Is it me or does it feel as though 2014 was a million years ago?
There are many reasons to be grateful for Outlander, but chief among them is the fact that it distracts us from the challenges of daily life in this particularly weird era we’re living through. It does so with rugged men in kilts, breathtaking vistas, gorgeous interiors, and dresses beautiful enough to make you weep. More important, it promotes the idea that one can live on whisky and oatcakes and still have exceptionally dewy skin. If that’s not living the dream, what is?
But the main reason to be grateful for Outlander has a long name: President Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser.
One of those epithets isn’t official. Yet.
Long before Big Little Lies was a gleam in HBO’s eye, Outlander gave us a compassionate look at a complex woman’s difficult choices within a constricted social milieu. Two years after Claire ended up in misty Scotland, Netflix premiered The Crown, another drama with cushy country houses and lush rides through the Scottish Highlands. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Killing Eve, GLOW — these are just a few of the recent, buzzed-about shows that delve deep into the lives of women who have been — at work and at home — dismissed, belittled, underestimated, and ignored.
Way back in 2014 — a lifetime ago — Outlander was already exploring all those ideas. With a bottle of whisky in hand, it’s always been game to subvert just about any expectation viewers may have had for it. Historical epic, chamber drama, suspense story, transfixing saga of powerful love, swashbuckling adventure, Technicolor jewel — Outlander is all those things and more. But it always comes back to its core relationship: Claire and her desires.
Ha! You probably thought I was going to say “Claire and Jamie,” and of course, without Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan’s chemistry, this show would have likely died a quick death. These actors (not to mention early linchpin Tobias Menzies) have worked incredibly hard to make sure that their characters’ emotional lives — and the wounds they’ve accrued along the way — draw viewers ever deeper into the story.
Balfe and Heughan, charismatic on their own and positively electric together, share one hell of a spark onscreen. But that alone couldn’t have sustained an entire franchise for years. A great deal of craft — from the cast, directors, writers, artisans, and crew interpreting Diana Gabaldon’s novels — has made us all want to travel back in time and wear itchy wool clothing. It’s a miracle, one that must be properly celebrated.
The biggest miracle is that Outlander has been unswerving in its fealty to a noble cause: the idea that a woman’s many lives — professional, sexual, personal, political, and psychological — are all worth exploring with respect, care, and some well-modulated irreverence. Claire experiences consequences for her actions — there wouldn’t be much drama if she didn’t. But Outlander plumbs her heart, soul, and mind without punishing her for being calculating, impetuous, forthright, horny, intelligent, and witty.
It’s come to my attention that, now and then, people may have commented upon the fact that there is sex in Outlander. But let’s get real: The fact that a premium-cable show features naked bodies isn’t notable. The kind of consensual sex Outlander showcases is what’s revolutionary. It’s actually…sexy? To women? Which has been illegal since television was invented, according to my (possibly faulty) research.
Seriously, one of the drama’s main gifts has been its ability to rescue intimacy of all kinds from rote formula. Predictable, male-centered mechanics have been the norm in onscreen bedroom moments, pretty much forever. Emotionally grounded sex between two complicated people who both enjoy pleasing each other — and themselves? Who knew that could be hot?
Women. Women knew. Literally so many millions of women — and men! — have known this throughout history. But for the most part, Hollywood churned out plastic, unrealistic sexy times: How many times have you seen an underwritten female character display abject gratitude for the eight seconds it took for the square-jawed hunk to service her every need? Ronald D. Moore, Outlander’s executive producer and lead adapter, thought those clichés were stupid and that realistic sex tied to grounded emotion — and both parties’ desires — was far more compelling. He was right on all counts.
So let’s raise a glass to the Sassenach, a.k.a Claire Fraser, who enjoys reveling in what she wants, whether it’s an intimate connection, professional advancement, a killer gown or a brisk ride through the countryside. Television may have had to dip into the past in order to join the present, but dinna fash. Claire is one of the best of a new wave of exciting female TV characters, women who claim their ambitions, their dreams, their sorrows, and their rage — and yes, their sensuality.
For those who still want to trivialize, minimize or misclassify Outlander, well, good luck with that. Frankly, it’s hard to process that kind of inconsequential condescension when you’re witnessing the show’s raucous San Diego Comic-Con panels and wondering if the Beatles’ reception at Shea Stadium was a sedate tea party by comparison.
Outlander is not a bodice-ripper. But if it were, Claire is fully capable of taking off her own damn bodice when she’s good and ready. Warning: She might have stowed a knife or a bottle in it. Ach, that bonnie lass is full o’ surprises.
Entertainment Weekly’s Ultimate Guide to Outlander is on sale now. Pick up a copy at your favorite retailer.