Outlander’s fiercely beating heart has always been the relationship between Claire and Jamie. For most of the Season 2 finale’s 90 minutes, we’re left to guess what’s happened to the couple after the previous episode made clear that the ill-fated Battle of Culloden will definitely take place. We open in Scotland in 1968, where Claire and her suspiciously auburn-haired daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton), attend the funeral of the Reverend Wakefield — who helped Claire and Frank 20 years earlier when Claire re-appeared through the stones back in the season premiere.
The finale solves the season-long mystery of how and why Claire came back to the 1940s, although it takes its time getting there. From the episode’s start, it’s pretty clear that Brianna is the daughter of Claire and Jamie — the child that Frank, who is revealed to have died in 1966, swore he would raise as his own. “Dragonfly in Amber” finds a rather somber Claire returning to Scotland for the first time since she and Frank left the U.K. for Boston in 1948, hoping to put the past behind them.
As Brianna flirts with the handsome Roger Wakefield ( Thirteen ’s Richard Rankin), the reverend’s adopted son — remember, we saw him as a child back in the premiere — Claire makes a pilgrimage to Lallybroch and other familiar sites. (She cringes when Brianna mentions she and Roger visited Fort William, where Jamie was flogged in Season 1.) Writers Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts interweave these scenes, which take place over a few days, with flashbacks to the morning of April 16, 1746, the date of the Battle of Culloden. (Check back on Monday for our interview with Graphia and Roberts!) My one complaint in the finale is that we don’t spend enough time in the 18th century — just as a scene appears to be revving up, we cut back to the future, deflating the tension that’s building towards the big battle.
Back in the 18th century, Jamie makes one last attempt to change Prince Charles Stuart’s mind, but the stubborn prince won’t be swayed. The Scots will fight — and, as only Claire and Jamie know, die. Desperate, Claire suggests poisoning Charles with yellow jasmine, the same fatal potion she gave Colum MacKenzie in last week’s episode, at his behest.
Jamie balks at the idea, but as they consider it, a very drunk, very tired Dougal — still feeling the aftershock of his brother’s death — barges in. He accuses Jamie of betraying his people and “Scotland herself,” and calls Claire “a lying slut who would lead a man by the cock to his doom, with her claws sunk deep into his balls.” Zing! Drawing his sword, he attacks, and in the skirmish that ensues, both Claire and Jamie end up driving a knife deep into Dougal’s chest, killing him. Franky I’m glad to see the character go; I never forgave him for attacking Claire in Season 1.
Later, Jamie instructs Murtagh to lead the Frasers of Lallybroch away from the battlefield. “This battle is already lost,” he says. “No matter how righteous, it was doomed from the start…I’ll not have my kin die for nothing.” Finally, he takes Claire by the hand and insists she go back in time through the stones at Craigh na Dun — if only for the sake of their child. Stunned, Claire realizes that Jamie has been keeping track of her “courses.” He knows that she’s missed her last two periods and must be pregnant. “This child is all that will be left of me,” Jamie says. “Ever.”
In both the 1746 and 1968 scenes, Catriona Balfe is excellent, expressing the grief of losing the love of her life with Claire’s trademark blend of sorrow and anger. (Although the makeup team could have done a better job making the gorgeous Balfe look 20 years older; those stylish grey streaks in her hair didn’t quite convince me.) Jamie and Claire’s tearful farewell at Craigh na Dun (of course, they manage to sneak in a quickie before she passes through the stones) is heartbreaking, a testament to both the acting abilities of Balfe and Sam Heughan and the series’ careful attention to the couple’s relationship throughout both seasons. To find another TV couple with this much believable chemistry, you’d have to go back to Friday Night Lights’ near-mythical Eric and Tami Taylor.
The focus on Claire and Jamie’s bond also makes narrative sense. In “Dragonfly in Amber,” Brianna learns of her Scottish heritage when she discovers newspaper clippings from 1948, when Claire mysteriously returned after being gone for three years. She does the math and realizes that she can’t be Frank’s biological daughter, since she was born less than nine months from Claire’s reappearance. Furious, Brianna confronts her mother, accusing her of having cheated on Frank. Claire tries to explain but Brianna refuses to hear anything about her real father. Roger has to gently remind her that as a history major, she told him that she wanted to learn the truth, no matter how upsetting.
Earlier in the episode, Claire visits a museum where she beholds a wax sculpture of Charles Stuart. “He wasn’t that tall in real life,” she tells a fellow visitor, shaking her head. “He could have been great. He had the name, the cause, the support of good men, willing to lay down their lives for him. They’ve taken a fool and turned him into a hero.” “Dragonfly in Amber” insists that we must learn the truth about our heritage — on a personal and national level — even if it contradicts the rosy stories we tell ourselves about where we came from.
Brianna learns the bizarre truth about her parentage, but she doesn’t really believe her mother’s time-travel story until she sees the evidence with her own eyes. She meets a young activist named Gillian Edgars who leads a rally for Scottish independence. Claire realizes that Gillian is Geillis Duncan — the woman who was burned at the stake back in the first season, and who we learned back then was also from the future: 1968. Claire, Brianna, and Roger race to the stones to try and stop Gillian from traveling back through time, since Claire knows it will only end in her brutal death. They make it just in time to see Gillian pass through the stones, which convinces Brianna that her mother’s story is not a delusion. “No more lies,” she tells Claire. “From now on I only want the truth.”
Claire has spent the episode mourning her long lost love, but at the end, Roger and Brianna deliver a whopping surprise: According to their research, James Fraser did not die in the Battle of Culloden as Claire had assumed for all those years. As the sun rises over the stones at Craigh na Dun, Claire is filled with hope: “I have to go back.”
It’s a shame Outlander’s second season coincided with the sixth season of Game of Thrones, which swallows up so much online conversation during the ten weeks it airs each year. Like Game of Thrones, Outlander doesn’t skimp on action or gross-out gore, and it doesn’t shy away from the reality that rape is often used as a weapon of war. But compared to the HBO juggernaut, Outlander is far more interested in how the trauma of sexual abuse lingers in the bodies and minds of its victims. And most of all, this season of Outlander maintained episode-by-episode momentum while building towards its big conclusion, which this season of Game of Thrones — despite an explosive finale — often failed to do.
Outlander’s second season felt a bit disjointed at times compared to the first (at least if, like me, you haven’t read the books). The show had to figure out how to work in the 1968 flash-forwards that bookend the season, not to mention the entirely new Paris setting of the season’s first half. But considering the amount of material they had to stuff into this truncated second season (13 episodes compared to the first season’s 16), the writers wove the strands of its complicated plot nimbly. And as the show’s writers have said, Outlander is powered by emotional arcs rather than plot points. The finale certainly delivered on that front, with Claire and Jamie’s heartrending farewell and Claire’s decades-later discovery that Jamie may still be alive after all. A fine plaid, indeed.