For two seasons the epic love story between Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) was the driving force behind Starz's Outlander. But with a pregnant Claire returning to her own time ahead of the ill-fated Battle of Culloden last season, the show has been forced to explore the two as they lead separate lives in Season 3, and it's the best the show has ever been.

Now, that's not to say say the first two seasons were somehow bad because they focused almost exclusively on Claire and Jamie and their relationship — far from it! And it's also not to say that we're not counting down the days until their inevitable reunion later this season, because we are. But for most of the show's run, it was the Claire and Jamie story, and to hell with everyone else. By separating the two lovers for a lengthy period of time — 20 years have passed since Claire returned through the stones to her own time, while we've seen four episodes with them apart — the show has been able to explore who these two people are without one another, while still being inextricably and forever linked.

When Claire returned to the 1940s, she was a woman in grief, mourning Jamie and the life they'd had together. Instead of chasing after his ghost, though, she reunited with Frank (Tobias Menzies) and raised Brianna (Sophie Skelton) as his daughter, believing the entire time that Jamie had died at Culloden.

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Although Claire and Frank's relationship was no longer romantic, it was through their arrangement that we could explore Claire's pain and see who she was without Jamie, while seeing the ways she didn't necessarily belong in the 20th century anymore. For example, she struggled to adjust to modern living and found herself incapable of being a traditional housewife, though one could argue she would have always struggled in that arena, trip to the past or not. She also struggled to connect with nearly everyone and as a result, very nearly ended up on the outside looking in at her own family because of the way she'd closed herself off.

Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies, <em>Outlander</em>Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies, Outlander

Her growing distance from Frank, who deserved better than she treated him, was probably to be expected, though; the two hadn't exactly been hopelessly devoted before she disappeared, and of course, she'd fallen in love with Jamie, and Frank knew it. But her coldness wasn't limited to just her relationship with Frank. We could also see it the way she shut down with her daughter, as if looking at Bri was a daily, constant reminder of the man she'd loved and lost. This led to a strangled relationship that could only be fixed by the burden of truth.

It finally came at the end of Season 2, when Claire and Brianna traveled to Scotland, and the latter confronted her mother about her birth father. During that same trip, Claire allowed herself to make peace with her past, visiting Lallybroch and the site of the Battle of Culloden. Despite this progress, it wasn't until Season 3 that the series really allowed viewers to see the wall start to come down between mother and daughter. Of course, it also helped that the trip to Scotland coincided with Claire learning that Jamie hadn't died after all. In the wake of both developments, Claire began to resemble the woman the audience had come to know: fierce, independent, even hopeful.

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But that familiar version of Claire had also peeked through in her work over the years. Seeking a way to distract herself from the pain of losing Jamie, as well as a purpose in the new version of her old life, Claire pushed herself forward to break barriers in medicine at a time when that was nearly unheard of. She pushed forward professionally, even if she remained stunted emotionally. And while she might not have been living the life she'd wanted, she found peace in helping others, something that once helped her to adjust to her life in the past when she felt out of place there too. It's not surprising she found a friend in Joe (Wil Johnson) along the way; as a black man in the '50s, he was an outsider, too.

But Claire wasn't the only one who struggled. Back in the 1700s, a badly wounded Jamie was rescued from the bloody fields of Culloden only to become an outlaw, living in a cave near Lallybroch in an effort to protect Jenny and the rest of the family. After several years, he eventually allowed himself to be taken prisoner to eliminate the threat hanging over their heads. But the truth is, Jamie had been in metaphorical chains since he lost Claire, unable to fully live his life — or enjoy his life — without her by his side.

Sam Heughan, <em>Outlander</em>Sam Heughan, Outlander

During his time in prison, and later during his time as a groomer for a wealthy family, we were able to explore Jamie through his friendships, first with Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) and later John William Grey (David Berry). There were glimpses of the charismatic and heroic man we used to know along the way, but more often than not, Jamie was a ghost of his former self. But just as Claire found solace in her work, Jamie was able to find reprieve in his son. Yes, Willie may never know that Jamie is his true father, and yes, Willie was a constant reminder of the children Jamie believed he'd lost alongside Claire, but he also gave Jamie something and someone to care about for the first time in a long time.

Perhaps even more important than allowing viewers to see Claire and Jamie's relationship from a new perspective — and creating a sense of excitement surrounding their inevitable reunion — their separation opened up the narrative and created space for the show's supporting cast. When build a worthwhile TV show around two beautiful people who are deeply in love, there's a risk of repeating the same storyline over and over and over again. How many times did Claire have to save Jamie? How many times did he come to her rescue? By allowing the supporting characters some time in the spotlight, Outlander was able to forge a new path while strengthening its foundation in the process.

Menzies, in particular, was never better. The show's secret weapon for two-plus seasons, he pulled double duty as both Frank and Black Jack Randall, and while no one is mourning the latter, we're deeply saddened to have lost Frank so suddenly. Not only did we feel like we finally got to know and understand him as a person — too often we only saw Frank through Claire's eyes, and it wasn't always fair — but he was finally going to have the opportunity to live the life he wanted. He truly deserved better than the hand that was dealt to him.

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However, his death is what also allowed Claire to close the book on their story, because as much as she loved Jamie, she was still linked to Frank. During the show's second season, she even went to great lengths to ensure the survival of his vile ancestors so that he would still be born in the future. But Claire couldn't keep living with one foot in the 1900s and the other in the 1700s, so sending her back to the future for an extended period ultimately allowed the series to tie up Frank's storyline, leaving Claire free to worry about just one man.

Of course, it also meant Brianna was raised in the 1900s, which means that when Claire returns to Jamie's time, she'll still be leaving someone she loves behind. Unlike Frank though, Brianna knows it's coming. She's also linked to Jamie, so although she's afraid of losing her mother just as she's started to really get to know her, fans shouldn't necessarily worry about the show simply repeating Frank's storyline with Brianna in his role.

But to be honest, the most important thing to take away from the show forcing Claire and Jamie apart is that fans have been reminded of why they fell in love with the show and their characters in the first place. We've been able to see who Claire and Jamie are as individuals, while acknowledging that they're forever linked by their love for one another. They've spent 20 years apart and are still so deeply in love that they're never far from one other's heart and mind.

It's also made viewers even more excited for them to reunite later this season, which we didn't even know was possible. Apparently absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Outlander airs Sundays at 8/7c on Starz.