Though Jamie (San Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) are as settled as we’ve ever seen them, Outlander itself starts its sixth season a little adrift. Maybe the writers are unsure what to do when there’s time between world-changing battles that the Frasers always seem to find themselves in the middle of (although the American Revolution is edging ever-closer), but when we return to Fraser’s Ridge things start out a little slow—and not in the good “let’s just hang out with the family” kind of way.
The show can be at its best in times like these, where we get to see Jamie and Claire as partners living a life together rather than racing through time to save one another. And in the aftermath of yet another brutal season which saw Claire attempting to recover from horrendous trauma, there is something lovely about episodes that don’t include so much upheaval. But there’s also a restlessness to the writing and editing that feels uncomfortable with just letting its characters be.
Despite that early uncertainty, by the time we’ve trudged through to the third and fourth episodes of the new season (truncated to eight hourlong-plus chapters, four of which were available for review), we are rewarded with important time spent among some of the show’s secondary cast. We finally learn what happened to Ian (John Bell) during his time with the Mohawk, and there is compelling drama swirling with Fergus (Cesar Domboy) and his guilt over his wife being attacked while he was away, while Marsali (Lauren Lyle) must deal with her husband’s new fondness for drink and apathy towards their children.
These kinds of smaller stories are where Outlander really excels. It’s more sure-footed and less awkward than when it’s attempting to trod tired ground about Puritan-esque culture and superstition, or even in some of its flat, cursory exploration of the Cherokee and Mohawk tribes. Speaking of flat, there is again a political plot that simmers in the background, into which Jamie is (as always) dragged against his will, but it fails to ignite interest. What is genuinely more intriguing is the also-simmering plot of Roger (Richard Rankin) becoming an accidental preacher for the new devout settlement, one of the show’s rare multi-episode character arcs that doesn’t directly impact the main story. As for Roger’s wife well, unfortunately Brianna (Sophie Skelton) doesn’t have much to do; she figures out how to make matches and no one is very impressed, and laments that they just think she should be a mother and get on with it. (The countdown to the story reinforcing that idea is on.)
It’s a tricky balance, because as much as we need to spend time with these expanding narratives, Outlander continues to struggle with the fact that Jamie and Claire’s story and their supernatural chemistry completely overwhelm anything else happening. Though there are interesting stories that play out around them, and Season 6 introduces new faces and dramas thanks to the expansion of the local settlement, nothing ever shines quite as brightly as the two of them.
Perhaps because of that, in the first two episodes back Outlander feels like it’s recycling too much from its past, instead of letting its characters (especially new ones) grow and thrive. And once again, the show lamentably indulges in its love of physical torture, particularly whippings. But despite this shaky start—including extensive flashbacks just to set up a single character who is the least interesting of all of the new characters introduced—there are brief moments of the old Outlander spark when we encounter the Scottish diaspora. America may be where the Frasers have settled, but the show’s heart truly remains in Scotland, and it would be nice to see a little more about how the Highlanders carry their culture to this new world outside of being disorganized hotheads.
Still, there are elements of frontier life, the discovery of new traditions, and ways of coping with what Outlander has always portrayed as a dangerous, horrible time, that make the show a cozy watch. Again, these character-driven plots or even episodic arcs are what make the series so satisfying to watch. But it’s impossible to say which way the show will go next as it marches through the back half of this season. With fewer episodes and what seems like a fair amount of ground to cover, hopefully Outlander will not abandon its good character work for convoluted plotting. As I wrote regarding the Season 5 finale, the show continues to undermine its truly excellent themes of family and acceptance and warmth through its obsession with sexual assault and physical violence. War is on the way, yes, but hopefully the rest of Outlander Season 6 holds fast to its foundations against the coming storm, and allows our beleaguered Frasers some well-earned rest in the meantime.
Outlander Season 6 premieres Sunday, March 6th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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