The first episode of Outlander is up there with some of the best television pilots. Ronald D. Moore’s adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s fantasy romance breaks down the first of the series’ many doorstoppers into key points: Claire Beauchamp Randall is rediscovering her marriage following World War II separating her from husband Frank. Until, that is, their second honeymoon in Scotland sends her back in time 200 years, where she is accused of being a spy and rescued by hunky Jamie Fraser. Viewers, whether longtime fans of the book or complete newbies like myself, are whisked along with Claire, following along with the plot beats of her new life: For her protection, Claire must marry Jamie; they begin to fall in love; Frank’s ancestor Black Jack Randall hunts them both. It’s perfect romance, where the emotional stakes are as inextricably bound to the larger plot action as the wedding vows that unite a time traveling nurse and a Scottish highlander.
Obviously as the seasons and decades have gone on, Jamie and Claire’s love story has expanded to include children, partners, rivals, other travelers, famous historical figures, and nemeses, not to mention looming historical eras like the American Revolution. But for the most part, the series has continued to walk the narrative tightrope between adapting countless favorite moments from the books and distilling them into engaging television. However, the season 6 premiere “Echoes” was the first time I was keenly aware that Outlander was erring on the side of the book fans rather than the non-readers.
Spoilers for Outlander 6×01 “Echoes”
From what my book-expert friends have told me, season 6 (even with its shortened episode order) is gearing up for some of Outlander’s most out-there plotlines, even beyond Geillis Duncan’s stint as the virgin-slaughtering Bakra in Jamaica back in season 3. The problem is, you wouldn’t know it from watching the 80-minute premiere, which barely hints at some of the super-dramatic twists to come this season.
Knowing some of the juiciness gives me a sense of how Claire and her daughter Brianna must feel, as travelers carrying future knowledge that they must constantly decide whether or not to employ for the sake of their quality of life in the past. That throughline was well established last season, with Claire meddling with the timeline by creating penicillin early and by putting out her birth control pamphlets as Dr. Rawlings. While the universe did not punish her for the former, Lionel Brown and his men assaulted her for the latter.
I’m glad to see that “Echoes” continues to explore that dilemma, as Claire pushes ahead with her Back to the Future-esque shenanigans while encouraging Brianna to introduce some snazzy engineering marvels centuries early. But the other half of the season’s setup revolves around Jamie and his time in Ardsmuir prison, by way of an old rival appearing on Frasers Ridge demanding McDubh’s promised land and help setting up a new life for his family.
Unfortunately, in trying to cram in so many details from the books, the premiere comes across as overstuffed and unable to highlight what viewers should actually be watching for this season. Let’s untangle some plot threads…
The Frasers and the MacKenzies
A moment that rang incredibly true was when Jamie came across Claire, barely breathing after experimenting with homemade anesthetic, and in a panic shook her until she woke up. I have a husband who had a seizure nearly a year ago, a newborn who was born six weeks premature, and an old dog; I constantly check that each of them is breathing, despite them all being good and healthy. Considering the many close calls and assumed-dead experiences that Jamie and Claire have been through, no shit he thought he might have finally lost her.
What felt less natural, honestly, was the sex scene between Jamie and Claire. If pressed, I would guess that the “maybe you’re an angel” exchange is from the book, but here it felt more like checking a box, like every premiere must include such a scene. Last season’s finale deftly explored Claire choosing to reestablish intimacy with Jamie after her assault, but this scene lacked similar context. From what we find out later about her blocking off memories of the assault, it would have been more interesting if she were approaching intimacy with Jamie as staving off questions about how she’s coping, but that doesn’t seem to be the intention here.
Elsewhere on the Ridge, Brianna and Roger’s domestic life was kinda :shrug emoji: as things seem to be pretty quiet for them following Roger getting accused of raping Brianna and beaten to a pulp by Jamie, and Roger getting hanged for hugging someone else’s wife. Roger has had a rough go of it the last couple of years, so him acting as his father-in-law’s stead to welcome new visitors to Frasers Ridge shows how he’s found a place within the clan. Of course, not that it’s his fault, but he welcomes the worst possible people to the Ridge…
The Christie Family
Even knowing nothing from the books, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right about Tom Christie and his children. The former prisoner-turned-schoolteacher wastes no time spouting about God and the need for a church before a school on Frasers Ridge, which is wildly entitled considering he’s approaching Jamie from a point of extreme humility in being gifted land and an opportunity for a new life. Their past baggage over religion is both over-labored and not very clear.
The Ardsmuir flashback that takes up a quarter of the episode is, frankly, far too long. The intricacies of the Protestant versus Catholic contingents at the prison, the riots, and the solution of making Jamie a freemason like Christie are presented more like rattling off info from the Outlander wiki than in a way that’s dramatically engaging. It’s also a blatant excuse to put Sam Heughan back in the season 1 Jamie wig and scarred-back-skin prosthetic for a requisite Outlander flogging scene. Listen, it’s far preferable to his bad wig now! But if we’re going to go this far back into the past, it needs to justify its airtime. This flashback could have been an email.
Then there are Tom’s children. Malva is a weird one out the gate, due to excellent casting and her poking around Claire’s lab asking about connections between Brianna’s use of phosphorus and invoking Lucifer. Even Allan, hunting with Young Ian, is clearly off: He steals a gunpowder horn from the Brown contingent, and earns himself ten lashes from Jamie in an effort to appease everyone.
But it’s not just the new arrivals who promise some intense plotlines—yet, again, familiar characters get so little airtime in the premiere that their lines have to either be heavily weighted with wink-wink meaning or just sail over non-book readers’ heads.
Lizzie and the Twins
“Two hands are better than one,” an inebriated Fergus teases Brianna’s shy maid Lizzie about identical brothers Josiah and Keziah helping her out on Frasers Ridge. The fact that I’m highlighting the potential throwaway moment (especially since it could be read as Fergus feeling insecure about his prosthetic hand) may make non-readers realize there’s something there, but I will say no more for now.
Fergus and Marsali
The premiere did make clear Fergus’ burgeoning alcoholism—from “working hard” at Jamie’s repaired whiskey still—and how that might be translating into abuse at home, judging by the bruise on Marsali’s wrist. She already has enough to deal with, carrying yet another pregnancy to term (and the worrisome detail of the baby not moving lately as she approaches her due date), not to mention, oh I don’t know, murdering Lionel Brown on the operating table for what he did to Claire. These two have been through their fair share of obstacles and traumas together since they were young lovers stowing away on a ship; I hope that if their plotline this season does incorporate domestic abuse, it’ll be handled thoughtfully.
Jamie the Indian Agent
It’s a smaller moment in the overstuffed premiere, but Jamie reluctantly takes on the role of Indian agent, i.e. the Crown’s liaison with the Cherokee, in order to keep Richard Brown from assuming that power. The Cherokee have plenty of reason not to trust Clan Fraser, but this is an interesting angle in Jamie’s ongoing struggle with his loyalties to the Crown, knowing that the American Revolution is coming.
I’m also interested in learning more about Ian’s time with the Mohawk, and especially the lost love he’s mourning. That was his big takeaway from Claire revealing she was a traveler: wondering if there would be a way to go back in time and change that trauma. Unfortunately, it’s not the same as Brianna going through the stones after seeing Claire’s obituary.
Brianna and Claire’s Future Knowledge
I am happy to report that the premiere got this rise out of me:
Claire: I’ve invented anesthetic!
me: You dumbass, have you learned nothing?!
I’m not enjoying Outlander if I’m not yelling at Claire for being too stubborn about her anachronistic knowledge. Getting kidnapped too many times to count, nearly burned at the stake as a witch, and now suffering Lionel Brown’s brand of violence was not enough to deter her; she still wants to help people, in this case with being able to undergo life-saving surgeries that they might turn down otherwise because of a lack of painkillers.
It’s admirable, but as Brianna points out, it also carries clear dangers to them personally. That’s why she’s reluctant to show off any engineering that might mark her as not of this time, but since the new theme song features her lighting a match, we may yet get to see what she has up her sleeve.
And here’s what makes Claire’s latest discovery so engaging: She’s not selflessly doing it just for the sake of her patients.
Into the Ether
The episode’s most interesting moment doesn’t occur until the very last: Claire’s growing dependence on ether to chase away nightmares of her assault by Lionel Brown and his men. Maybe that’s the meaning of her angel sex scene with Jamie; despite restoring that intimacy between them, it may not be enough during her recovery (nor should it be expected to be), and instead she needs something that completely knocks her out. While Jamie has been mostly open-minded about the knowledge and methods that Claire has brought to the past, I can’t imagine he’ll be anything but afraid for her once it comes out that she’s potentially endangering herself with this new miracle drug.
Regardless of the context of what it’s adapting, a character grappling with self-destructive behavior right before our eyes is exactly what makes for great television. Too much of the Outlander premiere was trying to be too coy; it risks not providing enough of an indication for non-book readers to necessarily catch on that there’s something dramatic and exciting to tune in for the next week. But Claire’s self-medicating should hopefully be enough to ratchet up the dramatic tension—and seeing as there are only seven more episodes this season, all of those plot threads are gonna need to catch fire very quickly in order to be as explosive as I’ve been led to believe it will be.
What were your favorite moments from “Echoes,” and what are you looking forward to in Outlander season 6?