The story of “O”: Outlander comes to TV

The Scottish CosPlay: What they'll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)
The Scottish CosPlay: What they’ll be wearing at next year’s Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)


You never forget your first spanking — of the literary kind. For me, it was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Chapter 22, which will heretofore be known as That Scene.

I had innocently picked up Gabaldon’s sci-fi-fantasy-historical romance page-turner at my local library’s sale of used paperbacks. Eight hundred pages for $2 — what a deal! I knew nothing about Outlander except that it was some kind of best-selling genre series. Harry Potter had ended and all I wanted was another thick, juicy, reasonably well-written escapist read to take my head-space somewhere else. So I gave it a shot.

I settled into the tale of Claire Randall, a British Army nurse during World War II, who comes home from the war to a society, and a husband, with whom she has fallen out of sync. Independent, resourceful, passionate and stubborn,  Claire has been useful during the war, patching up casualties under the constant adrenaline-rush of danger. Now, she’s back in post-war England struggling to find a sense of purpose within the shrunken parameters of life as a respectable homemaker. Her husband Frank, a courtly Oxford professor who was a spy-runner for MI-6 during the war, wants to start a family, but Claire hasn’t been able to get pregnant.

The novel opens with Claire and Frank trying to get to know one another again on a post-war second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. The atmosphere is foggy and pagan; they witness a Druid sun-worshiping ritual, the locals speak of ghosts. Then, Claire wanders off to pick wildflowers (she’s studying their medicinal properties), gets too close to some Druid standing stones and — whoosh!  She wakes up in the same woods, except it’s 1743, and there’s a Redcoat who looks just like Frank trying to rape her, but she’s saved/taken prisoner by a clan of Scottish rebels, one of whom is a big, ginger hunk named Jamie Fraser, and, merrily a-bodice-ripping we will go.

I don’t want to completely ruin the new Starz TV adaptation of Outlander (the first episode has been running on the Starz website and on various cable platforms for a while, but the series officially starts on August 9) for potential viewers, so let me say this one more time: SPOILERS A-COMING!

Claire and Jamie strike sparks, even if he can’t understand half the things this uppity “Sassanach”(outlander) is saying. Jamie is, in his own way, a lost soul as out of sync with his times as Claire is with hers. He’s a deeper, more curious, thinker than his rough-hewn cohort, with a dry sense of humor. He’s also an outlaw, but it was all a misunderstanding, really. They spar; they bond; they make wild, passionate, dirty (as in, it’s 18th century Scotland and everything is filthy) love while the clan plays cat and mouse with Frank’s sadistic ancestor, British Army captain “Black Jack” Randall. Yes, Outlander (which is the first in an eight-book series) had me from page one. I was enthralled by the boldly insane plot, I adored thoroughly modern Claire and her sometimes ill-advised attempts to bring feminism to the kilted savages. Eventually, I got to Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”), nearly 400 pages into the book, where Claire attempts to find the time portal to get back home, and ends up endangering the safety of the clan and Jamie has to discipline her with a belt and HELLO, WHAT THE HELL AM I READING?

Surprised as I was by Chapter 22, I had an, um, intensely favorable response to That Scene’s extreme hotness. As a feminist, this sent me into a crisis of conscience. I put the book down, unfinished, for a few weeks. I searched my soul. I started the book over from the beginning. I liked it just as much the second time through. I finally said, Screw you, conscience, if this is my kink, so be it.

For years, there has been plenty of discussion in reader forums about That Scene, and there will be plenty of discussion when it finally airs somewhere down the line (executive producer Ronald D. Moore is on record promising that the series will be faithful to the book). Is That Scene violence against women, domestic abuse?  Or is it a development that arises naturally out of the story, given the personalities of the protagonists?  My feeling about the way it plays out in the book is that it’s more the latter than former. Gabaldon sets her story in an overtly brutal and sexist era; a belt-wielding hero feels right at home in this milieu.

If your mind is going to the icky — and totally invented for TV — scene in Game of Thrones where a crossbow-wielding Joffrey orders prostitute Ros to spank, then gruesomely beat, another whore, stop. That scene was the reason I gave up watching Game of Thrones, although I have devoured all the books. It was gratuitous, demeaning and brutalizing to the female characters, and, at that point in the story, unnecessary — we already knew Joffrey was a sadistic monster.

On the pages of Outlander, by contrast, the punishment is a complex act, more than just a one-sided male-titillation or hack “taming of the shrew” theatrics. It’s a face-saving necessity to keep the clan from perceiving Jamie as a weak leader, and from meting their own much more brutal “justice” upon Claire for her recklessness. And it’s the way of things in Jamie’s world — men rule their wives. Claire puts up a fight, but Jamie does what he believes is his duty as a man and a leader. But in the emotional aftermath of That Scene, Gabaldon makes it clear that Jamie and Claire have both learned a lesson from it, and it brings them closer together, truly accepting of the good and the bad about their marriage and each other; they truly become a team.

For Chapter 22 alone, Outlander is often compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. But there is nothing sexy in the latter’s tedious BDSM-ish romance, mainly because Christian and Ana are not truly partners in their dom-sub contract; she enters into it only because she wants to Reform Him With Her Love, and he is a raving, damaged stalker who often crosses the line from S&M play to outright abuse. But it’s also difficult to give a crap about two characters as ineptly drawn as Christian and Ana, particularly when you can feel E.L. James blushing and saying “Ewwwww” behind every sex scene.

Diana Gabaldon is no blusher, which is part of what makes Claire such a robust heroine. Outlander is written from Claire’s intelligent, confident and adaptive perspective, and that perspective is deeper and more reflective than Ana prattling on about her inner goddess. Claire likes sex. She would prefer not to be stuck in a time warp while having it, but there you go.

It’s a relief to see how well cast the show is. Sam Heughan is suitably beefy as Jamie, but with a pleasing vulnerable cast to his good looks. He doesn’t appear until the first episode is more than half over, and the pace quickens considerably when he does. Heughan has a demanding role ahead of him, embodying a literary character who ranks up there with Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff in the eyes of some women readers. I wish him godspeed.

Irish actress Caitriona Balfe is Claire in soul and fiery, sensual spirit. There’s a scene in the first episode where Claire and genealogy buff Frank are exploring the ruins of a castle and she perches on a dusty table, opening her legs to reveal that, underneath her crisp traveling suit, she has gone commando. Balfe’s sexual confidence in this scene is breathtaking. But Balfe makes just as forceful an impression in the prologue of the first episode. Elbow deep in the gore of a wounded soldier in a battlefield medical tent, Claire barks orders to the men around her, and is obeyed. A beat later, peace is declared and she doesn’t know what to do with herself . As nurses, medics and soldiers celebrate, she stands apart, dazed and covered in blood, and hoists a bottle of Champagne to her lips.

The scene is a foreshadowing of the dirk-wielding, herbal healing “medicine woman” Claire is to become when she falls through the wrinkle in time:  Fierce, courageous, unflinching Claire is a warrior at heart, which is what draws her to Jamie. In post-war England, her wildness has to be tamped down, her promise stunted, but in her alternate universe with Jamie, it’s allowed to fly free. In turn, Jamie — who’s more civilized and thirsty for knowledge than he can let the clan know — recognizes Claire as a strong, enlightened mate, much more interesting than the local lassies.

Episode One gave me faith that producer Moore (of the Battlestar: Galactica reboot) would at least give Outlander a fighting chance to transfer to screen with its spirit undiminished. Moore is no stranger to sci-fi with rich layers of subtext, and Outlander is bursting with possibilities. Is the Highland fling with Jamie a manifestation of Claire’s restless, war-excited and war-traumatized inner life made flesh? Is this her conflicted psyche working out her fear of/longing for motherhood? Her anxiety over subsuming her identity and independence to make a proper marriage with Frank? (Adding fuel to that psychological fire, the same actor, Tobias Menzies, plays both Frank and Black Jack.)

Outlander has already been called the feminist answer to Game of Thrones. But I think the more apt comparison is the feminist, gender reverse of Doctor Who. Claire is a time traveler who can’t go home, but minds her exile less and less; she roams through time and space, healing, enlightening and fighting the patriarchy with as much female love, hope and ass-kicking energy as she can get away with. Instead of The Doctor’s (almost unanimously) young, attractive female companions, though, Claire has a strapping lad in a kilt. And on this wild ride, knickers are optional.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014