“Outlander” has really been through it all, as one does when you’re a romantic period-piece time-traveling series. Throughout its run, show protagonists, Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), have been through the wringer time and time again, facing the ravages of time travel, multiple wars, more than a few brutal assaults and imprisonments, and the basic shittiness of living in the 1700s. They’ve pulled through it together, becoming one of television’s most staunch examples of true love.
The show’s new season—its sixth—premieres March 6 on Starz, and kicks off in 1772, as the Fraser clan is once again thrust into seemingly insurmountable tensions on the cusp of the looming American Revolutionary War. Living on land granted to him by England’s King George III but armed with the knowledge afforded to him having a wife that’s actually from the 21st century, Jamie is stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to walk the tightrope between what he knows is right and actually keeping his family safe.
Claire’s not without struggles as well. In Season 5, she was abducted, assaulted, and gang-raped by a group led by the dastardly Lionel Brown. He’s since been dispatched, but this season Claire is dealing with the aftermath. Though she’s always had a fairly British stiff upper lip and tries to keep it together in Season 6, in reality she’s crumbling from within, turning to a batch of ether she’s used her future brain to concoct, tumbling into medicated twilight whenever her PTSD gets to be a little too much. It’s a bit of an overdone trope in dramatic entertainment—inner torture leading to secret substance abuse—but it’s hard to know what other outlets for release Claire would have had at the time.
There are new arrivals to Fraser’s Ridge as well, like Jamie’s Ardsmuir Prison friend/enemy Tom Christie (Mark Lewis Jones), who brings with him both a mob of Scottish fisherfolk and a rigid and puritanical adherence to his protestant faith. His children, Allan (Alexander Vahlos) and Malva (Jessica Reynolds), come loaded down with their own baggage, with Allan’s sticky fingers leading to a run-in with the Browns and Malva’s perhaps-too-keen interest in working with Claire suggesting there may be something more to her shy personality than meets the eye.
As “Outlander” has progressed, it’s gradually expanded its universe and cast of characters, sometimes to the detriment of the story. There’s just so much going on at any given time. That doesn’t change in Season 6, with mixed results. Out-of-time engineer Brianna (Sophie Skelton) takes a bit of a back seat as she struggles to balance her independent, interested mind with what it means to be a woman in colonial America. Husband Roger (Richard Rankin) seems to be dabbling with the ministry and could be getting in too deep with a new family on the ridge.
Ian, Marsali, and Fergus get a few juicy storylines this season. Young Ian (John Bell) is beginning to open up a bit about life as a Mohawk, exposing viewers and his family to a whole side of him as yet unexplored. Fergus (César Domboy) is, like Claire, struggling with the aftermath of the whole Brown affair and what he sees as his failure to protect wife Marsali (Lauren Lyle). He’s found comfort in the whisky he produces, to the detriment of his own responsibilities and sensibilities. Meanwhile, a very pregnant Marsali is doing much too much heavy lifting—physical and emotional—and when the baby comes, he’s not quite what the parents had expected. Those who have read Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, and in particular “A Breath of Snow and Ashes,” know what will happen here, but watching it play out is simultaneously uplifting and deeply, deeply depressing.
There’s always more going on, including a wacky bit about a not-so-dead woman and a sin-eater, but the core of “Outlander” always remains—and by that we mean the presence of steamy sex scenes between Claire and Jamie. This season, they come about once an episode, and while the now middle-aged couple doesn’t quite have the rigor or stamina they once had, that doesn’t make their coupling any less spicy. The sex now is often more of an expression of love and connection now than it was in earlier seasons (though that certainly happened on occasion then as well), and it’s refreshing to see how even that part of Claire and Jamie’s relationship has grown and changed.
It’s been almost two years since fans last got new episodes of “Outlander,” meaning it’s been quite the “droughtlander,” as the saying goes. Some fans might rue that this new season is truncated as well, running only eight episodes both because of COVID concerns and because of Balfe’s hard-to-hide real-life pregnancy. In fact, that could be a bit of a blessing, since each of the Season 6 episodes is packed to the gills with plot, emotion, and trauma. This season needs to breathe, especially since it seems like season seven will find the gang thrust in the thick of the war.
Frasier’s Ridge “Outlander” isn’t pre-Battle of Culloden “Outlander,” with all its bodice-ripping and steamy, steamy intrigue, but it’s just as satisfying in a different way. These characters are still learning and growing together, and getting to see how the Fraser clan grows and develops is a gift in its own way. While some of that growth can be stressful, especially when it comes on the heels of massive trauma, it allows viewers to gain a wider view of Claire, Jamie, and the rest of the gang along with a more nuanced and in-depth look at their interactions and livelihoods.
That’s ultimately what makes the new season of “Outlander” so satisfying, especially after such a gap since Season 5: It both tantalizes and satiates at the same time. “Outlander” fans no doubt will love this new season, but they’ll also be left, as always, wanting more. [B+]
“Outlander” Season 6 debuts on March 6.