If you're casually scrolling through your recommended shows, you may stumble across Outlander and think it's just another historical romance novel adaptation. In reality, it's a time-traveling glimpse into Scotland's history and an expertly crafted lesson in character development. Focusing on themes of love, loss, family, and conflict, the show adapts Diana Gabaldon's insanely popular book series for television. I found it after watching Game of Thrones, and the lush world and complex storytelling keeps me interested while I await House of the Dragon. If you're an Outlander skeptic, allow me to convert you over the course of this article. Trust me, this show is way more badass than you might be expecting for a show known for its steam.
Now that you've been introduced, let's get down to business…
Let me start off by saying this article will not be discussing Jamie Fraser's kneecaps. Yep, that's a whole thing the internet concocted and we're not going there. If you're looking to read about the more…ahem, romantic…aspects of the show, you're gonna have to go elsewhere.
Secondly, I haven't read the books, and I shan't pretend like I have. This article is going to stick to the TV show content. I shall stay in my lane.
After this point, spoilers abound!
The real-world history in the show
Historical fantasy fans, fasten your seatbelts: Outlander was inspired by real events. The show begins around the time of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. That's when supporters of James the VII of Scotland formed a rebellion in the hopes of restoring James (or his heirs) to the British throne. James had been usurped by his Protestant son-in-law, and his grandson, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, tried to regain rule. The Bonnie Prince Charlie garnered a good deal of support from the Highlanders as well as other factions, and they eventually advanced into England. However, the devastating Battle of Culloden brought his advancement to an end in 1746. We meet the Prince and experience that historic battle and its aftermath in Outlander. Expect political intrigue, betrayals, and poisonings right from the start.
The super-short summary of what happened in Seasons 1-5
Claire Randall (played by Catriona Balfe, who's now a BAFTA Nominee for Belfast), a combat nurse in World War II, and her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) find each other again after the end of the war. They've been through a lot of things while apart, but they're committed to rekindling their relationship. While taking a trip to the Scottish Highlands to spend some quality time, they secretly visit the standing stones called Craigh na Dun to watch a ritual. Later on, Claire returns alone to the stones in search of a certain plant she had noticed (she has an interest in botany) and finds herself pulled through time by the stones to a point two hundred years into the past.
There, she meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) whose family takes her in. Also, throughout the season, they contend with Captain Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, Frank's ancestor. To the audience's horror, he looks exactly like Frank (and is also played by Menzies). Henceforth referred to as Captain Randall in this article, he can be described as Jamie's archenemy. This man is cruel with a capital "C" and we hate him.
Fraser and Co. go to great lengths to keep Claire safe from harm and out of Randall's hands. She and Jamie marry to change Claire's legal status from English to Scottish so Captain Randall won't have jurisdiction over her as an English subject. The season ends with them trying to escape to a new home only to find themselves embroiled once again in Captain Randall's sadistic schemes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the timeline, Frank struggles to come to terms with his wife's disappearance and finally leaves her suitcase behind in the Highlands in an attempt to move on with his life.
The concept of being flung through time two hundred years into the past, with everyone you’ve known and love now nonexistent, is fucking terrifying. Add being caught up in the underpinnings of war to the mix, and you have a real nail-biter. As if that wasn’t enough, Captain Randall sends it all straight to hell. The end of this season sees Jamie and Claire set sail, hoping to change the course of history.
My take on Season 1: This season boldly tackles the moral dilemmas Claire faces in her new situation. One thing that really stood out to me as a viewer was the way Outlander handles the repercussions of each character’s decisions. Claire, someone who knows history and which side won, now finds herself on the side that lost. Not only that, she finds herself newly widowed (I guess?), ignorant to the way of life around her, and embroiled in politics she can now influence to some degree. How strong can newfound loyalties really be in the face of an unshakeable threat? Season 1 isn’t afraid to find out.
Claire and Jamie go to France to infiltrate the Jacobite rebellion and hopefully prevent the Battle of Culloden. Their attempts to alter the future become increasingly desperate, and viewers feel a great sense of foreboding because it could very well be Jamie, Murtagh (Jamie's godfather, played by Duncan Lacroix), and others falling on that battlefield. While in France, they navigate French society, a world of intrigue, and lavish parties. However, Prince Charles Stuart (Andrew Gower) is difficult to persuade. Changing history proves challenging, and Jamie and Claire do everything they can to stop the uprising that leads to the end of the Scottish lifestyle they hold dear.
They are thwarted at every turn and end up back in Scotland with The Battle of Culloden rapidly approaching. Dougal MacKenzie, War Chieftain of Clan MacKenzie (played by none other than Couch Soup guest Graham McTavish–Uncharted fans rejoice!), overhears Jamie and Claire’s last-ditch plan to stop the Jacobite efforts before it’s too late, and he violently confronts them. Loyal to his cause until the end, in a heart-wrenching scene, he becomes one of the first casualties of the finale.
My take on Season 2: Watching this season felt like racing toward a rock wall, the end looming and seemingly inevitable. The characters don’t run from it; rather they attempt to confront the plot’s conflict head-on. They show agency, courage, and tenacity. But it's human will versus the sands of time. Is history truly unchangeable, even against our protagonists' best efforts?
To keep Claire and their unborn child safe, Jamie had sent her back through the stones right before Culloden. Her return to her own time was heart-wrenching, to say the least. Once back in her own time, she and Frank reunite, and though their relationship is troubled and clearly never the same, Frank agrees to raise Jamie and Claire's daughter.
Jamie survives Culloden and kills Captain Randall. Afterward, he struggles with the trauma of surviving the battle, losing Claire, and not knowing the fate of their child. They were concerned that while Claire could time travel, the baby may not be able to. This season also sees their daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton), alive and well, and developing a relationship with a young man named Roger (Richard Rankin). By the end of the season, Claire and Jamie have reunited again after Claire journeys once more through the stones to find him. They travel across an ocean and endure disease and unrest on the voyage. Our protagonists end the season in Jamaica facing off against an old adversary (we hate her, too).
Nerd Note: Roger is related to Dougal MacKenzie from seasons 1 & 2 among others in the story. Time travel and family trees…
My take on Season 3: I want to take a moment to acknowledge the villains in this show. To say they are shocking is an understatement. Randall’s death in particular has stuck with me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forget it. There are few characters I have hated–no, loathed–more. I'd rank Captain Randall right under Joffrey and Ramsay from Game of Thrones, only because Joffrey was unpredictable as hell and Ramsay literally skinned people.
Claire and Jamie move to colonial America and start up a new life for themselves. Claire is aware of the American Revolution that's not far down history's road. With this knowledge, they face difficulty balancing their loyalty to the British ruling class of the time. They meet a pirate named Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) (we hate him, too, too), and he goes on to do many terrible things throughout the show. Brianna and Roger, still in the 20th century, search for clues recorded throughout 18th-century history that prove Claire successfully reunited with Jamie. They do find the clues, but they also uncover something terrifying. The new information has them hurrying to follow Claire through the stones to find Brianna's parents while there's still time.
My take on Season 4: Outlander has never been an easy show to watch. This season is no exception, and trouble follows our characters from the start. The show highlights how dangerous, complicated, and complex it would be to not only navigate the past but experience it firsthand. This season juxtaposes some of the worst attitudes of the time with Claire’s more evolved attitudes toward equality and her commitment to saving lives. Our main characters grapple with what’s right, what’s wrong, and how to act when your hands are tied by history itself.
Claire has reunited with Brianna and Roger, Jamie has met his daughter for the first time, and disaster was staved off. The Frasers previously established a home on an acreage known as Fraser's Ridge, and, in this season, they focus on protecting their growing foundation.
Nerd Note: You can actually get pretty close to where Fraser's Ridge is supposed to be by going to Grandfather Mountain State Park (and other locations) in North Carolina. In fact, Fraser’s Ridge Homecoming 2022, a fan event celebrating the history of Outlander’s North Carolina backcountry wilderness, is hosting an exciting gathering that Graham McTavish is attending as a special guest. You can learn more about that here.
Jamie has tenuous loyalty with the British. However, Murtagh, Jamie's godfather, has no such loyalties. Murtagh has been Jamie's friend, father figure, and confidante since Season 1. Jamie is tasked with hunting down and killing Murtagh, who is part of the Regulator Rebellion. The Battle of Alamance occurs during the War of the Regulation, and I won't spoil what happens. Suffice it to say it's been about a year since I saw this episode, and I'm still not okay with it.
Brianna and Roger are building their relationship, Roger struggles to earn Jamie's respect, and the season finale sees Jamie going on a rescue mission to save Claire from brutal captors.
My take on Season 5: The standout episode for me was "The Ballad of Roger Mac." Murtagh's death and the way it comes about was devastating. It highlighted, for me, the central theme of consequences. Jamie gave his orders, and they were followed, but damn. At what cost? This complex and visceral question has been a theme since Season 1, and, for better or for worse, it shows no signs of letting up now. I was left asking myself, "What else can they stand to lose if it all goes wrong?" I’m afraid to know the answer.
This is the most straightforward series summary I could come up with, and I'm actually surprised I was able to streamline it this much. Some of it crosses seasons, but I kept it chronological. There are many pivotal characters I've left out and many, many experiences and events I haven't mentioned for the sake of keeping this recap short (otherwise this article would be a novella). Please also be advised that this show includes many instances of violence, physical and sexual abuse, and other possibly triggering content. If you are wanting to watch but are concerned with the content, you can reference this list of trigger warnings to inform your viewing discretion.
What to expect in Season 6
Here's what we know so far: Claire and Jaime have founded their home, Fraser's Ridge, on land in North Carolina granted to them by the Crown. Their world is undergoing extreme political upheaval, and the American Revolution is rapidly approaching. Against this backdrop, the two have to navigate increasing conflict on both Fraser's Ridge and between themselves and the Crown. Lines will be drawn.
Outlander may be your new favorite show if…
Do you enjoy a lush world, complex storytelling, and romance set against a historical backdrop? How about villains you’d like to strangle, sword fights, and politics that will have you willingly picking up a history book? If you slept through it in high school, don't worry because it comes alive in this kickass show! Outlander depicts strong friendships and explores themes of loyalty, love, and loss. Some badass characters are involved, as well as some morally gray ones. (I'm looking at you, Dougal!) There are some terrible, terrible, terrible characters that pollute the screen, as well. Jamie, Claire, and their family have fought hard to be who they are "today," and it's moving to watch their stories grow.
I learned a good deal about Scottish history while watching (though I know they take creative liberties), and I've enjoyed the show's dialogue overall. And about that violence, even if you've seen Game of Thrones or a similar show, be advised that Outlander has some scenes that were hard to watch for me even after watching GOT episodes like "The Mountain and the Viper." Viewers grow very attached to these characters, and the show is not afraid to hurt them. On that note…
A few personal thoughts
I, for one, am terrified of what's about to happen. I have no idea who lives. I have no idea who dies. I have no idea who is about to have their ass handed to them.
These characters have overcome so much in the past five seasons. I've been rewatching from Season 1 as a refresher, and I've noticed that Claire, for one, has grown exponentially from who she was when she started out. As a viewer who hasn't read the books, I have no idea what to expect. And that’s scary as hell.
I'm genuinely worried about the Frasers. They'll be navigating the thin ice between loyalty to the British and loyalty to their newfound home. Everyone looks to be in a great deal of danger, and many characters have recently survived exceedingly difficult situations. I'm also nervous to see how the show handles the many historical events they may possibly cover in this season. I hope they include respectful and accurate representation for all parties involved.
To be frank (no "Frank" pun intended), this season's gonna be a nail-biter for me. I've done my best, even while researching, not to get too far into spoiler territory for Season 6 so that I can be surprised when I watch it. I may regret that… it feels like (more) tears are on the horizon.
You can join me and watch Outlander on STARZ, with Season 6 premiering on March 6, 2022. Some past seasons are available on Netflix if you want to catch up.
Are you tuning in to watch Jamie and Claire face the Revolutionary War? If so, let me know your favorite stress management tactics. I'm gonna need them!