We are in a drought. No, not that type of drought, I mean a figurative drought. That long period of desolation that follows the end of a series before the next one starts. In the case of Outlander, American network Starz’ hit show based on the series of bestselling books by Diana Gabaldon, we are in the middle of a period known to fans as Droughtlander.
I was slow to catch onto, or even hear about, Outlander –the series first aired in August 2014– but I’m glad I did. It’s given me something to obsess over, thank God. I thought I was going to go crazy waiting for Game of Thrones to start again. From the first episode, I was hooked. Outlander is romantic, exciting, sexy and empowering.
The show centres around time-travelling wartime nurse Claire Randall, played by Caitriona Balfe, who time travels to 1743 by stepping through a circle of magic stones while honeymooning for the second time in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank. There, amidst turbulent relations between the Scottish clans and the British army, she meets and falls in love with romantic, honourable (and super hunky) Highland warrior and Laird Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan, and falls foul of Jamie’s cruel, twisted nemesis Captain Jack Randall, Frank’s six times great grandfather (both characters are played by the same actor, Tobias Menzies, and he’s brilliant). What follows is an epic love story as Claire successfully navigates highland clan politics, and challenges the contemporary position of women with her talents as a healer, captivating Jamie and audience alike.
Rather unusually for me, I liked Claire. I tend to find female protagonists who are given unlimited voice over irritating, and, having read four of the Outlander books, it took me a few episodes to fully engage with Balfe’s performance. Once I had, however, I found Balfe’s interpretation of Claire to be true to the character in the book, relatable and likeable. She’s intelligent –she doesn’t wander around in the 18th century asking if she can use someone’s telephone– brave, and devoted, first to finding her way back to the stones in order to return to Frank, but eventually, to standing by Jamie. And that’s exactly what she does. Claire saves Jamie, and Outlander manages to allow its heroine to save the day not by turning her into a superhero or thrusting the stereotype of a ‘strong woman’ in the faces of its audience. Claire is smart enough to know that she can’t save him alone, and accomplishes it with brains and faith, using skills she has honed throughout the show.
Outlander’s Jamie Fraser defies the conventional role of the romantic hero as well. While he does remove his shirt more often than is strictly necessary, and the chemistry fuelling Jamie and Claire’s relationship is mostly sex-oriented, Heughan’s portrayal of Jamie offers more than eye candy for female fans. While he complements the show’s emphasis on the female gaze, which is prevalent from the first episode, he also tackles the difficult task of sympathetically and accurately portraying the devastating trauma of male rape and physical torture with dignity. For me, Balfe’s performance made for interesting viewing, but Sam Heughan’s performance, opposite Tobias Menzies’ truly menacing and evil Black Jack, made viewing necessary. I binge-watched Outlander because I couldn’t help myself, and I’d recommend that everyone else should do the same.
Series one is available in full on Amazon Prime, and series two is expected to start in April.