Outlander boasts plenty of memorable musical moments, thanks to composer Bear McCreary. As we did for Seasons 1 and 2, here is our ranking of the Top 10 Musical Moments of Outlander Season 3.
Much like Scotland itself, the music of Outlander has become like another character in the show. After three seasons, show watchers and book readers alike are now used to listening for and appreciating the brilliant work of composer Bear McCreary. McCreary and Outlander’s showrunner, Ron Moore, have a long history of collaborating on several television and movie projects, including Battlestar Galactica and Moore’s most recent series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. It’s clear the trust that Moore places in McCreary when it comes to Outlander. The ever-changing nature of the show — over time and space — creates a challenging environment even for a professional like McCreary. But, again and again, McCreary delivers. The Outlander Season 3 soundtrack is no exception. Outlander Cast founder, Blake Larsen, has already broken down the sound track critically in an insightful review of McCreary’s Season 3 compositions.
Personally, however, it’s the musical moments themselves that stick with me when watching Outlander. These are the scenes and the settings within the episodes that, when combined with McCreary’s thoughtful score, create an emotional connection to that part of the show or particular episode. As I have done for both Seasons 1 and 2, I’ve attempted to rank my Top 10 Musical Moments of the season. Similar to Season 2, the music of the first half of Season 3 was wildly disparate from the second half. As we know, no moss ever grows under Jamie and Claire. Having each spent time in their own century and on different continents, their reunion in Scotland is brief before they are on the move once again. McCreary’s musical stylings reflect the always shifting geographic nature of Outlander and the travails of the Frasers. It is just one thing that makes this particular season’s score so very interesting. So, we will start with #10 and work our way to the Top Musical Moment of Outlander Season 3…
Click on the title headings to hear the tracks in their entirety (on YouTube or Spotify) or refer to references below to time stamps in the episodes to review the Musical Moments.
The John Grey Theme first heard in Episode 3.03 “All Debts Paid” is a masterpiece. Dare I say it is probably the standout track of the entire album? John Grey is such an incredibly important character in the Outlander novels going forward and in the life of Jamie and Claire. Throw in an absolutely brilliant performance by Canadian-born actor, David Berry, as John Grey, and it is television bliss. While the original “John Grey” theme track appears in the episode early on, it is at the halfway point of “All Debts Paid” (the 38-minute point of the episode) that marks the first part of my #10 Musical Moment. Grey chases the escaped Jamie only to become a prisoner himself. The two men bargain with each other and Grey rejects Jamie’s offer to take his final debt. And, as Jamie tells his remarkable story of Silkie Island and the search for the White Witch, the scene morphs into Brianna’s graduation and a version of “Frank’s Theme.” Such a seamless transition between the two pieces of music as we see Brianna coming of age and the Randalls beginning to come to terms with their separate lives. Later in the episode (the 53-minute mark), we see McCreary combine the clear truth and dignity of the solo French horn with some soaring orchestrations symbolizing a definite turn in the story between Grey and Fraser. Bears refers to the use of the “John Grey Ostinato” when discussing the development of the theme. For those not musically knowledgeable, an ostinato is a musical motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same voice, frequently at the same pitch. An example you may have heard of is the famous “Ravel’s Boléro.” Set amongst the backdrop of yet more gorgeous cinematography, the two men exchange words about the why and the how of Jamie’s fate. Grey seeks to explain his reasons for not only sparing Jamie’s life, but also providing some hope for his future, as grim as that future might be.
As McCreary refers to it, “this texture (the ostinato) was useful…and added intrigue and mystery…” He continues, “I wanted to support this episode with a sense of grandeur, and help underscore the weighty themes of defiance, trust, and honor.”
“The Promise of John Grey” — and the underlying John Grey theme used in Episode 3.03 — paint a melodic picture of the complications that are to come between Jamie and John, and Claire, of course. These scenes accompanied by the theme feel like a preface to a deeper story and a rocky path we will walk with these characters. That is why it is my #10 Musical Moment.
Part of me felt slightly dejected when I heard this version of the Main Title Theme for Outlander present itself for the first time during the opening of Episode 3.09, “The Doldrums.” But, why, you say?? No doubt, it was a beautiful merging of the well-known title track we all memorized love and a fusion of catchy Caribbean music. And, then there was the drumming. The rhythmic flare of Afro-Cuban drumming was somehow inserted so effortlessly that it just all worked. The magic of Bear McCreary once again. However, the reason I felt my heart sink and why this “moment” makes it to my Top 10 Musical Moments, is because the instant I heard that distinctive change in our familiar title theme, I knew we as viewers – along with Jamie and Claire – would be leaving Scotland. And, as a book reader ** SPOILER ** I knew it wasn’t just for a little while (like the jaunt to Paris) but for a much, much longer period of time. For many lovers of Outlander, the story and the television production, Scotland is a huge draw. There is no mistaking this Celtic dreamland has become like another character in the show. So much of what brought Jamie and Claire together in the first place had to do with Scotland. It’s where the Jamie and Claire story first began. Personally, Outlander led me to Scotland and as I ready for my third trip there in three years, I have come to love this place and consider it, in many ways, a spiritual home. This track, therefore, had a very profound impact on me when I realized Jamie and Claire were leaving their Scottish home for places unknown. The emotional impact of this, as well as the brilliant stylings of Bear McCreary bringing forth yet another memorable version of the Skye Boat Song, is what makes this my #9 Top Musical Moment of Season 3.
One of my most anticipated episodes of Outlander Season 3 was the depiction of the Battle of Culloden. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that a favorite part of Outlander for me are the battle sequences. It’s why Episode 2.10, “Prestonpans,” was my #1 Favorite in my Ranking of Season 2 Episodes.
Not surprising then, I was definitely not disappointed in the premiere episode of Season 3, “The Battle Joined.” It was a hectic, tragic, bloody, heartbreaking and quite poetic and beautiful representation of that dreadful day in April of 1746. It was impressive how scenes were strung together starting with Jamie half dead on the battlefield and then foggily recalling the events leading up to the battle. Excerpts of the battle itself were intense and vivid. Not an easy thing to do, I think, to pull together various disparate scenes to make that first 20 minutes of the episode sing, even as tragically and mournfully as it did. Two moments, however, stood out to me and, therefore, make it into the ranking.
One is the epic clash between Black Jack and Jamie as this complicated relationship finally comes to its bloody, yet poignant conclusion. Shout out to Director of Photography Alasdair Walker on this sequence that starts at time marker 10:20 in the episode. The colorized change that highlights the two men amidst the confusion of the battle in the background is a startling and breathtaking effect. The music here just adds to the drama. Bits of drums and strains of orchestral strings and reverberated bag pipes mixed in with the haunting vocal version of the “Stones Theme” as the two men fall mortally wounded… viewers, at least, believe Jamie to be mortally wounded. And then this moment is followed quickly by Jamie’s vision of Claire, gliding ghost-like across the battlefield. The swells of the Jamie and Claire theme mix naturally into the track and we think, as Jamie did, that maybe it really was Claire. There are few musical interludes in Outlander that affect me as emotionally as does the “Jamie and Claire” theme. McCreary uses it repeatedly in many, many pieces throughout all three seasons and always to dramatic affect. At time marker 13:16 in “The Battle Joined,” I suck in my breath sharply seeing Claire’s ethereal figure seemingly float towards Jamie as she asks the question we all wonder about, too: “Are you alive?”
These are very understated moments in an episode where at the start there is no dialogue or music at all for nearly 10 minutes. But, the subtle underpinnings of the music punctuate a series of sequences in the episode that truly wrench your soul from your body. It’s magnificent storytelling combined with rich, musical tones that we have come to expect from Outlander, but still find surprising and astounding all the same. This is why both these moments come in at #8 and #7 on the ranking.
Because this ranking is all about “moments” for me, I have to go back to the first time I saw this episode. I was with several of my colleagues from Outlander Cast Podcast and Blog, including podcast hosts Mary and Blake Larsen. It was midnight and we were all together watching as the show first appeared on the Starz app – the “early viewing” for those that made a habit of this during the time of the actual airing of Season 3. Because I am also a book reader, it was the episode I was fairly sure would depict the end of Frank Randall. And, a big part of me was ready and quite happy for that to happen. Like many Outlander fans, I wanted to see Jamie and Claire back together again – ASAP! And, while I think Frank plays a very important role in the story of Outlander, I was ready for him to move along so that Claire’s true love could take center stage once again. What I wasn’t expecting while watching this episode was how much emotion I would feel when Frank’s time came. I recall the moment so clearly. McCreary’s familiar “Frank Theme” started so slowly with solo piano notes – making me think back to “Faith’s Theme” from Season 2, which was similarly treated. It was dramatic and I could feel the lump rising in my throat. As Claire was given the news and stood beside Frank in the sterile hospital morgue, slowly McCreary started to add more instruments, including strings – violins – and then the clarinet. As Claire said her goodbye and acknowledged what many readers and viewers might have also been thinking –“Yes, Frank, you are not Jamie, but we still love you” – the episode end credits start to roll and the solo clarinet provides one last gasp of the Frank Theme. I find this quote from Bear McCreary so interesting when he spoke of this episode and this scene:
“When I wrote this…I did not even realize I had tears streaming down my face for hours. It was difficult to say goodbye to a character I loved and to a theme that had been with me since the first episode.” – Bear McCreary blog
Bear’s deep connection to this theme is yet another indication of how passionate so many of the Outlander production crew feel about the show and how personally invested in it they are. I so love this about this show. But, it was when the episode end credits were rolling, as I sat there with my fellow Outlander Cast colleagues, that I truly was without words. The room was totally silent for several minutes. Not one of the eight people sitting around that television screen said a word for what seemed a very long time. The reason I said nothing was because I knew if I did, the words would sputter out along with a torrent of ugly tears. This was a moment. A moment I wasn’t expecting. And this moment could not have been made any more emotional or poignant without that mournful treatment of the Frank Theme. It is why this is my #6 on the ranking of Top Musical Moments in Season 3.
I was surprised after this episode first aired that a lot of online chatter and reviews were debating the insertion of the “Stones Theme” into the portrayal of the jungle ritual that Jamie and Claire happened upon in their pursuit of Geillis and her young captive. This happens at approximately 20:40 into the episode. How could anyone object to the beautiful melding of one of Outlander’s most recognized theme songs into this very unusual and compelling portion of the story? It would seem a perfect fit and story beat to me. I did, however, listen to the criticism and try my best to understand. “Too obvious,” said one. “Viewers are smart. They don’t need the reminder of Claire’s former journey shoved in their face,” said another. “It was awkward and unnecessary,” said a third. Well, I disagree – like ALL kinds of disagree – when it comes to this moment in the story. I have said before in other blog posts and to anyone who will listen, that the first time the “Stones Theme,” a.k.a. “Dance of the Druids,” was used it became my all-time (to date) Outlander goosebump moment. It was actually the one thing I can put a finger on in Episode 1.01 “Sassenach” that hooked me when it came to the series and this story. It was all over for me after hearing and watching that beautiful sequence in the pilot episode. And, Bear McCreary has continued to use the essence of that theme in many, many other compositions across all three seasons. “The Stones Theme has come to represent the magic and mysticism associated with supernatural time travel in the series,” said McCreary.
And, for non-book readers, this musical cue in the jungle sequence seemed not only appropriate, but also helpful as a way to understand that Abandawe was, in fact, a manifestation of yet another time travel-related storyline. I do not fault the production for bringing this to the fore. Reading this section of the book was very confusing for me as I struggled to understand the connection between the native rituals and Claire and Geillis’ ultimate connection/conflict. It all made sense eventually, but no time for that in the production. The sequence was beautifully shot as visions of the original stone circle dancers were transposed over the dancing natives and their torches. Caitriona Balfe’s face conveyed all the emotions Claire was feeling as you could tell she recognized this as a sacred ritual not unlike the one that had lead her on her fantastic journeys through the stones at Craigh na Dun. It was truly a stunning visual and touched something deep inside my Outlander-addicted soul. For all these reasons, this moment comes in at the solid #5 position in the Top 10 Musical Moments of Season 3.
In probably one of the most dramatic entrances of a character in the series thus far, Geillis Duncan’s “re-appearance” in Episode 3.12 as “The Bakra” was a shocker. The look on Young Ian’s face as he watched Geillis emerge, slithering out of her literal blood bath, was a combination of horror and lust. The poor kid. This was a far cry from his “first time” bar lassie in Edinburgh. Perhaps the oddest attempt at seduction ever, but I suppose what we have come to expect from the slightly off-kilter Geillis. But, it was the odd, at times disarming, music that accompanied this part of the episode that bumped this moment up into the top five of musical moments of Season 3.
Leave it to Bear McCreary to find a way to distinguish this particular “Geillis moment” from all others in the series. Bear set out somehow to alter the “Stones Theme” – that always represented the mystical time travel associated with Geillis and Claire – to something so warped and exotic, yet oddly stirring and alluring. Using a metallic stringed Turkish instrument called a yialli tanbur, McCreary contorted the familiar “Stones Theme” into something never ever heard before in Outlander. If I am honest, I have listened to this track many times, yet still have difficulty hearing reverberations of the “Stones Theme.” I believe Bear when he says this was the basis for “The Bakra” track. I so wish I could hear it. But, either way, it’s a brilliant musical cue and should be recognized for its unique sound and how it absolutely made this moment in Episode 3.12 stand out. It is why it is my #4 Top Musical Moment of Season 3.
#3 Episode 3.05, “Freedom & Whisky” – Jamie and Claire Theme
This is the only one of the moments in the ranking that doesn’t directly correspond with one of the tracks on the Season 3 soundtrack. Despite that, however, this is about *musical moments* and this particular moment is certainly one that profoundly impacts me every time I see and hear it.
Episode 3.05, “Freedom & Whisky,” remains one of my favorite episodes of Season 3. I have watched this episode more times than I can count. I talk a little about why in this blog post for Outlander Cast. However, certainly, one of the reasons I love it so much is because it is the start of the Jamie and Claire reunion that book readers and show watchers alike identified as one of their most anticipated moments of Season 3. There was so much speculation pre-season about when the reunion would take place, what episode it would be among the 13 episodes and how it would begin and end? Would the production be so cruel as to end the episode with a massive cliffhanger, such as Claire entering the Print Shop, fade to black? Or, would we get our full reunion right away? It was clear with only eight minutes left in Episode 3.05 that we would likely NOT get the full reunion. However, it was looking pretty good that we would at least get Claire returning to 18th century Scotland ready to find Jamie. THAT was a relief. At least the two would finally be in the same time. But, I was not prepared to hear such a beautiful and haunting version of the Jamie and Claire theme start up at minute marker 49:15 in the episode. My heart began to swell as Claire takes one last look back at her modern life and only child and begins her journey back to Jamie. Brilliant use in this scene of voiceover. Episode co-writer Toni Graphia spoke publicly after the episode aired of her desire to use a portion of the Prologue to Voyager – the third book in the Outlander series and upon which Season 3 is based – in the script for this episode. Here is a reminder of that excerpt from the prologue used in the show.
“When I was small, I never wanted to step in puddles. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that that perfect smooth expanse was no more than a thin film of water over solid earth. I believed it was an opening into some fathomless space and if I stepped in, I would drop at once and keep on falling. Even now, when I see a puddle in my path, my mind half halts – though my feet do not – then hurries on, with only the echo of the thought left behind.” – Voyager, Prologue
This was such a beautiful and profound narrative beat made all the more moving by the strains of the familiar theme music we have come to so closely associate with our lead couple. And I was, in fact, reduced to a weepy puddle when Claire stepped from the taxi and through the puddle onto the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh in 1766 – all the while the Jamie and Claire theme built to a crescendo. It was breathtaking as all the emotions I had felt waiting for the reunion to commence rose up in my throat until it stuck there firmly waiting for me to exhale. I loved the use of the prologue passage and the visual of the puddle as the mechanism for Claire’s transition back in time. The music that accompanied only served to heighten the emotion and the anticipation of the reunion to come. It’s a spectacular moment and easily makes it to the #3 Top Musical Moment position in the ranking.
This episode pulled on heart strings in more than a few ways. For a good majority of Outlander fans, “Of Lost Things” is one of the most beloved episodes of Season 3. I enjoyed the episode, but at first viewing, it was not one of my favorites. I liked it fine, but it felt like a lot of the plot was rushed. That’s a common theme in Outlander the production because, well, time and money. Don’t we wish every season could be 20 episodes? Probably that wouldn’t even satisfy some people. I think I am right about that! But for me, “Of Lost Things” felt even more rushed than other episodes in the season. Many important story arcs integral to the years Jamie spent at Helwater were glossed over too quickly and viewers missed out on important story context. One very specific instance of this is the relationship between Lord John and Jamie. But, even with this personal bias, after several re-watches, the episode started to grow on me. I came to better appreciate more of the heartwrenching moments brought to life by the accompanying music.
“The Willie Theme” was beautiful. So, sweet and yet sad at the same time. It had me wondering, though, whether Bear McCreary will need to update it as we see ** SPOILER ** Willie grow into a young man. But, that was not my top musical moment from this episode. Instead it is the very surprising use of the contemporary Bob Dylan song, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Probably like many other Outlander fans, I was startled to hear the cover of this well-known Dylan song start up at the 56:20 mark in the episode. I am so used to the distinctive and usually apropos Bear McCreary end credit music signing off from an episode that it was almost incongruous to hear this modern tune when watching 18th century Jamie slowly ride off toward Scotland and home to Lallybroch. It was a bold choice (an opinion shared by my fellow blogger in this post). And, apparently not a McCreary choice at all. Executive Producers Toni Graphia and Matt Roberts ran down this version, first performed five years ago by Canadian band, Walk Off the Earth. Graphia was familiar with the original Dylan tune and thought it might work with the episode. But, getting permission from Dylan to use the piece seemed like a long shot. Then they heard the cover and set about to procure its use for Episode 3.04. Walk Off the Earth recorded a video singing the cover, but promptly forgot about it until they got the call from Outlander. It was serendipity all the way around! The lyrics, the cadence, the aching you feel in your heart for Jamie as he rides away from his child – all truly genius. I am surprising myself by choosing this moment as the #2 musical moment in the ranking. But, I can’t deny how it makes me feel and the depths to which I plummet when I hear it every_single_time. It’s a powerful moment and a very audacious choice on the part of the production to embrace it. But, it really, really works and begged to be included high up the list as the #2 Top Musical Moment for Season 3.
There were so many amazing musical moments in Season 3. It was yet again, another tour-de-force for Bear McCreary, who never ceases to dazzle with his creative compositions rooted in the complicated story of James and Claire Fraser and those that surround them. Therefore, I struggled choosing a #1 Musical Moment. All of my choices in the ranking reflect a very personal view of those minutes, sometimes seconds, where my heart and my soul lifted or fell profoundly while watching the series. There were many of those moments throughout the 13 episodes. But, if I am honest, I know that for me, Outlander will forever be the story of Jamie and Claire and how they always find their way back to each other. Always. And, so for my Top Musical Moment of Season 3, it has to be about Jamie and Claire and their coming together amidst all the chaos – or, in this case, the storm that tore them apart.
Episode 3.13 features a cold open,only used a few times in Outlander series history. The “Faith Theme” is so haunting and it was an interesting choice to open with Claire drowning and floating with those somber piano notes bringing us back to a sad time and a musical moment from Season 2 that is unforgettable for many fans. This episode opening scene is repeated at 46:05 into the episode as the storm claims Claire and she sinks slowly into the serenity of the ocean below the raging tempest above. And what follows is the first part of my #1 moment. The camera angle expands to show Jamie swimming toward Claire whilst the Jamie and Claire theme swells with the addition of another orchestral strings ostinato (see moment #10 for ostinato explanation) at the 46:40 mark. I can’t really describe this next moment any better than Bear McCreary himself, so I won’t try.
“The roiling strings move ever upward as Jamie pulls (Claire) back to the surface, back to life. As they burst above the waves, the orchestra and penny whistle offer a soaring statement of their love theme.” – Bear McCreary blog
Jamie’s “rescue breath” was spectacularly timed to the soaring of the theme. I couldn’t breathe myself for a few seconds taking this all in. It really was an exquisite fusion of music and visual. My heart and my soul lifted just as Jamie and Claire rose slowly together to the surface. On the track itself, there is short lull in the music, but then builds to the second part of this favorite moment. It is reflective of the closing scenes of Season 2 when Claire was at Craigh na Dun and realized that Jamie was still alive and she “had to go back.” There was a very similar treatment of the “Stones Theme” in Episode 2.13 as in the final scenes of Season 3’s climactic episode. But, somehow, McCreary distinguishes it yet again. At minute 52:40 in the episode, Jamie and Claire realize where they have landed – the New World. There is a realization that a new life is now upon them as the orchestra swells again with soaring notes of the “Stones Theme.” At this moment, the camera pans away from our couple and swiftly across the landscape of America signifying more Jamie and Claire adventures to come and the beginning of yet another new chapter in their lives. Together. Always. This is my #1 Top Musical Moment of Season 3.
Re-living these “moments” every season always proves cathartic for me. No matter what is going on in my life – good and bad – Outlander can always take me away to a place where I feel true joy, albeit oftentimes jumbled with sadness and melancholy. But, the point is, I am FEELING. I am so thankful that Bear McCreary continues to come along for the Outlander ride and brings us such impeccable scores each and every season. It was a remarkable season of television made even better by the wonderful soundtrack accompanying all these gorgeous moments. On to Season 4. And, Bear – can I PLEASE sit in on a recording session??? #BucketList
What was your favorite Musical Moment in Outlander Season 3? Why is this moment so special to you?
For Season 1 Ranking of Top Ten Musical Moments go here.
For Season 2 Ranking of Top Ten Musical Moments go here.