2016.60: Outlander Season One (Amazon VOD)
Outlander eventually becomes more than what you’d expect from its first few episodes. Indeed, I dare say many people (well, men, anyway) will have watched the first half-dozen episodes and had quite enough of it, thinking its just a feminist take on Braveheart, or a Mills & Boon romance with softcore sex instead of swoons and lingering glances. I’ll be honest, I was almost like that myself, but on the advice of a friend who recommended it I stuck with it and I’m glad I did- by the end of the first season, Outlander becomes something else entirely. What begins as a historical romance with time travel elements is granted a much larger canvas and becomes rather dark and brutal. Infact, by the end of the season it feels like a completely different show, a remarkable feat over its sixteen episodes, and it is a fine example of the advantages of having all of a season available to watch immediately. If it had been a matter of waiting several weeks for the ‘bigger’ story and complexities to emerge many would perhaps have given up on it.
I know nothing of the books, you understand, although I believe there are several. I came to Outlander much as I did Game of Thrones, quite ignorant of the storyline or where things would eventually be going, and I’ve really no idea how faithful the show is to the books.
Shortly after the end of World War II, war nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in Scotland, trying to rekindle their marriage following how each have separately suffered the horrors of war. Frank is doing some research into his family history, particularly that of a military leader who was something of a scourge of the Scottish two hundred years before. Claire is very much a ‘modern’ woman; intelligent, confident in her sexuality and her place in the world. Incredibly all this is suddenly thrown to the wind as Claire, intrigued by some ancient standing stones on a nearby hill, finds herself transported through time to Scotland in 1743 and forced to marry a Scottish Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The first half of the series details Claire coming to terms with Highland life and attitudes of 1743 whilst trying to find a way back to her own time and her ‘original’ husband. As time goes on she finds herself falling in love with young Jamie and at the same time falls under the twisted attentions of Franks despicable ancestor John Randall (also played by Menzies).
So anyway, that’s the first several episodes and pretty much predictable stuff, albeit well-acted and impeccably shot and produced, with an endearing Bear McCreary score that might, given a few seasons, equal his best work in Battlestar Galactica. During the second half though the show takes a dark turn and really develops, revealing the books to be somewhat akin to Game of Thrones with game-changing twists and bold character arcs. As I haven’t read the books I’m several seasons behind so have no idea where the story goes from here -although thankfully has I have come to the show rather late, Amazon has season two on stream so I don’t have long to wait.
It is quite remarkable though, how the show changes from your average romantic potboiler into a Scottish Game of Thrones drama, really pulling you in and usurping expectations. The acting is great with a really excellent supporting cast, but Balfe and Heughan are particularly good in deceptively tricky roles, with a genuine chemistry and sense of conviction in this strange romance that could have seemed plain silly. There is a grittiness to it that surpasses the romance-novel plot at its heart. So yeah, well worth a watch, particularly if it’s the kind of thing you might dismiss due to early misconceptions.