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There is nothing romantic or ethereal about the opening scenes of the third season of Outlander (Sunday, W Network, 9 p.m.).

The series, which is probably the biggest drama in the world after Game of Thrones, has always defied convention and description. It is a love story, a historical drama, a feminist manifesto, a time-travel fantasy and, mostly, a fierce celebration of the sturdiness of true love and true love's transforming power.

What distinguishes it, too, is its incandescent beauty. Few dramas have ever been so alive to the absolute force of the natural wonder of mountains, moors and craggy shorelines. It makes Scotland look stunning, but in a way that is sensitive to the harshness of the landscape; its brutal, scary majesty. And few series have been as careful in treating the human body as a crucible of strength and fortitude. It's as if the camera gazes with quizzical awe on this remarkable thing, the human body. There is a livid, unnerving type of eroticism in it, even when there is nothing sexy going on at all.

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In this third season, the series reaches a crucial, dangerous stage. Over its first two seasons and loosely following the source material of Diana Gabaldon's novels, the core characters were mostly in the same place at the same time. Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a time-travelling British Army nurse from 1945 was somehow cast back to 1743 Scotland, and became emotionally involved with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highlander fighting against English rule.

Now, Claire is in Boston with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in the stultifying 1950s. She's pregnant with Jamie's child but Frank has promised to love both of them. That cannot be sustained, it is ordained by fate and human frailty. Claire's main battle, though, is with the emphatic, era-specific chauvinism of men and the expectations of a society that wants to smother her.

She is patronized for reading a newspaper, told to look pretty and expected to cook, clean and raise a child. There is something a bit stiff about some of the scenes and, while the relationship with Frank becomes fraught, its disintegration has inevitability rather than dramatic tension.

There is still the remarkable fact of Caitriona Balfe's startling ability to convey anger and strength with little physical effort – a glancing look, a tautness in her posture, a particular way of poking at the pots on a stove. Her daughter grows, Claire becomes a doctor, time flies. And yet there is that awful emptiness.

In Scotland in the 18th century, to which the series returns, almost moodily relieved, Jamie is broken and bedraggled, beaten down and hurting. A prisoner after the Battle of Culloden, he grieves, wracked and cautious about everything. There is the narrative of his dealings with the cruel, triumphant English and the seething unspoken narrative of his loss – not the defeat in battle, but the loss of Claire. There is a force driving this narrative but it all feels like a storytelling entanglement from which everybody craves to be released. What is missing, obviously, is ardent physical contact between Jamie and Claire.

The series, in this season's early going, is obviously much more at home in Scotland than it is in Boston and there is a tick-tock quality to some episodes. Some of the major themes of the series are touched upon – Claire's relentless drive forward and her assuredness are made clear. And the homoerotic quality of Jamie's unsettling internal emotional medley of macho strength and languid sensitivity is broached.

Perhaps it is best to think of the first part of this Outlander season as meditative pause. It is an occasion to ponder the pathway the series offers – its journey into the history of sex and empire; a reading of hero and heroine bodies through the lens of feminism, and an assessing of the stunning carnality activated by two equals in love with each other. When those elements are missing, as they are at the start of this season, it sure makes you think about them.

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As for that opening scene, it is the immediate aftermath of Culloden. The viewer sees the tangled mass of male flesh, the red blood on the green grass and the red-coated English soldiers idly killing the half-dead with bayonets. And you wonder – what madness caused this horror? What passion led to such terrible, brutal beauty of blood and death? Then, you know, as the engine of Outlander always tells you, that such passion is transitory while love between true lovers never dies. That is its beauty.

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