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Outlander’s big reunion shows it understands sex better than any series on TV

The Starz period fantasy romance is about more than just sex — but it’s really good when it’s about sex.

They just had sex.

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 October 22 through 28 is “A. Malcolm,” the sixth episode of the third season of Starz’s Outlander.

Outlander, like the Diana Gabaldon series of books it adapts, is probably best known to outsiders as a Show About Sex.

That perception is not totally off base — this is, after all, a show that inspires online rankings of its sex scenes, a show whose stars appear on magazine covers naked and entwined, a show that forms the backbone of a giggle-worthy Starz promo scored to “Let’s Get It On” that essentially promises, “Yes, you can use our app to watch attractive people bone.” To be sure, it’s a show that frequently delivers the sort of panting sex scenes viewers are willing to pay premium-cable prices for.

But Outlander has always been about more than just sex, and its current third season, up until its sixth episode, hadn’t really been about sex at all — at least not the sex Outlander fans care about, namely, that which occurs between time-traveling 20th-century physician Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her 18th-century Scottish Highlander husband Jamie (Sam Heughan).

With Claire and Jamie living on opposite ends of a two-century gap for the first time since the series’ premiere (give or take a season two flash-forward), the first five episodes of season three were a torturous seduction for fans who knew Claire and Jamie would eventually have to end up back in each other’s arms (and pants) but not precisely when or in what manner.

But the final moments of the fifth episode, “Freedom and Whiskey,” sent Claire hurtling back to 1765 Edinburgh, some 20 years after she and Jamie last parted (with some tearful goodbye sex, natch), and through the door of the print shop Jamie has been running under the alias Alexander Malcolm. With that cliffhanger, the stage was set for the Sex Reunion of the Year — and Starz knew it, judging by the promo it cut for “A. Malcolm,” which may as well end with onscreen text promising, “Yes, they will have sex.”

“A. Malcolm” delivers on that promise and then some, but in doing so, it also underscores what distinguishes Outlander’s prurient qualities in a premium-cable landscape so insistent on inserting writhing naked bodies where they don’t need to be that it required the coining of a new term. By contrast, the sex in Outlander is almost never incidental to the action, and in “A. Malcolm,” in particular, it is the action to which everything else is rendered incidental.

Yes, other stuff happens in “A. Malcolm” beyond the climactic, er, climax; this is only the halfway point of season three, so there’s some necessary setup for where Outlander’s story will go from here. But the episode is built around the fait accompli of Claire and Jamie’s recoupling, and it subsequently serves to highlight what makes Outlander, at its best, one of the finest Shows About Sex that television has to offer. Here are three ways “A. Malcolm” makes its big reunion count.

1) It takes things slow

Sam Heughan in “A. Malcolm.”

The promise of sex permeates “A. Malcolm,” but the episode doesn’t actually deliver on that promise until about 45 minutes into its extended 73-minute runtime. That might be frustrating for viewers tuning in solely for the image of Balfe and Heughan getting naked and doing what they do so well. But after five hours that have kept Claire and Jamie apart, just the sight of the two of them sharing scenes again is a thrill in its own right.

Performance-wise, Balfe is Outlander’s MVP in a walk, and Heughan often rises to meet her — when they’re together, at least. In keeping Claire and Jamie apart, season three has highlighted how essential the chemistry between the two actors is to their respective characters, but Heughan in particular is leagues more compelling when he’s in Balfe’s presence than he is on his own.

In that respect, Jamie comes alive in “A. Malcolm.” After an opening section that walks viewers up to the moment of Claire’s arrival in the print shop from Jamie’s perspective, the episode devotes a long, lovely series of scenes to the emotional prelude before the physical act. Sans a brief interruption from Jamie’s assistant Geordie — and his giant goiter — the print shop sequence is all Balfe and Heughan, making up for lost time as their characters work through their shock and delight at being back in each other’s presence after 20 years of assuming they’d never see the other again, and living their lives accordingly.

The print shop sequence, like much of Outlander, is extraordinarily faithful to Gabaldon’s depiction of the scene in her series’ third novel, Voyager — to the extent that one fairly minor character choice by Heughan sparked a mini uproar over its deviation from the source material. But there’s a reason fans of the books care so much about this scene: The print shop sequence is the real Claire-Jamie reunion, establishing the emotional underpinnings that subsequent sex scenes will lay bare. It’s when they acknowledge they’re still technically husband and wife. It’s when they discuss Brianna, the daughter Jamie has never met, and remember Faith, the miscarried daughter neither of them got to know. It’s when they kiss, in a moment fraught with such simultaneous nostalgia and potential it almost renders the upcoming sex scene moot.

Almost. This is still Outlander, so the specter of Claire and Jamie’s eventual copulation hangs heavily over the print shop sequence — in particular when Geordie barges in screaming about what he perceives to be “an orgy,” and before noon at that. But the print shop scene is even more crucial to “A. Malcolm” than its purported main event, and underlines what makes the sex in Outlander so unusual: It’s purposefully, resolutely emotional (even when it’s not necessarily romantic, as was the case in some of season one’s more uncomfortable moments).

Outlander recognizes that the ultimate outcome of love is not sex, but rather connection, of which sex is simply a manifestation. In taking the time to show Claire and Jamie slowly, sometimes painfully reestablishing their connection, “A. Malcolm” makes the promise of sex nearly as thrilling as the act itself.

2) It allows for awkwardness — and humor

Not only does “A. Malcolm” recognize the necessity for reconnection, it also recognizes the difficulty thereof. If Outlander were truly the bodice-ripping titillation aid it’s sometimes perceived as, Claire and Jamie would be so overcome with desire on sight of each other that they’d tumble into bed with nary a thought for all that’s changed between them over two decades. But that’s not what Outlander really is, and hence that’s not what “A. Malcolm” does, instead choosing to spend significant time exploring the distance that’s opened up between Claire and Jamie over 20 years, and what crossing that distance might reveal.

“You and I, we know each other less now than when we first wed,” Jamie points out to Claire, a statement underlined by the fact that he’s saying it in a room at the brothel where he resides, a less-than-ideal setting for their long-delayed coitus that even the open-minded Claire regards with justifiable, and somewhat comic, alarm.

“A. Malcolm” devotes significant energy to throwing up potential barriers to Claire and Jamie making love, of which the brothel reveal is the most awkward. (It turns out Jamie lives there because the madam is a customer/enabler of his side gig as a booze smuggler.) There are multiple last-minute interruptions, like the surprise arrival of food to their room just as they’re about to fall into each other’s arms, forcing them instead to sit and “begin to know one another again” over a bedside meal that calls back to the one they had on their wedding night.

And once the moment finally arrives, it’s accompanied by a wonderful little moment of slapstick, as the long-awaited tumble into bed is accompanied by an accidental head bonk that makes Claire fear Jamie’s broken her nose. (Jamie, no stranger to broken noses, assures her it’s fine.) That detail, along with some brief fumbling as Jamie accidentally leans on Claire’s hair, lends a bumbling realism to the scene’s hyper-romanticism: Having sex for the first time in 20 years may be, as Claire says, like riding a bike, but it doesn’t happen without a couple of introductory bobbles, either.

3) It makes it count

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in “A. Malcolm.”

By the time “A. Malcolm” gets where it’s been going, Claire and Jamie’s physical reunion has ascended beyond a mere sex scene — it is a love scene, and proceeds in accordingly loving fashion.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of Outlander’s approach to onscreen sex is the fact that “A. Malcolm” devotes nearly two full minutes to Jamie and Claire ever so slowly undoing the stock ties around the other’s neck, relishing in the intimacy implied in undressing one’s lover from head to toe (while also allowing viewers the opportunity to relish in costume designer Terry Dresbach’s reliably detailed period clothing).

Balfe and Heughan play these moments beautifully, their expressions dancing between excitement and fear and lust and self-consciousness in the space of breaths; it’s so intimate it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. And when they are finally undressed, their bodies exposed, Claire acknowledges that self-consciousness, covering her “aged” body (the episode’s attempts to suggest Claire and Jamie are, like, so old now are laughable in their lack of conviction), so that Jamie can assure her, and us, that she’s still the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

And once the two of them do the deed — fast and rough, or at least as close as these two can get to “rough” — they do it again, and again, in increasingly more tender permutations. Claire and Jamie’s lovemaking spans a full night and multiple sessions (another mirror of their wedding night), interspersed with emotional reminiscences of what’s passed between them and apprehension about what lies ahead.

Is this all kinda cheesy? Certainly, but anyone who can’t handle a little cheese with their time-traveling fantasy period romance probably isn’t going to be picking up what Outlander is putting down to begin with. More importantly, though, Claire and Jamie’s lovemaking is significant — to them, to viewers, and to the series as a whole. The time and attention paid to every aspect of the event reflects that significance.

Compare this with 2017’s other momentous coupling on a prestige cable series [spoiler-for-another-series alert], the long-foretold union of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. In terms of what it implies for the future of Game of Thrones, it’s easily the most significant sex scene in a series with no shortage of them, but it’s carried out in an almost offhand manner. Over the course of an overstuffed season, Jon and Dany only had a handful of scenes to establish whatever connection was brewing between them, and the ultimate manifestation of that connection amounts to less than a minute of the characters rolling around naked as the moment’s huge implications are explained via voiceover. The significance is implied, but not felt.

“A. Malcolm,” on the other hand, is all about making viewers feel the significance of Claire and Jamie’s sexual reunion in their bones (and their loins). It’s not the first time these characters have come together, nor is it the last time they will do so. But that is precisely what makes this union so special. In that bed with Claire and Jamie lies everything that came before and will come after, a mountain of nostalgia and pain and hope and fear and loss and potential — so much more than just sex.

Outlander airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Starz. Previous seasons are available on the Starz app.