***Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Outlander through Season 4, Episode 13, and Book Spoilers through Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn follow. Spoilers***
There was a time when Outlander was right up there with other favorite prestige dramas — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead — to the point viewers would rush to catch new episodes, study them to break down the nuances, and chat it up with fellow watchers by the virtual watercooler — forget waiting until the next morning. From the moment Claire Randall was dropped into another time, emotionally torn between a handsome Scottish warrior and the memory of her faithful husband back home, we were swept into an all-encompassing other world, full of fantastical takes on historical battles, and the intense connection between its characters. As with GoT and TWD, watching the translation from page to screen can be touchy for readers, but for a while at least, Ronald Moore’s interpretive gifts and Outlander‘s excellent casting felt immune to other series’ pitfalls. Unfortunately, those days appear to be over.
In an uneven season that’s alternately jumped and dragged through events in Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn, we’ve struggled to catch on to the purported chemistry between relative newcomers Brianna Randall (Sophie Skelton) and Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin). Unaided by stilted, dreary dialogue and an increasingly drawn out round of (frankly) boring episodes, the magic that’s supposed to feel akin to Claire and Jamie’s connection just isn’t there. Sandwiched in between the Frasers’ coming-to-America, and the doze-inducing repetition of longing glances at Fraser Ridge, their new homestead, the quick, almost inexplicable pairing of Roger and Bree never really made sense outside of two people being in the same room for a spell. As fast as they came together (though there’s no way or desire to match book pacing, the couple didn’t come to know each other in any meaningful way), a fight tears them apart and before you can say “Craigh na Dun”, Brianna’s gone through the stones — with Roger not far behind — found her family and been found by her man, separated from Roger again, been raped and impregnated … and in another blink, had the resulting (admittedly adorable) baby.
If all together that sounds exciting, well … it wasn’t. Punctuated by exceedingly slow and by-the-numbers run-ins and “conversations” with the Cherokee and Mohawk tribes, Ian, Jamie and Claire encounter and quickly learn the language and customs of (though not enough to avoid disastrous events) these natives, but the ebb and flow of nearly every hour was off from previous seasons. It almost feels as if a whole new crew of writers and producers were brought in, this round. Even the consistently steamy relationship between the Frasers seems to have been put on ice (save that lovely bathtub encounter in Episode 6), in favor of sweeping views of the countryside, and a longing kiss here and there.
Don’t get me started on Claire and Jamie’s nearly dismissible semi-opposing views on slavery, or Brianna’s easy acceptance of anyone who chooses (so to speak not really) to serve her needs … her utter nastiness toward her newly found Da, or his incredibly thoughtless (cruel) psychological gameplay in a backhanded attempt to convince Bree she wasn’t responsible in any way for being raped. We get that Jamie’s notions are antiquated, but that tactic was beyond tone-deaf. And Claire, who’s never held back her thoughts or emotions, was decidedly mute as husband and daughter hurled abuses back and forth; it’s as if her own forward-thinking took a few steps backward.
On a different and wonderful note, Murtagh’s return was and remains worth celebrating, and though we haven’t necessarily seen a buildup to their mutual attraction (Murtagh’s subbed in for book character, Duncan Innes), I’m sure he and Jocasta will be a fine match — and anything that keeps Duncan Lacroix onscreen is good with me.
In keeping with the whole of Season 4, “Man of Worth” dragged us through the paces of Jamie, Claire and Ian wandering the woods in search of Roger, quickly and easily happening upon exactly the right group of Mohawk, and expositioning the Otter Tooth story for all to hear. It’s exactly as boring as my description here, only slowly related so as to pass a good portion of the finale. When their initial attempts to barter for “Dogface’s” (aka Roger) freedom fail, and before Jamie can talk Claire into letting him take one for the team, sweet, selfless Ian has already traded himself for Roger, and with a teary eye or two, the Frasers and Wakefield leave the poor lad behind to suffer untold (unless you’re a reader) horrors.
A quick labor aside, grandbaby Fraser arrives and having been told of Brianna’s rape, Roger elects not to immediately return with Jamie and Claire to their daughter’s side. Never fear, though … just in time for a “romantic” sweeping final shot of lovers literally running across a field to reunite, Roger returns to his handfast wife, and I suppose we’re left to ponder whether finding out a baby boy’s name is enough to brings us back for Season 5.
Over the course of the past several episodes and none so much as “Man of Worth”, all I could think is how like a network television show Outlander‘s been feeling. It was as if plot points were simply being ticked off a list, without the trademark care this series brought its first two seasons. If my words sound harsh, it’s that disappointment of seeing how far things have fallen. Even those Inside the Episode segments with the writers enthusing over their accomplishments rang hollow with me; I wonder if they’re watching the same show.
If you’re a reader, you know Drums of Autumn slowed to an excruciating, oftentimes dull pace (thank you, Davina Porter, for making it tolerable) — the writers could and should have amped things up. At the least, we could have had many more sexytimes with Claire and Jamie; after all, they’re the main reason this show has so many fans.
Truly, Ian is the one man of worth this hour.
Stephen Bonnet (no insult to Ed Speelers intended) ended up not much more than a serviceably menacing villain, and the character was nowhere near the threat (“psychopath”) he was made out to be before this season aired. Compared to Tobias Menzies’ Captain Jack, Bonnet was almost comical — and not really scary at all.
As many readers have noted, if The Drums of Autumn events were slow, The Fiery Cross (which I’ve been listening to, and spending an inordinate amount of time hearing of breastfeeding and baby shenanigans) has even less of consequence happening. I can’t imagine the most stalwart fans returning for a slower fifth season (the series has been renewed for Seasons 5 and 6). Here’s hoping the writers go Game of Thrones-ish, and add in some unexpected excitement. Despite my irritation with this round, I’d love to see Outlander return to its former glory.