Now that Outlander’s second season has come and gone and the story of Dragonfly in Amber has been told, for better or for worse, it’s time to revisit the season as a whole to look at the particulars that made this season what it was. Originally, I wanted to call this week’s post-mortem a look at the good and the bad, but it’s difficult to write bad when looking at a copy of the second book and realizing what a massive undertaking this season was for the writers.
Though my wait for this series to hit the screen, big or small, was far shorter than other Sassenachs, I try to take the position that having the series on screen at all fills many of us with excitement, but, like all fandoms, we reserve the right to quibble. As a business writing instructor, I taught the bad news format for delivering negative information in a way that lessens its impact, namely sandwiching the bad in between the good. For this port-mortem, I’ve decided to apply that philosophy in order to retain that sense of excitement and gratitude that the show even exists while quibbling just enough to present an accurate picture of the season that was.
I must confess that I’m a bit of a casting nerd; I enjoy the speculation on who could play what role, looking at the suggestions that fans make about this actor or that. Casting both of the leads, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, was a long, arduous process for Outlander’s producers. Finding Brianna became a similarly impossible undertaking for Ron Moore and company. I saw endless suggestions for young women who could be ginger, but were definitely the right height and maybe could look like Sam and Caitriona’s child, etc. When the news that Sophie Skelton was to play Brianna came down, my excitement was only tempered by the fact that I was driving a car at that moment.
Watching Skelton in the final episode of the season confirmed one thing that Moore and everyone involved with the show does well: finding the right actors for these roles. This season, we met Master Raymond, le Comte St. Germain, le Roi Louis XV, Louise de la Tour, and, most notably, the Bonnie Prince himself, and every actor felt spot on. The delusional and insipid nature of Prince Charles Edward Stuart that Gabaldon crafts in the book comes through in Andrew Gower. The stubborn and brash nature of Brianna Randall shines in Skelton’s performance, even if her American accent still need a bit of polish. The joy of watching comes from the faces on screen and the producers have been on point this season.
Dragonfly in Amber is longer than Outlander, the first book, by 126 pages, but the first season had sixteen episodes whereas this season only had thirteen. Maril Davis, one of the show’s producers, explained the difference for the actors and crew. Sixteen episodes take nearly a year to film, whereas thirteen is not so hard on everyone involved, but that also limits the time given to tell a particular story. The scope of the second book is so large, going between two locations and covering nearly two years in the lives of Jamie and Claire, that it seemed like it would be impossible to break this down into thirteen episodes. How could we go from the trauma of the escape from Wentworth to Parisian society to the Rising in thirteen one-hour episodes?
Admittedly, the attempt by the Outlander writers and producers is admirable one, but the story was uneven in places. Early episodes spent in exposition felt like they were rushing through some points and spending too much time on others. The intimacy between the main characters felt lost in the mix; the growth of their characters became stunted by this need to shoehorn this complex tome into this box. Balfe and Heughan gave stellar performances throughout the season, Balfe especially in 2.07 where we see Claire experience the loss of their first child alone while Jamie is in the Bastille for dueling. Heughan shines in his moments as soldier and confidante to the Bonnie Prince. Because the material they’re given itself is uneven, as if the writers couldn’t agree on how to tell the story as a whole, Heughan’s King of Men Jamie Fraser feels diminished and Claire comes off as meddling and immature in her dealings trying to preserve the life of Frank Randall.
The unevenness in storytelling is most telling in the time markers. Though we do get captions with dates and the like and voiceovers attempt to give the impression of time passing, the season should cover at least two to two-and-a-half years in the lives of Jamie and Claire, which did not feel as clear as it could have been. Jamie’s recovery from Wentworth and his anger at Black Jack Randall might come to a denouement of sorts with the duel in Paris, but Jamie hardly seems to bat an eye at BJR popping up in Inverness toward the end of the season. I realize the writers had a gargantuan task on their hands with this book, but this storyarc’s treatment illustrates the overarching impression of a set of people overwhelmed with their task.
Costumes and Sets
Here’s the last part of my good-bad-good sandwich: the costumes and sets. For a drama set dually in the 18th century and the 20th, the first season wowed with Claire’s white dress that she goes back in time in and then her ornate wedding dress. Add to that the dankness of the castle sets and then the locations scouted to show off the beautiful wildness of the Scottish Highlands and the first season was understandably heralded for its visual aesthetics. The second season steps it up to another level. Every dress Claire wore, with the exception of that awful white puffy-sleeved thing, was a marvel of fabric and stitching brought together to create a feeling as strong as the sets she moved through. The vivid colors and rich fabrics of Paris contrasted nicely with the dark colors and thicker fabrics of their time in Scotland, capitalizing on the world Gabaldon creates in the book and taking viewers through a visual feast that compliments rather than overwhelms the action.
The show did receive two Emmy nominations for this season, one for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program and the other for Outstanding Costumes for a Period/Fantasy Series, Limited Series or Movie. These are clear indications that the show is gaining the attention of the entertainment world in general, a boon for Sassenachs everywhere.
In early June, Starz announced that Outlander had been renewed for season three and four, taking us through the next two books, Voyager and Drums of Autumn. Producers have said that filming for season three should start this fall, with location scouting already reported and scripts being plotted with several new writers on board. This third book Voyager again retains the broad scope of location that Dragonfly in Amber has, but the story tightens up as the series moves on to its next phase. Expect season three to cover a number of storylines:
- The aftermath of Culloden, including the long-term effects on the Fraser family and Jamie Fraser himself, now that we know he survived the battle itself.
- Claire’s decision about her future. Will she stay with the daughter she loves in the 20th century or will she return to the 18th century to find Jamie?
- Brianna’s and Roger’s evolving relationship. The undertones of attraction are clear in that last episode, but where will it go from here with Claire possibly returning to the past, leaving Brianna alone in the 20th century?
- The issue of time travel and how it works. Claire discovers that the Rising moved forward despite their attempts to stop it, but she also sees Geillis’s ideas about stones and human sacrifices and wonders how it comes together. How does one understand something that logically seems impossible?
Season three is the other side of that bridge that I spoke about in my review of episode 2.13, “Dragonfly in Amber.” It promises to take us forward into a new world – literally – and usher in a new phase of both history and story for these beloved characters.
Season two of Outlander is due out on DVD and Blu Ray in Fall 2016.
See you, Sassenachs, in 2017!