“I’ll thank you to take your hands off my wife!”
How far we’ve come in the first half of Outlander Season 1 from the opening episode – all the way to 1743, to be exact. The show, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, took its time to start slowly, an approach that could have deterred many, but it’s that same, defiant attitude that is the secret to its appeal: after eight episodes, Ron D. Moore’s series refuses to confine itself to any particular genre. A historical epic, a romance and a time travel thriller all rolled into one? Why the hell not?
The fantastic Caitriona Balfe is equally forthright as Claire, thrown back from post-WWII to the Highlands of old. After finally accepting what’s happened, she begins to integrate with Scottish society, all the while plotting how to get back to those stones and time-hop home. It is – yes – a slow burn, one that moves from minor story point to minor story point, pausing to remind us of the overall stakes.
The disjointed feel isn’t helped by her frequent voice overs, which only highlight the frustration. “I couldn’t allow this to distract me from my main goal,” she tells us, in various forms, throughout the eight hours. But there are treats to be found in the programme’s deliberately small scale. Chief of them all is Graham McTavish as the MacKenzie clan’s intimidating ward, Dougal, who glares at our heroine with constant suspicion, even as she gradually wins his trust. In one scene, he takes her on his rounds to collect tithes from the nearby villages; in another, she knocks him out with a chair.
All the Scots, though, struggle to fully accept her, something the script captures by subtly switching into Gaelic when they talk to each other. Like her, we’re on the outside listening in.
Claire’s nursing skills quickly earn her the role of local healer, but that only makes the priest suspect she’s a witch – a gripping battle over the exorcism of a child manages to be part-Quincy, part-The Crucible. And so the ever-evolving show continues to blur genres, wringing drops of tension out of every wee detail.
The costumes, like the locations, are beautifully observed – particularly when they’re worn by Jamie (the swoon-inducing Sam Heughan). Claire and Jamie’s romance, which started off so cheesily, continues to clock up the cliches, from meaningful glances and lingering touches (oh, do those bandages need changing?) to a love triangle involving another young village girl. But their relationship is beefed up by that theme of being an outsider – like Claire, Jamie has nowhere else to go and, should he flee, would only find himself pursued by Captain “Black Jack” Randall. Together, Balfe and Heughan’s chemistry simmers beneath those kilts, developing their characters with a depth that, impressively, extends to both female and male roles; Moore’s insistence of framing events from Claire’s perspective does wonders for the familiar beats, giving them a fresh air that stands apart from other, similar fare. It’s pleasing to note that she continues to instigate sexual encounters with the timid Jamie, rather than the other way around. The cast are so good. in fact, that even the occasional clunking dialogue (“It felt as if Dougal could read my mind…”) can be forgiven.
Completing our main ensemble is Tobias Menzies as Randall. The dobule-casting of Menzies as both WWII hubby Frank and the cruel captain pays off in dividends: after the opening episode allowed us to become invested in Claire’s marriage, we sympathise with his scowling investigations into his wife’s disappearance, as the police suggest she’s probably off with another bloke; in the 18th century, meanwhile, that frown becomes a mask of fear, as he tracks down Jamie and hounds Claire. One episode gives over oodles of minutes to a single conversation at a table that rings with suspense, as her thoughts of Frank’s kindness further down the family line conflict with this villain. “I dwell in darkness,” he hisses. “And darkness is where I belong.”
But he, too, becomes an outsider when he intrudes upon a venison dinner feasted upon by posh English types, him all about the dirty of doing business, them all about drinking and mocking the serious soldier. Menzies is clearly having a ball, but Randall’s outright nastiness raises the slight problem of Claire requiring rescuing from his clutches; a pattern that seems out of step with her otherwise independently-minded escapades. On the one hand, she’s capable of poisoning an entire castle. On the other, she’s caught between a bad man (who, stereotypically, tries to sexually abuse her to demonstrate his immorality) and a shining knight. Is she a damsel in distress or not?
Over the second half of the season, you hope that kink will be ironed out, as Claire strives to get home once more. Because when it isn’t placing her in peril, Outlander is an engaging, often engrossing tale of identity and belonging; one where people are defined by location, time and their reaction to both, not just by their marital status.
“Where I come from…” begins Claire, in a typically out-spoken rant. “It doesn’t matter where you come from,” interrupts the softly-spoken Jamie. “You’re here.” It will be interesting to see where these people head next.
Season 1 of Outlander is out now on DVD and available to own from iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. You can also watch it online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery and 350,000 eBooks available to borrow, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
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