How Outlander Finally Won Us Over

Posted on March 31, 2015

claireCaitriona Balfe in “Outlander” on Starz

Tom groaned at the opening strains of “Skye Boat Song” and the dreamy, Hallmark-Channel romantic imagery that accompanied it for Outlander‘s opening credits. “It’s very ‘lady.'” he said to Lorenzo in a teasing tone.

“Oh, shut up. Just watch it.”

Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, a veteran combat nurse from World War II. In 1946 while traveling the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon with her bookish, intellectual husband Frank, Claire suddenly finds herself cast backwards through time, landing in the Scotland of 1743, where she must first navigate her survival and then navigate the political unrest of the Jacobite rebellions while figuring out a way to get back to her husband before succumbing to her growing feelings for 18th Century studboy Jamie Fraser.

Lorenzo had watched the first several episodes of the show (and loved them) but couldn’t get Tom on board. It happens sometimes. We can’t be joined at the hip on everything and besides, when you’re a couple who does what we do for a living, sometimes it’s a good idea to part ways and go find your own things to enjoy without making it part of your working life. And because we’re joined at the hip on so many things in our lives, we have a tendency to make fun of those things the other one gets excited about. Lorenzo didn’t speak to Tom for days after he jokingly referred to the Turner Classic Movies channel – which is on constantly when Lorenzo’s near a TV – as “old people TV” just to get a rise out of him. And you don’t want to be near Tom when Lorenzo starts making fun of some of his nerdier passions. But there’s always truth in teasing and Tom’s “lady” jibe came back to haunt him after he’d sat through a few episodes because it revealed his own prejudices.

Because yes, this show is VERY “lady,” in the sense that there’s an audience in mind and the show has no compunctions about bypassing every other potential viewer and appealing straight to its most ardent demographic; that Venn Diagram where nerd girls and romance-genre lovers overlap. If it was “just” a bodice-ripper of a historical romance, the show’s overt demo-pitching wouldn’t be so noteworthy because of course a romance show would be pitched to a female audience. But when your story is as much about time travel, mysticism and 18th Century Scottish warlords, then the lady-pitching becomes a bit more interesting.

Stylistically, there’s very little to distinguish this show from, say Game of Thrones or Vikings or Black Sails or any other male-dominated and oriented adventure stories with historical and fantasy undertones. There are brutal swordfights, stunning castles and strongholds, scenery that would make a landscape artist weep, and treacherous political maneuvering at every turn. Except for one major aspect: It isn’t a story told through male eyes or by a male voice or to a male audience. It’s very much a story seen through a woman’s eyes and told – literally – in a woman’s voice. Tom, like so many guys with nerdy passions and a love for a good fantasy tale, found it difficult to recalibrate his settings for a story like this; a story with a brave, strong, moral, clever, stubborn and bold protagonist – who must learn to get used to corsetry and control her lust for the hot men in kilts surrounding her.

Because while the story on the surface is indistinguishable from so many costumed adventure tales, it’s the little things the show chooses to focus on that make it so interestingly feminine in tone. It’s not just that Claire is a woman who enjoys men (and by that we don’t mean she’s loose or wanton; just that she clearly enjoys sex); it’s that the story values things like cleverness and wit in its heroine over physical strength; it’s the way she’s positioned immediately as a nurturer and healer (and how she uses that to her advantage), rather than a warrior or politician; or the ways in which clothing is highlighted more notably (entire episodes look like knitwear catalogues at times) or the tools she’ll use – like gossip among female characters – that a male protagonist not only wouldn’t think of, but wouldn’t have at his disposal. It’s this combination of fashion, gossip, nurturing and a sharp-tongued, clever lead that makes the story so, in Tom’s word, “lady,” because it gleefully and deliberately plays with the very tools and tropes that have traditionally defined femininity in western culture for so long.

But it’s not fair to saddle it with “This is a show for THE GALS” praise either. Tom’s “lady” teasing was off-base, because the flip side of the character is that she embodies so many classic hero traits, including the negative ones. Claire is clever, but not so clever she sails through the story. She’s also occasionally infuriating and stubborn, not to mention reckless and too self-assured for her own good in a world like this. She also has a tendency to enjoy getting drunk, which is both endearing (Because who wouldn’t get drunk in that situation?) and also maddening given the surroundings and potential danger she’s in. The point is, she’s not just a classic heroine, she’s a classic hero, period. Which isn’t to take anything away from the distinctly female way her heroism is expressed, nor is it meant to imply that male heroism is the more pure or desirable form. We simply mean that we see no difference between Claire Beauchamp Randall and dozens if not hundreds of male counterparts in similar types of stories, from Jon Snow to Han Solo. She’s fiercely moral, brave, clever, strong, lusty and funny.

The sense of history does tend to get a little fanciful, though. Obviously, one wouldn’t watch a show like this (with time travel at its core) and expect it to be a studious documentation of the period – and for the most part, the show does all right with its Scottish setting and history. But Claire is able to do and say things that no woman in that time and place would’ve gotten away with doing. Mere days after landing in 1743 wearing a dress from 1946, she’s perfectly dressed in period clothing and navigating the court of Laird Colum McKenzie (even though it took her a minute to even figure out who was sitting on the Throne of England at this time), while generally sticking her nose into local politics and family matters, and sticking her foot in her mouth at practically every turn. In fact, Tom’s initial assessment to Lorenzo was thus: “Any version of this story where she isn’t beaten, raped and/or burned as a witch within hours of landing in 1743 is a little hard to swallow.” The “good” news, if you can call it that, is that after the first few fanciful episodes, the show does a better job of highlighting the constant danger she’s in, significantly raising the stakes for her while slowly turning her into a more conventional adventure hero (i.e., one who learns how to fight).

And we’d be remiss in this review if we didn’t point out the gold mine that is Caitriona Balfe in the lead role. That may have been the biggest surprise of all; that this largely unknown former model could give such a nuanced, soulful, heartfelt performance. Like so many adventure tales, the story only works insofar as the lead hero actor is able to sell it to the audience, and Balfe gives us a Claire that’s not only sympathetic and admirable, but someone anyone would want to get to know. She’s smart and wry, bold and funny, empathetic and stubborn. Sam Heughan as Jamie is, bless his heart, exactly what he’s supposed to be in this story – the distaff version of the traditional “girlfriend” character. Sure, he rescues Claire on more than one occasion, but Heughan wisely plays Jamie as Claire’s second. This is her story, not his. Herstory not history.

Once Tom figure that out – that it’s a good thing to see an adventure tale, with all the trappings of one, but seen through an unconventional character’s eyes and pitched to a nerdy, adventure-seeking audience of which (for once) he’s not a member – he couldn’t get enough of the story. Would that other nerd dudes could make that leap. Not that the show needs the audience. It’s doing quite well pitching to the women in viewing land, but it would do the nerd world some good to recalibrate its settings in order to enjoy a show like this. Yes, it’s romantic and dreamy and unapologetically lustful toward men (not that we have a problem with that), but it’s also one hell of a cracking tale told in as beautiful and meticulous a manner as the very best shows on TV right now.

Besides, it might do the male nerds some good to get away from the endless whore-slapping sex scenes of Game of Thrones and let Claire Beauchamp Randall remind them how a lady likes it.

EDITED TO ADD: This is not the place to discuss the books, only the first eight episodes of the first season of the TV show. If you’d like to discuss the books, we have a lovely Books forum and we’d love to see an Outlander discussion get underway there.

The first 8 episodes of Outlander are available OnDemand and the second half of the season debuts this Saturday on Starz at 9 pm, eastern.

For more discussion on your favorite shows, check out our TV & Film forum.
[Photo Credit: Starz]

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