I’ve been reviewing Outlander at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, along with my fellow Smart Bitch reviewers. We have a blast watching the show, but we’re all influenced by having read the books. I’ve been dying to get the perspective of someone who has never read the books, and Heather was kind enough to share her thoughts. No spoilers in the comments – we don’t want to ruin her fun!
I don’t quite know how it happened that a geeky girl like me who is a sucker for romance somehow missed the whole Outlander phenomenon. Perhaps I was so busy lusting after Conall Maccon from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series that I missed that other Scottish object of carnal desire– Jamie Fraser. The first time I ever heard of Outlander was in the episode of Orange is the New Black where two characters are working in the library and one of them picks up a book and says, “Outlander! You ever read this? Lady travels back in time to Scotland, hooks up with this big, sexy, outlaw type, and they be gettin’ it … day in and day out. Yo, it’s hot!” I had it mixed up with Highlander, so while this summary bemused me, I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Thus, when the word out of Comic-Con was that Outlander was the show to watch, I noted it in passing, but didn’t put it on my calendar or check to see if Starz is part of my cable package. The fact that Ronald D Moore was involved was the biggest draw, since I knew nothing about Outlander, but BSG is one of my favorite shows in the history of ever. When Starz posted the first episode online for viewing, I decided it was as good a way as any to spend a rainy afternoon. Well played Starz, well played.
Now we are five episodes in, and this has become my favorite show, and yes –of course I am madly in love with Jamie, although I note that he is in some ways too perfect. He is kind and funny and smart and educated and brave and noble and handsome and strong. He always says the right thing at the right time. He looks dashing in a kilt and I could happily spend hours contemplating his muscled chest by the firelight. His smoldering looks and deep voice with its Scots burr make me lightheaded and a bit swoony. As a love interest, he is ideal, but as a character, I am starting to find him a little bland. Does he have no flaws? I do like that in the episode “Rent” he is protective but critical of Claire – not quite the “boy with a crush” mooning about as in earlier episodes. He also is not careful with Laoghaire’s feelings (one senses that there will be fallout from that), but that aside, one might wish for less perfection and more complexity from the character.
Dougal, Colum, Geillis and Ned Gowan, on the other hand, are quite interesting characters and I want to know more about each of them. Dougal is strong and ruthless, sensitive and loyal, but is potentially dangerous to Claire and Jamie. Colum is smart, direct and powerful – commanding loyalty despite his physical infirmity. Geillis obviously knows or suspects a great deal more than she is letting on about Claire’s situation. One wonders if she is a druid, a forebearer of the women dancing around the stones while Claire and Frank watched, or whether she knew someone who fell through the stones. And Ned is just plain interesting.
Geillis also provides an example of something that puzzles me about the show. Sometimes the people in the series do something that is anachronistic and I am not sure whether it is a plot point or a mistake. For example, in one scene Geillis tells Claire that the key to having freedom for a woman is to get married. The problem is that in that time, that would have gone without saying – that is something that every woman would have known. So is this a plot point showing us that Geillis knows that Claire needs to be told this, or is it a gaffe? Since there are other slip-ups in the show, such as a plot point turning on mistaking Lily of the Valley for ransom but the plant shown doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to either of those plants, or Claire having a new outfit in every scene at a time when most women would have had only a few dresses, I don’t know what to make of Geillis telling Claire this obvious thing.
Which brings us to Claire. I like that Claire is a strong capable character who speaks her mind – often when she shouldn’t – but the incessant voiceover drives me to distraction and makes me think she’s not very bright. Also, “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ” is too annoying for words. If the show would just let us experience Claire through her actions, I would think better of her character, but the plodding narration sometimes makes me think she is dimwitted. Without the voiceover we could impose a myriad of possibilities; we could experience Claire’s experience for ourselves and put our own interpretation on things — but the pedestrian narration doesn’t allow for that. It would also be more interesting for me to see what is different about living 200 years ago through Claire’s eyes, but as far as we know, everything is pretty much identical except for having to wear a bum roll and a lack of understanding about infection control.
One interesting thing about the voiceover, and one that has gotten me thinking a lot, is the issue of “show, don’t tell.” In a book, the words have to guide us through. In television and movies, it is the dialogue, the visuals and the actions. Contradictory words in a voice over cannot overcome what we are seeing on the screen. Claire keeps telling us that she wants to return to Frank and her own time, “or die trying.” The problem is that as a viewer I see her adjusting perfectly well to Castle Leoch, forming friendships and a rapport with a man who is perfect in every way. Although Frank seems like a perfectly nice if dull fellow, Claire didn’t seem particularly connected to him, thus, as a viewer I have hard time believing Claire’s absolute need to return, notwithstanding the voiceover’s insistence upon it. Perhaps more flashbacks showing Frank as a loving husband (like the scene from the train station) would help convince me. I do like that as Claire goes about the castle the music playing is from the 1940s, which gives us some clue that she is a woman lost in time. Unfortunately, that is the only clue. I wonder if in the book Claire’s desire to return was more believable without having the pictures and actions to belie the words.
So, why do I love the show despite the criticisms above? Bear McCreary’s music and the beauty of the Highlands themselves are a start. The acting is great, all of the actors inhabit their world and their characters, making us believe that a woman really could fall through time and find herself in a real, if younger, world. Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe and Graham McTavish are particular standouts. Even Angus and Rupert are no longer just comic relief but starting to feel like real people. I am worried for them and the upcoming Jacobite wars. I like that the show is took its time introducing the characters – the payoff is in the later episodes where things are actually happening, particularly in “Rent.” Now that we are finally set in history and things are happening that have larger implications, I can forgive some of the earlier plot points that seemed contrived. Since we feel like we know these characters, their dire situation now resonates, and Claire’s competing loyalties and priorities truly draw us in. The cliffhanger at the end of “Rent” has me on the edge of my seat wondering what Claire will say to the English soldiers. All that said, it is Jamie and Claire’s relationship that is the overwhelming draw. Their chemistry is palpable and the slow burn as they draw closer is irresistible. As I said, I’m a sucker for romance, and Outlander delivers more than just a handsome man in a kilt.
What do you think of the show? No spoilers, please!