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'Outlander' review: Show is back on track in season 5

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Starz's "Outlander."

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Starz's "Outlander."  Credit: STARZ/Aimee Spinks

SERIES “Outlander”

WHEN|WHERE Season 5 premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Starz


WHAT IT'S ABOUT Time-travelers from the 20th century, Brianna Randall Fraser (Sophie Skelton) and Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin), have been reunited and are about to get married, although "Bree" — still traumatized after she was raped by Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) — is about to become more traumatized. Meanwhile, Lord William Tryon (Tim Downie), Governor of the Province of North Carolina, is now demanding that Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) bring Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) to him dead or alive — the same Murtagh who swore an oath to Jamie's deceased mother that he would take care of her son forever. Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) knows she and Jamie are about to be separated again. 

The year is 1770, the revolution looms, while this 5th season is based on 2001's "The Fiery Cross," the fifth novel in Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series about the nurse (Balfe) who time-travels back to 18th-century Scotland.   This review is based on the first four episodes.


MY SAY When Claire and Jamie washed up on American shores (literally) at the end of the 3rd season, one pressing question arrived with them: What would Team Fraser do about slavery? The Battle of Culloden was one thing, this atrocity a whole other order of magnitude. Well?

Well, not much. The evils were acknowledged in a couple of 4th season story threads that were obligatory as opposed to organic. Also introduced was Jamie's kindly Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a slaveholder who — because she was blind — was symbolically colorblind too. Jamie and Claire then decamped to their utopian slave-free zone, Fraser's Ridge. Human bondage was in fact a major theme except that the bondage involved Roger, who was sold to a roving band of Mohawks. 

Enter the 5th season opener, "The Fiery Cross." That title says plenty, but what exactly in this context? Late in the episode, when Jamie needs to muster his clansmen, he performs a Crann Tara, the ancient Highlanders rite of burning a cross. As the twisty braid of branches and twigs soars into flames, Claire stares blankly, even though both she and the show must know the optics are terrible.

Cue to the 2001 novel, where it's left to Bree to tell Roger that Jamie's cross-burning may one day inspire the Ku Klux Klan. An indifferent Roger has only one thing on his mind, however, or as Gabaldon writes, he "was less interested in fanatical bigots than in the sight of Brianna's bare breasts." 

And that line says just about all that you need to know about this 5th season, too. It's back to business — and breasts — for "Outlander" and Team Fraser. "Outlander" is also finally getting close to the story it really wants to tell, which was already basically told over the first and second seasons: The Scots vs. the Brits, with Lord Tryon as just another "Bonnie" Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) and the despicable malefactor Stephen Bonnet another "Black Jack" Randall.

History does repeat itself — at least "Outlander" history.

That's OK because "Outlander" fans don't come to this to see the mistakes of the past corrected or its crimes adjudicated. In another scene from the opener, Roger is serenading Bree to Nat King Cole's chestnut, "L-O-V-E," which then tracks over a fastcut of heaving naked thighs and (yes) breasts too. It's a reminder of what this show is really all about — that love endures, and spans the oceans, spans the centuries.

That's what fans come for. They come for Jamie and Claire. My educated guess: They won't be denied or disappointed either.

 BOTTOM LINE After a bumbling 4th — especially with regards to race — "Outlander" is back on track. A familiar one.

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