A review by Nalini Haynes
In 2009 I attended an event where Diana Gabaldon spoke to her fans and read from her latest Outlander novel. Never having read one of her novels before and not being interested in listening to a sex scene, I wandered off into the other room. However, hearing Diana speak and seeing the record number of women who attended a Melbourne Science Fiction Club event, my curiosity was piqued.
Diana’s series is epic, each tome a doorstopper in its own right. I received another book in the series last year; I think it was number 11. With my limited time, I couldn’t commit to plowing through such an epic read but, when I saw it on Netflix, I thought I’d give it a go.
Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) was a nurse in World War II. After spending 5 years patching men up or giving comfort while they die, she’s returned home to her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). They’re on a second honeymoon in Scotland.
Frank is researching the history of the area: his ancestor, Black Jack Randall, was notorious in his dealings with the Scots in the lead up to the Jacobite rising in 1745. (My ancestors emigrated from Scotland; Grandma told me that you do NOT call them ‘Scottish’, they are SCOTS.)
While Frank is busy, Claire wanders up to Craigh Na Dun to pick some flowers she saw while the couple spied on a grove of druids celebrating Halloween. Claire touches the circle’s center stone and falls through time.
In 1742 she meets someone who looks like her husband but it’s Black Jack Randall. He tries to rape her. Rebel Scots rescue her and flee from the English redcoats.
One of the Scots, Jaime (Sam Heugan) is shot; Claire binds his wounds and cares for him. She also warns the band that the English were/are known to hide in a particular rock formation to ambush Scots. They escape and take her back to their castle.
Once there, they keep Claire prisoner, saying they don’t trust her but they don’t really give a reason other than ‘we’re keeping you prisoner because we can’. They take Claire when they go to collect rents, giving her an opportunity to call for help twice. When she stays quiet, English soldiers take her prisoner. They treat her well until Black Jack shows up, then the gentlemen disappear. Black Jack beats Claire and treats her like a suspect because she’d spoken somewhat sympathetically about the Scots.
The Scots rescue her and marry her off to Jaime to keep her out of English hands.
Once married, they must consummate the contract. Both Jaime and Claire find this is a bit of all right. They fall in love.
A friend of Claire’s, a girl she’d tried to help, is angry with Claire for marrying Jaime so she tries to seduce Jaime. When that fails, she accuses Claire of being a witch, saying Jaime was rightfully hers although no one else previously recognized any relationship between the couple other than a teenage crush. Can anyone say Arthur Miller’s The Crucible?
The problem with Outlander‘s witch trials is Jaime has been sent away, witch trials are no longer legal and it’s all a bit rushed and implausible. Sure, the Laird (lord) is angry with Claire, but having her killed? Like this?
It goes on.
What starts out as an entertaining time travel story, juxtaposing mid-twentieth century events with mid-eighteenth century events, rapidly turns into a soapie.
Characters are black and white: they are either good (with maybe some complications like gossip or backstabbing) or they’re evil like nice-girl-turned-stalker-psycho-bitch because she didn’t get the guy. The English who are just following orders and behave gentlemanly last for the time it takes for them to take Claire into custody and feed her lunch, then Black Jack takes over, so all the English are evil once more.
Black Jack is the worst of all. He tries to rape Claire in the pilot and, whenever he gets his hands on her, he tries again. However, when Jaime was in his custody a few years ago (seen in flashbacks), he offered Jaime a choice: submit to sodomy or a second 100 lashes of the whip, a few days after the first 100 lashes. When Jaime turned down sex, Black Jack got all excited and passed out while whipping Jaime.
How many times do we have to see that whipping scene? Once was enough for me. Three times and I was bored.
When Jaime escaped, Black Jack shot one of his own men to frame Jaime and justify sentencing him to death. Because he can.
Black Jack is irritating and repetitive, reducing Outlander to a soap opera.
When Black Jack disappears for a few episodes, collaborators take over his role as evil bullies out to rape, pillage and destroy. It was at this point I gave up on the series. I didn’t even finish episode 13 after slogging it out through more diverse family conflict when Jaime and Claire arrive at Jaime’s home.
That family conflict started well, adding some depth and variety to the show, but it was short-lived then we got back to evil villains bullying, burning and threatening general mayhem while no one stands up to them. Not even to threaten to let their clans know what they’re doing.
On a more positive note, Outlander has a ‘somewhat unusual emphasis on the female gaze that put(s) it a cut above the gratuitous-feeling sex you might see on other shows’ according to Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair. When Claire and Jaime first have the sexytimes, Claire is torn because she’s still married in the twentieth century but she doesn’t want to be sent to Black Jack.
During the sex scenes that follow, between orgasms, Claire makes Jaime stand, naked, facing the fire. The camera focuses on Jaime’s rear: his scarred back, his luscious buns and legs. Claire inspects him as many men have inspected women in other TV shows. Claire walks around Jaime, trailing her hand down one side then up the other side of his back in a sensual manner. They have more sex. And, throughout the rest of the season, much more sex.
Robinson posits that the show can be dismissed as sexual fantasy, thanks to many scenes like the one described above, until season 2 episode 4: ‘“La Dame Blanche,”… featured a sexual reunion between our two leads and grappled realistically, in two different cases, with the impact of sexual assault.’ One of the sexual assaults is male rape: Black Jack Randall rapes Jaime Frazer at the end of season 1.
When Claire and Jaime reunite and rekindle their passion, the sex scene also shows Claire’s pregnant belly, a rare positive representation of a pregnant woman enjoying sex.
I didn’t get that far with Outlander. Two-dimensional villains, ‘because plot’ twists and sex scenes slowing the action are delicious indulgences for some. Perhaps my mistake was watching too many episodes within a short space of time. One or two episodes a week would have helped me focus on the charming period and the historical representation, while other input in between episodes reduced my focus on repetition and shallow villains.
Those who enjoy Outlander adore it. Ronald D Moore is credited as the creator of this series for television, with an impressive list of credits in the science fiction and fantasy genre, including Battlestar Galactica, Roswell, Carnivàle and Star Trek. He knows his craft and his audience. I’m not one 0f them.
Perhaps Outlander fits into the ‘Guilty Pleasures’ snarky fandom dichotomy discussed by Francesca Haig because, after writing this review, I want to watch another episode…
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars
Creator: Ronald D. Moore
Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Duncan Lacroix