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Outlander season 2 found what every romance needs: impending doom

It was an improvement on season 1. So why am I dreading season 3?

Claire and Jamie share one last moment before she returns to the future in the Outlander season 2 finale.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 3 through July 9 is "Dragonfly in Amber," the second season finale of Starz’s Outlander.

In nearly every way, Outlander’s second season improved on its first.

The first six episodes had their messy moments, but built nicely to a perfectly deployed time travel conundrum. And then the final seven really showcased the series’ strengths, as they dug into the raw horror surrounding the Battle of Culloden — the English forces’ final crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 — which time-traveling Claire (Outlander’s protagonist) knew was coming but was powerless to stop.

It’s a classic example of a chief time-travel narrative: Once you realize you can’t change the past, can you escape it and preserve your own safety and sanity?

For Claire, attempting to do so meant returning to the future (post-World War II England), so that the 1940s husband she had left behind in the show’s pilot might help her raise the child she had conceived with her 1740s husband. (It’s less complicated than it sounds.)

It all culminated in the sweeping, deeply romantic "Dragonfly in Amber," a terrific episode that stands as one of the show’s best, even if it has to overcome something as seemingly fatal as a role that’s been horribly miscast. It’s the kind of episode that puts such a capstone on everything that it feels as if it might work perfectly as a series finale.

It’s also made me very worried about everything to come.

Outlander is a sumptuous, frustrating feast of a show

Claire and Jamie, before being separated by time itself.

Outlander has always been a somewhat frustrating series. At times, it revels in a kind of feminist reimagining of the bodice-ripping romance novel. In this case, the woman (Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, giving one of TV’s best, most sadly unheralded performances) has the most agency, and her gorgeous love interest (young, virgin Scotsman Jamie, played by Sam Heughan) is an occasional dolt who must be educated by her in the ways of love. (They end up being soulmates anyway.)

But it’s also a series that can never quite decide just how feminist it wants to be. The threat of sexual violence hangs over every woman on the series, which is period appropriate. But the only times the show extensively explores the consequences of sexual violence are when it happens to a man.

I don’t want to make it sound like this pursuit is unworthy. There are not nearly enough examples of popular culture that address the immense psychological trauma that sexual assault can inflict on men’s psyches. But Outlander occasionally seems to suggest that it’s only worth examining the psychological fallout of sexual assault when that fallout affects a man (and not a woman or child), and in doing so, it loses much of its subversive power in other arenas.

In short, Outlander is often muddled, but it’s always vital. It dares to examine sex as a kind of transaction of power, where men and women can use it to level the playing field, even in a stultifying patriarchal system.

What’s more, the show’s sex scenes are often among the best on TV. That was especially true in the first season, which simply showed how much Claire enjoyed sex with both of her husbands — something that shouldn’t seem like a revolutionary act on TV, but somehow did.

It’s also heart-stoppingly gorgeous, featuring some of the most luscious technical elements on TV. The sets and costumes and even cinematography redefine sumptuous, and there are weeks when the series can be depicting the horrors of the past, but I still want to step through the screen and hang out there because it looks so great.

Season two added an element that tied all of these things together beautifully: complete and utter dread.

Outlander’s second season played games with its timeline to create maximum dread

See, Jamie and Claire used to be plenty happy.

One of the most criticized aspects of Outlander’s second season has been that the first episode reveals, in a flash-forward, that Claire will eventually return to the future, and to her "first" husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). The events that send her there didn’t occur until the finale, but the knowledge that she would go back hung over the entire season, a reminder that things were going to go very wrong for Claire and Jamie at some point.

This, to be fair, hamstrung the early parts of the season. The question of, say, if things Claire and Jamie did in the past would cause Frank to not exist in the future lacked dramatic urgency, when the audience already knew Claire was headed back to her original life and original husband, fetus in tow.

But I found this structure thrilling, because it foregrounded the slow-building sense of doom as Culloden approached. In the season’s second half, Claire and Jamie slowly realized that they weren’t going to escape fate, that Jamie was probably going to fall at Culloden, and Claire would be stranded in the past with nothing.

That doom only increased when she miscarried the couple’s first child in the season’s seventh episode, making their eventual second baby (revealed in the finale) about the only ray of hope in a dark tale of tragic love.

Because the audience knew where the story was headed, the series could push that sense of foreboding to maximum effect. Soon, the two had only the desperate ploy of sending Claire back to the future, where she reappeared three years after going missing (all the way back in the series’ pilot), ranting about Culloden.

Before that, every gambit Claire and Jamie tried failed, until the two of them were reduced to awaiting Jamie’s death and sending Claire back to the 1940s to hope their child might have a better life, with Frank as her father.

This is the stuff of massive, sweeping romance. It has a tragic core, but also a hopeful one. Jamie and Claire’s love will be survived by their child and by their memories, even if they are separated by two whole centuries. And the strongest scenes in "Dragonfly" are those where Jamie, knowing he’s doomed, begs Claire to return to the future and they tearfully say goodbye. This is where the whole story has been going all along.

But, of course, this is a TV series. Jamie and Claire have not seen the last of each other. And that can’t help but feel a little cheap, even if we know that’s how TV works. The tragedy the whole season built ultimately feels a little hollow once we know there’s a way back.

Most of "Dragonfly" takes place in 1968 — 20 years after a pregnant Claire returned from the 1700s — when Claire is older and sadder. Frank is dead now, and she is keeping Jamie’s existence a secret from her daughter (who, to be fair, is pretty suspicious of the whole "your father is a man from the 1700s" thing when she finds out). But the rest of the series isn’t going to be about Claire, in her late 40s, trying to find a way to put both of her husbands behind her.

No, Jamie is still alive, somewhere in the distant past. As Claire says, in the last line of the season, one seemingly lifted directly from Lost, "I have to go back." And for as much as composer Bear McCreary’s score tried to sell me in that moment, I still groaned.

Wherever Outlander goes from here, it will be very different

Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin play characters very important to the series going forward.

I don’t want to say that wherever Outlander goes from here, it will somehow be a worse show. Maybe it will be even better in seasons three and beyond. Because of how thoroughly "Dragonfly" — whose ending is more or less adapted from the Diana Gabaldon books the series is based on — resets the show’s status quo, Outlander will almost certainly begin to tell an entirely different story. That, in and of itself, is exciting.

But I hope the series doesn’t lose sight of the tragic romance that drove seasons one and two, the up and down duet that was Claire and Jamie coming together, then being torn apart. This is a storytelling structure as old as time, and in the hands of Outlander’s cast, technical crew, and writers (led by showrunner Ron Moore), it was frequently deeply emotional and lovely.

But there’s a bigger fly in the ointment than just my longing to preserve season two’s doomed tragedy. As Claire vows to return to the past, she seemingly will do so with her now-grown daughter, Brianna by her side.

And as Brianna, Sophie Skelton seems horribly miscast. Her most dramatic scenes — like, say, finding out her father is a man from two centuries ago — feature a performance where the actress seems mildly inconvenienced, not like her entire conception of herself (and the basic physical rules that govern the universe) is being upended. If Skelton is at the center of season three, well, hopefully she gets better.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. For all of its faults, Outlander is always best when it engages with the idea that Claire knows exactly what she wants and chases after it, no matter how horrible it might seem, no matter how much tragedy it might steep her in. So long as she’s near the series’ center, things will probably be fine.

Yet no matter where the show goes next, I’m going to have trouble putting aside these first two seasons, which told a beautiful story, then saw fit to include an escape hatch to keep that story going.

I realize that’s the way television works, especially with shows as successful as Outlander has been, but there’s still a part of me that will imagine a version of this show that ended right here, with only possibility and no certainty.

Outlander is available to Starz subscribers via the Starz Play app.

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