Outlander – Season 2 Episode 1
“Through A Glass, Darkly”
Outlander returns for a second season with some unexpected twists and intricate character exploration that viewers have come to expect from this show.
The end of season 1 was a difficult viewing for me as the brutality on display pushed far beyond my comfort zone but I continue to watch this show as I am captivated by the intelligent writing as well as the character depth. I hope this season is a lot less graphic but maybe I can handle it as long as the rest of the show remains compelling.
Season 1 ended with Claire and Jamie heading for France to flee the influence of Black Jack Randall so it was surprising that the episode didn’t begin with the two of them living their lives there. Instead the episode opens with Claire waking in Craigh na Dun surrounded by the stones. Shortly after that we learn that she is in 1948 and her first concern is finding out who won the Battle of Culloden.
This serves as an interesting framing device that sets the stage for the upcoming season. Claire declared her intention to change history and prevent the Jacobites from being wiped out at the end of the last season so it appears that this fails and the audience is made aware of that right away. Much of the season will likely show the attempts made to change history and the mistakes that led to Claire and Jamie failing to do so. This will be a difficult thread to follow as making a story compelling when viewers have already been told the ending isn’t easy. If done well then there will be a sense of dread and inevitability to everything the characters do plus there will still be plenty of opportunities for surprising revelations.
The first half of the episode focuses on Claire’s return to her present and reuniting with Frank. It is established that Claire has been gone for two years so the reunion is far from ideal due to the differences in the way Claire and Frank perceive this.
Frank’s point of view is a happy one. He is glad to have Claire back and never gave up hope all the way through her disappearance. He shows willingness to accept her story and even her marriage to another man. Frank’s main concern is moving forward and getting on with their lives so what happened when she was missing largely doesn’t matter to him, at least not to the extent that he can’t make peace with it in some way.
The revelation that Claire is pregnant with Jamie’s child really hits him and he finds himself conflicted over how to handle the situation. Frank is sterile so had given up on raising a family with Claire so finding out that she is carrying another man’s child is difficult for him to accept but his conversation with Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet) helps him to resolve that conflict by thinking of the child as being the innocent party who doesn’t deserve to be punished. Frank has the opportunity to be a father so the mechanics of how that child exists almost don’t matter. He will know and Claire will know but the child doesn’t have to so it can grow up happy and well adjusted.
Frank only has two conditions for his acceptance of the situation. The first is that the child is raised as theirs with no mention of Jamie as he is someone that the child could never know and the second is that Claire needs to completely let go of Jamie which means she has to stop chasing information about the battle of Culloden to find out if Jamie died there or not.
Tobias Menzies delivers an excellent performance throughout this episode. His internal conflict comes across perfectly and he is shown to be a completely different man to his ancestor. Frank is a kind man who definitely has a bit of a temper but he does what he can to stop that from coming out around Claire. He does everything he can to accept her story and put it behind him because his marriage is that important to him. He conveys so much through facial expressions and the defeated tone in his voice as he discusses the situation with Reverend Wakefield is incredibly subtle and moving.
Claire’s reaction to being back is a complicated one. She had become used to living in the 18th century so the 20th century is too loud for her. It all seems alien and she is hugely unsettled by everything. At first she can’t even look Frank in the eye because he reminds her of Black Jack Randall and all the pain that he caused her. This makes sense considering they look identical and it seems difficult for Claire to separate the two despite the fact that her rational mind knows that they aren’t the same person.
She is coming apart slowly throughout the episode and her admission to the audience that she wished she were dead sets the tone for her return and immediately raises questions over what happened to bring her back to the time period she started from.
This changes when she is around Mrs. Graham who she feels a connection to since she read Claire’s palm in the first episode before her trip to the past. She finds herself recalling intimate details about Jamie such as his smile, sense of humour and hair. These could seem like bland observations but Caitriona Balfe delivers them with such a sense of longing that it shows the profound sense of loss that she feels. Jamie has been dead for hundreds of years but from her point of view she saw him recently so it is difficult for her to resolve.
Her acceptance of Frank’s conditions aren’t ideal for him because Claire makes it clear that she is going to let Jamie go because that is what he wanted. This shows that Claire’s heart belongs to Jamie rather than Frank which makes me wonder how much faith she has in her relationship with Frank. How will her attempt to rebuild their life together play out and are they both kidding themselves? Claire clearly isn’t convinced by the whole thing but I wonder if she will find a way to be happy or if it will all unravel spectacularly.
Caitriona Balfe’s performance is excellent as always. Claire is conflicted and vulnerable yet strong and confident at all points. She knows what her priorities are but is terrified of living life in what she used to call the present. There’s a lot of pain in her voice and facial expressions that convey the emotional heft of the situation.
It’s interesting that all of this comes across as being so raw and real considering there are some fantastical elements lying beneath it. Claire’s unborn child for instance is the child of a man long dead with a bloodline that possibly died out centuries ago. This child renews that bloodline after a significant gap as well as technically being the child of another time. It’s all fascinating from a science fiction point of view but at its core it is simply the story of a woman who finds love with another man and ends up carrying his child. The show focuses on the relatable elements and barely touches on the fantastical ones which I think is the right move. It helps keep the narrative human and emotionally relevant.
The episode shifts gears when it returns to the 18th century to show Claire and Jamie arriving in France. It isn’t as strong as the 1948 scenes but it does lay some interesting groundwork such as the beginnings of the plan to change history.
Tonally these scenes are very different conveyed largely through Caitriona Balfe’s performance and Claire’s overall emotional state. Claire is a lot happier in the scenes involving Jamie and there’s the overall sense that she feels as if she belongs in that time period which contrasts with her seeming unsettled and out of place in 1948.
We are quickly reminded of the natural chemistry between Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe as they bounce off each other wonderfully. Jamie comes across as the strong yet devoted husband despite the fact that his injuries still haven’t healed and the treatment he faced at the hands of Black Jack Randall clearly still hangs over him. I imagine it will be something that haunts their relationship over the rest of the season.
The purpose of these scenes is to establish how they will function in France through taking over the wine business of Jamie’s cousin to give them better access to the growing Jacobite rebellion and start seeding the complications they will face as shown by the hostile reception they receive to the diagnosis of Smallpox from the Comte St. Germain (Stanley Weber). It’s unclear at this point who he really is or what he can do to make their lives difficult but the fact that Claire is indirectly responsible for his ship and cargo being destroyed gives him solid motivation to hate her. There is plenty of time throughout the rest of the season to develop this but it could have been established more strongly than it was here.
18th century France looked great from the costuming to the set design. The way this show portrays the past has always been one of its core strengths and that definitely continues here. It is visibly different from Scotland in the last season while still being as interesting to look at. It should provide opportunities for some great visuals over the course of the season. The burning ship that closes the episode seems to be an early indication of that.
An excellent opening to the new season with really strong character moments and performances from the actors involved. Claire’s return to her present is shown to be a difficult adjustment for both her and Frank with the creation of the mystery of what caused her to fail in her mission to change the past. The scenes set in the 18th century weren’t quite as strong but still set the stage well for a compelling season.
- Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies’ raw performances
- excellently written character interactions
- the impressive visual design of 18th century France
- the France scenes not being as strong as those set in 1948