Entertainment Weekly Review: A-
Talking about Outlander means talking, at least in part, about sex. But the sex is not all swoonworthy as the saga continues, and sexual desire can lead to menace as well as euphoria.
Coming back from hiatus this Saturday, the series doesn’t pick up right at its tantalizing cliffhanger. That’s not to say the episode makes eager fans wait very long to see what happens when noble and attractive Scot Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) appears at a window aiming a gun at the villainous Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), about to harm time-traveling heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe). No; before giving fans that resolution, the show takes some time to switch to Jamie’s viewpoint, then follows him as he learns that his wife Claire was nabbed by the English, fixes his tartan, and goes off to her rescue.
Executive producer Ronald D. Moore has touted the fact that the first episode back belongs to Jamie—but seeing through Jamie’s eyes isn’t as compelling as seeing through Claire’s. Having Jamie tell this story removes an element of the “female gaze” for which the show had been so praised. (For more on that gaze see wonderful essays by Jenny Trout, Maureen Ryan, and our own Melissa Maerz.) And while the sex he and Claire finally have in the return episode is, yes, hot, it’s also muddied by the differing perspectives at work. The couple’s chemistry is still there, but the fact that these lovers’ gender roles have been shaped by different periods of history makes for some interesting friction—mental and physical. Later episodes, more divorced from POV, don’t lose this tension, but also don’t skimp on showing the boyish Jamie as a man eager to please his wife.
The show still displays much of what made it appealing in the first half of its freshman season: gorgeous scenery, a hint of magic, Jacobite politics, and, yes, of course, romance. Because the show’s heart really is in its entanglements—and not just Claire and Jamie’s. When mixed up with convention and machinations, love, in the world of Outlander, makes people commit acts at turns stupid, cruel, and selfless. But either way, we’ll be watching.
IndieWire: 'Outlander,' Back and Better than the Books
There are spoilers in this piece.
The first time I wrote about the Starz series "Outlander," I called it the anti-“Game of Thrones.” But as the second half of its first season debuts on Saturday (not, as Tobias Menzies says in the clip below, on April Fools' Day), the show has officially become much more than an "anti." It’s a fantasy juggernaut in its own right. I watched the first new episode on Wednesday with a packed house (including the cast) at New York's cavernous Ziegfeld theater, and, if anything, it's come back better than before, and on surer ground after its wedding episode upped the ante.
What I have particularly loved since the very first episode is how showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his writers adapt the source material, delicately adjusting and updating some potentially problematic moments. Diana Gabaldon's series falls into a genre I have difficulty being too critical of; while the books aren't outright erotica, they definitely contain enough scenes of ravishment to fall under a "romance" heading, among others. (Indeed, the Romance Writers of America gave the first book their top honor, the RITA, in 1992.) I have a tough time arguing against a female-written book with lots of sex in it that's wildly popular with a female audience. (Yes, even "Fifty Shades of Grey." Badly written but harmless, I say!) But it remains the case that a fair amount of the sex between Claire and Jamie in the book falls into a he dominates/she submits dynamic that, while it may be erotic for many readers, in no way qualifies as feminist or progressive.
And it's those moments that are front and center as we dive back into the series, because the mid-season premiere features one of the most talked-about and anticipated scenes from the books: The Spanking. After Jamie (Sam Heughan) rescues Claire (Caitriona Balfe) from the clutches of Captain Jack Randall (Menzies), they get into a heated argument in which he yells at her for not obeying his orders to stay in their camp, getting herself caught by the British in the process. That night, he calmly explains to her while taking his belt off that "your actions put all the men in jeopardy.... You've done considerable damage disobeying my orders, and I’m going to punish you." Here, though, Jamie’s dialogue is careful to explain further that any man who had compromised the group's safety would have been flogged, too; and just like that, the specter of the scene being a demonstration of wife-beating is seriously lessened. (I don't remember this detail being in the book -- in fact, I recall his simply saying it was expected that a man would punish his wife thusly -- but if it is, may "Outlander" fans forgive me.)
Instead, it manages to make Claire's punishment egalitarian while still allowing the naughty spectacle of Jamie hiking up her nightgown and spanking her with his belt (but not before she kicks him a good one in the jaw). A later sex scene between them, which I won't deconstruct so as to spoil it, is the most graphic yet; but it also includes a moment in which Claire explains to him in no uncertain terms that she won't stand for being hit again. I’ve been waiting for this episode to come along and wondering how or if the show's writers would manage to make it feel of a piece with the generally feminist vibe of the show. And they completely pulled it off, in my opinion. (In case you hadn't gotten enough of the two of them, a subsequent episode kicks off with Jamie going down on her. For a while.) #pervnation
There's another issue further down the road a bit that I feel bears mentioning in the context of improving on the books, so please stop reading if you haven't read them and hate spoilers. In "Lallybroch," the fourth episode in, Jamie flashes back to his imprisonment and extensive flogging by Captain Jack, who, he explains, offers to call off the whipping if Jamie will "make [his] body available" to the Captain. In the books, the shame of being the object of the evil Captain Jack’s lust feels, well, homophobic, in the way that villains are often turned gay to make them more repellent.
Here, though, when Jamie discusses the offer with Claire and his reason for not accepting it, he talks about not wanting to disappoint his father in a very specific way: "The buggery he would’na give a thought," Jamie says, "but rather the fact that I had given in." Maybe it's a small detail, but it says to me that the writers are acknowledging that the existence of Jack's gayness is not the problem; rather, it's the overarching idea of his need to break Jamie. (That, and his complete and utter villainy.)
This is not to say that the Highlander world of "Outlander" is an equal-opportunity, feminist paradise; on the contrary, part of its basic appeal is setting down a progressive, independent heroine in a time when women were unilaterally viewed as subservient (and being gay wasn't something you ever, ever mentioned). But this doesn't mean the viewer has to be complicit in viewing them that way. It's just so gratifying to see Moore and Co. working so hard to make it a show you don't feel bad about watching afterward, unlike some other fantasy saga I could name, maybe with dragons in it, soon to be making a return on HBO.
Flavorwire: ‘Outlander’ Returns: Wife-Spanking, Witchcraft and TV’s Best Sex
There’s a certain variety of addictive popular entertainment that gets concocted when writers combine the sassy female narrator of a chick-lit novel with the tried and true elements of another genre (horror, historical fiction) and the aggressively female-centric sex scenes of romance novels. The result lands somewhere in between a sugary dessert and a powerful drug. This formula reached an apex in the Sookie Stackhouse books and the glory that was the first few seasons of True Blood, and scales similar heights with Outlander, the bestselling Diana Gabaldon time-traveling series whose steamy Starz adaptation is returning for its midseason premiere on Saturday night.
I’m a little bit late to the Outlander game, having only read the first book this summer, and I missed the show when it first came around, so what you’re about to read is a genuine first impression, a review from a viewer as naive about the show as our hero, Jamie Fraser was naive about the ways of carnal love before his wedding night.
The series returns mid-cliffhanger: protagonist Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — a 1940s nurse who stepped through some ancient stones in Scotland and found herself in an 18th century Game of Kilts — is in grave peril. Her new clan husband, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) — one of fandom’s favorite male characters — is preparing to rescue her, and will show up just as she’s about to be ravished by their archnemesis, Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). Randall is a Redcoat, an evil brute to end all brutes, and he ought to die, except he is also the ancestor of Claire’s mid 20th century husband, Frank, so he has to live. And that’s where the time travel conundrum comes back in.
Don’t think too hard about these tendrils of plot, because this is essentially the formula that gets played back and forth for much of the rest of the series. Claire rescues Jamie; Jamie rescues Claire. Mostly, Jamie rescues Claire. And if you think makeup sex is good, wait until you see post-rescue and makeup sex combined, which brings us to That Scene, which arrives pretty quickly in Saturday’s premiere and will be receiving a lot of attention when it airs.
Because Claire’s wandering afield and disobeying orders (she was trying to get back to the stones and back to the future) led her to get captured by the Redcoats, and thus to mortally endanger Jamie and his fellow band of highland clansmen, the men won’t talk to her. They shun her. The only way to right things, Jamie explains, is for him to give her a good hiding with his belt; were she a man she’d be flogged or have her ears lopped, after all. Being a feisty (semi) modern woman, she objects, but by episode’s end there’s been some light disciplinary wife-beating, some vengeful knife-pointing, some cursing, some vows exchanged, a long roll in the hay, and the immortal question from Jamie: “what does ‘fucking’ mean?” to which Claire replies, “Well, it’s what we just did.”
My feeling is this: what happens between Jamie and Claire is essentially stylized, historicised BDSM for a modern audience, slightly rawer but less creepy than anything in Fifty Shades of Grey. Be prepared for the onslaught of a thousand comparison thinkpieces next week. The fighting, hitting and fornicating these two do is made more urgent by their constant standing on the precipice of survival, by the morals of Jamie’s society, and their genuine and deep love for each other which is growing before our eyes. That’s ultimately a good thing, because witchcraft trials, duels gone bad, intra-clan feuds, and some really brutal assault and torture scenes that I wish weren’t part of the narrative are on the threshold for these two, threatening to tear them asunder — not to mention the fact that Claire hasn’t yet told Jamie the truth about where she comes from. We are truly fortunate, fellow viewers, that the show’s formula apparently guarantees us a very feminist-friendly sex scene for every, um, climax in the action. (Balfe’s Claire may not be quite as warm and funny as the Claire in my mind, but she has excellent panting, moaning and heavy breathing skills).
To me, the almost unprecedented female-centric focus of all the sex, and Claire and Jamie’s eventual reactions to his onetime belt-wielding administration of justice, renders the spanking less problematic. Essentially: we’re having our Scottish S&M shortbread and eating it too, dunked in a steaming hot mug of feminist tea. Outlander taps into the same social and sexual currents, the same tropes about domination pursuit and fantasy, as Twilight and Fifty Shades while being freer, more equal, less aggressively regressive. It’s the same fun with about half the guilt about being seduced by the patriarchy.
Yet before I praise Outlander further, let us discuss the negatives: much of this show is utterly ridiculous. To wit, the comic relief draws on drunken fart jokes that make Gimli on Lord of the Rings look like Hamlet, the pace dawdles now and then, and the long voiceover explanations — Jamie’s in the midseason premiere, Claire’s in other episodes, can be so bad they make my ears feel like they’ve been lopped for disobedience to my clan. Surely the writers could have worked harder to bring exposition into dialogue and scene, or at the very least lay it on with a lighter hand. And finally, of course, a major downside: it’s on Starz.
Yet for those who can stand the schmaltziness, the show hits all its cues, leading its audience in a wild gallop across the glens.