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‘Outlander’ Season 4 ventures into a brave new world of American history

‘Outlander’ Season 4 ventures into a brave new world of American history

‘Outlander’ Season 4 ventures into a brave new world of American history

‘Outlander’ Season 4 ventures into a brave new world of American history

'Outlander' Season 4 ventures into a brave new world of American history

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Another season of Outlander — another leap into relocation to new political upheaval. 

After four years of this pattern, you'd think the gimmick would get old. But the time-traveling period drama might've actually found its most fascinating and fertile ground yet in the new frontier of Season 4's colonial America.

The reunited Frasers landed on American shores after last season's almost-fatal trek around the world. And as the couple now seeks to make a home in the Land of the Free, they come to discover that its citizen are a lot more backwards than the beautiful but dangerous woods they're trying to tame.

It might be the bias of actually living in the country that Outlander is now set in. But by delving into the seedy underbelly of America's ugly origins, the show has never felt more relevant than it does now in 2018. Slavery, Native American genocide, the dangers of being gay: Outlander Season 4 does not hesitate to entangle itself in the diciest territories of this country's legacy.

'Outlander' tries once again to tackle the issue of slavery with mixed results

'Outlander' tries once again to tackle the issue of slavery with mixed results

Image: starz

Of course, Outlander never shied away from the discomfort of how history can collide with modern sensibilities. 

And it's hard to say it always comes down on the right side of history, or fully reckons with the complex issues it raises. A particularly distressing episode finds Jamie visiting his Aunt Jocasta, a Southern plantation owner boasting about how well she treats her enslaved human beings.

All in all, though, this season feels like Outlander at its best.

The episode takes some bold risks in showing the most brutal truths about the impossible decisions slaves were forced to make in order to survive. Each character's vastly different cultural and historical context — Claire is a woman from an America at the cusp of the civil rights movement, while Jamie experienced indentured servitude and genocide himself as a Highlander — adds layers of nuance that only Outlander could bring.

Through Claire, you watch this very personal confrontation with the roots of America's horrific civil injustices and how they later shaped themselves into modern racism. 

But the discomfort of using the pain of slaves to create interesting moral quandaries for the show's two white protagonists remains. And at times, the whole thing reads like the fantasy of believing, "I would have been one of the good white people if I lived back then."

You couldn't ask for a stronger foundation than Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan)

You couldn't ask for a stronger foundation than Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan)

Image: starz

All in all, though, this season feels like Outlander at its best.

While Jamie and Claire's relationship takes something of a backseat, having settled into the comforting routines of a long marriage, it never loses sight of the series' fundamental intrigue. Which is seeing the macro of historical revolutions and turbulence, but through the micro of extremely human stories and empathetic characters.

If last season was all about traveling the globe to get back what you lost, then Season 4 questions how one lays down everlasting roots to ensure that can't happen again. 

Outlander is back to proving how it can endlessly reinvent itself

The show does a beautiful job of attaching you to the same land that Jamie and Claire work so hard to make into a home. And so it's equally as tense for viewers when the comforts of a crackling fire in their homestead is interrupted by the constant threats of having it ripped away.

Episode 1 and 2 kick off the season with a shaky start, bringing a whole lot of setup and unnecessary glut that weighs down its pacing.

But soon after, Outlander is back to proving how it can endlessly reinvent itself in more and more drastic ways, without moving too far from its basic foundation. This is a show that finds the joy in watching not only the world, but also the characters in it transform beyond recognition. In short, it lets us witness life and nature as it takes its course, which continues to be a difficult thing to pull off so successfully in a TV show.

This new phase of Outlander is much like Jamie and Claire's new stage of marriage: Comfortingly familiar, yet with new and unforeseeable challenges always waiting around every corner.

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