Outlander fans waited nearly a full year for the fourth season to premiere and pay off on the crazy Season 3 cliffhanger that saw Claire, Jamie, and however many of their friends survived shipwreck washed up on the shores of the American colonies. Book readers and non-readers alike could see that there was endless potential in the Frasers settling in a whole new world, especially after they seemed to wear out their welcome in Scotland as former Jacobites among ruling Brits.
By this point, Outlander is nearly halfway through the 13-episode fourth season, and the Frasers have covered a lot of story ground. In fact, the Frasers are covering so much ground so quickly that I have to wonder: is Outlander moving way too fast with Season 4?
As enjoyable as it has been to see the Frasers explore new areas, meet new people, and — as is their wont — attract new troubles, Outlander hasn’t really given them or viewers time to rest and really settle into any particular story. There was a lot of potential for ongoing arcs that have been wrapped up within the span of an episode.
Stephen Bonnet was terrifyingly charming in the season premiere in his villainous reveal, but he feels like a distant memory at this point. Jocasta was introduced as a nuanced character with River Run and Jamie’s possible inheritance, but the Frasers were in and out. A horrifying conflict went down between Native Americans and a family of German settlers, but the family of Germans had never appeared before and the Native Americans had only appeared for a brief amount of time.
None of these instances are examples of bad storytelling, per se, and I am certainly enjoying Season 4. The pace of Season 4 has simply resulted in less emotional depth for me, as I haven’t had time to form attachments to characters and therefore don’t feel thrilled or devastated or conflicted when things happen to them. Adawehi’s death could have packed so much more of a punch if we’d gotten to see more of her and Claire bonding than just their small interaction at the beginning of that particular episode.
While that interaction was sweet and allowed viewers to see that motherhood is something that transcends languages, as Claire and Adawehi were able to understand each other despite neither speaking the other’s tongue. Nevertheless, if Claire hadn’t uttered Adawehi’s name after realizing that the German patriarch had handed her Adawehi’s scalp, I wouldn’t have known who it belonged to. I cared, but I wasn’t as gutted as I would have been if Outlander had spent more time fleshing out characters, as it did back in Season 1 when Claire first arrived as Castle Leoch.
Now, I do understand why Season 4 is racing through stories at a breakneck pace. In fact, as a book reader, I can appreciate that the show is clearly packing plot in to make sure and hit all of the important notes from the Drums of Autumn novel, which runs for more than a thousand pages in paperback. There are points from the first half of the season that will almost certainly come into play heavily in the second half and therefore had to be included, even if only for a relatively brief span of time.
This leads me to another question: should Outlander have split Drums of Autumn into two seasons to properly invest viewers in all the characters, locations, and twists?
Although the first three books of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga were long and packed with plot twists that were all able to be adapted into a single season (give or take), Drums of Autumn is bigger and filled with more essential beats that can’t really be omitted unless the series is going to depart from the novels in very significant ways.
If Outlander had split Drums of Autumn‘s story into two seasons or even just a season and a half, with the second half of Season 5 beginning the fifth book, more time could have been spent fleshing everything out. This is actually something that Game of Thrones did relatively well before it ran out of source material. (Thanks, George R.R. Martin.) Adapting the books flexibly without sticking to a set beginning and a set end can be a good thing. It’s not something Outlander has ever done badly, so my fingers are crossed that my worries are ultimately for nothing.
That said, having read Drums of Autumn, the pacing of Season 4 has me concerned about some very specific upcoming plots. Spoilers ahead for Drums of Autumn. Quite aside from the fact that we didn’t get much of Brianna in the 20th century in Season 4 and saw none of her preparations to travel back to the 18th century in the episode where her intentions were revealed, Bree’s journey in the past is going to be intense.
In the book, pirate Stephen Bonnet lures Brianna into his ship where he rapes her in exchange for the gold ring he stole from Claire, and Bree winds up pregnant, although the timeline is shaky enough that Bonnet isn’t 100% guaranteed as the father. She reunites with her mom, meets Jamie, decides to keep the baby, ventures to River Run for her pregnancy, gives birth, and then must deal with everything that happened to her and how it impacted those around her.
Speaking of “all that follows,” we have another intense arc that will probably have to be condensed: what happens to Roger. Due to a misunderstanding of epic proportions and Jamie’s propensity for flying fists when the women in his life are threatened, Roger in the book is badly beaten and then handed over to some Native Americans, who don’t exactly give him the celebrity treatment. A lot needs to happen to happen to Roger, and I’m afraid that the truly frightening parts of his story won’t be so impactful without due screentime.
On the “truly frightening” note, Stephen Bonnet is another character who is going to wind up in and out of some wild situations if the show follows Drums of Autumn‘s arc for him, and the quick pace may make it hard to suspend disbelief that he keeps popping up against all odds.
And now Murtagh is in the mix! I’m not going to lodge any complaints about Murtagh turning up after being spared from his book fate, as Murtagh is always a fun addition to any scene. Still, his presence means another arc that needs to be explored. My fingers are crossed that Outlander has worked out the perfect way to pack everything in to what remains of Season 5 while also giving viewers time to really invest in the people, places, and things around the Frasers.