In praise of Outlander: 'It's sexier than Poldark and more grounded than Game of Thrones'
It's sexier than 'Poldark' and more grounded than 'Game of Thrones'. Lucy Davies on the joys of 'Outlander'...
Midway through season one of Outlander, the sword and sex-charged drama set in 18th Century Scotland, there’s a spanking scene in which a newly-married husband – Jamie – takes a leather belt to the bare derriere of his wife, Claire, because she disobeyed an order and put his and other lives in jeopardy. She retaliates by kicking her husband in the jaw and calling him a sadist.
It’s one of three scenes producer Ron D Moore considered key, when adapting the series for television. That the others were a wedding night and a male rape, gives you some idea of the realms the show dares to plumb. “Figuring out far to go; not wanting to flinch or be gratuitous, required delicate handling,” says Moore.
Outlander is based on a sequence of novels begun in 1991 by the American author Diana Gabaldon. Eight have been published so far, selling upwards of 26 million copies; she’s currently working on her ninth. The story begins in 1945, when Claire, a spirited battlefield nurse, is holidaying with her husband Frank in Inverness, trying to rekindle their marriage following years apart during the war. Following some spooky Celtic goings-on, she involuntarily falls through time (bear with me here) to 1743, and a Scotland rippling with the stirrings of Jacobite rebellion. This is where the meat of the show really happens, and the time-travel falls mercifully by the wayside.
"I thought," says Gabaldon, explaining why Claire comes from the Forties, "that if I were a time traveller, I would want to be something in the medical line so I would have a good chance of staying alive. But modern medicine is so technological and I didn’t want a person who walks into a battlefield and thinks, 'god, I wish I could put this man through an MRI scanner', I want someone who can whip out a compress and start stitching him back together. Equally, you'd want to know about the pillars of modern medicine: anesthesia, antibiotics and antisepsis, and those came into common use during the Second World War. I also knew that those war nurses were very tough people, and that suited her character - determined, ferocious."
Unlike in many historical dramas, where characters other than the leads, act as mere padding or foil, here, each is given their own complex narrative arc. But it is Claire and Jamie who are really put through their paces. “That spanking scene was tough,” says Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, when I meet her and Sam Heughan – Jamie – sat cheek by jowl on a Soho sofa, a fortnight after the pair finish filming season two. “It’s very hard to get your head around why physical punishment from a husband to a wife is in any way acceptable, but I think I was luckier because at least Claire, being from the future, is already of that way of thinking. Sam, he had to somehow…”
“I was totally fine with it,” teases Heughan. “Sorry,” he says, throwing the blazing-eyed, hangdog brow look which has captivated audiences the world over, in Balfe’s and my direction. “Actually I think we came to relish those kinds of scenes,” he says, suddenly serious. “Hard as they are to watch, they are lessons. The spanking and her reaction are really important – it’s the moment Claire and Jamie become equals.”
This is the thing. Outlander is not only a brilliant, racy, emotionally raw and at times unspeakably violent drama, it’s also one of the most honest portrayals of a marriage you’ll ever see on screen. The couple bicker as much they swoon, but that’s not to say they aren’t passionate, and fans of the show long for their romantic chemistry to transfer to real life. So far, they’ve been disappointed.
Balfe confesses to “a soft spot” for the character of Frank (Tobias Menzies), the beige and boring husband she involuntarily leaves behind in 1945. “But Jamie and Claire, they’re soulmates. You have two characters who challenge each other and allow each other to grow. It’s an imperfect relationship, but because of that, it’s perfect, and people have really responded to it.”
“A lot of people assume Outlander is a bodice-ripper,” says Maril Davis, who helped persuade her co-producer Moore (both worked previously on Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek) to adapt the novels, “but we’ve collected as many male fans as female. Men start to watch it with their girlfriends and they really get into it.”
Outlander fans are something else. They send biscuits (including gluten free for Balfe) and hand-knitted cowls for the actors who suffer filming in Scotland’s inclement weather, learn Gaelic and, when the show is off air, bemoan their loss on twitter using the hashtag #droughtlander. Gabaldon, who had never been to Scotland before she began writing the first Outlander novel (she has been many times since and is now a guardian of one of its castles) created a series of fictional homes and villages for Jamie’s clan, and thousands of her fans come to Scotland each year to follow in their footsteps. Several American and Scottish companies now run organised tours and the Outlander books now vastly outsell every other book in the gift shop at Culloden.
To date, the series has been nominated for 16 awards (including three Golden Globes) and won 11, and its August 2014 debut is still cable network Starz highest rated premiere ever. For its first season, though, the show’s popularity in America has far outstripped its appeal over here, where most of the almost exclusively British, hitherto unknown cast could walk unrecognised on the street.
All of that is changing, though. Since Amazon bought the rights to show Outlander in the UK, it’s now one of their most streamed shows.
Since it was first aired, the show has been frequently compared to Game of Thrones, which is misleading. Both go large on sex and warfare, and both deal with gruesome acts of human cruelty, such as corporeal punishment and rape (Outlander, though has been praised rather than castigated for the way in which it handled the latter). But if you’re looking for dragons and magic, this won’t be your bag at all.
Although the element of time travel adds a quasi-fantastical element to Outlander, it acts primarily as means of defining Claire as an outsider – a Sassenach, to use the Gaelic term that becomes her nickname – and a forthright one at that, a woman whose independent and modern mind adds a vein of intelligent interrogation to the goings-on, as well as the burdensome knowledge that the Jacobites’ brave cause can only end in the bloodbath at Culloden.
Poldark is probably closer to the mark, with its conscience-led, strapping hero and spirited, fish-out-of-water heroine. Both shows make powerful employ of the ravishing landscape in which the story is set, and both are adept, too, at pacing the action with quieter moments. “They don’t necessarily move the plot forward,” explains Davis, “but Ron and I both think those beats give you a moment to breathe.”
The first half of season one was told from Claire’s point of view, as she struggled to find her feet and keep her cover (as an Englishwoman she is a natural object of suspicion for the Jacobite fighters, though she earns their respect as a nurse), fights to get back home to Frank, and then, when she is forced to marry Jamie to avoid arrest, falls head-over-heels and decides to stay.
Episode seven, which dealt with their wedding night, was hailed as revolutionary for its nudity, sweet intimacy and willingness to focus on female, rather than male, pleasure. As the Huffington Post noted: “Outlander has blown up a lot of the received ideas about sex on television — how it’s shot, who it’s for, who it’s made by and who it’s about.”
The second half pulls the focus back to the Jacobite struggle, as the English rape and pillage their way around Scotland. Jamie is imprisoned in by a British army officer with a particular vendetta against his family, “Black Jack” Captain Randall, who happens to be a cruel ancestor of Claire’s 20th Century husband, Frank. In a theatrical gesture that could so easily have fallen flat, he is also played by Menzies, only this time on magnificent, terrifying form. It is Black Jack in particular who allows the show to explore a darker, morally repellent edge.
Season two begins as Claire and Jamie arrive in France seeking refuge, partly because it’s no longer safe for Jamie to be in England, but also because they have decided that, knowing the future, it is their duty to intercept Bonnie Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower) in Paris, where he is trying to raise his doomed Jacobite army. Here, they are thrown into the lavish, frothy and intrigue-filled world of the French court. “It was like a new show,” says Moore. “Costumes, atmosphere, language; its whole complexion changed.”
Where the action in Scotland relished its dirk-wielding and horse-riding, “in Paris the dangers are political rather than physical,” says Heughan. And, as anyone who’s watched Back to the Future knows, altering the course of history presents its own set of concerns and challenges, which begin to weigh on their relationship. “Claire and Jamie have always been honest with each other,” says Heughan, “and now they are required to be quite duplicitous, and use sides of themselves that are maybe not the most honourable: that causes a strain.”
Watching them navigate that, though, makes for engrossing drama. “You see them push each other’s boundaries,” says Balfe, “and go through these terrible trials, but they’re always there for each other. They constantly push each other to be the best version of themselves that they can be. I think we all aspire to that.”
For Balfe, who spent much of season one in fight or flight mode, season two brings the chance to look inward. I ask her if it was harder to imagine herself as a woman in 18th Century Scotland or 18th Century France. “Strangely I think Claire had more freedom in Scotland,” she says. “It was brutal and rough, but somehow she found a freedom in that….In Paris, women might have moved up a notch, but they were very much expected to be ornamental. That’s not to say she doesn’t enjoy exploring her femininity, but the frivolity of it wears thin very quickly.”
“It doesn’t sit very well with Claire,” says Heughan. “And, as usual, she lets everyone know about it.” Cue more giggling. The pair are known for it. “When she gets tired, she really loses it,” says Heughan, warming to his subject. “I’m not as bad this season as I was last,” counters Balfe.
Perhaps it’s the tension. The show has taken them to the limit and beyond: Claire is tried as a witch, Jamie’s back is flogged to ribbons, both are abducted, he is tortured and raped, she is sexually assaulted, do they find it hard to leave the more challenging material behind, at the end of a day’s shooting? “Sometimes I keep thinking about it, but that’s also part of your process,” says Balfe, “mulling things over, trying to think of all the possible thoughts that the character might be having.”
“I have a thing with my hand,” says Heughan, with a mischievous look on his face. “Jamie has his hand bust in season one, and it became something I used in season two, but whenever I’m nervous in real life…
“You go like that?” says Balfe, miming an injured hand.
“I start doing it. I do it all the time, and I know I’m doing it so it’s fine. I can stop myself, but it’s weird.”
To film the second half of season two – the lead up to Culloden – cast and crew returned to filming in among the thundering rivers and rugged mountains of the Highlands. “So many people have said – particularly the American crew – that there’s something about Scotland which makes them feel they belong there,” says Heughan. “And a lot of the show is about a yearning for home; a place you can feel rooted to. I think it’s because we’re somehow closer to our past than other people are.”
“We were itching to get back outside,” says Balfe. “The first day, everyone had these massive smiles. Two hours later, everyone is drenched, dripping, freezing, miserable. I say: screw you The Revenant – what did you do? Five months? Try two years in Scotland.”