about your strapping, strong husband row the raft, Claire?! For someone who’s supposedly opposed to slavery, here she is...literally benefiting from what she assumed was slavery.

And when the former master explains to Claire that he freed the man for saving his life, Claire remarks that he must be grateful every day, but because of the way the scene is shot, we can’t see who Claire is looking at when she says this. Is she telling the slave master that he should be grateful for having his life saved or is she telling the former slave he should be grateful for his freedom? I certainly hope it’s the former, but the fact that Outlander leaves it ambiguous is strange. Claire seems resolved to just go with the status quo and only speak up when it’s convenient for her, when the stakes are low. It reiterates that this is a story about a white woman traveling through time, and there’s something very believable about Claire’s relative complacency, but it’s still off-putting to watch.

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Outlander is truly a masterclass in chemistry, and I don’t just mean the carnal heat that radiates between Claire and Jamie all the time always. It mixes ingredients in precise combinations and quantities to brilliant, complex results. The alchemy of this show, one that blends genres, tones, and emotions so deftly, is truly dazzling. “America The Beautiful” hits so many of the right emotional beats and balances darkness with light. It pulls off an earnest, unapologetically romantic conversation between longtime lovers leading into a steamy sex scene. It pulls off a nuanced and gutting but ultimately cathartic conversation between sexual assault survivors. And it pulls off a huge, terrifying climax that blows everything up.

The sheer convenience of Claire and Jamie suddenly having a ton of money after selling the ruby certainly forebodes a change of luck. But Stephen Bonnet’s abrupt betrayal as he and his men lay siege upon the raft is nevertheless a shocking turn of events—perhaps because Jamie and Claire are so trusting and showed him such kindness by helping him escape that it’s easy to get swept up in their selflessness and want to believe that good actions couldn’t possibly lead to bad consequences. Bonnet is charming; he says all the right things to get Claire and Jamie—and us, by proxy—to trust him. And then his true intentions come bursting forth like a bomb.

Stylistically, Outlander makes some bold choices with this final sequence. All sound drops out except for the titular song, “America The Beautiful,” an eerie commentary on all of the contradictions and polarities of early American history, as if to say this is America—violence, manipulation, injustice. It all looks and sounds very different from Outlander’s usual style. Director Julian Holmes, after all, is new to Outlander (he also directs next week’s episode), but the dissonance also serves to underscore just how unexpected and devastating this development is. But Jamie’s words from earlier in the episode resonate: “Nothing is lost, Sassenach, only changed.”

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to Outlander coverage. As a gentle reminder, it’s fine to discuss the books in the comments, but just please give spoiler warnings where applicable as many people who watch the show (including myself!) have not read the books.
  • For some reason, I laughed out loud when Jamie informs Claire that they have to sleep in the woods and she responds immediately with “I don’t mind!” And he’s basically like “same.” It’s like these two know that a tent in the woods means romance and sexy time within this genre.
  • Bear McCreary’s theme music has gone through several transformations over the course of the series, and this new version heard in the premiere is another way the show grounds itself in its new settings, evoking early American folk music.
  • On the subject of music, going back to that final scene, Outlander is impressively discerning when it comes to how often and when it uses songs that have lyrics.
  • Everyone is so joyful over Fergus and Marsali being with child, a bit of lightness in the episode.
  • That thumb-on-lip move at the end of the sex scene...wow.
  • Will I ever tire of just looking at Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan’s faces? NAY!

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