4 out of 5 stars

After a short break, Outlander returns and finally relieves the pressure from the teasing climax of “Freedom and Whisky”, in which Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) fainted after seeing what he probably thought was the ghost of his long lost wife Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe). But it was no mirage; in “A. Malcolm” a flesh and blood Claire is standing there in his 18th-century Edinburgh shop and we get to see what happened next…

Matthew B. Roberts’ script keeps teasing the viewer, and cheekily recaps the previous episode by showing us the climactic moment from Jamie’s perspective, taking us through his morning prior to Claire’s unexpected return. This has caused some consternation in fan circles about what’s been dubbed the ‘the print-shop scene’ in Diana Gabaldon’s novel Voyager, and the slight deviations that Roberts took with adapting such a crucial and much loved chapter. I’ll go into further detail in a moment.

The reunion is postponed, quite effectively, to afford us a look into Jamie’s world and his activities as proprietor of A. Malcolm’s printing shop. He’s attended to by a French woman (we later find out she’s Madame Jeanne) who checks that he’s appropriately attired, we see him walking through the streets and stop to briefly examine his shop’s sign, giving it a clean. That’s a little nod back to how Claire also touched the sign before she tentatively stepped inside at the end of “Freedom and Whisky”.

We meet two scruffy associates (betrayed by “a stench of seaweed and whisky”), helping Jamie distribute seditious pamphlets, who refer to him as Mac Dubh and must therefore know him from his imprisonment at Ardsmuir. He also gives orders to the grouchy Geordie (Lorn Macdonald), suffering from a hypothyroid goitre, mockingly described as “a small child”, he keeps wrapped up on his neck. This is all before Claire enters the shop and Jamie collapses in a faint.

The reunion, when it finally comes, is sweet, awkward, funny, uncomfortable, and overwhelming. These are two characters who haven’t seen each other for 20 years. They each thought the other long gone or dead. Claire and Jamie falteringly square up to each other, frightened to touch, let alone kiss, lest the vision be shattered. The strength of the scene and the whole episode lies in the performances of Heughan and Balfe. The episode is essentially their two-hander with its extended running time allowing the reunion plenty of room, giving the rekindled intimacy between Claire and Jamie its due. Heughan’s drawn out gasp of “Claire” when he first sees her, and her gasps in response, demonstrate the investment made into these characters from the outset.

In fact, Jamie at first thinks he’s been so overcome that he’s wet himself and “lost hold altogether”, but then discovers he “just spilled the ale pot” as Claire helps him up from the floor. It’s funny, too, when he feels abashed to take his pants down to change into a dry pair. Claire has to remind him that they were, and are, married (symbolised in him noticing the wedding ring she never took off) and there’s no need for his modesty.

But then, it’s almost like they’re restarting the relationship and the trust and intimacy between them has to be recovered. It’s there in his polite request of “I would very much like to kiss you”, seeking her permission and not knowing if their feelings for each other can be rekindled. He’s also out of practice but slowly, shakingly, they kiss. For Jamie, it’s a dream realised, having seen visions of Claire smiling at him in his darkest moments when he was “so afraid and so lonely.” She assures him she is real and advises him, “do not be afraid.”

It’s a glorious scene that we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the season and it doesn’t disappoint, accompanied by a thoroughly warranted lush romantic theme from composer Bear McCreary. I love the way this scene is then punctured by the return of the grumbling Geordie, voicing his disapproval of their behaviour, outraged that Jamie’s now working for an “immoral papist” conducting orgies in the shop. They’re amused and Jamie is left wondering how he’ll explain this to him. However, Jamie’s thoughts then immediately turn to his child.

It’s here that fans had a bit of a to-do over how Heughan played the moment Jamie sees his daughter Brianna, in a selection of photographs Claire shows him. In the book he goes “thoroughly to pieces” but Heughan made the decision to contain Jamie’s reaction. Personally, I thought Heughan’s performance was excellent. There clearly was a sense of him being overwhelmed by the images, even by the very notion of photography itself, and then by his self-effacement at having to wear glasses to see them.

There’s also an acknowledgment here that Claire and Jamie have aged but the producers have, shall we say, taken some license with the ageing effects of two decades on both characters. Later, perhaps as a nod to this, Claire notes that Jamie hasn’t gone to seed physically. We can, of course, appropriate this within Jamie’s view that “time doesna matter, Sassenach.” Heughan also gets some endearing little touches into his performance that definitely underscore the fact that this is an older Jamie. When Claire tells him his daughter is called Brianna, he holds his glasses and quips, “what an awful name for a wee lass.” But he’s soon brought round and thinks its beautiful she’s been named after his father, Brian.

Claire relates her own graduation from medical school and they discuss Brianna’s childhood, pausing to recall with great emotion their stillborn child Faith, and explains the “quite modest” bikini worn by Brianna in the photographs to a shocked Jamie. He in turn tells her about and shows her a portrait of his son Willie: “spoiled, stubborn, ill-mannered, loud, a wicked temper, and braw, tawny, canty and strong.” He feels guilty about his mother’s death and in turn, to complete this vivid recall of their separate lives, Claire tells him about her marriage to Frank, what a good father he was for Brianna, and his eventual death.

Walking out into Edinburgh, there are other reunions to be had. Claire meets the adult Fergus (César Domboy), so delighted to see her miraculous return. After he explains the loss of his hand, she has to explain her own disappearance as an escape to America thinking all were dead in the wake of Culloden but “leaving out the whole 200-years in the future part”. If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ll recognise a name in Jamie and Fergus’ conversation about Claire’s dramatic reappearance. Jamie says he needs to discuss the legal situation with Ned Gowan. Gowan, played by Bill Paterson, last appeared in season 1, the solicitor to Clan Mackenzie and I think we’ll be seeing more of him.

We also get to meet one of Jamie’s friends, Mr. Willoughby — his Chinese name Yi Tien Cho unused in polite society for its resemblance to a coarse Gaelic word — at The World’s End tavern. He’s drunk and fighting with a prostitute but Jamie soon sorts out the altercation, apparently caused by Willoughby (Gary Young) licking the girl’s elbow without paying. It seems Jamie rescued him at the docks, can speak some Chinese with him, and he is now his ‘associate’. Claire is introduced to Willoughby as Jamie’s wife Claire Malcolm. While this introduction is made, Jamie meets with his demanding client in the cellar of the World’s End and we get an inkling of his profession as smuggler.

Jamie takes Claire to his room above Madame Jeanne’s brothel. Madame (Cyrielle Debreuil) is concerned, even astonished, that he’s brought his wife to her establishment, and Claire herself feels rather uncomfortable and is left wondering exactly why Jamie lives in a brothel. For Jamie, this is home and a place where he can have a meal and a bed when his work is done. As he later admits to Claire, his smuggling activities provide Madame Jeanne with a range of wines and spirits and she reciprocates the arrangement with a room. Here, we get to move on from the initial reunion in the printing shop and onto re-establishing the physical union between Claire and Jamie.

It’s wonderfully awkward to begin with and, like much of Roberts’ script, adheres closely to the book. There’s trepidation on Jamie’s part, as he worries if Claire still desires him and asks why she’s come back — is she there as his wife again or as a messenger bringing him word of his daughter? There’s a sense from Claire that perhaps Jamie is rejecting her, having now established a different life for himself. There are a lot of questions and concerns on both sides. Is this reunion really what they both want after 20 years? People change and, as Jamie honestly confesses, he’s not the man she once knew.

Roberts aligns this trepidation with “The Wedding”, the beloved first season episode where Jamie and Claire, married on the advice of Ned Gowan (him again), nervously consummated their wedding night. There are lots of parallels here, especially in Jamie’s insightful comment that “we know each other less than we did when we were first wed” but Claire reassures him, “Whoever you are, James Fraser, yes. I do want you”. She also reminds him that she has changed too and, for all he knows, she may be a horrible person after all these years. Perhaps she’s feeling self-conscious about the way she treated Frank.

But gradually they embrace and begin to settle into their intimacy. Despite being interrupted by the serving of dinner, they reconnect. Like the “The Wedding” this is about seeing themselves for who they are, except this is about looking at each other anew. They forge their bond over a meal — food, drink and sex are seemingly interlinked in Outlander — and undress each other slowly, mentally, and physically.

“Are you as scared as I am?” asks Claire as they look at each other’s bodies, bashfully commenting on how they’ve both aged well and again recalling that nervous wedding night. “Claire, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he gasps. “You must really be losing your eyesight,” she responds. Eventually, his exuberance gets the better of him and as they start to make love Jamie cracks her nose with his head and inelegantly squashes her as they take their first, clumsy steps to reacquainting themselves physically. It’s a amusing touch that adds a weight of reality and some humour to the scene.

Their lovemaking eventually leads to rekindling their closeness and Claire feels emotionally confident enough to quiz him on what exactly he does for a living. “You’re far too fit,” to be just a printer she observes. Wrongly guessing at highway robbery, kidnapping, piracy or petty thievery, Claire learns that his middle age spread has been curtailed because, while he’s been printing political tracts and remains a traitor, he’s also been busy as a smuggler.

While the romantic congress lovingly dominates the episode and is given breathing space to bring the characters back together, “A. Malcolm” is about Jamie’s new identity and setting up and developing the plot from his life in Edinburgh. The episode balances these elements out well enough, beautifully exploring the 20-year gap in the relationship between the two lead characters while also providing a good platform from which to launch the story that will occupy us for the rest of the series. We’ve been reunited with Fergus, met new characters such as Willoughby and Madame Jeanne and, in the morning after the night before, Claire meets another central figure, the 16 year old Ian Fraser Murray (John Bell).

Like Fergus, Ian’s a reminder of the life left behind at Lallybroch with his parents Jenny and Ian Fraser. Ian was born when Jamie was hiding out from the redcoats in his cave and gave himself up to protect Jenny and her family. How, he’s in Edinburgh working with Jamie and genuinely astonished to see Claire. “But, you’re dead,” he exclaims. His aunt has become something of a legend, a wise woman spirited away by the fairies, as the old wives tales at Lallybroch would have it. To reassure him, she falls back on her tried and trusted story that she left for the Colonies after Culloden. We’ll be seeing more of Ian, rest assured. But before we do, there’s a plot to establish and, after Claire’s gossipy and amusing breakfast with Madame Jeanne’s girls (much to Madame’s chagrin), she returns to Jamie’s room and is attacked by a stranger looking for Jamie’s ledgers.

Those Frasers are always in trouble.