Outlander begins the second half of its first season on Saturday night, to the vast relief of millions of fans and the business division of Starz, which has never had a hit that’s inspired such devotion. The series, based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novels and overseen by producer Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), is a canny mixture of romance, fantasy, history, adventure, violence, sex, Druids, kilts, time-travel, and unkempt hair. In short, it has everything.
When we last left Outlander, way back in September, the wild-maned Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) was in the 18th century-Scotland clutches of the dastardly Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), with her husband Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in hot pursuit. What a distance we’d come from the start of the series, in which World War II nurse Claire lived in 1940s England with her scholarly husband Frank Randall (also played by Menzies) before she was transported back in time.
I’m well into these new episodes, and can tell you without spoiling anything that it’s likely the second half of the season will fully satisfy the Outlander audience. These new hours place Claire’s inner struggles as centrally as the first half of the season did her outer struggles to adapt to the world of a bygone era. Claire is now, in effect, married to two men (Frank and Jamie) and is less sure than she once was that she ought to get herself back to the 1940s as soon as possible. The new episodes only deepen these struggles for Claire, as well as containing some harsh spanking, death by cyanide, and a wonderfully foppish performance by Simon Callow as the Duke of Sandringham.
The best decisions Moore made in adapting Gabaldon’s books to TV is to avoid condescending to the material, and to get excellent directors such as John Dahl and Toni Graphia to give the show a look and pace that’s both lush and swift. It would have been easy to make Outlander a campy soap opera; instead, it’s pulp fiction grounded in historical context and lifted by its time-travel twist to a level of intricately clever imaginativeness.
It helps, of course, that Balfe is such a compelling presence, completely convincing as an intelligent person swept away by extraordinary circumstances, living by her wits and not resistant to the power of romance without ever getting all weak and swoony about it. Where other characters in the latter half of the season will let slip the occasional “My nipples harden like acorns” comment, Balfe’s Claire admirably avoids similes and metaphors. When she and Jamie have sex, by God, they have good, improper sex, and by the almighty power of Starz, the camera does not cut away with anything approaching discretion.
In much the same way — well, actually, in quite a different way — Outlander continues to be a good show about improper times that provides an ever-growing audience with the kind of escapism that keeps bringing you back to reality.
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.