Most television shows have one of two patterns: They either start strong and go downhill (Dexter, True Blood, True Detective) or they have shaky first seasons that progress into amazing subsequent seasons (The Leftovers, Black Sails). Outlander seems like the first kind of show, as it had a strong first season that petered into a limping second season. But there’s reason to believe it will forge a path as a new kind of show — one that starts strong, stumbles, and then recovers.
Its second season lacked any semblance of tension or urgency because we were watching Jamie and Claire conspire to stop a battle the very first episode. Season 2 had some enjoyable moments and lovely scenes along the way (anything with Murtagh, Claire grieving her dead baby, that final goodbye at Craigh na Dun), but it had far more exasperating scenes that went on too long, moments that felt contrived (Black Jack popping up everywhere like an evil Waldo, Hugh the mute beggar displaying heretofore unknown traveling skills that allow him to locate far-flung characters whenever they need him), and included irrelevant side characters that had no impact on the story (the Comte St. Germain, Louise) while abandoning the characters we’d grown invested in throughout Season 1 — before awkwardly bringing them back halfway through the season.
To top it all off, Outlander, which had rightfully earned critical buzz for having a uniquely feminine perspective, suddenly decided that Season 2 no longer needed female directors or interesting sex scenes. It also didn’t show us the battle everyone had spent the entire season talking about. The result was a stretch of thirteen episodes that felt like filler for next season.
So, why then does Season 3 stand a fighting chance?
For starters, it has a coherent story arc and a clear goal. Part of why Season 2 was a mess was that Jamie and Claire’s entire plan to stop Culloden was a disaster. They began in France, trying to stop the rebellion by hanging out in brothels, watching the King shit, and kicking it with nuns who are friends with Bach. None of these things included doing anything compelling or proactive, like killing Prince Charles.
They then went back to Scotland and publicly supported Prince Charles for some reason, while still worrying about Culloden. At the last minute, they decided to actually get their shit together and make a half-assed assassination attempt on Prince Charles, which they should have done a long time ago. Their plan was foiled by Dougal, resulting in his death instead.
Vague spoilers, Voyager is mostly a rescue mission. The season will still jump around in time — according to a recent interview, we will see Claire’s rocky marriage with Frank in the ‘50s and ‘60s before he died, and we have to see Jamie’s experience at Culloden. But after they find each other, the story is a straightforward adventure yarn.
There will still be new characters, but there will also be old characters like Geillis and her delightful batshittery. Even though there will be some new locations, it won’t be like France where it turns into an entirely new show you didn’t sign up for.
Unlike Season 1, it will not end in a graphic rape sequence and it won’t feature an entire episode where the writers don’t even bother pretending it’s not blatant filler (looking at you, “The Search”). We’ll get the best parts of Season 1 and 2 and learn more about time travel while throwing in some pirate shenanigans and seeing Jamie with one artful gray streak.
So, yes, Outlander stumbled in Season 2. But it will recover in Season 3, in all likelihood, quite gloriously.