OUTLANDER REFUSES TO APOLOGIZE
As the second season of Outlander officially concludes Saturday night, many fans have recently binged on, discussed, and reexamined the past twelve episodes that have occupied our social media feeds for the past five months. “Come for the action, stay for the conversation” I wrote in a February 29 article responding to the Entertainment Weekly cover that generated heated debates from both fans and detractors as to its appropriateness and message. I admit that my first reaction to the two leads, Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, embracing on a bed with only the fabrics of one kilt and one sheet between them (plus the inclusion of “bodice-ripping” in the cover lines) was “Oh, geez,” because I knew it would only fuel the misconception of the show as some Harlequin revue of heaving bosoms and muddy kilts and PASSION. As I noticed all the details referencing prior events and characters’ motivations (physical vs. mental scars, sexual intimacy influencing spirituality), I realized that was the kicker: the image both acknowledged and countered that cover line.
Over the last thirteen episodes (yes, I’ve screened the finale but won’t reveal spoilers), the brilliance of Outlander has been its continuous ability to place those assumptions under the microscope and flip them over, reshape them, or recontextualize them. “Brilliance” as a descriptor is in danger of being reduced to the worth of a participation medal for any show that requires a thinking hat, but what makes this show so worthy is that it challenges the assumptions of not only its detractors, but also for its most ardent fans. The intricate and painstaking process of adapting Diana Gabaldon’s epic story of Jamie and Claire for the medium of television means change is inevitable within the confines of time, space, budget, context, and other variables. This is what makes the show an interpretation of the novels, not a word-for-word mirror image of each chapter, and it carefully balances the wants of the book fans with the needs of the strictly show fans. Each facet of its production, from dialogue to costumes to cinematography, demands the engagement of the audience (and often repeated viewings) to discern the meaning behind the images: issues of power and control, masculinity and femininity, and the manipulation of genre and stereotype.
To put it plainly: it is one of the smartest and most proactive shows on television, embracing love and passion and intrigue and refusing to apologize. Will Outlander ever break free of its “kilty pleasure” stereotype in the press? It’s getting close. I don’t think anyone could watch “Wentworth Prison,” or “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” or “Faith,” or “Prestonpans,” just to name a few, and still reduce the show’s appeal to only one gender or viewers who like only one genre. Yes, the romance of the two leads is at the forefront of their ongoing story, and rightfully should be celebrated as part of a healthy adult relationship. Jamie and Claire’s friendship and later marriage unfolds and matures within a violent and chaotic world, where their decisions are tempered by forces beyond their control as well as factors they try their hardest to influence.
Much has been written and rightly so about costume designer Terry Dresbach’s magnificent creations that have adorned the characters both in Scotland and France, from a salon in the 1740s to a country house in the 1940s and 1960s. Following Dresbach online is participating in a master class about what costumes bring to and reflect about the story and what they reveal about the characters. Claire’s Highland wardrobe was primarily a matter of function and defense against the elements (i.e. the layers upon layers of wool) while her Parisian dresses reflected her very pointed political and social strategy. As she and Jamie establish themselves in Paris to try to thwart the Jacobite rebellion, their carefully structured public personas were shown through their appearance and style. As Jamie needed to perfect the image of the successful businessman to the French elite as well as his Scottish heritage to Prince Charles Stuart, Claire utilized her newfound wealth and privilege to design a wardrobe that reflected her most unique situation: as a woman of the future, she brings a 1940s sensibility to mid-18th century haute couture with equal parts refinement and titillation.
Throughout the Paris episodes, each creation was an examination of womanhood under the spotlight: confronting societal expectations with a silent protest in each cut of skirt or peek of décolletage. Like a sartorial chess game, Claire had to predict what situation she would be in, and what lines of etiquette she could tiptoe across, and who she had to impress. Of course, as a woman of the 1940s transplanted to the 1740s, as she becomes acclimated to Paris society, her style becomes brilliantly meta, such as when she wore a gown that resembled the famous Bar Suit of the late 1940s by Christian Dior, which was itself inspired by 18th century designs. She is a woman of her own time asserting her identity within the societal structures of the 1740s.
As Outlander blends elements of science fiction, military history, and action-adventure, when considering the aspects of romance and love it is crucial to examine how the male characters are portrayed. There are several types of love depicted on the show: romantic love, filial love, love of country, love of self. While we are predisposed to focus on the women and their displays of love, the Outlander writers place as much if not more emphasis on how their male counterparts deal with matters of the heart (or lack thereof).
James Fraser is certainly the dashing, attractive partner of Claire, but the paths they take towards loving each other are very different. Jamie knows romance on a more personal level than Claire, as his parents, Brian and Ellen, ran off and eloped. Claire was orphaned at a very young age and raised by her uncle; as she lead quite a nomadic existence until adulthood, she has a deep, internal craving for home. For Jamie, his family home of Lallybroch is his stability and sense of self, and his years away from it – first as a soldier and later an outlaw – have made the farm his idyllic dream in most of Season One. When he tells Claire in “The Reckoning” that he fashioned her wedding ring from the key to Lallybroch, as she is his home now, you can see that emptiness in both of them has been filled.
The spiritual connection between the two continues to develop in and out of the bedroom, as Jamie’s respect for Claire as a healer and Claire’s witness of his increasing skill as a leader of men make them ideal partners, best friends, lovers, and soulmates. Jamie recognizes that love is all-encompassing and requires sacrifice and devotion, and he demonstrates this not only for his wife but for his home and family and clan. This is what makes Sam Heughan’s performance so heartbreaking after Wentworth: even the demonstration of love has been tainted. After his assault by Jack Randall, he cannot physically connect with his wife, causing him to literally and figuratively withdraw from her for the first few episodes. When Claire discovers the bite marks a prostitute left on his thighs in “La Dame Blanche,” and surmises that he can still muster the will for physical intimacy, just not with her, he confesses his ongoing torment. This is not something a romantic male lead is supposed to experience, let alone admit to, but Outlander presents his suffering honestly and openly, and it is Claire who comes to him later that night, assuming the roles of protector and nurturer and lover, instigating their physical reunion.
Once the episodes return to Scotland, we see the Frasers continue to work together in a shared cause to save their friends and Highland culture altogether. Jamie rides with his wife by his side, consults her in all matters, and recognizes her independent and tenacious character. The weight of prescience about Culloden weighs on the couple, and one of the most tender scenes shared between them is when Jamie is leaving for Prestonpans. He says no words to his wife, but their passionate kiss and his deep bow to her is testament enough to the emotion between them.
Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) is one of the most romantic characters in the last two seasons, and not because of his brief romance with the chambermaid in Paris. Jamie’s godfather carries the burden of unrequited love for Ellen Fraser and a steadfast devotion to her son. He is grave and intense and gruff in a Gary Cooper sort of way, his dark eyes attesting to the hard life he has lived and his social awkwardness in Paris revealing his introversion and isolation from home. Murtagh is a romantic in the unswerving attention he pays to his loved ones, which come to include Claire, and his appreciation for love itself. When he argues with Claire in “The Search,” or wraps Jamie in his kilt and carries him out of Wentworth, or later argues with him against suicide in the Abbey, or becomes Fergus’s unwitting big brother back in Scotland, or offers to wed Mary Hawkins to save her from possible abuse by Jack Randall, his gallantry is unaffected by pretension or expectation. He has not been lucky in love, but he will not let that stop him from devoting his life to helping others, and recognizing love in turn.
On the other hand, Charles Stuart (Andrew Gower) merely thinks he is a romantic. He is in love with passion and desire and glory. Most devoutly, he is in love with himself, and his attentiveness to his beloved in terms of appearance and bearing is tenderly wrought. He is in love with dramatic gestures, and frivolous women, and the faux-liberality that comes with strong wine and dimly lit brothel parlors. Unfortunately, his rose-colored glasses extend to grander schemes, where a combination of ego and entitlement layered over a foundation of daddy issues threatens the very lives of the people he hopes to regain sovereignty over. He sees the romance of war, the style of military regalia, the songs and tributes and crowns of laurels. He cannot be bothered with the elements, the mud, the broken of body and sick of heart. That would ruin the spectacle he has created in his mind, the everlasting glory of his predestination that renders the reality around him a necessary sacrifice. He is a foolish dreamer that has created a nightmare that all come to see except himself.
Frank Randall is a polarizing character, depending on how actively you feel he participates in the hand he is dealt. Without spoiling the books for the “show fans,” the television portrayal of Claire’s hapless first husband is fantastically done because he is not relegated to the dimwitted cuckold nor some beastly tyrant who drove his wife into the arms of another. He loves Claire, and she loved him, though not at the intensity of her connection with Jamie. He loves her enough to want to rekindle their passion at Inverness in the first episode of Season One, and he loves her enough to want to start over with her unborn child in the first episode of Season Two. Frank believes in new beginnings, and when Claire physically and spiritually can not return his love, he channels it into a devotion to Brianna who he takes as his own child.
Finally, how could Jack Randall have any part in a discussion of love? Praise must be heaped on Tobias Menzies for not only portraying Frank with heart and hope, but exposing the pathology of Jack in a meticulous, brutal way. A year ago, I debated whether or not Jack could experience love in a review of the last two episodes of Season One. In “The Garrison Commander,” he interrogates Claire as a possible spy and tries to get her to confess by assuming the persona of a man in need of redemption. Just when he moves her to tears with his profession of remorse, he physically beats her and assures her that he is in total command of the evil with which he surrounds himself. Later, moments before raping Jamie in Wentworth Prison, Jack challenges Jamie’s determination to remain numb to the assault by saying, “You think I cannot control the darkness I inhabit?” He wants his victims to know and believe in his complete power over them, and over the evil that causes one human to commit such cruelty to another.
I thought Jack might have some degree of anhedonia as a result of his wartime experiences combined with a diseased psyche, especially given his displays of physical and verbal rage. He cannot experience love with anyone but his brother Alex, so he desecrates the flesh out of self-hate. Even worse, he has mastered how to pantomime acts of love as witnessed in his final assault of Jamie, when he figures out how to break him by emulating Claire and displaying a grotesque tenderness. Not satisfied merely to destroy a man physically, he requires the active participation of the victim in his own violation: if Jack can not unite with another in love, to achieve that physical and spiritual connection that comes with true intimacy, then they will unite in fear and anguish.
As the books were written by Diana Gabaldon, and the show has several female producers and writers (Maril Davis, Toni Graphia, Anne Kenney), and a female costume designer (Terry Dresbach), the female gaze and perspective is finely tuned and acutely felt throughout the episodes. The challenges and risks of being a woman both in Scotland and France in the 1740s, including issues of reproductive health and social stability, are examined from Claire’s modern perspective. Something as natural as pregnancy and childbirth could bring a slow, painful death, while a victim of rape could face social suicide if the assault were made public. As Claire navigates the different worlds she and Jamie live in, she has the ability to discern the parameters from which she must conduct herself, and with whom, and to what extent. She has come to a time where women are considered property and marriage a business transaction, and she utilizes the preconceptions of the men she encounters to her advantage in order to survive. The objectification of the male gaze is not limited to the 1740s, either: as Jen Yamato points out in her condemnation of recent profiles of female celebrities by male writers, a woman’s worth is still relegated to a Likert scale of how threatening, physically attractive, and useful she is deemed to be. Regardless of the environment in which she lives, Claire has to gingerly tread the social minefield where her intelligence, independence, and foresight could elicit begrudging respect as easily as distrust or even danger. Like Jamie, however, Claire possesses a natural grace and dignity alongside her resourcefulness that establishes trust, both from the other characters and the audience. We believe in Jamie and Claire, in their actions and decisions, and in the endurance of their love for each other. Throughout the show, Claire’s roles as healer, lover, mother, friend, and leader continue to evolve as she confronts each new challenge with a resiliency and fortitude, bolstered by the man who she allowed into her heart and soul.