Outlander 1.1: Sassenach

“People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.”

My mother has been reading Diana Gabaldon’s series since the first book came out. A Scottish history buff and high school English teacher, the simple and elegant premise of the novels were an instant hook: In 1945, married World War II nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall finds herself transported back to Scotland in 1743, where she finds civil war and the dashing Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser. So when STARz began plugging the series earlier this summer—with a huge campaign at ComiCon—I decided to wait for her opinion before diving in to a new series. (The emotional vicissitudes of Game of Thrones are still with me.) Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that after STARz’s attempt to break into the period drama market last summer with its unsung but excellent series The White Queen, with the right promotional heft the channel seems to be finding acclaim with my mother and critics alike in Outlander.

Chugging a bottle of champagne while looking on at the celebrants, we meet Claire (Caitriona Balfe), an army nurse, in the trenches on VE Day.

Outlander has a number of similarities to last summer’s The White Queen that gives us a clue as to what market STARz is hoping to break into. First, the show is based on a very successful novel series that carries with it a huge fan base with a powerful social media presence. HBO set the precedent for this model with True Blood and Game of Thrones (check out this fascinating video about the first season campaign for GOT, food trucks included). Second, the series is an explicitly feminist response to the arguably male-driven perspective of GOT and other period-drama sci-fi. It’s war, sex, and existential crisis from a lady’s perspective. Season four of GOT concluded in June, and the artwork for the DVD is already out: the byline reads “all men must die.”

laire (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) go on holiday to the Scottish highlands to reconnect after being estranged during WWII.

And Claire is at times an impossibly ideal woman of the ’40s. An army nurse, we meet her first preparing for an amputation, coping heroically with the gore and screaming, unfazed by the blood all over. Estranged from her husband who had been a leader of spies during the war, when cleaned and prim she makes mature, self-assured, and playful sexual advances on her gun-shy spouse. As she narrates, “sex was our bridge back to one another.” Nursing their marriage back to health, she seems to have escaped the psychic wounds her husband bears despite having seen more of the horror than he, so the show alludes. And it seems like things are headed in the right direction, if the rather stunning cunnilingus scene in the nether regions of a medieval Scottish ruin is any indication. (Th EW meditation on this moment includes links to a number of other good articles on its implications.) She takes up a hobby of medicinal botany convenient to her husband’s exploration of his Scottish heritage in the highlandsand dressed in much white for the most of it.

In an attempt to escape rape by a man who looks identical to her husband, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is kidnapped by a Scottish band. She curries favor with her captors by mending one of their troupe, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

Needless to say, I am suspect of the show’s gendered aims thus far. Like The White Queen, the show directly attaches to a notion that history must be full of sex to sell, as well as links women to an innate mysticism to serve this agenda. However, where last summer the female leads conducted a kind of coven-like earth magic, here Claire is the victim of Druidic displacement; it is unclear yet whether her time travel is a blessing or a curse. This trifecta of sex, mysticism, and history didn’t give STARz a hit last summer, so in the next episode I will be looking for the new ingredient.

Two things I can say I love thus far is the quality of the art direction and the leading lady, Caitriona Balfe. She is striking but not unearthly in her appearance, and carries with her a distinct degree of emotional variance and subtlety that makes her an actress I could watch for hoursperhaps an entire season. To be paired with Tobias Menzies is a coup certainly. A Shakespearean by training, Menzies plays as smart a villain as he does a lover, often blurring those categories of characterization to great effect. Fingers are crossed that the rest of the ensemble will be on par to produce balance in the show. And they may be easily outshone by the highlands of Scotland. It seems that only time will tell.

  • CITATION: “Sassenach.” Outlander. Television. Directed by John Dahl. Written by  Ronald D. Moore. 9 August 2014. UK: Tall Ship Productions, 2014.  STARz cable channel.
  • Like my writing about television and/or Outlander? Check out my essay, “Claire Kens Well,” in the the collection, Outlander’s Sassenachs: Essays on Gender, Race, Orientation and the Other in the Novels and Television Series, available now from McFarland.
  • I’ve included the preview to the first episode below. If you feel ready to jump in, however, you can watch the first episode the STARZ website, here.