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One of the best trends currently running in Television is basing new TV series off of works of authors. “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” have led the way to some truly great TV series emerging that have been based on pieces of well loved literature. Earlier this summer we were treated to new TV series “The Last Ship” and “Legends” which were based on novels and now “Outlander” is the latest example of this trend. The series is based off of the beloved novels by Diana Gabaldon and is produced by “Battlestar Galactica” alum Ron Moore. The story follows the journey of an English woman post WWII who is on a mini-break with her husband in Scotland. He is using the trip to learn more about his family tree and she’s using the time to attempt to rebuild their marriage after being apart for five years thanks to being separated in the war.
Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) was a nurse during the war. She’s opinionated, fearless, frustrated, flawed, and fiercely independent; in short she represents many of the women who went to work during the war effort and got a taste of what it’s like being a valued member of working society. When their men returned and they were forced back into the households to make babies in the ’50’s, it was their resentment and the ire of their daughters at the injustice that brought forth the women’s movement in the decades that followed.
Thankfully for Claire, she got to avoid that pain, because on the dawn of Samhain (Halloween) she and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) observed an ancient ritual at a standing group of stones, when Claire returns later on her own to retrieve a flower that she wanted to study for medicinal purposes, she feels herself drawn to the largest of the stones that is making a rumbling noise and upon touching the stone she’s thrown back in time by 200 years. The story then proceeds to follow this fiercely modern woman being a “Sassenach” aka Outlander in a strange time and her efforts to figure out how to return to her own time.
Ignorance is bliss for this TV viewer. I’ve never read the “Outlander” series of novels and hadn’t heard of them before I learned about the series coming to television, as a result the story is 100% fresh and original and new to me. Being a newbie to this world, I’m enjoying the series immensely. From the very first chords you can tell that Bear McCreary is in his element with composing the lofty and lusty Scottish soundtrack for the series. Ron Moore’s fine eye for character development and creating characters out of locations (Castle Leoch) are providing us with an amazingly gorgeous landscape for intrigue, historical events, violence, and budding romance. There’s a wonderful joy as a viewer to visually devour the gloriously stunning Highlands countryside of Scotland that rarely gets much screentime on TV or in films…and the stunning men in kilts who are fiercely protecting these lands.
At the heart of the series is the relationship between Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan). From what I’ve observed already online books fans are wrestling with the pacing of the budding romance between these two characters and there’s already a lot of grumbling and nit-picking over details that were in the books that have been left out in the series. These arguments are not new, in fact, every time a book gets brought to the screen and turned either into a TV series or a film fans will grumble and grouse of changes, there’s no way around that. As a viewer of the series you have to learn to see the show as a different entity than the books. The original novels curl the readers into the world and the author can wax on for pages about characters inner thoughts and observations, visual media forms have limited time to explore these things and the screenwriter must pragmatically select the key moments to put them together to build out an episode. Once the episode is written (which is usually only about 55 pages long: 1 page = 1 minute of screentime) the writer then leaves bringing forth the character growth on screen to the directors, actors, and producers. The series is written so that there’s a wonderful first person monologue through Claire’s eyes that most likely comes from producer Toni Graphia’s experience from working on “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” which used the same sort of narration to help tell the story of the best episodes of that series.
I also admit that I don’t know much about the history of Scotland, so Ron Moore’s approach of having Claire’s memories of her own history lessons that were provided by her egg-head husband are a wonderful way of providing some much needed background into the political environment of Scotland in the 1740’s.
The romance between Jamie and Claire is on a slow simmer. With how deeply they have depicted Claire’s love for Frank in the first episode, I truly believe that if she had consciously started yearning for Jamie from the outset, it would feel forced and it would cheapen wherever the relationship is going. Instead we have this woman who’s completely oblivious to the fact that the men around her are interested in her affections (Dougal & Jamie both seem to be sniffing around the goods) because she’s still longing for her own husband. She’s so oblivious in fact that she’s been slowly encouraging lovesick teenager Laoghaire MacKenzie to pursue Jamie as a mate. And yet, unconsciously a shift is happening, when she’s at Castle Leoch or on the road she seems to unconsciously wander to places where Jamie would likely be hanging out. Out of the people in the MacKenzie clan, Jamie has shades of being more cultured than the rest and he is fiercely honorable. Jamie is kind to her in ways that none of the other men really are in the Clan.
This week’s episode “Rent” was a wonderful view into Claire’s standing in the world, the men who she traveled with intentionally spoke Gaelic in order to exclude her from their conversations. Because their conversations were not translated, we got to feel lost right alongside Claire. Jamie is caught between wanting to be his own man and being trapped by the iron rule of family who’s sheltering him from the British. We also see that as Claire realizes that these men who she’s been traveling with and who she’s viewed as her captors are in fact noble in their dreams of independence and their ferocious loyalty to their own people. There is a wonderful scene where all of the men in the Clan collectively fight for her honor and she feels utterly lost on how to react to the very uncivilized violence that surrounds the event.
Claire’s independent willful streak isn’t helping her much in gaining Dougal’s trust. Knowing the future and trying to subtly discourage the men of the present day from running off half cocked on pipe dreams that she knows will end in bloodshed and death only succeeds in further putting her in the crossfire of Dougal’s mistrust. It’s one thing to have a woman be feisty and strong willed, it’s another to have one around who’s fully able to observe and understand the games played in a man’s world, and having opinions on the rules that they play by.
As for Jamie, this week we finally got to see that his restraint in his own growing feelings for Claire comes from his sense of wanting to maintain both his and her honor and the fact that even though he’s her strongest supporter, he knows that she’s hiding something which is creating a barrier in their ability to get closer. Jamie pretty much laid down the gauntlet, stop hiding things from me, and I’m yours. Both Caitriona and Sam have this wonderful, shy, mature chemistry together on screen that this week ignited with a very large spark.
“Sassenach” opened with Claire talking about how she’d never really had a home or a single place to put down her roots. She uses a vase as her metaphor to represent a life that she longed to have. Through the art of television, sneaky set designers do things like placing lovely vases in her “dungeon” as subtle, subconscious hints on where her heart truly belongs. The series is nicely paving the stones to lead her to that path, it’s simply a case of her figuring out that the signs have been there all along.
Thankfully with Ron Moore at the helm and Diana Gabaldon on board as a consultant, book readers should not be worried that the forked roads on the series will lead to their inevitable ends. I for one will observe the journey in ignorance and will remain happy to take a back seat and let the creative “Outlander” team guide me on this wonderful journey. And even though the season will be split, thank you Starz for giving us a full 16 episodes to look forward to for season 1 to further fuel my latest, favorite TV obsession.