Firstly I want to say, I haven’t read the books, so I will only write about the TV series Outlander in this review. My mother loves the books and was very enthousiastic when the series came out. She recommended me to watch and, well, I’m probably a chip off the old block, because soon I was hooked on Outlander. Warning: spoilers for season 1 of Outlander follow.
Outlander: season 1 (2014-15)
- Creator: Ronald D. Moore
- Season 1 premiere date: Aug 9, 2014
- Starring: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Tobias Menzies, Duncan Lacroix, Graham McTavish,
- 16 episodes of 60 minutes
Outlander follows the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a combat nurse from 1945. When she is reunited with her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) after 5 years of war, they travel to Inverness in Scotland for a second honeymoon. While Frank researches his family history, Claire, interested in the old Scottish folklore, witnesses a Druid ritual among standing stones on the hill of Craigh na Dun. When she places her hands on the stones, she is swept back in time to 1743 in Scotland, in the middle of a skirmish between Redcoats and rebel Highlanders. She is threatened by Frank’s ancestor “Black Jack” Randall (also Tobias Menzies), but saved by a Scotsman and his fellows. Claire’s held captive at Castle Leoch and the MacKenzie clan and is labeled as ‘Sassenach’, an English person or outlander and is suspected to be an English spy. With her medical experience she is deployed as a healer while planning her escape back to Craigh na Dun. But after treating a dislocated shoulder of the romantic, red-haired Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a passionate relationship is ignited that tears Claire’s heart between two different men in two incompatible lives.
When you try to tell someone about the series, you probably say it’s a love story about an English woman who travels back in time and falls in love with a Scot. But the thing about Outlander is: it’s so much more than that! The series unexpectedly plays with genre: sometimes it feels like a historical drama, ten minutes later it’s an adventure or swash-buckle story, but also shocking horror, magical fantasy and science-fiction with it’s tagline: “What if your future was the past?” The fact that Claire travels back in time to the the fierce world of Scotland and knows history of these Highlanders and their failing cause is an interesting struggle.
Claire is above all a great, strong female character played by actress Caitrona Balfe. Her character’s traits of stubbornness and intelligence are engaging and sometimes very funny: she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do, which is in violation with the traditions of Scotland in 1743. She is a strong woman, well-spoken, knows politics, has headstrong opinions, she drinks and she loves sex (which results in long, passionate sex scenes). As Caitrona Balfe says in an interview, Claire is even for her time in 1940’s very modern and very forward thinking.
The series are of course based on the Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon. In the first episodes of the show, Claire’s voice-over was used very often, a filmic technique to adapt narrated monologue in books – but in screenwriting there’s the principle of ‘tell me nothing, show me everything.’ Since the script is beautifully written, Claire’s voice-over felt sometimes unnecessary because I already saw was she was thinking or feeling. But the voice-over was used less during the season and I got more comfortable with Claire’s character. It was a nice change, since there aren’t that much female protagonists I know of. As a viewer you step into this new world together with Claire. This is emphasized by not translating Gaelic for example, which excludes Claire and us from the conversation and information given. Also, instead of a ‘male gaze’, a ‘female gaze’ is often used, for example when Jamie jumpes naked into the river to fix the mill (if you know what I mean).
Speaking of Jamie Fraser, the charming Scottish warrior with lots of charisma, he is well played by Sam Heughan with his swooing blue eyes. He is well matched with Claire, who teaches him to have an open minded, equivalent relationship based on love and respect (for his time), but also remains to have his proud heritance of his clan and as laird and teaches Claire the Scottish ways in return. Then there is the ultimate antagonist, Jack Randall. Gods, Joffrey Baratheon of Game of Thrones would be afraid of this man! I think he is the most sadistic and horrifying character I’ve ever seen. A memorable performance by Tobias Menzies.
The storyline develops with a nice pace, you truly get to know the wonderful characters and setting, which allows you to understand well why Claire’s heart is torn between these two worlds. Sometimes I did find some conflict was resolved too easily: someone gets caught and rescued at the end of the day. For example, in episode 4 “The Gathering” when Claire tries to escape to Craigh na Dun during the clan gathering. She is caught by Jamie in the stables and tells him exactly what she is trying to do and just gives up. But after this, Claire goes along on a journey with Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) and the hilarious Angus Mhor (Stephen Walters) to collect the rent for the laird Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis). From here on, the story builds up and Claire finds herself between constantly shifting alliances and a lot of clever intrigues.
Some episodes are so memorable because there is more at stake than ever. Sometimes even really disturbing or horrifying: the excessive flogging of Jamie whereby the skin is hanging loose from his back in “The Garrison Commander” and when Geillis (played by the Dutch actress Lotte Verbeek) is getting arrested together with Claire for witchcraft and faces an inescapable fate in “The Devil’s Mark”. Especially the last two episodes “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” were so hard and even uncomfortable to watch. Outlander doesn’t cut away, but shows you macabre torture scenes in real time, right in your face. I thought the sick flasbacks of the ‘relationship’ between Jamie and Randall, which left Jamie traumatized, are even more shocking than Game of Thrones without only showing sensationalized horror. “It isn’t violence simply for the sake of violence. It’s violence that’s intricately connected to the character, his arc, and even the narratives of other characters on a show,” as
Furthermore, there are plenty of historical references which I find really interesting. The rising of the Jacobite army, the wedding rituals of wrist cutting and hand-fasting. Also the opening titles song is adapted from the Scottish folk song “The Skye Boat Song”, by changing the text of the poem “Sing me a song of a lass that is gone” fitting right into the story. The costumes by designer Terry Dresbach, the settings and the music are absolutely brilliant. The scenery of Scotland is beautifully filmed, which gives the series it’s mysterious and sometimes dark atmosphere.
I find Outlander a really engaging show. The characters are intelligent, strong, charming or horrifying with lots of secrets. Although it felt like a love story at first, the story develops into a true epic adventure in the harsh world of Scotland in 1743 which is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Season 2 of Outlander will start in 2016.