Written by Michelle Glasson, below is one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking analyses I’ve read related to Sam Heughan’s performance in Outlander and his chances of earning the recognition he deserves.
When analysing problems, incidents or significant failures in the world of manufacturing and heavy industry, a methodology called a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is often employed. This methodology invokes the “5 whys” meaning that if we step back and ask 5 “why” questions about the things that didn’t go as expected, we will start to see a reason or explanation emerge.
The same methodology can be applied to help understand reasoning behind conscious and subconscious decisions made by television executives, filmmakers and writers who tend to have oversight on the cultural messages presented in modern film and television. This same group also seems to have power of authority over who is valued highest when it comes to rewarding production teams and individuals when award season rolls around.
Well award season is here. The 2016 Emmy nominations opened last week and so the scrambling for putting your best men and women forward has begun. But to understand the cultural politics at play here, we need to apply the “whys” to an important question from last year.
Why was Sam Heughan snubbed in the 2015 TV award season rounds?
For the uninitiated, Sam Heughan plays Jamie Fraser in the Starz TV Series Outlander. The show has run for two seasons now – based on books Outlander (1991) and Dragonfly In Amber (1992) of Diana Gabaldon’s multi-genre series. It has just been renewed by Starz for two more seasons.
The books and show have a massive following (yes, that is an understatement). Many blogs and websites dedicate themselves to discussing the line-by-line interpretations and goings on of Outlander episodes, comparisons of books to TV series, as well as the interpersonal relationships of its stars. This site is not one of them.
But we do take note of cultural politics and how certain texts and performances are valued more highly above others. And we ask questions about why that is.
Lets start with the competition. The way 2016 is shaping up, it seems the 6 Emmy frontrunners for Lead Male Actor in a Drama currently trending (at time of writing) seem to be: Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Kyle Chandler(Bloodline), Damien Lewis (Billions), Rami Malek (Mr Robot) and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) with outliers Wagner Moura (Narcos) and Bobby Cannavale (Vinyl) nudging into the six here and there. All great series, all great actors, all great performances.
But would it be fair to say that these leading contender programs are telling unwavering stories about drugs, war, politics, espionage, money, power, sex, control and the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our “managers of humankind” – narrated from the ever-so-familiar male point of view?
So where is the subversive narrative? What counter stories are at play where these programs are saying something else about the world other than we must all aspire to be ambassadors of hatred, violence and intolerance and do our best to double-cross, outsmart, murder and take revenge upon others? Apart from perhaps the dark family dynamic in Bloodline (which does deserve further exploration), I am struggling to find anything. For any of these programs to have cultural significance, they need to be doing something constructive to bridge the ever-expanding chasm in humanity.
Outlander addresses this through workarounds that are very clever. Whilst part-prescribing to the popular narrative of war, revenge and violence – necessary it seems to get a seat at the table of dominant thought – it actually has a stronger subversive thread running through that teaches the value of tolerance, patience, peace, humility, honesty, love, equality, family, camaraderie, brotherhood, friendship and commitment.
This becomes apparent as viewers and readers work through the contradictions of Outlander – last week I watched Murtagh cut off the Duke of Sandringham’s head and this week I watched Claire Fraser administer palliative care to two dying men. But the brilliance of the production lies in the ability to tell a very positive humanistic story whilst reluctantly chopping, slashing and gouging with the efficiency of an 18th century kitchen appliance.
And this is where the complex characterisation of Jamie Fraser comes into play. Amongst the ambiguous traits of this textbook hero is this incredibly open-hearted, willing to learn, willing to believe, emotionally intelligent young man who (after an initial hiccup) comes to genuinely believe his wife Claire is his soul mate and equal. He is also the object of sexual desire from both his wife and an extremely conflicted English Army Captain to whom he was forced to submit to physical and sexual abuse.
In Outlander Series 1 Episodes 15 and 16 we witnessed Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies play this out in all the graphic detail over two of the most harrowing episodes of television ever screened. Both actors received wide acclaim, but Sam’s performance in particular stunned audiences to the point of speechlessness. Heralded by everyone, everywhere. But when awards season rolled around…nothing.
I suggest that this omission says a great deal about how critics really respond to challenging subversive material, especially when it is the conundrum of seeing an archetypal male lead graphically raped and tortured by another male. My point is that because Outlander first prescribes to – then undermines – just about every genre, those assessing it have been quick to lump it into the “melodrama” or “soap opera” classification which is often conveniently and derogatorily dismissed as “women’s shit.”
Lets spell it out again using the 5 whys:
Sam Heughan was snubbed by 2015 TV award programs despite receiving overwhelming acclaim for his performance in Outlander Series 1.
Because Sam’s portrayal of Jamie Fraser was seemingly not endorsed by voting members.
Because the rape, torture and domination of a lead male hero by another male undermined normalised perceptions of “strong men” and suggested that the lead male was weak, exposed and vulnerable.
Because the mixed genres of Outlander enabled an ambiguous interpretation and so the content was conveniently dismissed as melodrama (usually associated with the feminine and so perceived as having diminished or lesser cultural value).
Because mainstream culture is unsettled with a leading man being emotionally exposed, a subject of sexual abuse and the object of female desire – it diminishes power, authority and control.
Because these types of events challenge the dominant narratives around masculine identities and gender roles and that makes everyone shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.
I would argue that Sam’s incredible portrayal of a brutalised Jamie has so deeply unsettled critics and peers it has perhaps worked against him. And I think the season 2 writers have worked hard to help reclaim any diminished masculinity by highlighting the more mainstream male aspect of Jamie in the latter stages of season 2. Although to be fair, much of this is just accommodating the narrative shift post-Paris and preparing for the upcoming climactic battle of Culloden and this does necessitate focus on the historical events of war. This is where Jamie puts his PTSD to one side and reluctantly leads Team Fraser into battle.
Prior to this, season 2 of Outlander continued the physical and emotional rehabilitation of Jamie which achieved some closure in Episode 4 “La Dame Blanche” when Claire demanded he open up. And he did:
“There was this place inside me. A place I think everyone has that they keep to themselves. A fortress. Where the most private part of you lives. Maybe it’s your soul – the bit that makes you yourself and not anyone else.
But after Wentworth, it was like my fortress had been blown apart. The thing that once lived there was suddenly exposed out in the open – without shelter.
That’s where I’ve been ever since Claire. Naked, alone – trying to hide under a blade of grass…“
For me, this was the best Jamie monologue in Season 2 (so far) – and I will declare my bias – because I am drawn to any discussion around vulnerability on television that is articulated by a male. This week (Episode 12 “The Hail Mary”) we also saw Dougal, Colum and Black Jack Randall all open up about the feelings of both love and resentment they have toward their respective brothers – the latter having a particularly venomous way of expressing it. All the actors in these scenes did an incredible job. This sort of dialogue amongst males is so important because it is the beginning of self-acknowledgement, reflection and potential for growth that just seems to be so absent from the life of everyday Mr Television.
I just hope we are not at risk of frightening away male actors willing to take on courageous roles that do ask important cultural questions – especially around normalised masculine identities. It is clear that Outlander appeals to women because it’s a way they can collectively engage – through the characterisation of Claire – in a hostile masculine world and in a history they were suspiciously absent from.
But don’t we also need to be talking about the disenfranchisement of men and how they feel about the world? I feel Outlander does an incredible job of this because I see it as relevant to any person trying to seek validation from outside a dominant narrative which places value on specific ethnicities, incomes, educational backgrounds, gender, sexuality and a load of other criteria. I would argue that there are plenty of men who feel this pain alongside women not to mention all the “others” out there that don’t make it into the script.
The narrative choices naturalised for mainstream TV do contribute to this and so there is a responsibility to support, encourage and reward alternative threads that teach more about connectivity and tolerance – and not dismiss them as melodramatic when called on to engage the grey matter to figure out the genre. Lean into the discomfort.
For me the real heroes are the Sam Heughans of this world – out there on the fringes, taking on important roles they know many of their established mainstream counterparts will refuse to sign-off on. Isn’t that what “Man in the Arena” is all about? This makes the likes of Sam a good human in my book who has the courage and emotional intelligence to play a man with zero anxiety about engaging with marginalised groups if it means helping to shift the world out of despair.
It is only fair that we afford these breakthroughs the right to be equally rewarded alongside their peers when they present soul-baring offerings (as Heughan did in Outlander episodes 115 and 116 last year and again consistently throughout season 2) that challenge the norms and shows “above and beyond” commitment to their craft.
And he did it without having to say “fuck” once.
For your consideration.
© 2016 Michelle Glasson