The second season of Outlander has had a very different feeling to season one, with politics and time travel shenanigans taking up much more of the story than before. But what’s been so remarkable was how it’s sustained momentum despite having told us exactly how everything will end.
As a time travel show, Outlander has to deal with the question of whether or not the past can be changed. Outside of the personal and emotional drama, that’s the larger philosophical question that season one of Outlander ended on: Claire and Jamie deciding to try to change the future.
Which is why it was so interesting for the show to answer that question in the first episode of the second season. We’re only minutes into the second season when we see Claire, back in her original time, demand to know who won the Battle of Culloden. She’s told that it all happened just as she had learned in history. And therefore, everything we see for the rest of the season is predetermined. Claire and Jamie don’t change anything.
We spent the first half of it watching Claire and Jamie in France trying to keep the Jacobite rebellion from happening at all, which was futile. For the last few episodes, they’ve been back in Scotland, caught up in a fight they know is doomed.
Of course, we know the outcome of Outlander for several reasons. Since it’s not an alternate history story à la The Man in the High Castle, we can be pretty sure that history as we know it is going to be largely intact. And since it’s based on a book that came out decades ago, we also know the broad strokes of what happens to the characters.
But Outlander has managed to turn that into part of the drama. Claire needed the villain Black Jack Randall to stay alive long enough to ensure that his descendant, her future husband, exists. We’ve already seen him in the premiere, so we know that it all works out. But that didn’t make Claire’s machinations any less interesting. Nor does it make Black Jack and Jamie’s inevitable duel less fraught—we know they both survive somehow, but the show keeps us wanting to see how.
Outlander decided not to fight the fact that the outcome was spoiled, and instead leaned into it. So the whole show isn’t about where everything ends up or even how, but on how the show executes it all. And contrary to what every writer and filmmaker committed to the mystery box or fan terrified of spoilers might say, Outlander proves that the twists of the plot are only a tiny part of what makes a story work.
It’s watching these characters work through everything that’s compelling. It’s seeing Frank Randall lose it in a barn after Claire says she’s pregnant with Jamie’s child. It’s seeing Claire match wits with the Comte St. Germain. And it’s seeing Jamie take command back in Scotland.
The brilliance of it all was on display in the latest episode, “Je Suis Prest.” The return of Dougal MacKenzie and the war preparations all showed these characters at their best. Jamie taking the punishment for Dougal’s men’s failure is his standout moment; Dougal’s fierce declaration of his love for Scotland is his. But of course the episode is all about Claire.
We see flashbacks to her time as a nurse in World War II and the trauma it left her, which informs her refusal to be left behind this time. We see her as a capable healer, and we see her and Jamie pull a very neat trick on a captured young man to get information about enemy forces—a trick that is Claire’s idea. Everything enriches our understanding of Claire, even though we already know where her decisions will ultimately lead.
Outlander is a great show because it knows its strengths are its characters and properly invests time in them. It knows that if the destination is predetermined, it’s the journey that’s important—and the quality of the journey is all about having companions you want to travel with.