Outlander has become my newest television obsession. Every holiday break, my fiancé is out of town to be with his family for Christmas — which leaves me with a lot of spare time on my hands that I normally don’t have. It also means that any TV shows we are watching together, I have to put on hold until he’s back. To fill the void, this year I started watching the Starz show Outlander in earnest, and I’ve totally fallen in love with it.
(Minor spoilers for Outlander to follow!)
Outlander is based on a series of historical novels by Diana Gabaldon, which depict a 27-year-old nurse, Claire Randall, time traveling from the 1940s to the 1740s in Scotland. While at first her mission is to find her way back to the 20th century — and to her husband there, Frank — she is eventually swept up in a new 18th century life. I read the first book of the series a couple of years ago, as part of the Vaginal Fantasy book club. I enjoyed the historical details and the romance as Claire marries Jamie Fraser, all the while feeling conflicted about having another husband in another time period. But due to the length of the book, I didn’t feel compelled to continue with the rest of the series.
Fortunately, I am enjoying much more of the story with the Starz show. It’s extremely well-done, right down to the historical outfits, the fearless acting, and the development and production by Ronald D. Moore (of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fame).
I’ve always been a sucker for historical romances — I read really PG-rated ones as far back as middle school, which I’ll admit got me teased once or twice! — so Outlander appeals to me for that alone. But the time travel is what makes this story unique, and it’s also why I’m writing about it on my science fiction and fantasy themed blog!
Time travel is the backbone of this story, as it crops up again and again. Claire’s knowledge of 20th century medicine makes her a marvel in the 1740s, and she’s even accused of being a witch for it. Meanwhile, her knowledge of the future drives several major plot events, and she must decide whether or not she can trust anyone with the truth about where (or when) she’s from. She also frets over the future, as she wants to prevent bad things from happening but, even more than that, ensure that her husband of the 1940s is born. The 200-year gap between her two worlds feels surprisingly small, as her primary adversary in the 1700s turns out to be Captain Jack Randall, the direct ancestor of her husband Frank from the 20th century.
But the funny thing is, I have tried and failed to get into the show at least twice before. One reason is simply that the show can feel slow-paced at times. It’s one to savor — you have to enjoy the details of the characters speaking Gaelic, their clothing, the weapons they use, the politics they are swept up in, the meaning behind every conversation. It’s not hard to follow, but to really enjoy it, you have to put away your smartphone and sink into every word and every look the characters give each other.
The other reason I struggled with the show in the past is the violence. I’ll admit, I’m used to graphic violence in the shows I watch and the games I play. For me, there’s really no show more disgusting to watch than The Walking Dead, because zombies are gross and TWD doesn’t shy away from showing limbs being lopped off and the like. And while I do try to be sensitive about the brutality of many of the games I play, putting bullets in bad guys, robots, and mutated monsters in a shooter doesn’t phase me.
But Outlander exhibits a different kind of violence: torture. Claire’s 18th century husband Jamie is flogged until he passes out, and in another scene raped. Claire is also beaten, at one point kicked in the stomach multiple times while on the floor. While Outlander is brave to show all of that happening onscreen, instead of merely implying it, it’s extremely hard for me to watch. It’s supposed to be. It makes viewers feel all the more strongly about the antagonist Jack Randall, who is known for his savagery and sexual perversions.
So after being unable to get past that before, I gave the show another try and worked my way through those scenes as best I could. Fortunately, they are not in every episode. And there are other scenes that are equally hard to watch for different reasons, but it’s because the acting rings so true and the emotions feel so real. It’s all part of why I enjoy Outlander so much.
Maybe you’re in love with Outlander as much as I am, or maybe you have yet to watch it. In any case, I hope these reasons why I tune in will guide you as to why this show is so memorable.
Magic and Medicine
When I was in college, I took a class called Magic and Myth in Medieval Europe. It was all about how, in medieval times, anything that couldn’t be explained by the day’s science was considered magic. It’s like if you took a smartphone to the Middle Ages — people would deem it witchcraft, because they wouldn’t understand how it worked.
This is the scenario Claire runs into when she is transported from the 20th century to the 18th. Suddenly, her knowledge of medicine and events that haven’t happened yet is considered magic. She gains a reputation as an effective healer, and is able to use 18th century herbs to create medicines. Her smallpox vaccination also makes her immune to the plague running through cities during that time.
I love watching Claire give in to little bits of “magic,” such as when she gives a girl a love potion just to make her happy, or when she befriends the town “witch.” It’s also fascinating to see her helping out in a Parisian hospital, diagnosing illnesses that don’t have names yet, and bandaging the wounds of the Scottish soldiers she is always traveling with.
A Marriage-First Romance
A minor spoiler here! When Claire falls back in the 1740s, she doesn’t instantly get swept up in a romance with a Scotsman. After all, she’s a married woman back in the 1940s, and she just wants to get back home. But because of the dangers of the times (let’s just put it that way for now), for her protection she is wed to Jamie Fraser. She knows him — they might even be friends by that point — but there is very little flirtation between them before their marriage. In fact, Jamie seems more suited to a younger girl who is clearly besotted with him.
However, their marriage brings about a special closeness between them, and they fall in love from there. I love the idea of marrying first, and then falling in love. It seems backwards by modern Western standards, but it’s certainly not uncommon in the world even today — and it’s refreshing, for a romance novel. It also creates instant stakes and depth, because these are not two people casually dating and getting to know each other, but people who are instantly committed to each other for life. This pact seals them together in a way that forces them to work through serious issues and trust one another from the beginning. It’s a source of conflict and challenges, but also the basis for their closeness. It’s a nice change of pace from other romances I read, to watch the mature struggles of a marriage.
A Truly Disturbing Villain
The strength of Outlander‘s story comes largely from its main antagonist, Jack Randall. An officer in the British army, he asserts power in the most brutal ways imaginable — often through physical torture, but also through sexual domination. He develops an obsession for Jamie and will use Claire to get to him, which means he turns up again and again to haunt the couple. You can tell that his love of torturing others has deep roots in his psyche, and is not just some affectation that creates a “villain” out of a regular character.
It’s rare for me to have a visceral reaction to seeing a fictional antagonist come onscreen, but I feel dread in my stomach every time I see him. I believe this is because Outlander shows so much of the violence onscreen. Because I cringe watching it, I have come to really hate Jack Randall and dread his appearance on the show.
Claire is in her late 20s in this series, but the actress who plays her in the Starz show (Caitriona Balfe) is in her mid-30s, and I see the character as being older due to her maturity. Even as someone in her 20s, she was a World War II nurse and a married woman — so she is someone who has already been through a lot in life.
And she continues to go through a lot in this story. Without giving too much away, her tale includes marriage, being a victim of violence, having to risk her life for the man she loves, pregnancy, and loss. At one point, she is nearly burned at the stake for being a witch. In another part of the story, Jamie has gone missing, so to get his attention she tours the countryside, dressing as a man and singing despite how humiliating it is for her.
It’s fascinating to see Claire go through so many different trials in life, from loneliness in a new city to feeling betrayed her husband. And honestly, it’s such a breath of fresh air to watch a woman go through so many stages of life, instead of a girl just coming of age.
Outlander is known for being a show with a lot of sex. What makes it so unique here is how realistic it is. Sure, it’s full of passion, but the way the characters interact before, during, and after rings very true because emotions are hinged behind each scene. Maybe it’s the tension of a first time, or getting over a betrayal, or being reunited after an absence. Claire and Jamie make love in all kinds of situations, including when Jamie is getting over his past, when Claire is pregnant, and, before that, when the two are just getting to know each other.
Sex is never just sex — and even if it’s trying to be, there’s always something behind it. That makes each instance of passion layered, intriguing, and all the hotter for it.
18th Century Fashion
The unveiling of 18th century fashion — especially Claire’s Parisian dresses and the ribbons she wears around her neck — is reason enough to watch the show. Plus, there are a lot of men in kilts.
Have you watched Outlander? I’m curious to hear what others think of the show, and also how the show stacks up against the later books in the series!