Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
For a show that has literally been called the “feminist answer to Game of Thrones” (you never disappoint, Buzzfeed), Starz’s’ Outlander bears little resemblance to HBO’s fantasy epic. The temptation to compare the two is clear: both are big budget period pieces on a premium network and neither skimps on sex and violence in their storytelling. But any comparisons (for now) will stop there, because it seems unfair to reduce Outlander, which has some very original DNA, to another swords-and-sorcery drama.
Describing Outlander as Thrones-for-ladies is an understandable shortcut for the show’s more complicated premise. Outlander follows Claire Beauchamp Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a World War II nurse who is attempting to reconnect with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) after the war ends. While on a second honeymoon in Scotland, Claire is transported back to the 18th century, where she is picked up by a group of Highlanders rebelling against the British crown.
While it touches upon the politics of the time period, Outlander is about a woman out of space (and time). Claire is an outsider in more ways than one: she is a capable nurse in a time before germ theory, an aggressive woman in a patriarchal world, a Briton in an area that is wary of the King’s spies and armies. Claire’s modernity is a liability – she must constantly reach into her limited knowledge of history for names of rulers and regions so as not to draw suspicion – but it is also an asset: her medical skills earn her the trust of at least one Scotsman (dreamboat Jamie MacTavish, played by Sam Heughan) and a safe place at Castle Leoch.
Balfe’s performance as Claire is what makes Outlander stand out. She commands attention and is an actress who can showcase intelligence without saying a word. It’s hard not to be sold on Claire as soon as you see her at work: she saves a soldier’s life only to be pushed aside by a male doctor, and when she is told the war is over she celebrates by stoically drinking Champagne straight from the bottle.
But Outlander, like all fantasies, seems obligated to establish that all women are in constant danger of sexual assault, so Claire is nearly raped as soon as she arrives in the 18th century. Further confirming the dangers of being a woman at any time or place is Jenny, sister of Dreamboat MacTavish. In the second episode, Jenny is assaulted by the same British officer who attacked Claire, though her eventual rape does take place off screen. In addition to using a woman’s attack as a way to give a male character more depth, Outlander puts Jenny’s naked torso on display as she cries for help, a tactic uncomfortably reminiscent of many Game of Thrones low points.
Aside from the show’s use of sexual assault, there are few faults to find with Outlander. Especially impressive is a scene in the second episode where Claire and a woman from the village (the stunning Lotte Verbeek) discuss healing. There is no mention of men, no violence, just a couple of gals trading secrets about medicinal uses for fungi. After Verbeek reveals that her neighbors think she is a witch, it’s clear this relationship has the potential to go in an interesting direction. Claire’s 20th century medical knowledge has already drawn suspicion from her captors, so an association with an alleged witch might not do her any favors.
Outlander is a strong contender for the attention of a growing fantasy audience precisely because of its (sometimes small) differences with shows like Thrones. Like its pay-cable predecessors, Outlander is far from bloodless, but the violence featured in the show is motivated and rather inspired. Claire is not one to shy away from blood, so the camera follows her. Setting broken limbs, cleaning gunshot wounds: Claire is able to handle it all.
The British violence inflicted upon the Highlanders is also present (Dreamboat MacTavish’s back is a map of gruesome scars), but there is little cynicism to be seen in Outlander. The show’s sweeping shots of Scottish vistas and a lovely score demonstrate that, for all its talk of British oppression, Outlander is a romantic show at heart. I’m not sure what lays in store for the rest of the season (I have yet to read the bestselling novels the show is based on) but a show about a female protagonist carving out happiness in a hostile world is distinct enough to keep my attention.
Image Courtesy of starz.com