“Outlander” ended last season with Claire and Jamie shipwrecked on the American coast, bringing with them a mess of a past and no idea of their future. More than just a shift in geography, however, Season 4 represents a new age for Claire and Jamie. Their dynamic feels settled, maybe for the first time. It’s a novel experience to watch them discuss eight-year plans and give presents they assume they’ll live long enough to use. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are well-suited to this, giving Claire and Jamie a gentle married-couple telepathy that neatly sketches the state of their relationship.
But of course, wherever Jamie goes a villain is sure to follow, and this season we get Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers), a walking warning about … something. He is clever and intense and aiming for charming. But when Claire and Jamie help him escape the noose, they unleash a monster. As if to prove it, he and gang of pirates rob their river boat, complete with beatings, a throat-cutting, and some distinctly sexual assault on Claire.
Because this is “Outlander,” we know Bonnet’s presence in their lives won’t end with one raid — and the uncanny valley of this series’s very small world is that by now, Claire and Jamie sort of know that, too. Does that mean they shouldn’t have helped him? Does it mean they shouldn’t help any desperate types who seem unsavory? What are the limits of mercy? These are rough problems to encounter so soon in the season, and they make for a grim note on which to end this week’s premiere.
In fact, despite new beginnings, there’s a sense of gloom all over. The memorial song in the pub, a melancholy echo of waulking the wool in Season 1, hints at Claire’s eternally unsettled place in this world: She’s an outsider in a way Jamie isn’t, and knowing the broad strokes of the future makes it only harder during moments like these. Also, their found family is breaking to pieces: Gavin is hanged, Lesley is murdered, Fergus and Marsali stay in Wilmington. And beyond visiting Riverrun, Jamie, Claire and Ian still don’t quite know where they’re going.
At heart, the thrill of the action in “Outlander” has been watching Claire and Jamie fight tooth and nail for change in the face of things that seemed inevitable. (The Governor’s wink-wink mention of the gulf between the law and what is done sums up what our heroes always rebel against: unjust laws, or unjust flouting of them.) In its first seasons, “Outlander” had a clear focus on this in both personal stakes — Claire’s negotiating a perilous past — and historical ones, like preventing the Battle of Culloden. Season 3 dealt with the aftermath of turning points in both stories, as Claire navigated the 20th century and Jamie struggled for freedom in post-rebellion Scotland. And time was, quite literally, always of the essence.
This really is a new stage in the show’s development, then. Despite the robbery, their time in America has none of the urgency that bore down on them at every turn back home. In fact, this show’s nihilist streak (trying to change the past usually gets you nowhere) is doubly in evidence here. Knowing that the American Revolution is coming, with no inclination to stop it, they casually debate whether to go back to Scotland. And when Claire mentions the genocide of Native Americans — “They’re driven from their ancestral lands. Killed. Forced to live on reservations” — she sounds blandly resigned to history for the first time since we’ve known her.