The TV Room: Outlander Season 1, by David Bax
Given that a jack of all trades is reported to be a master of none, a little bit of suspicion would be in order when faced with the prospect of Outlander, a period/time-travel/political/adventure/romance (with detours encompassing witchcraft, torture and feudal economics). What keeps the show from succumbing to that trope, though, is that it’s not actually a jack of all these trades. It’s not a show with a bunch of different, singular identities. Instead, it blends them to create a seamless whole. It is a master of its own trade, that of being Outlander, a show unlike any other on television.
On a vacation to Inverness, Scotland just after the end of World War II, Claire Beauchamp Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), rekindle their marriage after being separated almost entirely for the duration of the war. But before long, Claire finds herself in a grouping of Druid stones and, upon touching one of them, is transported back to 1742, where she meets a highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). While trying to find her way back to her own time, she and Jamie fall in love while evading Frank’s sadistic ancestor, Black Jack Randall (also Menzies).
Even before Claire became a literal woman out of time, the show made clear that she was an uncommon (or, at least, uncommonly portrayed) individual. She and Frank have a marriage based on equality and respect. It’s progressive even by today’s standards (unfortunately) but for the 1940s, it’s shocking to see a passionate, childless marriage between two people who are intellectual equals. Furthermore, in the series’ first sex scene, Frank wastes no time before hiking up Claire’s skirt, setting her on a table, kneeling and then going down on her. It was refreshing and exciting to see an act focused on female pleasure shown on television, something that doesn’t happen often enough and usually not in the first ten minutes of a pilot episode. But it set the table, so to speak, not just for how sexy a show Outlander was going to be but what kind of sexy we could expect.
Despite the fireworks of that first episode, the show took its time getting back to explicit eroticism, though it was usually in the air. Instead, it drew out the coming together of Claire and Jamie, in no small part because the show and Claire herself respected her marriage to Frank, even though he wouldn’t be born for a couple hundred years. The wait was worth it, though, for the seventh episode, “The Wedding,” a contender for the season’s best and certainly one of the steamiest hours in television history. Again, this was sex shown in Outlander’s own way, avoiding the functionalism bordering on pornography of shows like Game of Thrones, and instead finding pleasure in the lingering, the dilation of time that occurs during sex and, refreshingly, just as much male nudity as female. This makes it all the more unsettling when, a couple episodes later, Jamie insists on whipping his new bride with a belt for disobeying his orders. It’s a tightrope the show is walking but it’s insistence on honest depictions of the gender politics (among other things) of the time and place – as well as its insistence that love and reason can overcome them – are what make Outlander unique.
There have been stumbles, though. The most troubling one was the reveal of Black Jack’s sexual desire for Jaime. As the show went on and it became clear that this was just one symptom of a personal obsession, it turned a little more understandable. But the initial impact was retrogrades in its apparent adoption of the predatory gay man stereotype. A less offensive but still glaring misstep was the episode in which Claire and Fraser clansman Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) become a touring song and dance duo in a complicated scheme to find a missing Jaime.
That sort of jarring weirdness is a worthy risk when creating something as daring as Outlander. By its last two episodes, all the risks had paid off. At a time when there’s so much discussion about how rape is depicted on television, this show, by being something new to television, was able to bring something new to the conversation. I can’t wait to see what season two holds. I’ll even put up with a bit more singing and dancing if I have to.