Paris is for lovers, which makes it the perfect setting for the sophisticated — and ultimately successful — return of Mr. and Mrs. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.
Sure, Outlander‘s Claire and Jamie clean up nice in the Starz drama’s second season, which moves the action from the rough highlands of 1700s Scotland to the genteel salons of pre-revolutionary France. But the core of the Frasers’ relationship is a deep passion for one another, expressed lustily and often, and the chemistry between stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan only amplifies as Season 2 kicks off. Translation: Fans of the series’ gorgeously shot love scenes may want to practice fanning themselves while murmuring “Mon dieu!”
Which is not to say that reminders of the sexual violence that dominated the end of Outlander‘s first season have been banished from the Frasers’ fancy new life in the City of Lights. Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall is still very much a maleficent presence in Jamie’s mind, and the series handles Fraser’s PTSD with a patient, realistic hand: The rape was the first blow, but Jamie’s hesitance to open up to Claire about his battered emotional state means Randall’s violation lives on.
The bright side to this anguish (and the season in general) is that it allows Heughan to widen his portrayal of Lord Broch Tuarach beyond broadsword and burlap. James Fraser in France is a merchant with his finger on the pulse of the city, a man able to parlay his charm, wit and pragmatism into positions of counsel for the influential and the ambitious. He also is someone feeling the immense pressure of knowing — thanks to his time-traveler wife — that a terrible battle is on its way, as well as grappling with the supreme doubt he can change history in time to stop the carnage. The constant push-pull wears on the character; when Jamie snaps, such as when he angrily demands that Claire tell him why he must bear everyone’s weaknesses but his own, Heughan dazzles.
But Outlander is first and foremost Claire’s story, and Caitriona Balfe plays the mother-to-be in the same anachronistically forthright style she brought to Season 1. A woman of action in a time where social teas are a lady’s most important endeavor, Balfe sparks with irritation until Claire at last finds her purpose at a charity hospital. (And I’d be remiss not to mention here that Balfe glides about in costume designer Terry Dresbach’s magnificent gowns as though she were born to do so; I defy you to dislodge your eyeballs from the red number Mrs. Fraser wears to French Court. Simply luminous.)
The new characters the Frasers encounter during their Parisian stay provide plenty of intrigue, too. Claire Sermonne as the coquettish Louise, in particular, is eminently watchable as a talk-to for Claire. And Laurence Dobiesz, who plays Black Jack’s younger brother Alex, looks so much like Tobias Menzies, I would’ve put money on the fact that the actors share a bloodline.
The only drawback I encountered while watching the first five episodes provided by the network concerned the tee-hee depiction of life in a Paris brothel in the 18th century. Rather than provocative or envelope-pushing, a scene where ladies of the evening taunt potential customers by lightly boffing them with phallic objects seems just plain silly — a “hey look, we’re on premium cable” moment. Thankfully, that type of thing is sprinkled sparingly throughout the beginning of the season.
“Yes, yes,” all of you Dragonfly in Amber readers are saying, “but tell us what we really want to know!” Starz has put a pretty strict gag order on discussion of certain aspects of the upcoming season, but here’s what I can say: In the episodes I screened, Diana Gabaldon’s story is handled with the same loving care paid in Season 1. For example, a piece of book dialogue I lamented had been cut from the first season’s finale pleasantly surprised me when it showed up a few hours into Season 2 — and when you hear it, you may agree that it has as much emotional impact there as it would have in its original place.
The TVLine Bottom Line: Clad in the silks and satins of 1700s France, Outlander‘s Jamie and Claire Fraser clean up nicely. What a relief, then, that the Starz series does, too, delivering a second season that explores their complicated relationship amid a historical plot with a looming, deadly deadline.