Outlander Season 1: An Uneven Romantic Drama That Ends Up Settling for Shock Value [Review]

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The audience for Starz’ Outlander TV series consisted primarily of middle-aged women obsessed with romance novels and a stack of middle-aged guys like myself who started watching it because Game of Thrones wasn’t on the air yet. Therein lays the main issue tonal-wise for this series…Major Spoiler Warning.

From Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronal D. Moore comes the epic drama series Outlander, based on the acclaimed series of novels from Diana Gabaldon. Season two will debut in 2016 exclusively on the Starz Network.

Outlander follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world where her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate relationship is ignited that tears Claire’s heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

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After a ho-hum pilot episode that is mostly set in the 1940’s, we’re eventually thrown back in time with our main character Claire to the 1700’s during a battle-ravaged Scotland and we rarely change settings after that, as Outlander becomes a full blown period drama. I’m not complaining because I enjoyed Braveheart but make no mistake, Outlander is not Braveheart. The pacing and romantic plot is more akin to Rob Roy.

Having a strong woman who was a medic in the military, transported to a time when the ladies had very little rights is an intriguing concept and it was ripe for exploration. The subplot where Claire is convicted of witchcraft was the highlight of the season for me and led to an intense trial episode which may have been the standout so far of the series. The bits and pieces where Claire had to either abuse or hide her knowledge of the future were the most fascinating to me and it was a brilliant use of subtle sci-fi in an otherwise traditional period piece. Never before has time travel been so understated.

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Claire’s husband in the 40’s is played by Tobias Menzies and after she’s sent back in time, the main villain of the story is also played by Tobias Menzies (attributed to the fact that her husband is in fact a direct descendant of the monstrous Black Jack Randall). Menzies is the standout of this series so far because he portrays pure evil. I have questions in regards to his motives because ultimately it would seem that his homosexual urges drive him to extremely dark places and in that time one could simply not be gay but does that mean he has to be so goddamn rapey all the time? Randall was a lunatic and I would’ve liked to see more sides to his character but apparently by the end of the finale we’re led to believe that he is 100% evil as hell and nothing less. I prefer my villains to have some extra dimensions to them but I suppose that’s not in the cards.

The driving force of Outlander is Claire’s relationship with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The two are eventually forced to wed in order for Claire to avoid persecution early in the season. Throughout the episodes the two go from awkward sexual tension, to awkward sex, to just sex and in the final string of episodes you could even say they truly love one another. I applaud the writers for making Claire really struggle with the idea of ‘cheating’ on her husband even though he technically doesn’t exist yet after that whole time travel snafu. Caitriona Balfe is an outstanding leading lady and her performance was definitely a highlight of Outlander.

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Composer Bear McCreary’s score was brilliant. The intro credits and song are among the finest of TV but I have a major gripe in regards to when the music is cued up and that’s more of a tonal issue with the production team. There would be several scenes of agonizing tension where our characters are left in horrific situations only for seconds later this uplifting score would set in and completely and drastically change the mood of the scene, lessoning the impact. A character could just be raped to smithereens only for a minute later this Scottish drinking jig anthem sets in and we’re forced to emotionally move on and dance our kilts right off of our asses.

The pacing and structure of the episodes pained me for most of the season and I have a feeling that this is due to how the book was written. Major arcs feel repetitive, especially with Black Jack Randall’s repeated violent escapades and the finale was a brutal misfire that went too far for the sake of shock value.

When Jamie is imprisoned in the penultimate episode he winds up getting rescued in the opening minutes of the finale by a herd of cows that smash into the jail, knocking our villainous Randall into a wall via flying door as if he were Wile Coyote. It was beyond stupid and borderline cartoonish but the real fun begins when we flash back throughout the rest of the runtime to sequences of Jamie getting raped and molested in some of the most graphic scenes of that nature ever put to film. I had issues and I’ve watched OZ, so if you shocked me with rape than you know you’ve went too far.

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We literally spend 90% of the episode watching Randall sodomize, molest and traumatize our co-lead. Then — by the end our character is told to man up by everyone around him even though his soul has severely been put in jeopardy after the whole you know – rapefest he just endured and our couple set sail to France where I’m told the majority of season two will take place. Good ending. Real good….

Judging from the majority of other reviews, people seemed to enjoy the finale and fans of the book should have no complaints as showrunner Ronal D. Moore followed them as closely as he could but I just couldn’t get into it. Was it a fantasy? Was it an epic period piece? Was it a political suspense drama? In the end you can just call Outlander a romance. A romance with the most rape I’ve ever seen in anything – ever. Also – that episode where Claire becomes a singer in order to leave clues for her estranged husband was the dumbest episode of television in 2015. If I return to Outlander in 2016 I’m hoping the change in scenery also leads to a removal of these zany out of place goof-offs. That cow rescue too……… Come on.

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  • Jessesgirl630

    The cow rescue was straight from the book. The production team gets criticized by book fans if they stray too much,so they had to leave that in. Also,Claire & Murtagh did employ singing as a way to contact Jamie in the book,so again,not the production teams fault. Every instance of rape or near rape in the show was taken directly from the book. I think you have more a problem with the author of the book,than the production team of the show.

    • I have problems with both but ultimately the producers could have been more subtle with some of that material which is probably better suited for a novel as opposed to an entire episode.