How do you make a show in which the audience already knows everything that’s going to happen in it? That’s the challenge Outlander seems to have set for itself, and it’s one it’s met with shocking skill.
Outlander’s problem has been two-fold: First the show is based on historical events, some of which the “modern” characters themselves know. Second, the show is also based on 25-year-old books with a large fandom. So when the ability to surprise an audience with plot twists and turns is greatly diminished, what do the writers do?
Well, for one thing, Outlander spent its second season doubling down on there being no shocking plot twist. We knew from the beginning of the season that Claire was going to return to the 1940s time traveling to 18th century Scotland and falling in love with Jamie Fraser. We knew from the beginning that Claire would be pregnant when she did. And we knew from the beginning that Claire and Jamie’s attempts to stop the Jacobites—and the ruin that would follow—would fail.
Conventional wisdom says that revealing all of this should have stripped Outlander of its tension and drama—that is, after all, why people like J.J. Abrams are so obsessed with the mystery box. (Or why The Walking Dead shot 11 versions of a death scene with 11 different characters, all to preserve the surprise.) In a time travel show, the obvious way of surprising audiences would be to have the characters actually change history, and it’s something our heroes have tried really, really hard to accomplish. But history seems to be locked in Outlander, and thus so is the plot—and no matter the superficial differences from the novels, Outlander still puts its characters exactly where we know they’ll end up.
So instead of relying on surprises, Outlander has placed a huge burden on its characters. The writers have to make sure they are rich and complicated and then the actors have to make us believe it. And they’ve done a superb job.
This second season finale proved all of these things. Outside of the main cast members Catriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies, my favorite actors on this show have been Lotte Verbeek and Graham McTavish. McTavish’s Dougal was a character I hated a good 90% of the time, while also fully believing that, no matter his many, many personal flaws, he was an absolute patriot. Dougal spent so much of his time on screen being a danger to Claire. But he was committed to his cause—making him a much more complicated character than he would have been in any other situation. So his death in the finale served a plot purpose by putting Claire and Jamie in a lot of trouble, but was also a swan song for McTavish’s great performance.
Verbeek’s appearance as fellow time traveler Geillis/Gillian was important from a character standpoint, but also reinforced heavily that nothing in this show can be changed. No matter how hard Claire wants to change things, Geillis is going back, and she’s going to sacrifice herself. There are no paradoxes in Outlander.
The whole finale hurtled toward the battle of Culloden, whose outcome was decided centuries ago (to Claire). So the tension in the show is less about the battle and more Claire and Jamie’s heartbreaking separation, in which Balfe and Heughan will destroy your heart. And, in the 1960s, Claire has to deal with her and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, being raised by her husband Frank.
And again, we know Claire’s story is true. Brianna doesn’t believe her, which is frustrating to viewers, with everything we know. But, again, it’s the character beat of a 20-year-old struggling to have an adult relationship with her mother that rings true.
By focusing on its characters, Outlander has made a show where nothing in the plot surprises us—who really thought Jamie would be dead?—but the characters still keep us riveted. Which is why we’re all dying for season three.