Season two of 'Outlander' begins as Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) arrive in France, hell-bent on infiltrating the Jacobite rebellion led by Prince Charles Stuart (Andrew Gower), and stopping the battle of Culloden. With the help of his cousin Jared (Robert Cavanah), a local wine merchant, Jamie and Claire are thrown into the lavish world of French society, where intrigue and parties are abundant, but political gain proves far less fruitful. Altering the course of history presents challenges that begin to weigh on the very fabric of their relationship. However, armed with the knowledge of what lies ahead, Claire and Jamie must race to prevent a doomed Highland uprising, and the extinction of Scottish life as they know it.
I made no secret of my problems with 'Outlander' back in my Season 1 review of the first eight episodes (the 16-episode first season was split into two Blu-ray releases...this season trims the episode count by three and gets a single release). My biggest issue has been that the series – in which married Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) travels back in time from the 1940s to the mid-1700s and falls in love (and marries) Scottish clansman Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) – is far too biased against the loyal husband waiting for his true love to return to him. Not only does husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) get the short end of the stick when it comes to appearing in any episodes, but when he does, he's portrayed as a one-dimensional snooze to make it easier for viewers to support the Claire/Jamie pairing. To make matters worse, Claire and Jamie's arch nemesis in the 1700s is the sadistic Jack Randall (also played by Menzies), an ancestor of Frank who looks exactly like him – further making it easy for viewers to dislike Claire's 1940's husband.
Therefore, I was quite amazed to see the once-forgotten Frank (he doesn't appear once in the second-half of Season 1) playing a prominent role in the premiere of Season 2, as Claire finds herself back in 1948, two years after her disappearance. Of course, instead of being thankful about being reunited with Frank, she's obsessed with what happened with Jamie back in Scotland – where he's been in the Battle of Culloden, during which Charles Stuart's (Andrew Gower) Jacobite forces (of which the Scottish clans have aligned) are defeated. This first episode does result in a reconciliation between Claire and Frank, but only after she tells him about her time travel, her marriage to Jamie, and the fact that she's pregnant with his child. Frank agrees to raise the baby as their own as long as Claire swears never to mention Jamie to their newborn or continue to try and find out what happened to him.
The rest of Season 2 (well, at least until the season finale which brings us a few more time travel twists that I won't give away in this review) takes viewers back to the 18th Century and shows us what lead up to the events that would cause Claire to finally return to the 1940s. Those who remember the Season 1 ender will recall that she and Jamie were off to France in the hopes of changing history so that the Scots are not crushed at the Battle of Culloden – but as most time travel stories have shown us, the past is not something easily changed.
Because we know the outcome (if not the events leading up to it) thanks to the season opener, Season 2 isn't quite as much fun to watch as Season 1, at least not until the point where our lead characters make their way back to Scottish soil. While the first batch of episodes that take place in France (a combination of Scottish sets and on-location filming in Prague) are visually stunning (particularly in the Blu-ray format), they're also kind of dull – focusing primarily on political meetings and motivations, the kind of stuff that's probably much more interesting to read in Diana Gabaldon's book than it is to see performed in a TV series. Things finally pick up in the last couple of episodes though, as we get to see the Jacobite army in action and witness a season finale that puts a spin on things (in what very may be the series' best episode) that should have fans anxiously awaiting Season 3 (assuming they haven't spoiled it by reading the books already).
While Season 2 does have a number of strong points, overall I have to say I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Season 1. Even at a length three episodes shorter than the first season's number, Season 2 still seems a little stretched out, and the fact that we know Claire is heading back to the future – while a nice shocker to kick off the season – kind of distracts from making any investment in her relationships with other characters (particularly Jamie) as the story unfolds. Still, I'm sure fans of this series will gobble this release up...as for the rest of us? At the very least, the shows are worth a look.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Season 2 of 'Outlander' travels to Blu-ray in a slightly thicker-than-average keepcase, which houses the five 50GB discs, two on the inside left and three on the inside right – stacked right on top of each other. The reverse side of the keepcase slick (seen from inside the box) contains a listing and short synopsis of each episode, along with the disc they appear on, as well as a list of bonus materials for each disc. The case also includes a pair of inserts: one containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of Season 2 (with info about the Sony Rewards program on the flip side), and the other a tri-fold full of information about various 'Outlander' merchandise – including the books, soundtrack, and online store. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase slides overtop. There are no front-loaded trailers or advertisements on any of the Blu-rays, and the main menu's still image matches that of the box cover, with menu selections horizontally across the bottom of the screen (which open up into vertical lists).
While, thankfully, this Season 2 set didn't split things up into half-seasons like the Blu-ray releases of Season 1 did, there is still a retailer exclusive to be found. Amazon is offering these discs inside an exclusive collector's digibook, which includes a bonus disc (a DVD with 20 minutes of material), a 32-page booklet, and a sneak peak of Book 9 in the 'Outlander' series of novels (reportedly, the final one).
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A locked.
Each episode of 'Outlander' was shot digitally on Arri Alexa Plus cameras and is presented on Blu-ray in its original television aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Like the prior season release of 'Outlander' on Blu-ray – and, in fact, like most Sony TV releases on Blu-ray – the picture here is pretty impressive. The scenes that take place in Scotland are as lush and green as one might hope, while the scenes that are supposed to take place in Paris (a combination of sets built in Scotland as well as exterior shooting in Prague) add a burst of color to the proceedings that we haven't seen up until this point in 'Outlander'.
Facial features are well-defined throughout and detailed. Black levels are strong, if not completely inky deep (some noise and crush can creep into the darker, candle-lit sequences). Depth is almost always noticeable, particularly in exterior daylight shots. There are no glaring problems with aliasing, banding, or other frequently seen issues. All in all, a pretty impressive transfer throughout these 13 episodes.
The featured audio for each episode is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While this is a decent audio presentation, I was actually a little surprised at how rarely the rears are used in each episode. This is particularly true of the first half of Season 2, when the setting is in Paris. Once the characters return to Scotland and there's a little more on-screen action, the surrounds are more frequently noticeable. However, in comparison to the first season set, the audio isn't nearly as immersive this time around.
Still, there are no glitches or problems to be found. Dialogue is crisply rendered throughout, even though it's almost exclusively front and center. There's no hint of muddiness to be found, and a nice distinctness as well, so everything has a very natural, believable sound to it. The overall audio presentation is a step down from the first season for the reasons given above, but it's still a solid rendering overall.
In addition to the English audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are an option for each episode. Subtitles are also available in English, English SDH, and French.
A strong season premiere and an even stronger season finale doesn't change the fact that much of Season 2 of 'Outlander' trades action for political dealings and makes for a more uneven and uninteresting batch of episodes. Die-hard fans of the series will almost certainly want to add this one to their collection, but for the more casual fan/viewer, this season is worth checking out, but probably not something you'll watch more than once.