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‘Outlander’ review: Second season remains melodramatic, changes locale, tone

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe hook up in

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe hook up in Season 2 of "Outlander." Credit: Starz

WHEN | WHERE Second-season premiere Saturday at 9 p.m. on Starz


WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the first season, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), were on holiday at the end of World War II. A battlefield nurse, Claire was trying to escape the horrors of war, by visiting some ancient standing stones in Inverness. In an instant, she was drawn back into 1743, and another war, between the English crown and the Jacobites trying to restore the crown to the Stuarts and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Long story short: She falls in love with dashing Scotsman (and secret Jacobite supporter) Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), marries him, becomes pregnant. Another fact to know — the evil British Captain Jonathan “Jack Black” Randall is identical to Frank; he also happens to be Frank’s distant ancestor.

By the end of the first season, Jamie and Claire are headed to France to stop the Jacobites because they both know what no one else can — the Battle of Culloden in 1746 will wipe out the Jacobites and the future of Scotland. And Jamie, too, because he is fated to die in the battle.

Based on the historic time-travel novel series by Diana Gabaldon, the second season of this Starz hit is based on “Dragonfly in Amber,” the second volume, and takes place in Paris.

MY SAY Melodramatic then, melodramatic now, “Outlander” can be a bodice ripper with a twist, and not just that time-travel one. At the end of last season, Jamie was the one who literally had his bodice ripped off, by sadistic Black Jack Randall. He was raped by Randall over much of the finale, then submitted, offering viewers some of the most graphic gay sex scenes most had probably ever seen on television, even of the pay variety.

But paraphrasing a Katy Perry song from a couple of centuries hence, Jamie kissed a boy and may have liked it. That was certainly part of his desperate confusion at the end of the first season, also, a well-hidden part of it during the second. Black Jack now haunts his dreams, or nightmares.

Jack’s death could resolve that, but (as fans know) Jack’s death would also mean that his distant progeny — the decent and good Frank — would never exist. Surely Claire would be conflicted over that prospect, too? She loves Jamie. But a part of her heart is reserved for Frank as well.

Conflicted hearts absolutely remain a core theme this season, but to sharpen the conflict, fans and Claire are going to have to see a little more of Frank. They will. I won’t say when, but Menzies is such an accomplished and skilled actor that when Frank does arrive, he manages his appointed trick neatly: He actually makes fans, and Claire, momentarily forget about Dastardly Black Jack. If Frank were an acorn, he did indeed fall far from that particular tree -- perhaps.

Visually, the second remains a feast, although one with a distinctly French flavor and flourish. Because it’s set in 18th century France, Claire can now lose those heavy woolen tartans and arisaids (the female version of a kilt). In their place: lots of decolletage (otherwise known as skin), silks, embroidered aprons, and yards and yards of other fabric all held aloft with panniers, of those stiff hoops underneath. One of the best things about “Outlander” is the fashion, and it gets even better this season.

For newbies to buy in, go back and watch the first season. But “Outlander” regulars should be pleased, even if the alluring Highlands are no longer a backdrop.

BOTTOM LINE The Jamie and Claire show moves to Paris — and in a sense, Frank and Jack do as well. A nice change of locale, and tone.

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