Starz’s Outlander has been in fine form throughout its fifth season, operating with a level of confidence not seen since its second season. The return to smaller scale, character-driven storytelling has paid off in spades, with the last six episodes comprising one of the show's best stretches to date, providing it with a satisfying sense of forward momentum heading into the finale.
The strong showing is that much more impressive when you consider the state of Outlander prior to its return this year. The fourth season continued problems that plagued Season 3, and was generally considered the show's worst to date, leading many to wonder if the show's goose was cooked.
Fortunately, Season 5 has managed to right the ship. How exactly did the writers manage such a satisfying return to form?
For starters, Outlander has always been at its best when it has kept its focus small. Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, the show’s first two seasons were memorable for the way that they all but ignored the sci-fi elements at the heart of the series. In fact, for a show about a WWII nurse accidentally traveling back in time to the 18th century Scottish highlands, Outlander rarely felt like anything other than a period romance, and it was all the better for it. The show found its strength in the relationship between Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), and any time the series separated them or turned its focus away from their relationship, the story has suffered.
So it’s not hard to see why Outlander’s third and fourth seasons were less engrossing than its first two. Following the same chronology as Gabaldon’s novels, years three and four delved further into Outlander's time traveling mechanics, resulting in numerous time jumps and location changes, as well as the introduction of multiple new lead and supporting characters. It was too much, and in an effort to condense the books into single seasons, the show adopted a breakneck pace that stood in stark contrast to the measured storytelling of its early years. As a result, less time was given to the quiet, introspective moments fans loved.
This approach proved to be disastrous in Season 4, where in addition to following Claire and Jamie as they struggled to establish a life together in America, the show also dedicated a good chunk of time to the relationship between Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin).
Thankfully, where Outlander’s last two seasons dedicated a majority of their episodes to bringing its characters together, this season has focused on keeping them together. Gone are the times when Jamie, Claire, Brianna, or Roger would be separated from one another for multiple episodes at a time, and gone is the show’s tendency to prioritize plot over character. Instead, the four characters have (for the most part) been together as they've dealt with each of the season's major dramatic events.
Since it hasn’t had to dedicate so much time separating and then reuniting its leads, Outlander has finally had more time to develop major emotional beats and subplots. The show spent several episodes setting up moments like Murtagh’s (Duncan Lacroix) tragic death and Brianna’s inevitable confrontation with Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) before finally delivering on them, and they landed with real emotional force as a result. Even minor storylines like Marsali (Lauren Lyle) and Claire’s growing friendship, or Claire’s medical escapades have felt reminiscent of the show's memorable subplots of the past.
The same goes for Outlander’s depiction of trauma and grief. Take the show’s depiction of Roger’s hanging at the Battle of Alamance, or his struggle to deal with the psychological and emotional effects that moment had upon him. One of the show’s finest episodes to date managed to make viewers sympathize with Roger in a way they never had before, as the show took us inside the character's head to see the internal conflict raging within. It was an episode that called to mind some of the best installments of previous seasons, like Jamie's struggle to recover from the mental and physical torture inflicted upon him by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) in the first season finale, or Claire and Jamie's heartbreaking reunion following the loss of their child in Season 2.
As anyone who has stuck with the show can attest, it’s hard to discuss Outlander without addressing the way its first two seasons depicted onscreen intimacy and romance in a way that had never been seen on TV before. Part of that was, of course, a result of Outlander’s now infamous sex scenes, which made headlines when the show debuted and have remained a constant talking point in every interview or review since. But the real accomplishment of Outlander’s initial seasons was how intimate it all felt, whether the characters had their kilts on or off. Through a combination of solid writing, confident direction, and emotionally raw performances, Outlander made viewers feel closeness to its characters that made it impossible not to care for them.
More than anything else,it was the loss of that intimacy that made Seasons 3 and 4 so disappointing, and its returm is a large part of what's made watching the show in its fifth season such a pleasure again. Although Outlander has never looked more polished, and its cast remains as large as ever, its fifth season has managed to recapture the empathy and vulnerability that made it must-see TV in the first place.
The season 5 finale of Outlander airs on Starz at 8:00 PM ET Sunday, May 10th.
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Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.