Upfront disclosure. I've never read Diana Gabaldon's “Outlander” series. And before the Starz media blitz had never even heard of it. Somehow despite utilizing both time travel and historical fiction – two thing I love reading about – I missed it.
So based only on the ad campaign, I know this is a historical sci-fi drama about a WWII era British woman who gets mysteriously thrown through time to 18th century Scotland. Somehow her modern immune system manages to instantly adapt to this bacterial utopia (life finds a way!) and our plucky heroine is forced to navigate her new reality.
We open in Middle Earth. Sweeping vistas of the Scottish highlands are breath-taking but somewhat marred by our heroine”s voice over narration. I keep looking for the Fellowship but alas, Gandalf and the Balrog are on a smoke break. Bagpipes play as Claire laments how people vanish all the time…and sometimes, they”re never found.
Cut to Farrell's General Store. Narrator Claire waxes poetic over never having lived somewhere long enough to own a vase. Meanwhile her onscreen self gazes forlornly into the shop window. Look, I”m not going to tell Claire how to measure the quality of her life but maybe chill out about £.35 flower pants.
Suddenly there is flashback within this flashback. Double flashback all the waaaaaaaay. Gone is Scotland with its existential crisis vase, replaced with a makeshift WWII hospital. And shit just got real. Claire is trying to stop a femoral artery bleed-out, slipping in blood while the patient writhes and screams in a puddle of his own gore. Dude this show needs a “Saving Private Ryan” style PTSD disclaimer.
A shell-shocked Claire is still literally dripping blood when a fellow lady solider runs up with a group of exuberant cohorts. The war is over! Which is kind of a George Bush “Mission Accomplished” level gaffe when extras are still bleeding to death on the hospital tables. Claire is smart enough to know this and chugs a bottle of celebratory champagne like the jaded field nurse she is. Guys, I think I just fell in love.
And just like that, the magic of the moment is broken. Claire is back on about the blue vase. So is this vase important? Is blue important? Blue roofs, her blue dress, blue gargoyles on the town well. Is this like red in “The Sixth Sense?” Will blue be the context clue for Important Shit™?
We return from the credits to strains of 1940s music as Claire and husband Frank drive though Middle Earth. It”s supposed to help set the mood but since modern audiences are more likely to associate post-war pop hits with with video game dystopias like “Fallout” or “Bioshock,” I instead feel the need to shoot bandits or splicers.
Upon reaching the quaint village they”re vacationing in, Claire is 100% unfazed by bloodstains on the door frames of the villagers” homes. Maybe this IS a video game dystopia?
Wait no, it”s a history lesson disguised as a romance novel. Either that or the writers of “Outlander” have been possessed by the ghost of History Channel past. Frank and Mrs. Graham – innkeeper extraordinaire – are wedging in lore about Saint Odran and Gaelic Halloween and how the Christians stole holidays from the pagans and watch out for ghosts because they cause all kinds of mischief this time of year and shut uppppppppp. Claire is over it too. She tries to shut it down – guys I knew I loved her – but this is an exposition dump that can”t be tamed.
Finally Frank and Mrs. Graham remember this show is only an hour long and we are freed from our impromptu Religion 101 class. Claire can”t handle the lull in exposition though because we are right back to voice over narration. Despite being married humans who love each other, Mr. and Mrs. Randall have only spent ten days together over the last five years because of the war. So obviously Claire is like “Sex me” and Frank is like “I don”t know” but after a bit of earnest pillow talk about orgasm sounds and palm line doodles they finally get busy.
But hold up. Did you guys see that? Claire initiates. CLAIRE INITIATES. This show is already more progressive than 97% of all other media.
Post-sex, Claire and Frank are back on the road. Claire is obviously a strong-willed free spirit as she doesn”t wear a scarf to protect her hair even with the top down. Frank asks if she”s happy and when Claire says yes he IMMEDIATELY ruins it by tripping into an exposition word salad. He points out a rock formation on top of a nearby hill and let”s the audience – Claire – know all about how the British army used to lie in wait to ambush the Scots there in the 18th century.
Suddenly, we are in Egypt. What the hell just happened? Claire has narrated herself right out of the story to escape Frank”s history lesson. Instead she”s explaining how her archaeologist uncle raised her and she spent her formative years in exotic locations around the world. Um, excuse me why are we not watching THIS show?
No time to wonder. Hold on tight folks, because the Exposition Express is moving at a breakneck pace. Our heroine is standing outside a dilapidated castle. I have no idea how we got here. It doesn”t matter. We”ve still got more setup to…set up. Frank is obsessed with his family genealogy and came to Scotland to trace his lineage. So this isn”t even really a honeymoon? Dick move Frank. But it”s okay because Claire also has an obsession. With medicinal botany.
The Randalls start exploring with Frank explaining the layout along the way. Here was the kitchen. And here was the hearth. And over there was the shoehorn they used to make sure all this information fit into a sixty minute show.
Claire is going along with this and seems genuinely happy to make her husband happy by following him around this musty old castle. She is bemused and in love and this marriage might not be fantasy perfect but it”s a pretty accurate portrayal of a functionally good one. It probably the most refreshingly honest take on marriage since “Firefly”s” Zoe and Wash.
Everything is wonderful and nothing hurts. A woman on television just received oral sex from her husband that she initiated without the show vilifying her. Claire is merely a fully realized human being with sexual desires and wow this should not be so refreshing to see. But it is.
Also, that is one sturdy 200 year old table.
Later in the week Frank has borrowed the local Reverend to help him comb the records for Randall ancestors. A breakthrough! Found is one Jonathan Randall, Captain of the Dragoons of the British army in the 18th century. Also known ominously as “Black Jack.” The good Reverend tells us – the Randalls – the Black Jack was well known for harassing the Scottish countryside. You don”t say!?
Blessedly at this very moment Mrs. Graham arrives with tea and whisks us and Claire away from the plot dump. Hahahaha, just kidding. It was a trick. In “Outlander” no one can hear you scream for exposition mercy. Claire is peer pressured by Mrs. Graham into a tea leaf reading. Mrs. Graham is tired of this intricate plot dance and bulls right to the heart of it. FORESHADOWING LIKE A GODAMN CHAMP.
Claire's leaves are weird. Claire will go on a journey but stay put. She”ll meet strangers on the journey, and one of them is her husband. If tea leaves were a laptop, Mrs. Graham would be turning it off and back on again. Something is on the fritz. Time to step it up a notch with a palm reading. This reveals Claire is strong-willed and loves sex. Her lifeline is interrupted, cut up into bits and pieces. And her marriage line is divided, which means two marriages. But it”s not broken to signal divorce or death…it's forked. Dun dun dunnnnnn.
Just when it looks like Mrs. Graham is about to break out the chloroform and dissect Claire to learn her secrets, they are interrupted by the menfolk. Whom I can only assume were drawn by the pheromones of female exposition because they”re bringing their best game. Without preamble they”re asking each other who could Black Jack's patron have been? Perhaps the Duke of Sandringham? The Reverend heard he was a total Jacobite and died suspiciously. Well shit, that last bit did it. In order to remember all these future plot points, my brain just purged calculus.
Cut to that night. It”s raining and spooky. Some shit is about to go down obviously. Claire is combing out her hair and looks like 1940s hair products were a bitch to put a brush through. Or maybe she should”ve just worn her head scarf in the convertible. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she exclaims and quite honestly that sums up my feelings about the entire show so far because Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ this wind-up is taking forever.
Unbeknownst to gutter mouth Claire, Frank is outside and sees someone creeping on his wife in the rain. He confronts said creeper. But it's a ghoooooooooost creeper and vanishes, causing the lights go out. Hahaha nope! Time to go. At least Frank reacts like a normal person: which is by freaking out and drinking hard liquor and accusing his wife of having an illicit wartime affair with a Scottish ghost. Frank promises Claire he wouldn”t judge her for taking an incorporeal lover in a time of need.
On the one hand, this makes Frank sweetly progressive and pragmatic. On my other, more cynical hand, it makes me suspicious his standoffish behavior was because HE was unfaithful and he secretly hopes Claire was too to assuage his own guilt.
Apologies lead straight into full-on make-up sex, complete with nearly full frontal female nudity as Claire disrobes in one swift motion. Ahhh, now I see the “Game of Thrones” comparisons. But they haven”t mastered the art of sexposition because Frank waits until afterwards to delve into a plot dump. Something about witches and local standing stones and Halloween on Craig Madoon(?) and how they aren”t really witches but druids and it”s probably just custom at this point. I am starting to wonder if Frank has some sort of compulsive exposition neurological disorder.
We interrupt this 1940s historical drama for an interlude with the elves from “Lord of the Rings.” The Randalls, hidden in plain sight, watch girls and women in gossamer gowns way too thin for a Scottish October dance and weave throughout the stones with really pretty floral lanterns. I wonder if you can buy those? The druids welcome the sun in a dance that goes on from the dead of the night until dawn rises over the hills.
Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba! Sithi uhm ingonyama! It's the circle of life!!!
Once the druids clear out (with speed because they have day jobs) Claire and Frank go to check out the standing stones and turns out they're just a bunch of rocks. Claire notices some pretty blue flowers and is intrigued. But then the youngest druid returns, forcing the Randalls to book it or be caught. But Claire can”t get those little blue flowers out of her mind.
Oh my God, I was right. Blue is important.
Claire and Frank kiss in slow motion. She looks lovingly into his eyes and thinks about how happy and lucky she is. SHE WILL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN.
Cut to Claire leaving the car by the fence to hike up to the standing stones. I want to berate her for only wearing a wool dress and a shawl but it”s not like she knew she was about to be catapulted back in time so fine. But now the wind has picked up and the biggest stone sounds like it has bad indigestion. Because this entire series hinges on Claire being an idiot in this moment, of course she touches it.
It”s always hard to visualize time travel. Usually we get weird CGI worm holes or Salvador Dali clocks turning backwards superimposed over an acid trip. Claire”s explanation of falling asleep on a road trip only to wake up mid-car crash is a great metaphor to how her time displacement feels without getting campy.
Claire awakens in a world no longer filtered through Instagram. I didn”t realize how much the lighting was putting off a post-war vibe until it wasn”t. But along with the blue filter, the car is also gone. And the fence. And the road. Finally.
While our heroine wanders around in the woods, all I think is I hope she has stockings on or she's going to have chiggers all over her legs. But no time to worry about itchy bug bites because there are gunshots! And Red Coats. And Scots shouting in Gaelic. The British spot Claire because a white dress is the only thing worse for forest camouflage than bright red coats. She bolts.
Luckily she finds Frank at the edge of the water. In full British army regalia. And no scar. THAT”S NOT FRANK. “Who the bloody hell are you?” Claire asks because she hasn”t been paying a lick of attention apparently.
It”s Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall.
The show wastes no time showing how Frank”s ancestor is definitely un-Franklike. A Scotsman saves her from imminent rape, assuming she”s a druid because who else could afford pristine white woolen garments in rural Scotland??
Claire blunders into ‘Idiot Protagonist” territory and has to be knocked out for her own good. She awakens in a Scottish holdout where no one speaks English and the show isn”t interested in holding our hand with subtitles. I actually like this. Feels very “The 13th Warrior” and helps the audience feel as uncomfortable as Claire. And besides, the leader who looks like Scottish Santa speaks English. And seems almost suspiciously friendly. But he”s anti-rape so that”s a step in the right direction.
No time to worry about this uppity woman in weird clothes though. The Scots have bigger problems. One of their buddy”s has a dislocated shoulder and they”re going to fix it, lack of knowledge of basic human anatomy be damned! Claire thinks the wisest course would be to keep quiet but she”s a nurse and feisty and her resolve crumbles within .05 seconds of thinking it. Just as they”re about break the guy”s arm to get the shoulder back in its joint, Claire is like “Are you fucking stupid? Get out of the way.” The men are both shocked and confused. This woman is giving them orders. This woman is good at this. Okay maybe we'll just let her do this one thing…to humor her. Yeah, that's it.
Now that the nursing is out of the way, we have time to realize Jaime is hot. Now Claire is shocked and confused. Like super hot and rugged and sharing his blanket and horse with her and maybe 18th century Scotland isn't so bad.
Oh hey look it's that big rock Frank told her the British used to hide in. Good thing he pointed that out…are you serious show? Did we really need a flashback to something that happened 20 minutes ago? Jaime agrees this might be a trap but Scottish Santa is suspicious of Claire”s motives and plot-centric knowledge.
Question. How were the British able to ambush anyone in those cherry red coats? The Scotsmen engage in battle while Claire makes a run for it. Where she thinks she's going is anyone”s guess. The Scots were the only men who haven't tried to shoot or rape her yet. Statistically she was better off with them. No weapon, no food, no horse, no lay of the land. Girl what are you doing? Oh good, Jaime found you. And he's using his arm. And he's bleeding. We get the only romance novel scene in the whole episode when Jaime threatens to pick her up and throw her over his (injured) shoulder. We're one wind machine away from a Harlequin novel cover.
One “Lord of the Rings” riding montage later, we”re still not acknowledging Claire should be dying from inner thigh sores. Instead Jaime is falling off his horse because he got shot and didn't say anything because MANLINESS.
Nurse Claire is back in action. This is my favorite scene of the episode. Claire giving orders, being pissed off no one knows what antiseptic is. The men being boggled and a little bit in awe of these strange words coming out of her mouth. Germs? Sterile bandage? Clean cloth? Claire ripping her dress for a bandage because men are useless, directing the boys around like children, cussing like a sailor. Calling Jaime a “Goddammn bloody bastard.” The men having their delicate sensibilities hurt by her language. Her basically telling them to shut the fuck up. Jaime and Claire bonding while she patches up his male posturing but not in a love interest way but just in a “I respect your skill set” way. Despite its fantastical premise, “Outlander” has some of the most natural dialogue and character interaction I”ve seen on television.
We end the pilot episode with Claire returning to the abandoned castle she and Frank visited. Only now it is a fully operational
space station…house seat. Claire ponders how she can remember things that haven”t happened yet because she never saw “Kate & Leopold.”
So what did you guys think? I went into “Outlander” with a healthy dose of skepticism. The whole thing seemed so overwrought and meant for the “50 Shades” crowd. Let me tell you, I have never been more delighted to be wrong. “Outlander” took my cynical expectations and backhanded me with them.