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Outlander: “Sassenach”

Caitriona Balfe (Starz)
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Based on the eight-novel series by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander pulls the best bits from historical fiction, soap, and fantasy to create a world that promises mystery, sex, peril, and fun… eventually. Unfortunately, the pilot merely hints at each of these elements, resulting in an ambitious premise executed with great restraint. In some ways, the premiere’s cautious pacing works: There’s a lot to digest from a story that throws history, romance, and time-travel into the pot. But easing viewers into this complex world makes for a very slow start.


We meet our narrator and protagonist Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a war nurse, and her history-loving husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in 1945 Scotland, where the two have taken a post-war holiday in the countryside. The scenery is breathtaking: rolling hills, staggering rock formations, crumbling ruins—but the beautiful backdrop feels more like a distraction from the fact that nothing’s really happening yet.

The ominous build-up is certainly there: Claire becomes a little too fixated on a particular vase; Frank and a motel clerk reflect on the tale of Odran of Iona, a saint willingly buried alive in 548 A.D.; a ghost-like man stands in the street, staring up at Claire brushing her hair; an old lady tells Claire the lines on her palm are super crazy and that it probably all means something. Then we spend most of the episode waiting for that something to happen. It finally does in the episode’s final act, and those last 20 minutes or so prove that—while the pilot makes us wade through a few too many expository voiceovers and history lessons—Outlander is about to get a whole lot more exciting.


After all, we’re in the more-than-capable hands of showrunner Ronald D. Moore, who rebooted the Battlestar Galactica universe into a wonderfully constructed sci-fi series (so long as we forget about that final season) that defied genre assumptions. Outlander already displays traces of what made Battlestar a masterpiece. Moore never let Battlestar’s genre overpower the show: It was ultimately a character-driven wartime drama that just happened to take place in space. While elements of sci-fi and even mysticism snuck their way in, the series was at its best when the characters and rich political themes took precedence over the mythology.

Outlander similarly weaves in strands of the occult without slipping into full-on magical camp. There are tea leaves and palm readings and a vanishing man. The women dancing around the ruins in elaborate ceremony aren’t witches; they’re druids. This kind of fantasy-lite model helped Game Of Thrones attract a wide-reaching audience (dragons dazzle, but it’s the characters and power politics that truly impress), and Outlander already offers more than sparkly fantasy.


Which brings us to the pilot’s greatest offering: Claire. If there’s anything that allows me to forgive the sluggish start, it’s the existence of this fully realized female protagonist. When Claire and Frank wander through the dark halls of what remains of Castle Leoch, she clearly becomes bored with his musings on his ancestors and beckons him over to an old apothecary table. When he goes in for a kiss, she leans back and instead pushes him downward. Frank gets the message and doesn’t miss a beat as he begins to perform cunnilingus on her. Okay, we’ve seen this scene a million times in the reverse: a dude guiding a girl’s head down for a blowjob. But a woman initiating oral sex and the guy just going for it? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thing on television before Outlander. It’s a sex scene that not only gives the woman control but is also centered on her pleasure, completely devoid of the male gaze Game Of Thrones would have rendered it through.

Claire is a 1940s woman with more sexual agency than most modern-day female TV characters. She unashamedly enjoys sex and flies in the face of expectations of how a 20th-century woman might behave. As she’s flung back in time alone to the 1700s, she remains smart and brave, never turning into a distressed damsel. And the quick-tongued verbal jousting between her and Jamie, a very stubborn Scottish soldier played by Sam Heughan, already drips with sexual chemistry.


Even if Outlander isn’t as fun as it should be yet, the pieces are certainly in place. And what it lacks in exciting plot at the moment, it makes up for with its very exciting female lead. Now, let’s hope the other characters around her become a little more captivating as we plow ahead.

Stray observations:

  • As you can probably tell, I have not read any of the Outlander books. So the good news is, you can expect my reviews to be spoiler-free. And the bad news is, if you’re a book reader, my ignorance of certain developments will probably drive you crazy. If you bring book talk into the comments, please include spoiler warnings.
  • A tragic short story: Frank mentions witches. I perk up. He quickly corrects himself. All my hopes and dreams are killed. (Druids are fine, I guess. I just always want witches.)
  • I must confess I’ve never been a fan of the voiceover device (except when it comes to My So-Called Life), but Claire’s monologues haven’t been too terrible so far. However, nothing makes a sex scene less sexy than narration.
  • Battlestar’s original music composer Bear McCreary—whose “Passacaglia” still makes me cry every time—is back alongside Moore, providing plenty of bagpipe this time.
  • Another awesome thing about Claire: In the flashback to her youth, it looks like she was basically a tween-girl version of Indiana Jones?!
  • I would like to reiterate: cunnilingus in a castle.

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