With Season Two of Starz’s Outlander now in the books, it’s time to reveal our “definitive” list of this season’s episodes. Based on Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon’s second novel in her best-selling series, the Ronald D. Moore-led TV show once again follows the adventures of time-traveling World War II nurse, Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), and her dashing 18th century Scottish warrior husband Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
The show’s second season took a 180-degree turn from the first. The sets, many of the characters and the locations had changed, shifting from the Scottish highlands to the streets of Paris, and then back to the Scottish moors. The sophomore outing also featured more history and much more political intrigue than the inaugural season. The Jacobite cause to restore the Catholic King James to the throne of England was left under the charge of his son, the daft Bonnie Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower), and Jamie and Claire joined the cause in order to change history and save their Highland culture. While the show had its ups and downs this season—way too much exposition and plotting at times—we must remember that the first season had its problematic episodes as well (remember The Search) And like the first season, the series comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion with a number of strong episodes.
Keep in mind that this ranking comes from a TV-only perspective and doesn’t compare scenes/episodes to Gabaldon’s novels. Here is our official ranking of all the Outlander Season Two episodes. Don’t agree? Let us know in the comments.
We had to start somewhere, and this season’s third episode begins with a bored and surly Claire trying to find something to do, while Jamie is out at a brothel thwarting the Bonnie Prince’s plan to take back the crown. Claire wasn’t the only one bored—the episode is filled with scenes of scheming and planning, ostensibly to set up future episodes, but “Useful Occupations and Deceptions” lacks action (except for Murtagh, who was bedding Claire’s maid Suzette to keep himself occupied). Highlights of the episode include Claire volunteering at the charity hospital and proving herself worthy to Mother Hildegard (Frances de la Tour) by nonchalantly tasting urine to diagnose diabetes and, of course, meeting the cutest French pickpocket in Fergus (Romann Berrux). What seems out of step is Jamie’s anger at Claire for not being home at his beck and call—they’ve been equal partners in the relationship, after all—and then a sudden shift in Jamie’s attitude toward her hospital work when Mother Hildegard helps translate sheet music to crack the codes in the Prince’s personal correspondence.
Although our beloved Rupert (Grant O’Rourke) and Angus (Stephen Walters)—and Dougal (Graham McTavish)—return in this episode, “Je Suis Prest” includes a number of repetitive scenes that prove taxing. There are all these Braveheart-esque moments in this episode that show how unprepared the Highlanders are for war, but brave enough to fight anyway. The audience got that message after the first training scene. Likewise, Claire is suffering from PTSD as the 18th century war preparations are causing her to remember a painful WWII event. While it’s a good attempt to provide more background on Claire, the scenes feel out of place, since we hadn’t seen Claire suffer like this before, despite the tragedies she’s endured. Jamie and Claire are also frustratingly disconnected in the episode. We know he’s prepping an army for battle and all, but shouldn’t he have spent a little more time getting to the bottom of Claire’s obvious distress? We did enjoy the bit of comic relief at the end, as the two hammed it up (she was a British woman captured by “Red Jamie”) in order to trick British soldier William Grey into revealing the army’s location.
The episode marks Claire and Jamie’s return to Scotland and Lallybroch. While it opens happily enough on a reunion with Jenny (Laura Donnelly) and her family, the joy is short-lived as Jamie learns that Bonnie Prince Charlie forged his signature on a document swearing allegiance to the Prince. Claire and Jamie are forced to go and visit Jamie’s lecherous grandfather Lord Lovat, who has no qualms in telling Jamie that he’d consider taking Lallybroch (and Claire) in exchange for men. Once again, too much time was spent on planning and explaining these war machinations, which probably worked much better in the books than on TV. We could have used a little more time with Jenny in the episode (and less Lovat and Laoghaire), as well as a few more scenes of Jamie and Claire recovering from the trauma(s) in Paris. After all, they had recently lost a baby—and the episode’s most poignant scene focuses on Claire watching Jamie comforting his sister’s baby. The scene was a strong reminder of how much we missed these small moments of connection between our protagonists this season.
After a long “Droughtlander,” Season Two opens with a jolt: Claire is back in 1948 Scotland and doesn’t seem happy at all to be there. We didn’t rank “Through a Glass, Darkly” higher, because it feels like two very different half-hour episodes that inspire mixed emotions. We’ll give the first half higher marks because of these two words: Tobias Menzies. As Frank, Claire’s loyal first husband, he’s thrilled and excited about his wife’s return and will do anything for her—until he finds out she’s pregnant with Jamie’s child. Menzies and Balfe are staggeringly good in these opening scenes, conveying emotions without over-emoting. When Frank learns about the baby, Menzies’ scene in the garden shed teems with anger and frustration. The latter half sets up Jamie and Claire’s time in Paris and establishes one of the season’s villains, Comte St. Germain (Stanley Weber), who has it out for Claire as much as Father Bain did in Season One. While we love Heughan, the second-half of the episode lacks that emotional pitch of the first.
While this episode’s final minutes are action-packed and suspenseful—ending in a duel between Black Jack and Jamie, Claire going into labor and the police arriving to arrest the men for dueling—it falls short of greatness because there was such a disconnect in tone from its preceding episode, “Untimely Resurrection.” Jamie and Claire begin the episode right as rain, as if a knock-down, drag out fight between them over Frank’s future never happened. While some viewers have chalked the difference in tone to the passage of time, or to Jamie re-evaluating his position on Frank (Claire will need someone in the future if things go badly in the 18th century), Jamie’s anger was as we’d never seen it before, and to not address it feels like a disservice to viewers. Other scenes, such as Claire’s impatient and sanctimonious attitude during a gossip session with the Parisian women, and the screen time given to thwart Comte St. Germain’s wine delivery, felt unnecessary.
This episode is filled with intrigue, reveals, welcome humor and jaw-droppingly beautiful and outrageous costumes. It gets points for its depiction of a decadent French society: the dildos being offered at the brothel are hilarious, as is the introduction of Louise de Rohan (Claire Sermonne), who had no compunction about getting a Brazilian wax in front of Claire and the sheepish girl Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day). In fact, the waxing gives Claire an idea to surprise Jamie—leading to the discovery of her bare “honey pot.” It’s a cute moment—until Black Jack Randall gets into bed with them. Jamie’s still haunted by his rape, and rightfully so; the trauma that he experienced isn’t something that’s easily forgotten, and Heughan deftly portrays the struggle. The latter half of the episode includes the introduction of characters who will become players in the Frasers’ lives this season: King Louis (Lionel Lingelser) and Alex Randall (Laurence Dobiesz)—Black Jack’s little brother. The costumes by Terry Dresbach were next level amazing, from Claire’s sexy red dress, to the diamond swan dress that pierced the nipples of Louis’s mistress.
Tobias Menzies returns as Black Jack Randall, and that’s enough for us. BJR is evil to the core, and watching him play cat-and-mouse with Claire in the garden at Versailles is chilling. Our heroine can hold her own against him, though, and when Claire spits the line, “Fuck the king” at her foe (as Louis approaches), the scene crackles with energy. It’s in this same scene that Black Jack gets a taste of karma, as King Louis forces him to kneel and beg and be ridiculed by the French aristocracy. The episode also shows how imperfect and frustrating Claire can be: She meddles with Alex Randall and Mary Hawkins’ burgeoning love, persuading Alex that Mary would be better off with someone else, since he’s without a job or a future. Claire believes that Mary has to marry Black Jack so that Frank can exist 200 years later. Claire’s being selfish here, and it’s only more evident in the episode’s last scene with Jamie. She asks Jamie to call off the duel he’s planning with Black Jack Randall for a year, so that Mary and Black Jack can sire Frank’s ancestor. Seeing how Black Jack assaulted and nearly killed Jamie—the love of her life—it seems all too much to ask him to spare his rapist. Heughan’s Jamie is seething at the end of the episode, and when he tells Claire, “Don’t touch me!” the emotion and anger jumps from the screen.
There’s so much action that happens in “La Dame Blanche” (and not just in bed between Jamie and Claire). The episode takes on a lot—making up for some of the sluggishness in pacing of the season’s earlier outings. The episode opens with the Comte lurking at a gathering while Jamie and the finance minister play chess. Claire has a drink and suddenly falls ill, and she and Jamie suspect the Comte of poisoning her with bitter cascara. But the duo have other things to worry about—like the future of Scotland. They organize a dinner party to try and set up Bonnie Prince Charlie as a buffoon who shouldn’t be leading any army in revolution. Before the dinner party, there’s an attack in which Mary is raped, Murtagh is knocked out and Claire is spared when someone calls her “La Dame Blanche” (the white lady, AKA a witch). When they return home to the dinner party in progress, Alex Randall is incorrectly accused of being Mary’s rapist, and a melee breaks out during the dessert course.
There’s another important part of this episode, which makes it a key one: Jamie finds out that Black Jack Randall is still alive, and surprisingly, instead of setting him back, Jamie is downright gleeful at the prospect of finally killing Black Jack. It’s a surprising reaction, but it also restores Jamie’s sex drive—as evidenced when Claire finds a bite mark on Jamie’s thigh (from a girl at the brothel). This discovery leads to a fight in which Jamie and Claire finally get honest and real with each other: She’s pregnant and feels alone and unwanted by her husband, while he reveals to her what he lost at Wentworth Prison. The sex scene—one of the few in the second season—helps the lovers reconnect and truly start to move past the trauma.
While the episode that preceded “Prestonpans” (“Je Suis Prest”) focused too much on preparing the men for battle, the Highlanders’ major test comes at the battle at Prestonpans, and this episode hits the right balance of action and emotion. Dougal has his moment of glory as he tests the marsh on horseback that stands between the Jacobites and the British. In an act of bravado, he goes further than he’s supposed to, egging the British to take their best shot. They do—and miss. It’s a suspenseful scene that allows Graham McTavish to shine as war chief. The battle is well done, capturing the intensity of the hand-to-hand combat as well as the horrors that come afterward. The scene in which Fergus tells Claire he killed a man is devastating, as is the loss of Angus (Stephen Walters). There isn’t a lot of interaction between Jamie and Claire in the episode, but Balfe and Heughan make the most of their scenes together. When she says goodbye to her “soldier” before the battle, the looks on their faces display love, longing, fear and regret at once.
This episode had a little too much Dougal-Colum interaction for our taste. An invalid Colum (Gary Lewis) not only asks Claire to help him commit suicide, but he also calls Jamie and Dougal together in order to make Jamie clan leader until Colum’s son is of age. That’s all necessary to move the story forward, but we’d have cut the brothers’ last heart-to-heart short, since neither played a large role this season. Now, the other dynamic brother pairing of Alex and Black Jack Randall? Now that’s a story worth the deep-dive. Claire runs into Mary Hawkins at Inverness and finds out that the once-naive and prudish girl has grown up and is living—unmarried—with Alex Randall. Mary is furious with Claire for dissuading Alex from pursuing her, and Claire apologizes. When Claire drops in to help Mary with Alex’s illness, her blood (and ours) goes cold when Alex’s beloved brother “Johnny” enters. Black Jack Randall is back, and he and Claire strike up a deal: In exchange for nursing his brother, Black Jack will give up the British army’s location. Menzies, again, is so good as a complex villain, one who struggles with his inner demons, but loves his brother unconditionally. When Alex asks Johnny to marry Mary so their child can have a future, Black Jack hesitates. He knows what may happen to her (or the child) under his watch. Just when we develop an iota of sympathy for Black Jack, he tells Claire in a powerful pub scene that he regrets nothing that he did with Jamie. While his words are cruel—his actions are worse. When Alex finally succumbs, leave it to Black Jack to jump on his corpse and beat the body in anger and sadness, while Mary and Claire (and the audience) look on in disbelief and horror. Our jaws dropped at that scene, and we have to marvel at Menzies’ skills in such such short stints onscreen.
Written by Diana Gabaldon herself, “Vengeance is Mine” is high-stakes throughout. The Jacobites are marching closer to their doom at Culloden, and the time between Jamie and Claire is dwindling. There’s a moment when Jamie says a Gaelic prayer over Claire while she sleeps, and while it has a different pace than the rest of the episode, it’s a welcome respite for the lovers in the midst of war. There have been fewer scenes of tenderness and intimacy (compared to last season), so Gabaldon herself made sure to include one when she penned this episode. Otherwise, danger and suspense rule this riveting episode. When Jamie, Claire and his militia get ambushed by a British patrol, Dougal does a high-flying horse ride to save Rupert, who’s been shot through the eye (as if losing Angus weren’t enough!). They get to the relative safety of a church until the British patrol finds them, and Claire and Jamie argue about who will save the group. Ultimately, Claire’s plan wins out, and she knows that Jamie will find her—he always does. Claire is then held captive in a home belonging to the slimy Duke of Sandringham, and he’s not alone, as his goddaughter turns out to be Mary Hawkins. She had nowhere else to go after her rape and broken engagement in Paris. (The relationship comes out of left field, since they were in Paris together on several occasions, but if we can accept time travel, then we can look past this detail, too.) The episode has an even bigger reveal, in that we learn the Duke’s manservant led the attack on Mary and Claire in Paris. The episode climaxes in the kitchen as revenge is exacted in a bloody fashion: Mary kills her attacker, while Murtagh strikes down the Duke with an ax, and offers the head to Claire and Mary as a trophy, proof of his loyalty and a way of apologizing for not protecting them in Paris. There’s undertone of gallows humor here, and it’s a great way to end the episode. Maybe they should let that newbie screenwriter Gabaldon write a few more of these next season.
“Faith” is full of heartbreak and horror, and Balfe delivers a career-changing performance. Other actors would be tempted to overplay the emotion, but it’s the restraint from Balfe that proves to be the most haunting. Claire has to endure the aftermath of her miscarriage, alone, while Jamie sits in the Bastille for dueling in Paris, which is outlawed. She’s not just paralyzed with grief, but also seethes with anger toward Jamie for breaking his promise not to fight. The roller-coaster of an episode continues when Fergus reveals to Claire that Jamie only went after Black Jack because he sexually assaulted the boy. If that weren’t enough, Claire is also asked to judge a witch trial between Master Raymond and the Comte, and then has to sleep with King Louis in order to set Jamie free. It sounds like a Greek tragedy, but Balfe, Berrux and Heughan keep things grounded in reality, making us feel every bit of heartache. When Jamie is released from prison at the end of the episode, there’s no big sweeping, weepy romantic reunion. Heughan and Balfe play their characters as if separated by a chasm of grief, and it’s not until the end of the episode that a simple holding of hands signals a new start and hope for a couple, who’ve already endured so much.
The Outlander cast and crew breaks the mold with this episode and arguably offers the best of the series so far. With such a complicated tale to tell—from the looming Battle of Culloden to Jamie and Claire’s goodbyes, a couple of murders and the introduction of key characters Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin)—the script (written by Matt Roberts and Toni Graphia and directed by Philip John) delivers on all fronts. Unlike the season’s first episode, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” which clunkily separated the 20th and 18th-century storylines, Dragonfly in Amber seamlessly blends the timelines, moving back and forth through history. Much of the episode focused on Brianna and Roger uncovering secrets from the past, and Brianna learning about her true lineage. But where Jamie and Murtagh accepted Claire’s time travel tale without question, leave it to a daughter to call her mother a loon, (which is exactly what we would have done, too). The episode also features Dougal’s death at the hands of Jamie and Claire, and the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) just before she travels back through the stones.
However, this episode’s heart, and our emotional overload, rests squarely on the shoulders of Balfe and Heughan. Jamie is a hero, seeing that his Fraser clan, Fergus and Claire are safely away from the battlefield. Just when we think that Claire’s goodbye to Jamie on the Culloden Battlefield in the 1960s is a heartbreaker, Heughan and Balfe throw us a one-two punch to the gut, as they deliver a riveting performance as lovers saying their farewell at the stones. It’s amazing to watch these two light up the screen with a chemistry that’s hard to match on TV right now. The episode’s last scene at the stones is brilliantly shot, particularly the moment when Roger and Brianna tell Claire they’ve found a document mentioning Jamie’s escape from captors after Culloden. The stones, the sky and Claire’s countenance all change and brighten, inspiring hope for the road ahead (or back, in time). And we can’t wait.
The Outlander team is currently prepping for Season Three: Voyager.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.