I became aware of Outlander when I read an interview with Ronald D. Moore, visionary writer/producer of the seminal Battlestar Galactica reboot, one of my favorites. Moore said his wife had given him a copy of Diana Gabaldon’s first Outlander novel, knowing he’d be captivated. So I read it, too. The writing isn’t much, and subsequent books have become longer and more repetitive (I gave up after the third volume.) But they have good made-for-TV bones: a strong female protagonist, interesting situations, and genuinely epic romantic sweep. It’s easy to see what attracted Moore to the series.
Outlander concerns Claire, a World War II British Army nurse who finds herself transported to 18th century Scotland. In the 20th century, Claire is married to Frank, a history professor. When she travels back, she is almost immediately confronted by Frank’s ancestor, British Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. The duality of the Frank/Jonathan characters is superbly rendered in Moore’s adaptation, not only because they’re played by the same actor, but because the visual medium allows past/present and villain/hero to be juxtaposed in creative ways Gabaldon didn’t attempt. (Moore’s series is beautifully photographed and edited – it demands the biggest screen possible.)
Claire is taken in by the Scottish MacKenzie clan, and marries virginal dreamboat Jamie, ostensibly because Scottish citizenship will protect her from Captain Randall. Despite her devotion to Frank, Claire eventually falls in love with Jamie, providing the bedrock relationship of the series. On the page, it grows tiresome, but Moore’s writers and directors make the most of the material, and actors Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan explore depths far beyond Gabaldon’s Harlequin characterizations. (The show’s casting is great all around, but Balfe in particular is astonishing. She plays moments of intense emotional transparency at the end of season 1, then again in the season 2 opener, that wrecked me.)
Fans of the books wondered how the show would handle two key moments. First, Claire and Jamie’s wedding night. This is depicted in the seventh of the first season’s 16 episodes. Moore devotes the entire hour to the event, providing a brilliant showcase for Balfe and Heughan. Directed by Anna Foerster, it’s an erotic and intensely romantic crowd-pleaser. Emily Nussbaum wrote, “[it’s] gripping precisely because it takes sex so seriously, treating it as life’s deepest joy and its most terrifying risk, as dramatic as any act of violence.”
The second, more problematic moment comes near the end of the book, and is detailed in the season 1 finale. Jamie has been captured by the British, and is ultimately raped by Captain Randall. A lesser entertainment would softpedal the violation, or use it to fuel audience outrage, to heighten the eventual climax of the hero’s revenge (see: anything by Quentin Tarantino.) This episode was also directed by Foerster, who does something unexpected and altogether disturbing: she presents the rape as analogous to the earlier wedding, revealing Randall as anguished participant in an unsuspected love triangle. Complete with unflinching male nudity (pay attention, Game of Thrones), the episode is a gorgeous (stunning cinematography), fearless duet between actors Tobias Menzies and Heughan. It’s almost unbearable because we don’t want to be turned on by rape – to grant it any kind of approval – and yet, that response is exactly what destroys Jamie. He can accept torture, but how can he recover from submitting to Randall? Foerster knows we’ve been conditioned by Hollywood, and she carefully dismantles our expectations and builds something much more powerful. It’s one of the best television episodes I’ve ever seen.
Season 2 opens with Claire returning to the 20th century. Gabaldon begins the second book similarly, but her Claire is much older, and recounts everything in flashback. The show’s creative team makes all the right changes, maintaining a dramatic tension unmatched in the source material. The writers spend a lot of time re-examining the Claire/Frank relationship, details Gabaldon dispatched in a few sentences. When the main action returns to the 18th century, the characters carry the weight of everything they’ve endured. The setting has shifted from the Scottish Highlands to Paris, rendered in loving detail.
Given Moore’s experience steering another epic steeped in mythology (BSG), I have high hopes Outlander will continue to deepen and improve on its already high bar. (Unfortunately, Anna Foerster is not listed as a director for season 2 – while fans worry the show will jump the shark, I fret that its best director might not return.) If you haven’t seen it, find a bottle of good Scotch, turn down the lights, and start from the beginning.
P.S. Despite my admiration for Balfe and Heughan, my favorite character is Laura Donnelly’s Jenny, Jamie’s sister. I find Donnelly’s brogue enchanting, along with her tender bossiness.