In remaining relatively loyal to the books, Outlander has made some bold choices that other shows might have avoided — for instance, aging its extremely good-looking protagonists 20 years and separating them for roughly half a season. But that's what Outlander has done. And finally, after six episodes and 200 years apart, our lovers have reunited. After returning to the 20th century and rejoining her (first) husband Frank to raise Brianna, her child with Jaime, Claire discovers that Jaime didn't die at the Battle of Culloden as she'd thought. After spending six episodes searching for him, she travels back in time and finds him working in a print shop.
The show with the best sex on television faces a challenge with this reunion: What do lovers who've been separate for two decades do around each other?
Outlander's answer is weird. And awkward. And really, quite strikingly right.
This isn't the first instance of Outlander messing with its genre's conventions and its fans' enthusiasms. Outlander loves defying every expectation one might have of a show that looks to outsiders like a time-traveling bodice-ripper. If you're watching for the sex, too bad; one character spends most of a season working through sexual trauma. You're watching for the strong female character? For Claire Beauchamp, a headstrong, sexually empowered, resourceful young woman? Sorry, she's repressed and joyless now. Watching for the delightful Scottish accents? Tough, we've moved to Paris. You liked those accents too? Meet Brianna. She is — in a generic, uninspiring sort of way — American.
Anyway, our heroes finally reunite. They are older. They're "aged" in the loosest sense of the word: Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are still laughably good-looking and un-grayed in their forty-something instantiations, but their clothes and hair go a long way toward showcasing their age. (Not even Heughan can make Benjamin Franklin-style togs look sexy, and the look Claire chooses for their reunion is a pulled-back, schoolmarmish bun.)
One might expect the initial reunion to involve lovers tearing each other's clothes off and getting down to business. Instead, Jaime passes out and spills liquid all over his crotch. It's the saddest symbolism imaginable.
"Do you mind?" he asks when he comes to, implicitly asking Claire to turn around so he can change. Claire looks at him, uncertainly. "It's alright," she says. "We are married. At least, I think we are." After a long, uncertain pause, Jaime takes off his pants, and stands there looking very goofy in shirt-sleeves. Claire looks at his bare knee, hands at her sides, sporting a shapeless cloak filled with modern-day scalpels.
This is not how we expected this moment to go.
It's hilarious and heartbreaking, and so — in small ways — are each of the revelations that follow. He peers at snapshots of life in 1968 through bifocals. He's shaken, both by the photos of this other life, and by the awkwardness of telling Claire about his son Willie. He walks around barefoot, stares at the fire a lot. "I knew, when I decided to come back, you would have had a life," Claire says, filled with understanding. But this tender production of the broken threads of their lives culminates in Jaime blithely taking her to the brothel where he ... lives. It's an amusing symptom of just how far their basic assumptions have drifted.
"It's not much, but it's convenient," Jaime says. "It's a good deal more comfortable than my cot at the print shop," he adds, unconvincingly. "Perhaps it was a poor idea," he concludes lamely.
"Sounds reasonable enough," says Claire, who's trying hard to be cool with it, but she looks extremely disturbed. (So are we — the narrative aligns our total surprise with hers.)
"You and I, we know each other less now than when we first wed," Jaime says, correctly. That callback to their wedding night feels deliberate: Outlander's approach to wedding night was revolutionary in showing that sex — even between very hot people — can be a hard and awkward negotiation. Back then, it took Claire and Jaime three tries to find their way to mutual pleasure. This scene is in dialogue with that one. "Do you want me?" Jaime asks, and just as the mood seems to be warming — Claire suggests she might be a horrible person, leaning close for a kiss; "you know, Sassenach, I don't think I care," Jaime replies, and the show is about to go for it — they're interrupted by Pauline, the brothel maid, who brings them supper.
It's funny, as is the subsequent scene, which shows them chewing at each other over candlelight. It should be romantic, but it's not. The voiceover tries hard to create the mood everyone wants: "After we finished, the same thought was uppermost in both our minds. It could scarce be otherwise." It's a stilted formulation, as is Jaime's "will ye come to bed with me then?" And what follows — contra the "tearing off each other's clothes" scene we expected — is the slowest undressing in the history of television. Several layers in, they're both still basically wearing suits. And Claire, who has always been so free, so unconcerned, is uncomfortable. Balfe excels at performing a lean, hungry, wild eroticism, but she plays this older Claire as genteel and nervous and almost maternal as she undresses Jaime. She introduces him to a zipper.
"You bloody well say something," Claire says, finally stripped down to nothing. She covers up, nervously. It's so right — the nervousness, the suspicion that age has changed their personalities and bodies and basic attractions. "You as scared as I am?" she says. They break through again, find their way to a true sexual connection, kiss, but Jaime accidentally head-butts Claire in the face. They have a conversation about the "nasty crunching sound" a nose makes when it breaks, determine it hasn't.
It's only when they start giving each other orders — "do it now, and don't be gentle," "give me your mouth, Sassenach" — that they actually reconnect. And when the show finally breaks into pure sexy fan service, it's orgasmic and great, complete with cheesy pillow talk.
But Outlander is unique in how it uses sex to think about character development. It considers how people's sexual "personality" is affected by their life experience, whether it's Jaime's after he's raped or Claire's after 20 years spent sexless and repressed. And people don't just switch back: Claire, for instance, used to keep her eyes open during sex; it was symptomatic of her disconnect from Frank that she kept them closed. It's noteworthy, then, that even with Jaime, they're only open half the time.