Monday, August 11, 2014

RECAP: Outlander 1x01 - Come Here You Sweet Beautiful Thing You


Outlander is the story I didn't know I wanted, and now that I have it, I'm a little confused as to how I went so long without it.

Or, to put it differently, this show (and book) is pretty much exactly what I wanted Game of Thrones to be. I think of it less as the anti-Thrones (that honor still goes to Orphan Black, which, yes, I am still planning to finish recapping), but more as an alternate universe form of the same story. They're both fantastical stories full of fighting and betrayal and intrigue, set in Europe or Europe-ish locations, and they both boast of a hearty fanbase that are willing to claw through thousand page novels with dense plots and complex family trees and eagerly demand more.

But that's pretty much where the similarities end. While Game of Thrones takes place in an alternate not-quite-Europe, Outlander is rooted very firmly in historical fact. The story takes place in historical Scotland, with meticulous research and attention to detail. And even though there are definitely fantastical elements to the story, like time travel, there aren't any dragons or ice zombies or anything.

The biggest difference, though, can be found in the perspective of the story. Game of Thrones comes at you from the perspective of literally dozens of characters, shifting location and point of view like some people change socks. And even though a lot of the characters are female, it never feels like a story about women (at least the show doesn't), so much as a show in which women happen to appear sometimes.

Outlander is not like that. It has one perspective, that of a woman, and is inherently sensitive to her mentality and point of view. Heck, it even has voice over narration to get us even further inside her head!

Obviously all of this is to say that I really like Outlander, both the book by Diana Gabaldon, and the one episode of the show that currently exists, airing on Starz. The show is produced and written by Ronald D. Moore, who did Battlestar Galactica, and has Gabaldon's blessing, so I feel like we're off to a good start. And since I plan on recapping the episodes, you'll know if I change my mind.

Okay, now on to the recap.

We open on a view of the Scottish Highlands, and some deeply ominous voiceover from Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe). She sets the stage for our story: this is about a disappearance. Her disappearance the day she looked at a vase in a shop window. 

She's a former army nurse who worked on the front line in WWII, and here we are, six months after the end of the war. It's a poignant moment. Claire can only remember vaguely the day the war ended, but she can remember this day perfectly, the day that she decided not to buy a vase, because as it turns out, that day had a lot more impact on her life than the end of the war.

A couple of shots of Claire attending a patient in the war, and then discovering it was over. We see she's a competent, unflappable nurse, and that she's more than a little emotionally distant. At the news of peace, Claire doesn't scream and shout or cry, she just takes a swig from the bottle she's been handed, and gets on with it.

I like her.

Claire is in the Scottish Highlands on her second honeymoon with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). During the war, Frank and Claire were separated for five years, with her working as a nurse, and him working in army intelligence. They both need some time to remember who they are now, and figure out how to live with each other before Frank starts his new job as a professor at Oxford, and Claire settles into being a professor's wife.

When they get to Inverness, though, and check into their hotel, both Frank and Claire are a little disturbed to find that most of the houses are smeared with blood - some kind of pagan ritual. It's their first sign that the Highlands, while very friendly generally, are still a place that hold fast to tradition, and that they are more than a little superstitious. With good reason, as we come to find out.

Frank and Claire settle into their hotel room, realizing that they can't get away without giving their innkeeper, Mrs. Baird (Kathryn Howden), a bit of a show, what with squeaky bedsprings and all that. We get a quick character moment for Claire when she jumps up on the bed and starts bouncing on it, determined that if Mrs. Baird think they're having sex, she'll think they're having interesting, athletic sex. After a moment, the laughter and silliness of what they're doing gets to Frank and Claire, and they actually have sex for real. Cute.

I feel weird calling a sex scene (non-explicit) cute, but there you go. It was cute, darnit.

Cut to Claire and Frank driving through the moors in a lovely old car. She reveals that they're in Scotland because Frank has recently taken an interest in genealogy, and he discovered that a certain ancestor of his, Black Jack Randall, was stationed there, working for the crown. 

Randall was a notorious harasser of the Scottish population, and very much hated, a fact that Frank relays with some humor, and Claire receives with utter boredom. She does not care, but she likes that he does. If it makes him happy, she'll tramp around some castles with him. After all, that's what she did growing up, living on archeological digs with her Uncle Lamb.

He points out a few interesting historical facts to Claire. Like Cocknammon Rock, where the British can ambush the Scots from every direction, or Castle Leoch, a rundown ruin that was once the seat of Clan MacKenzie. It's overgrown and abandoned, which suits them just fine. He points out the kitchen, and various other rooms as they go through, finally ending in a room whose purpose cannot really be determined. They have sex there. It's unsanitary, but sweet.

It's also nice to see a married couple who genuinely like each other and enjoy having sex with each other. It's weird how rare that is to find on television, but there you go. Frank and Claire clearly find each other attractive and appreciate having sex with each other, and that's just kind of nice. That the sex is filmed in such a way as to be pleasant but non-exploitative? Well that's even more of a miracle.

Back in Inverness, Frank and the local reverend are digging through some records, looking for mention of Black Jack. They find that, yes, he was there, but also that he was probably on the payroll of someone higher up, possibly the Duke of Sandringham, because Black Jack never really got punished for all of the horrible things he did. It's like someone wanted him to be a jerk to the Scottish. Hmmmm.

Claire's vaguely interested in all this, but the instant that Mrs. Graham (Tracey Wilkinson), the reverend's housekeeper, invites her to the kitchen for a cup of tea, Claire's out of there. She and Mrs. Graham have a nice chat over tea, and Mrs. Graham reveals that she reads tea leaves, grabbing a hold of Claire's cup and offering to read them for her. Claire, bemused, lets her.

But something isn't right. Claire's tea leaves are confusing, and they suggest something very strange is going to happen to Claire, and soon. Mrs. Graham takes hold of Claire's hand and looks at the line on the palm - sure enough, it's a strange pattern, one she's never seen before. Mrs. Graham tells her that Claire has the signs of having two marriages at the same time, and that she's going to go on a long journey while staying in exactly the same place.

Needless to say, they're both spooked, and when the moment is interrupted by the reverend and Frank coming looking for cookies, Claire takes her leave.

This leads her to where we first saw her, standing in the street, outside a shop, staring in at a vase in the window, and realizing suddenly that she's never owned one. Should she buy one now, to adorn her home with Frank when they get to Oxford? And what the heck was all that prophecy about from Mrs. Graham?

She doesn't buy the vase.

Back in the hotel room, Claire struggles valiantly to brush her curly hair (a feeling I deeply sympathize with), unaware that she's being watched through the window. Frank, coming up the street, sees a Scottish man in full regalia standing below and looking up at Claire. But when he goes to confront the man, he disappears, like a ghost. Frank is shaken, and comes into the room like he's still not sure what's real.

After a moment, though, he recovers, and manages to ask Claire the question that's clearly been bothering him for a while: did Claire by any chance have an affair during the war? Claire is terribly offended by the question, even when Frank makes it clear that he wouldn't be angry if she had. Still, he saw that Scot looking up at her and wondered if she'd made a connection with one of her patients, and he had followed her up here, looking to reconnect. Claire insists it isn't true, and the two of them reconnect themselves, with sex. Like I said, there's a lot of sex on this show, but so far it seems to be kind of nice. After all, this is a married couple who just spent five years apart. They need to learn how to be together again.

The next morning, Frank makes them get up early, because he wants to go see the "witches". Claire's less than enthusiastic about waking up before dawn, but she is tempted. There's a circle of standing stones outside the village, and apparently some druids come up from the town and still observe the old traditions there. Mornings in Scotland. Cold, damp, and dark. Claire is not thrilled, but she's having fun with the adventure.

They hide themselves in the bushes and watch, spellbound, as a group of women in white robes, carrying candles, come up the hill and then dance in between the stones as the sun rises on Samhain. One of them is Mrs. Graham, actually, and she seems to be their leader. The ritual, such as it is, is simple, but Claire can't take her eyes off it. It's just a dance. A beautiful dance. And Claire gets the strongest feeling that she shouldn't be watching it.

But then the sun is up and the spell is broken. Claire and Frank want to muck around at the circle a bit more - Claire sees some flowers she wants to study, as she's become quite interested in botany - but one of the druid women comes back, and they scurry away so they won't be seen.

Later in the morning, Claire is still baffled by what the plant is. Frank encourages her to go get a sample, and since he's planning to go off and look at old boring papers with the reverend, she decides to leave him to it and go on her own. It's just a short drive away, after all, and the weather's nice.

She climbs up to the circle again, and quickly finds the flower, but now there's something else too. A sound. A terrifying noise like a war going on, and it's coming from the stone at the center of the circle. Claire is drawn forward and, almost without her will, she touches the stone. The sensation that follows, she describes as being like waking up during a car crash. She falls.

And then she wakes up, on the ground, alone still. But she has no idea how long she's been lying in the grass, and she dashes back to her car. It's not there. Neither is the road. 

She's startled out of her confusion by a gunshot, and looks around in astonishment to see that she's being chased by Redcoats, and that around her are some Scottish men running for cover. Claire runs for cover too, stumbling and falling as she tries to figure out what kind of a movie production or historical reenactment uses live rounds! She staggers down a hill and stumbles on...Frank?

Definitely not Frank. Definitely not. Nope, this appears to be a Redcoat who looks just like Frank, but is most certainly not a nice person. He looks her over, sees her torn white dress, and immediately demands to know who she is and where she came from. When she refuses to answer, he calls her a whore. She's not having that, and he is. He pulls up her dress, but before he can get anywhere, he's clobbered from behind by a Scot. 

Said Scot grabs her mouth and hustles Claire over to his horse. When she struggles, he clonks her on the back of the head. She's not having a good day.

She wakes up on a horse, thrown like a sack of potatoes, and riding up to a little cottage as the sun sets. Claire's shoved inside, and finds herself surrounded by big angry Scottish men. They also want to know what she's doing there, but there isn't enough time to properly interrogate her. She'll have to come with them. 

In the meantime, the Scots have bigger problems. The leader, Dougal (Graham MacTavish), goes into the back to help one of the men, who's been injured. The man, Jamie (Sam Heughan), has a dislocated shoulder, and as Claire watches them getting ready to set it, she realizes that these men are going to break Jamie's arm. She steps in, forcefully, and demands that they let her set the shoulder. Which she does. Skillfully, because that's her job.

But there's no time to bask in her success, because she's thrown back on a horse, this time with Jamie, who gallantly tries to cover her with his plaid (limited success, since he's doing it with one arm). Claire is coming to the slow, real understanding that she isn't in the twentieth century anymore. They ride for a while, much to her discomfort, until she spots a familiar landmark: Cocknammon Rock. Claire remarks to Jamie what she remembers Frank telling her, that the English hide behind that rock and ambush Scots. Jamie immediately tells Dougal, and the men hare off to fight.

Claire's thrown from the horse (on purpose), and takes one look at the battle before deciding to try to hare back to the standing stones or Inverness or something. But she doesn't get far. Jamie rides up and corners her, pointing out that either she can ride with him, or he can throw her over his shoulder (the bad one), and mess up all her hard work. She grudgingly climbs back on the horse, anticipating a long hard ride.

It doesn't last all that long, though. As they're coming through the woods, Jamie starts to fall off the horse, and Claire realizes that he's been injured. She jumps down and fixes him up, swearing up a storm all the while, and the men look at her with awe. Claire proves herself a very capable nurse, and Jamie falls just a little bit in love while she cusses him out for being such an idiot and not saying he was hurt. She has to tear up her own dress to provide bandages for the wound, and everyone is completely shocked that she's willing to do so. But Claire is more focused on doing her job right than on appearing proper. Which is rad.

Finally, they come on the end of their journey: Castle Leoch, seat of Clan MacKenzie. Claire was there just two days ago, in the future, with her husband. She realizes with a jolt how very much her life has changed in two days. How much more will it change from here?

End of episode.

Dang but I enjoy this show. On top of what I've already mentioned, about liking the premise and all that, it's just really well shot, the actors are quite well cast, and the overall quality is high enough to let you lose yourself in the story. What a story it is, too. A twentieth century woman, a veritable proto-feminist, falls into the days of chivalry and war, and manages to force the men around her to take her on her own merit, to recognize how capable she is, and to think she's wonderful because of it.

I like Claire. She's practical, determined, fierce, stubborn, and fun. She's not some joyless matron, or a breathless ingenue. She's a woman, a real honest to goodness woman. She's amazing. It doesn't hurt either that Jamie is hot as hell, or that the whole story hits on many of my favorite tropes. That's just frosting on top of a delicious feminist cake.

Not much more to say than that I look forward to the next episode, and I really hope this show can keep its quality up for the rest of the season. It's the show we need to wash the taste of Game of Thrones out of our cultural mouth, and I am absolutely determined to do so.

Also Jamie is dreamy. Even when he clearly needs a bath.

10 comments:

  1. I think of it less as the anti-Thrones (that honor still goes to Orphan Black, which, yes, I am still planning to finish recapping)

    Orphan Black is the inverse (shows a world full of pervasive patriarchal forces, but from the perspective of its female victims, and celebrates how their connections with one another give them strength) - this sounds like the converse (lone female outsider lands in a heavily patriarchal environment and awesomes* her way into its respect) - by extension, I'd call Orange is the New Black the reverse (set in a mostly female environment where it's hard to have prominent male characters - though of course, at least one critic has still written a piece sternly telling it off for that).

    * Can "to awesome" be a verb?

    Outlander is not like that. It has one perspective, that of a woman, and is inherently sensitive to her mentality and point of view.

    Do you know if she's stuck in the past, or if she'll be moving between the different eras?

    Like I said, there's a lot of sex on this show, but so far it seems to be kind of nice.

    Is it just me, or is it already starting to rival Game of Thrones for the amount of non-rape/non-prostitution sex? Though that's more of a comment on Game of Thrones than Outlander.

    War is frequently understood - whether you consider that right or wrong - to be a time when people do things they normally wouldn't, that aren't part of their "true" character. So - again, whether it's right or wrong - I do like that Frank seems to be determined to see an affair on Claire's part, had she had one, in that kind of light.

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    1. I am deeply and meaningfully impressed by your ability to keep all of those straight. I can never for the life of me remember the difference between inverse and converse and reverse and all that. Major props! (And yes, "to awesome" is definitely a verb. As is "to throne.")

      I'm not sure how much of the book series the show plans on adapting. So, I can't really answer that question. How about a nice old-fashioned maybe?

      Frank in general is presented really well. I forgot to mention this in the recap, but I am always happy to see a story where the girl is torn between two guys, and neither of them is particularly bad. Like, Frank is a good guy. He and Claire have a legitimately happy marriage based on their being equals and all that. The story doesn't make it easy for Claire to go, "Okay, guess I live in the past now!" Frank is a good husband, and that makes everything more complicated. For the better.

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    2. I can never for the life of me remember the difference between inverse and converse and reverse and all that.

      I don't know if I'm really getting it right, but it's a way to have more than one series qualify as an anti-GoT. I'm just startled that we *have* more than one at a time we could call that.

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    3. I'm cool with that. Lots of alternatives seems like a very good thing to have.

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    4. Oh, yeah. Yay more alternatives, definitely.

      Another thing that interests me about the premise is that it's time travel between two historical periods rather than between one historical period and the modern world. In particular, Claire has her own experience of warfare - and more specifically of a war completely overtaking the society that's fighting it, something modern Westerners are comparatively insulated against.

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    5. I actually really love the way the story handles that. There's this bit where Jamie calls Claire out for not taking everything happening around her seriously, and he figures it's because she has no exposure to war. But it's actually the opposite. Claire has just seen a world war, mechanized warfare, concentration camps, and the Blitz, so she has trouble taking some Englishmen with muskets seriously. I thought that was a really good point.

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    6. Looking into a bit further, I think I mixed up inverse and converse; my attempt to sound smart has ended in ignominious failure.

      I'm glad Claire's experience with WWII was factored in in that way.

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    7. I think we can all forgive you for this. :P

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  2. Oooooo, I'll start by saying I have read all the books several times over and love them to pieces. This first episode? Was brilliant, and pretty much everything I was hoping for. I hope they keep it up because I have high expectations for this!

    I thought the actress playing Claire was great. She looks mostly how I expected her to. Jamie? Well we'll have to see - he hasn't said much yet. Also I thought he'd be more ginger/brighter red because that is something that is mentioned again and again in the books. However, he *is* very pretty, so I'll let them off. ;-)

    Does it make it more awesome if I tell you that the author sat down to write the books because 1) she'd written a biochemistry PhD thesis so how hard could it be to write a novel?! and 2) because she was fed up of bodice rippers with weak, passive heroines, and lots of frankly rapey sex.

    Consequently, there is a lot of sex in the books and it is always perfectly clear whether the both parties want it or not, and where it was not wanted, the consequences are sensitively and realistically handled.

    Also, how brilliant was the sex between Claire and Frank in the castle? Showing him going down on her, willingly and without expectation, after Claire has made it perfectly clear what her intention is? I don't think I have ever seen that on TV before. It was such a refreshing act after the horrors of GoT.

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    1. I am loving the casting on this show. Granted, I picked up the books after I heard about the series, but still, the only place where I got kind of confused was with Dougal and Colum. I imagined them differently. Not bad, just different. Everyone else is spot on, though.

      And yes, that does make it more awesome. Gabaldon for the win!

      It's definitely one of those moments when you suddenly take a deep breath, and realize that you've been holding your breath for ages. That's how I feel, watching this after watching GoT.

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