Game of Thrones fans, here's why Outlander needs to be on your must-watch list (if it isn't already)
This week, a Twitter exchange between the writers' account for a popular TV show, its lead star, and the series' fans received some attention. The latest episode of the show — the sixth of its third season — depicted a long-awaited reunion between its star-crossed protagonists, and fans had things to say about how the scene had deviated from the original source material (the books on which the show is based). Tweets flew between fans and the show's writers, then the star himself stepped in to explain why he'd enacted the scene the way he did, and finally, the writer of the original books retweeted it all, to settle the matter.
Welcome to the world of Outlander.
In the Golden Age of Peak TV, small screen series — Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Sherlock, to name just a few — have gone on to become global phenomenons, and inspire devoted fan followings (Orphan Black) in a way that would make Hollywood envious. Outlander has fans who're a little more invested than most — and the show, which premiered in August 2014, deserves every bit of the fandom.
The story so far
For those who haven't seen Outlander (it streams in India on Netflix; a new episode goes up every Monday night), here's a quick lowdown:
Based on the Outlander novels by American author Diana Gabaldon — the first was published in 1991; the series comprises eight books so far, with a ninth on its way — the story spans the genres of historical fiction, sci-fi, adventure, fantasy and romance. It begins just after World War II, when English nurse Claire Randall disappears in Scotland while on a second honeymoon there with her husband, a historian called Frank Randall. Frank and the authorities search high and low for Claire; what they do not know, is that Claire has slipped through a time portal while visiting a mysterious stone circle (a small-scale Stonehenge) in a place called Craigh na Dun, and inadvertently travelled 200 years into the past. Having hurtled into the year 1743, Claire finds herself navigating the social mores of 18th century Scotland (at a troubled point in its history), and also a passionate marriage with a Highlander called Jamie Fraser.
Showrunner Ronald D Moore has stuck pretty closely to Galabaldon's books in his screen adaptation. So Outlander's season 1 followed the happenings of the eponymous book 1 (nearly) to the letter: Claire's tumble through time, establishing herself as a healer of some repute, marriage with Jamie, and their run-ins with a sadistic captain in the British Army, Jack Randall (an ancestor of Frank's). Season 2 (based on book 2 — A Dragonfly in Amber) saw them escape to France and get embroiled in the court politics of King Louis XV there, before returning to Scotland. The larger narrative arc for both these seasons — covering a span of about three years — is the Jacobite rebellion brewing in Scotland at the time, with several of the clans declaring support for Prince Charles Stuart's uprising against the English king George II. Knowing as she does that the revolt will lead to the destruction of the Scottish clans, Claire works with Jamie to stymie it.
The end of season 2 saw Jamie send a pregnant Claire back through the stones at Craigh na Dun, to the future; he believes he will die in the battle of Culloden, where the Jacobite rebellion was crushed by the English. Claire returns to the 1940s, to Frank; they move to America where Claire trains as a surgeon and they raise her child together. Twenty years later, after Frank's death, Claire revisits Scotland, and happens to discover that Jamie was not, in fact, among the men who were killed at Culloden. A painstaking search over several months with help from a historian friend helps Claire track Jamie down — from years of hiding in a cave near his ancestral home, to several more in prison, then as an indentured servant on parole, and finally as a printer in Edinburgh (with a profitable side business in smuggling fine liquor). Her daughter is all grown up, and has (after some disbelief) accepted her mother's time travelling past, so Claire decides to go through the stones, once again, and reconnect with Jamie.
It was this reunion — dubbed 'the print shop scene' by fans, because it takes place in Jamie's print shop — that caused the recent Twitter eruption. In Diana Gabaldon's third book (titled Voyager, the chapter is called 'A. Malcom', as is episode six of season 3) Jamie breaks down after Claire shows him photographs of their daughter Brianna. In the show, actor Sam Heughan preferred to take a more restrained approach, and while he depicts a man in the grip of great emotion, didn't actually break into tears. With Heughan, the writers and Gabaldon herself all presenting their points of view, the fandom seems to have been appeased, for now.
The story now
Outlander stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire Beauchamp/Randall/Fraser, Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall/Captain Jack Randall. Balfe is a wonderful Claire, playing her with all the gutsy gumption the character demands. Claire has been called many things — the female character Game of Thrones should have had, a true feminist heroine etc — and Balfe brings all of that strength into her portrayal. Tobias Menzies is a revelation: both his roles, as the sensitive/disappointed Frank Randall and the utterly villainous Jack Randall are so finely etched, you wonder why the Game of Thrones showrunners decided to waste his prodigious talent by casting him as the wishy-washy Lord Edmure Tully. The supporting cast also boasts several gifted actors — and yet, Sam Heughan towers above them all (figuratively, and literally considering he stands at about 6'3"). Over much of season 1, Heughan played Jamie Fraser with a carefree insouciance, although there were flashes of intensity that promised greater depths. Then, over the last two episodes of the season, came what for most fans was an Outlander rubicon — the depiction of Jamie's rape by Captain Jack Randall. Menzies was pitch perfect, but Heughan's performance was something else altogether. The violence was brutal — but not gratuitous, the scene stark — yet oddly intimate; it won rave reviews for showing the aftermath of rape, and survivors' state of mind. (It was also a winning argument for why we need more women directors on big-ticket TV shows, but more on that later.)
While Outlander, for the most part, is told through Claire's perspective, it does delve into Jamie's frame of mind as well, on occasion. Those occasions give Heughan a chance to shine. Season 3, especially, has offered many of those. As a fugitive from the law, then a prisoner, and 'lowly' servant, this Jamie Fraser is a far cry from the devil-may-care lad we first knew, and Heughan invests the weight of all these life experiences into his portrayal. Much has been written of how the characters were not aged in a very physically obvious way, even though the story has taken a leap of 20 years, but there are subtle changes that do make a marked difference — the way Heughan moves, or the air of reserve, of sorrow held in check that wasn't present in his portrayal earlier.
Filming for season 4 is currently under-way, and season three is only at its halfway point, which means fans have a fair bit more of Outlander to look forward to. With the story moving away from Scotland, as the reunited Jamie and Claire set off for fresh adventures in France, the West Indies, and finally America (by the end of book 3), there's quite some exciting ground to cover.
Outlander and the female gaze
Feminism may seem like an odd thing to bring up in connection with a TV show about time travel and Scottish history, and yet, that's among the most discussed things about this series. The obvious way in which Outlander is feminist is in its heroine, of course. As a nurse and later, surgeon, Claire is in her element — whether she's in 18th century Scotland, or 20th century Boston. Season 1 saw her grapple with patriarchy and superstition — all while she plotted with Jamie to save the Highland clans. Sure, she gets into situations where Jamie needs to rescue her — but she's no damsel-in-distress, and saves Jamie's life just as often. Then again, it isn't that we haven't seen strong female protagonists like Claire in popular culture.
Outlander's feminism comes from its adoption of the female gaze — not just because the story is written by a woman, but also in the way women directors have shot crucial episodes. Game of Thrones has often been criticised for its lack of female directors; Outlander, by contrast, shows you what women bring to a scene when they're placed behind the camera. So season 1 had critical episodes being shot by Anna Foerster (Underworld: Blood Wars, White House Down) — the season finale and the penultimate one (Jamie's rape and torture at the hands of Jack Randall) and also Jamie and Claire's wedding episode. The wedding episode offers a case study in the difference between how men and women film sex — how male and female actors (and nudity) are portrayed depending on who's behind the camera. Season 3 again features three women directors on its roster — Norma Bailey (who shot the print shop reunion episode), Jennifer Getzinger and Charlotte Brandström.
Some may argue that the reverse of what we see in other shows has happened with Outlander — it's the male lead (Sam Heughan) who is now objectified. However, the appreciation for his
Greek Scottish god looks has also been balanced with the acclaim for his histrionics.
Those Outlander-Game of Thrones comparisons
That they feature well-known actors from the UK, are based on sprawling epic historical/fantasy sagas by immensely popular American writers, are inspired by aspects of the UK's history, have gorgeous music (Bear McCreary's score for Outlander is as good as Ramin Djawadi's for Game of Thrones) and are produced by premium networks make Game of Thrones and Outlander comparisons common. Of course, they're vastly different — and those oft-listed similarities are superficial at best. Still, fans of one show will find much to love in the other.
As Game of Thrones heads to its finale season in 2018, there's going to be a big, fantasy epic-sized hole in our pop culture lives. Outlander — with its well-entrenched fan base and potential to grow bigger — could be poised to fill that gap.