Sing me a song of a lass that is gone;
Say, could that lass be I?
[spoilers for episodes 1-4 of Outlander season 1, and tw for discussions of rape, torture, and general violence]
Wow, that makes it almost sound like we’re talking about Game of Thrones, doesn’t it? There are several parallels between Outlander and Game of Thrones, and critics often compare and contrast them, as if the latter actually serves as any sort of bellwether for the former. They are both adapted from huge, sprawling book series with armies of dedicated fans. They’re both technically fantasy, though once you get past the time traveling aspect, Outlander is pretty much straight up historical romance. Also, both series are daunting to imagine adapting. Other than that, though, the similarities are few, and in the comparison, Outlander is clearly superior.
(note: which book series is superior is a completely different subject, and as I haven’t actually finished the Outlander books, A Song of Ice and Fire might rank slightly ahead. Maybe more than slightly. But for any one person you could find who agrees with me, you could surely find one who doesn’t.)
Quick plot synopsis: six months after the end of WWII, nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall is visiting Inverness, Scotland with her husband Frank on a sort of second honeymoon. She encounters a group of standing stones on Samhain (the date is important) and is swept back in time to 1743. There she meets the second love of her life, Jamie Fraser.
Outlander is helmed by Ronald D. Moore, creator of, amongst other things, Battlestar Galactica. BSG is one of my favorite shows of all time, but even a dedicated BSG-lover like myself can acknowledge that it sorta went off the rails by the end. The writing team had no idea how they would wrap up the series, so everything from the “Final Five” reveal on was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nonsense.
Luckily for Moore, the Outlander series includes eight huge books (with a planned ninth), plus a spin-off novel focusing on one of the series’ villains. There’s also an official companion volume to supplement one’s knowledge.
Moore’s wife, apparently, has been a huge fan of the series since the first book’s release in 1991, and it’s partially because of her enduring love for them that Moore decided to tackle the challenge of adapting them for the small screen. He also credits her for helping him keep “true” to the books, in plot, character, and (maybe most importantly) spirit.
That, to me, is the biggest departure between the Outlander TV show and Game of Thrones. Outlander has plenty of shocking/dramatic moments, but this isn’t a show that avoids the long, slow burn as Jamie and Claire get to know each other. Yes, there’s steamy sex, but the series is done entirely from the female gaze, and the sex scenes reflect that. There’s rape, and the threat of rape, but it’s not done for pure shock value; it genuinely does show the times of the story, as well as serves to demonize the main villain…but it’s a little more complicated than that, something I’ll cover in later recaps.
Said villain is a nasty one, kids, and he happens to look just like Claire’s husband, Frank: he’s Captain “Black” Jack Randall, Frank’s distant ancestor, and the “Black Jack” nickname is because he’s such a horror. Both Frank and Jack Randall are played by Tobias Menzies (who you may recognize as Edmure Tully from GoT), and he does an amazing job of differentiating them. Claire knows within seconds of meeting Jack that he’s not Frank, and the audience does too. They almost (almost) seem like they’re played by two different people. It’s a highlight of the show, despite how horrid Jack is.
Ahem. I promised you a recap. These early episodes, especially, sort of blend together. I don’t mean that in a bad way: they’re kind of like early chapters in a book (heh), and as a result it almost doesn’t matter what happens in which episode as long as you’re following the story.
The pilot, “Sassenach,” establishes Claire and Frank’s relationship in the 1940s. They were married just before the war, and in the five years since have spent a total of ten days together. It’s obvious they’re very much in love, despite the tentative nature of some of their interactions. Frank is intended to be sort of the “boring” choice next to the all-consuming love between Jamie and Claire, but these early scenes between them make me wistful for what they could have had. They’re very sweet, and Frank is such a genuinely good person.
Claire is sucked through the standing stones and has no idea where (or when) she is. She meets Black Jack, and he immediately tries to rape her. What a swell guy. She’s rescued by a Highlander, complete with plaid and kilt, and whisked away to the dubious safety of Castle Leoch, home of Clan Mackenzie.
Episode two, “Caste Leoch,” allows us to meet the Laird, Colum Mackenzie. He has pycnodysostosis, also known as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome. As a result, his brother, Dougal, does all of his enforcing, rent collecting, etc. Collum is intelligent and canny; a great leader to his people. Dougal is a bit shadier. He doesn’t trust Claire at all and thinks she’s an English spy. He sets two of his men to follow her wherever she goes, which results in some of these early episodes’ funniest interactions.
Jamie, known at this point as Jamie MacTavish, was shot by the red coats the night Claire appeared in 1743. She patched him up, and now she’s constantly looking for excuses to go check on him. Can’t blame you, girl. The chemistry between the two is palpable from the first time Jamie looks at her, and he sort of imprints on her like a duckling.
We also see Jamie’s back for the first time: it’s thick with scars because he was flogged twice within only a few days by guess who? Jack Randall. The experience nearly killed Jamie. He also believes that Jack raped his sister, Jenny, and overall we’re getting a really clear picture of what this guy’s like.
Episodes three and four, “The Way Out” and “The Gathering,” continue to establish Claire’s relationships with various characters and the world itself. She meets Geillis Duncan, a free spirit married to the town’s pseudo-mayor. She’s a bit of a witch woman, gifting “potions” to local love-lorn girls. Claire has been installed as Leoch’s healer, and Geillis and Claire bond over herbs and remedies and the fact that they’re both strong, free-spoken women in a world where that’s discouraged.
There’s something fishy about Geillis, though. She seems a little too curious about Claire’s past and childhood, and some of the comments she makes about Claire’s attitude (“one would think they don’t have pillories where you come from”) are especially pointed.
We learn that Jamie’s real name isn’t “MacTavish.” He’s Collum and Dougal’s nephew on his mother’s side (an important distinction), and he’s wanted for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Jack Randall is hunting him all over Scotland, but luckily his uncles are generous enough to hide him at Leoch.
In the village Claire heals a child suffering from Lily of the Valley poisoning. The village priest believes he’s possessed, and when Claire steps in with an antidote she clearly earns his enmity. Everyone else’s reaction is mixed: some are awed, some are frightened. All know she’s a stranger with amazing healing abilities, and she draws stares wherever she goes.
She’s been plotting her escape since her arrival at Leoch, and with the upcoming Gathering, she thinks she can finally make it. Her plan is to return to Inverness and the stones, and hopefully to her present and Frank.
There’s a boar hunt the day of the Gathering. A man is gored beyond saving, and Claire and Dougal comfort him as he dies. Later Dougal says “you’ve seen men die, and by violence,” something she confirms without giving him any details. He’s still suspicious of her, but her kindness toward his friend thaws him somewhat
Of course that night, blind drunk, he tries to attack her, but she knocks him out. She’s headed to the stables to escape, but literally runs over Jamie. He points out how flawed her plan is and offers to escort her back to the castle.
On the way they’re ambushed by some of Dougal’s men who force Jamie to the Gathering. Why is that bad? Well, okay, he’s wanted for murder, but none of these men would turn him over to the stinkin’ English. The problem is he’s Collum’s nephew through Collum’s sister. If he takes the oath to obey Collum as his Laird, he’s essentially renouncing his own clan and accepting a position as a Mackenzie and Collum’s heir. Dougal feels that he’s destined for that position, so obviously he wouldn’t be pleased. If he refuses to take the oath, however, he’s spurning Collum’s hospitality and essentially pitting himself against all of Clan Mackenzie.
Basically it’s death either way.
Jamie is smart, though: he makes an oath to obey Collum as his kinsman as long as he’s on Mackenzie lands. He doesn’t renounce his connection to his own clan, but he swears to be Collum’s man while he’s under Collum’s protection. It’s enough, and Collum accepts the oath. Whew! Danger avoided.
I think that covers all the major plot points.
I love Claire so much, y’all. She’s one of my favorite female characters of all time. I first read Outlander when I was fifteen or so, and Claire has really shaped how I write female characters.
If you’re leery of the time travel angle, don’t be. Yes, Claire travels back in time, and that contributes to her “fish out of water” feel, but once she and Jamie finally get together it’s historical romance all the way. Women are heavily involved in the producing, directing, and writing of the show, and it shows in pretty much every aspect, including the use of nudity.
As an added bonus, it’s filmed on location in Scotland, and the scenery is gorgeous. There are of course big, sweeping shots of the moors and cliffs, but also smaller, more intimate scenes in wild forests with moss-covered rocks and rushing streams. The 1940s scenes are done more in shades of yellow, with the cool colors muted, while the 1740s scenes feature vivid blues and greens. The costumes are exceptional, too, and unlike in Game of Thrones, they actually make sense.
Basically? Watch Outlander. Just do it. The smoldering looks Jamie and Claire share in the early episodes alone are worth the price of admission. You can currently watch all of season one for free on starz.com, and I would HIGHLY recommend it. Season two premieres on April ninth, at which point the free viewing is over. I’ll be starting season two reviews next Tuesday, so look for them here!
Images courtesy of Starz