There’s a certain variety of addictive popular entertainment that gets concocted when writers combine the sassy female narrator of a chick-lit novel with the tried and true elements of another genre (horror, historical fiction) and the aggressively female-centric sex scenes of romance novels. The result lands somewhere in between a sugary dessert and a powerful drug. This formula reached an apex in the Sookie Stackhouse books and the glory that was the first few seasons of True Blood, and scales similar heights with Outlander, the bestselling Diana Gabaldon time-traveling series whose steamy Starz adaptation is returning for its midseason premiere on Saturday night.
I’m a little bit late to the Outlander game, having only read the first book this summer, and I missed the show when it first came around, so what you’re about to read is a genuine first impression, a review from a viewer as naive about the show as our hero, Jamie Fraser was naive about the ways of carnal love before his wedding night.
The series returns mid-cliffhanger: protagonist Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — a 1940s nurse who stepped through some ancient stones in Scotland and found herself in an 18th century Game of Kilts — is in grave peril. Her new clan husband, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) — one of fandom’s favorite male characters — is preparing to rescue her, and will show up just as she’s about to be ravished by their archnemesis, Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). Randall is a Redcoat, an evil brute to end all brutes, and he ought to die, except he is also the ancestor of Claire’s mid 20th century husband, Frank, so he has to live. And that’s where the time travel conundrum comes back in.
Don’t think too hard about these tendrils of plot, because this is essentially the formula that gets played back and forth for much of the rest of the series. Claire rescues Jamie; Jamie rescues Claire. Mostly, Jamie rescues Claire. And if you think makeup sex is good, wait until you see post-rescue and makeup sex combined, which brings us to That Scene, which arrives pretty quickly in Saturday’s premiere and will be receiving a lot of attention when it airs.
Because Claire’s wandering afield and disobeying orders (she was trying to get back to the stones and back to the future) led her to get captured by the Redcoats, and thus to mortally endanger Jamie and his fellow band of highland clansmen, the men won’t talk to her. They shun her. The only way to right things, Jamie explains, is for him to give her a good hiding with his belt; were she a man she’d be flogged or have her ears lopped, after all. Being a feisty (semi) modern woman, she objects, but by episode’s end there’s been some light disciplinary wife-beating, some vengeful knife-pointing, some cursing, some vows exchanged, a long roll in the hay, and the immortal question from Jamie: “what does ‘fucking’ mean?” to which Claire replies, “Well, it’s what we just did.”
My feeling is this: what happens between Jamie and Claire is essentially stylized, historicised BDSM for a modern audience, slightly rawer but less creepy than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. Be prepared for the onslaught of a thousand comparison thinkpieces next week. The fighting, hitting and fornicating these two do is made more urgent by their constant standing on the precipice of survival, by the morals of Jamie’s society, and their genuine and deep love for each other which is growing before our eyes. That’s ultimately a good thing, because witchcraft trials, duels gone bad, intra-clan feuds, and some really brutal assault and torture scenes that I wish weren’t part of the narrative are on the threshold for these two, threatening to tear them asunder — not to mention the fact that Claire hasn’t yet told Jamie the truth about where she comes from. We are truly fortunate, fellow viewers, that the show’s formula apparently guarantees us a very feminist-friendly sex scene for every, um, climax in the action. (Balfe’s Claire may not be quite as warm and funny as the Claire in my mind, but she has excellent panting, moaning and heavy breathing skills).
To me, the almost unprecedented female-centric focus of all the sex, and Claire and Jamie’s eventual reactions to his onetime belt-wielding administration of justice, renders the spanking less problematic. Essentially: we’re having our Scottish S&M shortbread and eating it too, dunked in a steaming hot mug of feminist tea. Outlander taps into the same social and sexual currents, the same tropes about domination pursuit and fantasy, as Twilight and Fifty Shades while being freer, more equal, less aggressively regressive. It’s the same fun with about half the guilt about being seduced by the patriarchy.
Yet before I praise Outlander further, let us discuss the negatives: much of this show is utterly ridiculous. To wit, the comic relief draws on drunken fart jokes that make Gimli on Lord of the Rings look like Hamlet, the pace dawdles now and then, and the long voiceover explanations — Jamie’s in the midseason premiere, Claire’s in other episodes, can be so bad they make my ears feel like they’ve been lopped for disobedience to my clan. Surely the writers could have worked harder to bring exposition into dialogue and scene, or at the very least lay it on with a lighter hand. And finally, of course, a major downside: it’s on Starz.
Yet for those who can stand the schmaltziness, the show hits all its cues, leading its audience in a wild gallop across the glens.