After last week’s episode of Outlander tackled the thorny subjects of gender equality and physical abuse – not entirely un-controversially – this week’s begins as far away from such things as possible: with an extended session of (ahem) female pleasure. It’s always been one of the show’s more commendable qualities that its sex scenes place Claire in control of the action (she’s having none of it when someone tries to knock on the door), but this week reveals Jamie isn’t the only cunning linguist around.
That’s because the Duke of Sandringham is in town. On one hand, that means good news for Jamie, who hopes to convince the aristocrat to pardon him, ending his outlaw status. On the other hand, it means bad news for everyone, as Claire’s future knowledge has already informed us that the Duke is connected to Black Jack Randall. (Not for the first time, we’re glad that Diana Gabaldon’s story is set in 1743, before the National Lottery was invented.)
It’s a welcome chance for Outlander to up its political game: while the internal clan conflicts are mildly diverting, things become a lot more intriguing when a dangerous third party linked to the English (boo, hiss) appears. It helps immeasurably that this third party is played by none other than Simon Callow, who fops around with a cruel, camp relish.
He gets a chance to square off against both of our leads, but it’s telling that the show gives Claire the chance first: Caitriona Balfe goes toe-to-toe with the thesp, exchanging witty repartee in between veiled threats. While she raises the subject of his allegiances, he smiles. “You have the most gorgeous neck. It holds your head so prettily.” Then adds: “I’d hate to see them parted.” He pauses to tell his assistant to write it down to quote in a book he’s writing full of bon mots.
It’s this balancing of the bigger picture and the smaller focus on Claire’s position (as well as the mix of humour and drama) that really grabs you: Sandringham, more than anyone, feels mere moments away from discovering that she’s not from around then. Compared to Sam Heughan’s hunk, who goes up against the Duke second, the difference in tension levels is notable. His manly nature, though, sees him engage in another type of duel completely – one that carries a physical risk.
That variety remains Outlander’s strongest asset: the show continues to weave together genres and tropes with endless agility, meaning that even during weaker moments (hello to Colum and the ever-tempestuous Dougal) there’s always something to engage just around the corner. Here, there’s time for politics as well as time travel, messy brawls and steamy romance. There’s even room in this versatile hour for witchcraft, as Laoghaire’s spell to steal Jamie for herself – sourced from the mysterious Gellis, who seems to spend most of her time gyrating half-naked in the forest – comes to light.
Gellis, it turns out has a bun in the oven – and, more shockingly, seems to have the power to get the father out of his marriage and into her bosom. “I don’t know that it did,” she tells Claire of her enchantment to achieve her aims. “I don’t know that it did not.” Lotte Verbeek is wonderfully ambiguous, which is hard to achieve when you’ve not got many clothes on.
It could all seem terribly wayward and all over the place, but the cast’s convincing commitment to their roles continues to build a believable world, one that (most important of all) is forever rooted in Claire’s own experiences; supernatural occurrences become scientific mysteries (cyanide makes an appearance) and letters complaining of sexual abuse become power-shifting ultimatums.
It’s a sign of how much Outlander has developed that we no longer need Claire’s voice-over to be on her side (when it does make a jarring, brief appearance, it’s as distracting as Jamie in his undies). Thankfully, it feels like we’ve moved on from the rape-based perils of earlier in the season too, with even the seemingly trivial love triangles of secondary characters bringing new sources of hazards to her journey. “These are dangerous times,” warns Jamie, before heading off on a Colum-ordered mission. And that danger could now come from any number of sides. After all, in an age where 20th century medical knowledge is not unlike black magic, we all know what the locals do with witches…
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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