THE SERIES “Outlander”
WHEN | WHERE Season 3 premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. on Starz
WHAT IT’S ABOUT At the end of the second season, it was 1968 and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) had finally told her adult daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton) that her real father was one Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) — an 18th-century officer with the Jacobite forces seeking to overthrow the House of Hanover and replace it with Bonnie Prince Charles (Andrew Gower). After she recovers from the shock, “Bree” and her new friend, Oxford history prof Roger Wakefield MacKenzie (Richard Rankin), have some shocking news for her: They’ve learned that Jamie survived the Battle of Culloden, which was the Jacobites’ last stand in 1746. Claire vows to return.
The third season begins in 1948, back in Boston, with Claire about to have Jamie’s baby, Brianna, and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) settling into his new job at Harvard. Meanwhile, back in 1746, the Battle of Culloden finally begins.
MY SAY First, the days passed, as days tend to do, then those days turned to months. Months turned to years, followed by years and years and years.. . . To believe the bereaved “Outlander” Nation, you’d think their show hadn’t been on the air since the Battle of Culloden itself.
But for a quick reality check, the second season finale aired July 9, 2016, or just a little over a year and two months ago. That’s hardly an eternity in TV terms although so deep is “Outlander” fan devotion that the relatively brief absence earned a bittersweet sobriquet: “Droughtlander.” Well, the Droughtlander is about to end, replaced by pleasure — lots of that. The third-season opener, “The Battle Joined,” is terrific. That patient devotion will be rewarded.
To call the third season a reset wouldn’t be wrong, but not exactly right either. At outset, Frank and Claire are together, while Jamie and Claire are apart, effectively inverting much of the narrative of the first two seasons. But both theme and soul of “Outlander” remain the same and at least in one obvious sense are reinforced under these new circumstances: The ties that bind Jamie to Claire, and Claire to Jamie, stretch across an ocean and across the centuries. A few episodes keeping them apart isn’t going to change that, and should arguably strengthen it.
What will in fact change is them. As the season begins, Jamie has barely survived the climactic battle, then survives the methodical execution of fellow Jacobite prisoners during a wrenching scene Sunday that unfolds like the closing of a fist. He has lost the battle, watches them die, and is denied the fate he had expected, or perhaps welcomed. As far as he knows, Claire is gone forever. He is now completely alone, and could be for at least the next 20 years of his timeline. (Recall that only in 1968 — when Claire learns that he survived — does she finally decide to return.)
Meanwhile, back in Boston, Claire slowly suffocates in a provincial city where the antediluvian attitudes about women are virtually codified. When she informs the stuffed-shirt history department chair at Harvard that women had just been admitted to medical school, he dismisses them as an accident. “Past experience has shown,” the toad confides, “that few women succeed as physicians.”
But a bargain is a bargain, and the pact she’s made with Frank will keep her imprisoned there, to raise Brianna, and remain a dutiful wife. What makes her self-imposed servitude so complicated is Frank. Menzies — a remarkable actor — humanizes Frank as brilliantly as he dehumanized “Black Jack” Randall over the past couple of seasons. (Black Jack is Frank’s distant lookalike relative.) Thoroughly decent Frank knows he’s unloved and knows Claire’s soul belongs to a ghost. As the man in the middle, he’s as lost and solitary as Jamie. Menzies captures his pathos with heartbreaking precision.
BOTTOM LINE A beauty finally returns, and the beauty very much remains.