It’s a brave new world.
This is a spoiler-free review of the Outlander Season 4 premiere, titled “America the Beautiful,” which premiered Nov. 4 on Starz.
After the rip-roaring high seas adventure of Season 3, Outlander gets off to a slower start in its Season 4 premiere – although fans can still expect a few signature gut-punches (and a prerequisite sex scene) during the scene-setting hour.
The Season 3 finale found Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) washed up on a Georgia beach after a storm thoroughly wrecked their ship, and the new season picks up four months after their unintended arrival to the New World, with the Frasers and their extended family – including their nephew Ian (John Bell), surrogate son Fergus (César Domboy), and his wife, Marsali (Lauren Lyle) – now in North Carolina in 1767, attempting to raise enough money to buy passage back to Scotland.
Alas, wherever the Frasers go, trouble inevitably seems to follow, and an early act of kindness kicks off a chain of events that will have lasting repercussions throughout the season, after Jamie encounters an enigmatic man named Stephen Bonnet (played with unsettling charisma by Downton Abbey alum Ed Speleers).
Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s novels (this season is based on her fourth book, Drums of Autumn) will have some idea where this particular story thread is going, but reading something and watching it play out before your eyes are two very different experiences, and the show continues to prove adept at handling some of the source material’s most challenging and ambitious scenes, finding creative – and often poetic – ways to subvert our expectations of how a moment will unfurl.
“America the Beautiful” has a lot of groundwork to lay for the rest of the season, establishing Claire and Jamie in a new land with new political tensions to navigate, which leaves it feeling a little more bloated than previous premieres. An overlong musical number (for lack of a better description) is poignant but feels a touch indulgent, and there are a few too many snooty English elites to keep track of later on – but that has often proven to be the case whenever Claire and Jamie try hobnobbing with the nobles.
Where the Season 4 premiere excels, as usual, is in the more intimate character moments. After the chaos and frequent separation of last season, it’s refreshing to see Claire and Jamie finally being given time to catch their breath and reconnect, not just physically (although it’s safe to say the show knows what its audience likes at this point, and doesn’t waste much time giving it to us), but emotionally. We’re able to luxuriate in a couple of quiet conversations that help anchor the couple, reassuring us that despite all their years apart, they have an understanding that defies time and distance.
This season more than any other, it seems like we’ll finally get to see Claire and Jamie as true partners – a team – as they attempt to forge a new life together. Although they’ve technically been married for 24 years at this point (at least according to Jamie, who seems more reliable about timekeeping than we are), they’ve still spent more of that time apart than together, so it’s important (and undeniably powerful) to see the show finally giving them a chance to just be a couple, solving problems and finding equilibrium in their relationship without – we hope – so many external factors keeping them apart.
And the repercussions of last season’s events are still keenly felt; Outlander has always dealt with trauma in a refreshingly nuanced and honest way compared to most TV shows, and old scars are never forgotten, constantly informing how a character behaves in the present. This is especially true of Young Ian, who really went through the wringer last season – he shares a touching moment of vulnerability with his uncle as he attempts to process all the horrors he went through, providing a potent showcase for Heughan and Bell’s restrained performances. Luckily, it’s not all trauma for the optimistic Scot – he also acquires a new four-legged friend, Rollo, who is every bit as imposing (and yet totally adorable) as longtime fans would hope.