If you were lusting after a fresh display of tartan kilts and misty green mossiness in anticipation of the second season of Outlander on Starz, you might, at first, be a tad dismayed. The action in the early episodes, which begin airing on Saturday night, is set primarily in 18th-century France, where our heroes Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) have relocated, the better to stop the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, which was not a healthy picnic for the Highland people: “tens of thousands of lives and the future of Scotland” are at stake, says Claire in the premiere, to clarify with blunt simplicity the new season’s narrative purpose.
Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s source novels will know that this shift is roughly in keeping with the arc of the books, and very quickly, any Outlander TV fan is likely to become hypnotically lulled into satisfied submission by the succession of gorgeous clothing Claire wears as a titled woman in Paris. (Indeed, costume designer Terry Dresbach almost deserves some new kind of co-creator credit, so prominently do her imaginatively lush dresses serve to establish the setting, mood, and presentation of Balfe as a glowing star.)
There’s a lot less sword-play and a lot more mental gaming in the opening hours made available for review, and without giving away too many details, Outlander’s implicit feminism finds a new way to establish itself. Claire must, initially, play a more meek, even subservient public role to Jamie as they insinuate themselves into French high society, but she soon finds a way to assert herself in a manner that will, I think, please her ardent supporters. There’s also a good showcase for Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall, still pining for his time-traveled wife.
At a time when everyone takes seriously comic books, true-crime potboilers, and seemingly every other pop-culture sub-category that sixty years ago would have been considered low-brow junk, it is the significant achievement of Outlander to seize upon a genre that remains one of the very few still thought of as wispy if not trashy — the romance novel — and treat it with energetic artistic ambition. Whatever low opinion still persists about the romance novel is rooted in sexism, and while women such as Gabaldon have done a lot to shame the shamers, it’s a little ironic that the TV version of Outlander has been overseen by a man, Ronald D. Moore. Moore has already one big genre-redemption under his belt, having re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and made it the thinking-person’s sci-fi television series. Together, Gabaldon and Moore have done the same for what we used to call bodice-rippers.
Outlander’s appeal remains focused on the interplay between Claire and Jamie, a union of two very different people joined in mutual attraction, lust, and a meeting of the minds. No matter what country they’re in, they’re the duo that’s the twosome with the mostest.
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.