For a long time now, Outlander book readers have known we were going to hit the “Brianna problem” once we got to the fourth season, since each season of the Starz hit encompasses all of one Diana Gabaldon’s lengthy tomes. Drums of Autumn is one of the lesser favorites in the series, and since the show is extremely faithful in adapting these books, we all knew the Brianna stuff was coming. And it did, and it got it about right overall, but the big problem the show will continue to have for the remainder of its run was the absolutely fatal mistake in the casting of Sophie Skelton as the problematic character in question.
Brianna, the daughter of Jamie and Claire, has never been a fan favorite character to begin with. But for a show that has excelled in its casting decisions for the most part (David Berry hit it out of the park as John Grey, Richard Rankin is very compelling as Bree’s love interest from her own time, Roger, and even John Bell has turned another bland character from the books, Ian, into a lovable lad on the show), casting Sophie Skelton was among the most baffling choices the show has ever made. When you have a character who was never beloved in the first place due to iffy writing in the books, it’s crucial to have an actress who can make you at least interested in her, if not fall in love with her outright. But Skelton has struggled from the very beginning with the accent (Bree is American and Skelton is English), her delivery of every line is wooden and unconvincing and her ability to hold the camera nonexistent. It was such a huge mistake for a role that would have to eventually become so important (at least in this season) that it becomes even more essential for whoever her scene partner is to do all the heavy lifting, even though the story is centered on her.
The fourth season saw Jamie and Claire permanently settled in the American colonies around 1770, choosing to build a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina and take up residence on land granted to Jamie by the royal governor. Joined by several new supporting characters like Maria Doyle Kennedy as Jamie’s slaveowning aunt Jocasta, and the return of Duncan Lacroix as Murtagh (one of the few significant changes from books, as fans fell in love with the character on the series in a way that never happened in the books, where he was killed off early on), the atmosphere of the new setting is exciting, as are the consistent run-ins with Native Americans. But there are some clunky changes going on in this transitional season too. For some reason the production wasn’t allowed to actually film in North Carolina or New York, so having Scotland double for the American colonies is not believable (the weather consistently looks 50 degrees below zero and the trees and backgrounds are wrong), and the CGI needs for plantation settings and colonial towns is more obvious than it’s ever been. This decreases what was always a reliable standby for the attractions of the show in previous seasons- the lush and authentic locations, making you feel sincerely removed from modern times.
There are some good episodes early on though, with the new villain Stephen Bonnet well cast with Downton Abbey’s Edward Speleers, clearly having a great time as the lascivious Irish lech, more of a traditional love to hate bad guy than Tobias Menzies’ nightmare inducing Black Jack Randall. But the problem, as I referred to earlier, is one word: Brianna. About halfway through Drums of Autumn, she becomes the main character, as a contrived, soap opera-esque storyline involving a horrific rape, pregnancy, misunderstanding and mistaken identity all come together to separate her and Roger and force Jamie and Claire to take a backseat on their own show to help put their daughter’s life back in order. This was inevitable, since the show insists on never truly deviating from the book’s plot lines, but Skelton is incapable of handling the heavy material thrown her way and tasked with carrying entire episodes that she simply cannot pull off. Other actors drag her through her scenes, but leads Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan disappear for entire episodes as the world becomes All About Brianna. There are still compelling moments with the rest of the ensemble, and Rankin can at least carry an episode, but unfortunately, him and Brianna’s relationship and connection is crucial and he has no chemistry with Skelton whatsoever. Even one of Outlander’s famously lengthy sex scenes is awkward to sit through with two actors who are simply going through the motions.
I’m not an adherent of never changing anything when you’re adapting a novel to the screen. I think changes are often necessary to tell the best story possible in an entirely different medium. After becoming known for being so faithful, I can see why Outlander thinks fans have a certain expectation, but trust me when I say this- no one watching this series is here for the Brianna and Roger show. In order to keep the focus where it belongs, on Jamie and Claire, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with minimizing, or even cutting large swaths out of the Bree/Roger stuff in future seasons. Because I still love everything else for the most part- but we all fell for the show for a reason, and keeping Jame and Claire at the center of the story is more important than staying true to every beat of Gabaldon’s books.