Given that “Outlander” is a feast for the senses, why not dwell on a single image from season two?
One day while visiting the gardens of Versailles, Claire Fraser leans over a floral display, wearing one of the most gorgeous 18th century ensembles ever seen on any screen. As she delicately sniffs the arrangement, she wears a wide straw hat bedecked with flowers, and sports a fitted light brown dress artfully decorated with blossoms in complementary colors. Striped poles hold up the bright awning that shields the bonbon-laden table she lingers near, and despite the rich tableau of flora, food and fabrics, nothing clashes. It’s a vision from a Louis XV haute couture pictorial, color-saturated and sublimely framed.
It’s hard to resist the urge to stop and bask in the kind of sumptuous imagery “Outlander” supplies regularly in its second season, which is an improvement on its strong first go-round. A lavish dinner party full of crystal and silver and a stunning red dress worn by Claire to another Versailles assembly offer more gorgeous details to drink in, and are worthy recipients of the freeze-frame treatment. But it would be a mistake to assume the show is interested in the “let them eat cake” concerns of aristocratic one-percenters.
The high-society life is, in part, a ruse: In season two, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her Scottish laird husband Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) have borrowed a Parisian relative’s home and taken over the management of his business in order to play strategic games with the elites of the era. And while the show’s agenda dwells on political revolutions, it quietly initiates a pop-culture one of its own: In the way it approaches storytelling and sensuality, “Outlander” has proved itself to be one of the most subversive series on TV.
The clever ruse begins with its packaging. “Outlander” falls into a few different television genres: It’s a sweeping romantic epic and time-traveling historical saga, and it also features the killer gowns, embroidered waistcoats and barbed drawing-room banter of high-gloss period dramas. Like executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s previous show, “Battlestar Galactica,” this one fulfills its genre requirements efficiently while quietly building the foundation for a story that is much more admirably rich and ambitiously humane than it first appears.
To dismiss “Outlander” as “the show with a lot of sex” rather spectacularly misses the point. Lots of programs, especially on pay cable, display writhing bodies and people with great abs getting busy. The mechanical couplings on most of those shows follows a script so rote that it feels as though a couple of centuries have passed since pay-cable sex actually felt edgy, and it almost never seems real.
“Outlander” is different — truly, thoughtfully different. It shouldn’t be revolutionary that it is forthright and honest about female desire; it shouldn’t be unusual that its depictions of a woman introducing a man to various sexual pleasures are sweet and never infused with a sense of adolescent nervousness or condescending mockery. It shouldn’t be odd that women — well, one woman — isn’t an object in this story, but a flawed and believably contradictory subject. There are more memorable female characters on TV than ever these days, of course, but few of them can be found on ambitious dramas that look like a million (or several million) bucks.
Claire’s 18th-century husband is also something of a unicorn on the TV landscape. Sure, Jamie fills out a kilt nicely, but his most beguiling qualities do not reside in his musculature but in his curious and open heart. He likes learning from his wife, whether it’s in bed or at a dinner party. Too many dramas, even post-Golden Age, feature men in competition with each other; Jamie and Claire work and play as equals, but she’s often a little more equal than him, which doesn’t bother him a bit. Despite the fact that she’s driven and stubborn, the show does not reflexively try to take her down a peg for displaying her thornier qualities; sometimes, in fact, they draw the men in her life even closer.
Despite its reputation for sauciness — and it does have fun this season with scenes featuring historical sex toys and the very personal grooming habits of high-level aristocrats — “Outlander” has never shown sex for its own sake. As is the case with the songs in a memorable musical, the couplings always derive from character journeys and usually move relationship stories forward.
In fact, the show’s treatment of sex is really of a piece with its beautifully lit interiors and spectacular locations (it’s stunning to learn that none of the new season was shot in France; locations in Scotland, England and the Czech Republic doubled for 1740s Paris). The way “Outlander’s” directors lovingly frame the Gothic arches of an ancient hospital, the use of color and texture in a Parisian shop filled with herbs and potions, and the warmth of a mahogany table lit by candlelight all bring palpable pleasure — and that is actually the point.
The TV version of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels is founded on the idea that sensuality isn’t just an outlet or a relief, but key to the communication of joy, pain, heartache, connection and beauty. The message the show sends is that there can be no true intimacy when the senses are not alive. You don’t remember the dialogue on “Outlander,” because the program, and its characters, communicate in other ways.
Connection is harder to come by in season two. There are admirably restrained scenes that feature Claire back in 1940s Scotland, and Balfe, whose growth as an actor has been exciting to watch, perfectly captures her character’s lingering pain with body language that pushes away her modern-day husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). Her flinches wound Frank to the core.
For his part, Jamie, with whom she spends time in pre-revolutionary France, is still dealing with the effects of his season one kidnapping, torture and rape at the hands of his British nemesis, Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (also played by Menzies). Like Balfe, Heughan’s confidence and range as an actor have only grown with time; always charming, both are now reliably skilled at conveying the doubt and devotion of characters who are continually required to take leaps of faith.
It’s heartening that “Outlander” gives time and space to Jamie’s recovery, but it only highlights the somewhat troubling fact that the show has rarely dwelled on Claire’s need to process the various assaults that befell her after being mysteriously transported to the 1740s. In a TV landscape that already features a great deal of sexual assault (much of it poorly handled), it frankly feels like overkill that this conceit should be such a regular feature of “Outlander.” Though the very foundations of the show strongly endorse the idea of enthusiastic consent — between countries and individuals alike — violent assault heaves into view again this season in yet another hard-to-watch scene, and the aftermath of that moment, which involves a supporting character, is muddled. The fact is, “Outlander” acquits itself admirably in a number of ways, but hasn’t always quite known what to do with this difficult topic, especially when the survivors are female.
One of the things the show does capably in its second season is convey the way well-intentioned people drift away from their moral foundations, even as they find themselves surrounded by the appearance of plenty and ease. If season one was about Claire and Jamie’s journey toward true love (even as poor Frank kept up the search for his missing wife), this year’s tale has Claire and Jamie still in love but sometimes deeply at odds over ends and means.
There’s a picaresque quality to “Outlander” that, outside of the main duo’s relationship, sometimes keeps it from accruing heft and momentum over time. The narrative usually consists of a series of things that happen to the Frasers, and some of those things are more interesting than others. Secondary and tertiary characters come and go, sometimes without having much of an impact or memorable arcs of their own, and well into the second season, there’s not all that much to say about Jamie’s faithful servant Murtagh (the good but underused Duncan Lacroix), except than he’s Scottish and loyal.
The good news is, the supporting cast contains several tasty diversions this season, as if the visual splendor of Versailles and other gorgeous sets and costumes were not enough (costume designer Terry Dresbach has truly outdone herself; Claire’s stunning ensembles recall both Fragonard and New Look-era Christian Dior). Among the silk-clad upper classes, King Louis XV (Lionel Lingelser) comes off as a slacker full of eccentric noblesse oblige, and Andrew Gower is a delightfully querulous and spoiled Bonnie Prince Charlie. Simon Callow returns to chew scenery gleefully as the Duke of Sandringham; there are other noblemen and noblewomen, but who can remember anything about them except their heaving bosoms and well-deployed sneers?
“Outlander” is a circular tale, with Claire traveling between two centuries and two men, which is why, even though season two has fewer slow patches and more sustained energy, it’s advisable to give up on the quest for linear momentum and go with the emotional flow.
Claire and Jamie’s chemistry and confrontations are as effective as ever this season, and Menzies, who plays two very different characters with astonishing perceptiveness and skill, remains the show’s secret weapon. Only someone with a heart made of Highland stone could get through several key Claire-Frank moments without a lump in the throat; the actors’ truthful, quietly raw approaches mesh perfectly to deliver some of the show’s most wrenching and emotionally acute scenes.
The motives on this show aren’t subtle: Characters want revenge, they seek love, they want to protect others, they want to escape via lust or wine, or both. But the darkness and fear threaded through this season’s tapestry gives depth and dimension to the drama’s core optimism.
“Outlander” strikes a rare and unusual balance: It paints with bold colors, and yet it’s true to human complexities that are felt rather than articulated.