The story, it must be acknowledged, is drenched in darkness, cruelty and betrayal. But the lamplight at its core is love. It is a romantic love but of a remarkably complex type. It is a relationship that actualizes humour, beauty, passion, tenderness and carnal desire.
Organic to the relationship is a rare mutuality. She is tough-minded, science-minded and superior in her understanding of the world. He has a heart of oak, physical artfulness, the canniness of a leader but she is his leader and his devotion is bottomless. What it’s about is what an old song says: “True love knows no season, no rhyme or no reason.”
The story is Outlander (Sunday, W Network, 10 p.m.), which makes a triumphant return for its fourth season. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), continuing their trammelled romance that transcends time, are tossed upon the shores of North Carolina in 1767, where they must do more than survive.
They must attempt to forge a home and become part of the local community. The latter does not mean ingratiate themselves, as Claire knows what will happen in America in the near-future and beyond. They must be wise Americans.
The first new episode is all Outlander-surface and to be cherished for that. It is romance unfettered. “When my body dies, my soul will still be yours,” Jamie tells Claire. He says that nothing dies; it merely changes. And Claire informs him that his statement is more or less the first law of thermodynamics. Well, no, it’s fate, counters Jamie, ever the dreamer in his doting. Then they have sex, with Claire the keenly empowered female ravishing the impractically amorous male.
From its beginning and in Diana Gabaldon’s original novels, Outlander is about upending the conventional tropes of a love story. It all started with a woman in jeopardy, as Claire was inexplicably conveyed back to 18th-century Scotland and terrified. With each season, Claire becomes stronger, tougher and is teacher, aggressor and truth-teller. Here, as this season starts, there is initially a recalibration toward romance. And Outlander followers will relish it.
But there is another reversal unfolding. This is a story about the birth and promise of the United States and is attentive to the principle that America started as an idea and an argument. To be on the right side of the argument is possible, through Claire’s knowing eyes, advice and advance knowledge. It’s an odd but persuasive subversion – a romance is used to right the wrong in political myths.
The new episodes dwell somewhat on the issues of slavery and treatment of Indigenous Americans during the period in which it is set. In the United States, some early reviews have expressed skepticism that Scots, newly landed, might sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden and subjugated. The skepticism is unwarranted. A people such as the Highland Scots, conquered, driven from their land, their language and culture almost erased, could and would feel empathy. Outlander, in its bones, is a rebuke to the idea that “all men would be tyrants if they could.” The essence of Jamie Fraser itself is a rebuke to that.
But, back to the story. There is action and tension intermingled with romance. Jamie and Claire are among rough newcomers, and there is theft, treachery and betrayal to deal with. There is a public hanging scene notable for its visceral quality. (Outlander has never been about polishing a fossilized picture of the past.) There is mud, rain, poverty and desperation. The couple need only to make their way to the home of Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy, entering the cast) and while the journey is at times beautifully depicted, it ends with a shocking act of violence. And that act is a reminder of the fragility of peace and the fleeting quality of contentment. This couple may well see themselves as the stewards of a benign new country – that theme is emphasized in the following two episodes – but ruthlessness surrounds them.
If the third season was more emotionally circumspect, with Jamie and Claire being apart in different time periods, the first portion of this season reignites, for viewers, their tender, passionate, bawdy rapport. “You’re thinking so loudly I can hear you from here,” Jamie says at one point. It’s a remark that will ring so true for many couples. And it arrives precisely at the moment when the viewers think the focus is on Claire slowly removing her stockings. The simpatico relationships between Balfe and Heughan is, as ever, a marvellous congruence. The mutuality is an event in itself.
There are spectral moments, as hauntings happen and wraiths appear; a reminder of the story’s eerie origin. But out of the darkness always comes this glowing love story that has its own exquisite rhyme and reason.