The fourth season of Outlander has been a wild ride from the very start, with the Fraser family encountering all manner of obstacles as they try to build a life in the American Colonies. Now, as the show prepares to head into another hiatus following the Season 4 finale on January 27, the time is right to look back at all that went down, and I think it’s safe to say at this point that the show should have split the fourth book of source material into two seasons.
Outlander Season 4 is based on Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga. The fourth season has largely stuck to the plot of the novel, which has been a good thing for fans who prefer the show taking as few deviations from the source material as possible. While the survival of Murtagh on the show did mean some twists that didn’t go down in Drums of Autumn, the important twists happened. But did they have to happen so quickly?
Of the first four books of the series, Drums of Autumn is the longest, with the hardcover copy running for nearly 1100 pages. Admittedly, the third book, Voyager, isn’t much shorter, but Drums of Autumn sent the action of the story to a whole new location with a whole new culture, bringing the characters out of the familiar 20th century and even introducing new politics leading up to a new war.
The season(s) based on Drums of Autumn would need to be fairly heavy on exposition for future seasons to have a solid base. Unlike Claire and Jamie’s trip to the West Indies, their time in America isn’t going to last for half a book or so before they move on. The world-building of Outlander has enhanced the series from the beginning; unfortunately, by cramming the plot of Drums of Autumn into only 13 episodes of Season 4, some of the character journeys were lost in the world-building.
If only Outlander had split the book into two seasons -- or at least one and a half -- then the emotional impact of some of the biggest twists could have been felt more deeply and lingered longer. Drums of Autumn is a fascinating book, filled with extreme ups and downs and everything in between. New characters are nuanced, and the stakes are high. It’s a great book, and it could have made for two of Outlander’s greatest seasons instead of one perfectly adequate season.
The show hit the major plot points of the fourth book in this one season, certainly, and enough exposition was featured to set the stage for future seasons, but the show that made me laugh and cry and rage with emotional scenes in years past fell flat more often than not in Season 4. Why? Well, there just wasn’t room for the emotional scenes to settle before the plot moved on.
Season 4 was largely accurate to the book, but for me, it wasn’t as effective as the book at telling the story. I didn’t feel Brianna’s despair as much as I wanted to with regard to her pregnancy because she didn’t get the time to show how deep it goes. Poor Bree went from revealing her pregnancy to showing to looking not too far from going into labor within the span of only a few episodes.
I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about Roger, because Outlander didn’t leave his fate a mystery for long. I wasn’t invested in Father Alexandre’s plight in the Mohawk village, although his death via flame did pack a punch. I didn’t come to care about Jocasta or River Run or the peripheral characters there because of how quickly the show dropped in and out. River Run feels more like a plot convenience for the sake of Brianna’s pregnancy than anything else at this point.
The conflicts with the Native Americans on Fraser’s Ridge should have broken my heart, especially with the death of the Native American healer and the subsequent deaths of the German settlers. Honestly, even some of the love scenes for which Outlander is so famous almost feel like Jamie and Claire realizing that it’s time for them to hook up on cue rather than because their circumstances make them feel especially amorous.
None of this is to say that I haven’t enjoyed Season 4 or that I don’t like the show. I do enjoy the series, and I’ve enjoyed the books. I just feel that the adaptation of the fourth book would have benefited from allowing the narrative to unfold naturally rather than hit each story beat and move on. Part of me honestly wishes that I could watch it as somebody who hasn’t read Drums of Autumn. Would the season still feel rushed if I didn’t know the book?
That is a question I’ll never be able to answer, but I do know that I missed connecting with the show as strongly as I did in years past. I'll grant that the show did handle Brianna’s rape with a deft hand to guarantee that viewers would feel her terror and heartbreak. Given the long term impacts of that terrible tragedy, it wasn’t really something that could be glossed over, even if it was undoubtedly difficult for many to watch.
Of course, there are reasons why Outlander couldn’t necessarily give two full seasons to one book. There are currently eight completed novels in the saga, with a ninth on the way. If Outlander set a precedent of giving one book multiple seasons, the show might never end, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
There’s also the point that the Season 4 finale has not yet aired, and some of my issues could be remedied in that episode, although I’m not terribly optimistic on that particular front given what’s likely going to happen to one character very quickly. Besides, it’s possible that Season 4 will be an exception to Outlander’s standard of giving emotional beats the room to breathe.
Remember the joy of the wedding episode that fully explored Jamie and Claire’s new relationship? The devastation of the “Faith” episode that saw Claire come to terms as best she could with the death of her child? Jamie’s arc as he tried to recover from what Black Jack Randall did to him? The build to Culloden? Even Frank’s determination in the present to figure out what had happened to his wife?
Outlander is capable of plucking heartstrings magnificently when characters (and therefore the viewers asa well) get to absorb what has happened. Perhaps the adaptations of the next books will get back to that emotional connection after Drums of Autumn was taken care of in just one season. My fingers are crossed.
The good news is that Outlander was already renewed for multiple seasons beyond the fourth, so there’s plenty more story that will be told. What isn’t clear at this point is how long the next hiatus is going to be. Tune in to Starz on Sunday, January 27 at 8 p.m. ET to see the Season 4 finale of Outlander, and check out our midseason TV premiere schedule for some viewing options as we head into another hiatus.