The fates (being my mother, who insisted that I would love it, and the fact that I had nothing better to do on a Saturday night) conspired to compel me to watch “Outlander” last night, the television adaptation of a series of wildly popular novels by Diana Gabaldon. As usual, my mother was right.
The premise itself is interesting. Army nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) travels to the Scottish Highlands for a much-needed second honeymoon with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), whom she hasn’t seen for almost five years. Six months after World War II, the two of them are getting to know each other again before Frank starts his new teaching job at Oxford. Frank is a historian who is delving into his family history while on the trip. They arrive during the pagan festival of Samhain (a.k.a. Halloween), and Claire witnesses a pagan dancing ritual on the mountaintop. She goes back to the place of the ritual, touches a historic stone, and is transported back into the 1700s, right at the center of the Jacobite Rebellions. She falls in with a Scottish company, and meets the oh-so-handsome Jamie (Sam Heughan).
The buzz for this series was absolutely deafening. It’s been heralded as the feminist answer to “Game of Thrones,” and for that reason alone it was worth checking out. First, the books. “Outlander” contains many of the same elements that “Game of Thrones” does; sex, violence, political intrigue, and the supernatural are all present in the first episode, to wonderful effect. Gabaldon takes a popular genre and twists it, making the show appeal on many different levels. I was able to watch this show with my middle aged parents, and it even kept my high school aged brother enthralled with the action, the mystery, and the characters. Especially the characters.
Claire herself is one of the most feminist characters that I’ve seen on television. She’s a steely army nurse who is curious, bright, witty, and makes no bones about her sexual appetite. Indeed, this series is garnering praise for its acknowledgement of the feminine gaze, with steamy sexual scenes that Gabaldon is known for. One in particular that’s gaining a lot of attention is the scene where Frank performs oral sex on Claire in an abandoned castle. It’s not an overly graphic scene, in fact, both leads keep their clothes on. But the concept of an equal sexual relationship is not one that is usually seen on television. If compared to “Game Of Thrones,” there is an equality and an intimacy to sex that is almost never seen on the show. It absolutely caters to the “female gaze” in an unprecedented way, and is wonderful to see.
Part of the reason for this is the history. During wartime, men and women had an unprecedented equality that was still present six months after the war as soldiers returned and people resumed their lives. At an uncertain time, it makes sense that Frank is so intrigued with the past, as he provides us with context. Oddly, if this episode is examined historically, the pre-feminist 1700s mirror the societal shift backwards also made in the fifties, erasing the gains that women made in the Second World War. The show, though it is feminist, contains characters that could feasibly live in the 1940s and the 1760s, and the feminism that is portrayed here is reflective of this. Sexual violence is wielded like a weapon here, with Claire almost being raped twice in the course of the first five minutes. She depends on her husband’s name in order to get herself out of trouble, and is rescued by a man from her would-be rapist. Though these are frightening and threaten the feminist narrative to some extent, they are historically accurate. If you are a history buff in any sense, you will absolutely appreciate the attention to detail.
This series is difficult to classify. Arguably, it could be a paranormal romance, historical science fiction, a feminist fairy tale, a military narrative, or a marriage drama. From the first episode, you can see elements of all of these. It’s not overwhelmingly one thing or the other, but it combines different genres and ideas to create something that is entirely its own. Thus it appeals to a wide variety of people, and doesn’t compromise one for the other.
The show is wonderfully acted, and the scenery is beautiful. It plays on the natural mystery and magic of the Scottish Highlands to evoke the otherworldliness that the story requires. The Druid dance itself is worth the price of admission. “Outlander” succeeded in introducing the characters, building a world, and starting a narrative that is compelling on many levels. Though it lacks the expanse and the numerous points of view of “Game Of Thrones,” it still pushes many of the hot buttons (which is what Starz is looking for).
I can very much see it succeeding in the same way, given the fact that Gabaldon’s book series is just as long as George RR Martin’s, and has almost as large of a fanbase. In fact, the series premiere has been viewed 3.7 million times—a record for Starz, which has a far smaller following than HBO. They’ve hit upon a winner here, as “Outlander” allows for fandom and viewing parties in the same was that GOT does. As a big “Game of Thrones” geek myself, I can tell you that this absolutely fills the void, and brings something of its own to the table.
Outlander is a must-watch for anybody that enjoys history, mystery, science fiction, romance, feminism, and military narratives. It has something that will appeal to everybody, even if all you do is admire the gorgeous costumes and accents. Check out the first episode on Starz.com and On-Demand for free. You’ll be glad you did.
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