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Outlander Series Premiere Recap: A Thoroughly Modern Woman

Outlander 2014

Welcome to our weekly recap of Outlander. Like Game of Thrones, this Starz drama is based on a series of best-selling novels that many viewers have yet to read. We therefore ask that book fans refrain from posting comments that might spoil upcoming plotlines for anyone sampling this show without having checked out Diana Gabaldon’s books yet — and to be civil toward them as well. Thank you for understanding. And now, on to the recap.

You might think the new Starz series Outlander is about time travel and historical intrigue but you would be mostly wrong. Instead, this is a show deeply concerned with the question of whether or not a modern woman can have it all in two vastly different eras. Outlander is also a novel, well, the first of a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. I haven’t read the books but I know four things: The books are very long; there is an intelligent, independent woman at the center of the story; there is time travel; and there is lots of hot sex. I am down with all of these things so my expectations, coming into the series pilot, may have been unreasonable, particularly with regards to that last point. I expected torrid, bosom-heaving sex during the opening credits and my hopes were instantly dashed. The opening credits involved gorgeous scenery of the Scottish plains. Everything about this show is, in fact, gorgeous — the actors and acting, the scenery, the costumes, the score.

Meanwhile, the Second World War has ended, a long, bloody affair. In a brief flashback, Claire is doing nurse work on the horrifically wounded leg of a solider — bones and blood and tendons, accompanied by some gruesome sound effects. War is hell. Life without modern medicine is something worse than hell. Then a doctor (a man, of course) strides in and sends Claire on her way because the doctor is here to save the day that has already been saved. Outside, there is celebration and cheering. A woman hands Claire a bottle of Champagne, declaring the war is finally over. Claire, drenched in a young man’s blood, her hair looking gorgeously scattered, takes a hearty swig from the bottle. Now we know, she is a badass — she can shove her hand inside a man’s bloody leg and she drinks straight from the bottle.

And then, Claire is on a second honeymoon with her historian sort of spy husband, Frank, in Scotland. It is time to reconnect in the most boring way possible — a countryside vacation. From the get-go, Frank and Claire seem like the most boring couple in the world, not only because they don’t know how to take a proper vacation. Frank is stuck in the past and prone to offering unrequested explanations of the historical significance of this and that. Some of his nattering will prove useful to Claire later but it is quite a slog to get there. The couple settles into their room at an inn, say words around each other with a brief allusion to making babies. Claire lightens the mood by pulling Frank up and they jump on the bed and then they “jump” on the bed, only we don’t get to see any of the good stuff. The proprietor is, of course, downstairs, listening to the creaking of the bed. It’s like Trillville’s “Some Cut,” 1945 style, in a Scottish inn, without rap lyrics.

In another flashback, we learn Claire spent her formative years roughing it with her uncle on various archaeological digs. This is how thoroughly modern she is! She can pee in the outdoors! She can light a cigarette! She knows things!

While visiting Castle Leoch, a grand ruin, they stumble into a musty room that is the opposite of sexy and finally, there is hope. Claire sits on a table and spreads her legs. Frank offers a quick digital survey of the terrain, noting his wife is not wearing any underwear. Before long, she is pushing Frank to his knees and he shows her vagina the proper respect. Claire isn’t even naked! She is that modern. This show is damn near heretical. Women can receive pleasure without baring their bodies for the male gaze! We know Frank is good at going down because Claire arches back dramatically and the scene fades to black. That’s how it generally works in real life, too.

While Frank does some boring history thing with a priest, Claire enjoys a good cup of oolong tea in the kitchen with Mrs. Graham and has her tea leaves read. There is no subtlety in the foreshadowing on this show. Even the episode’s title, offers us a glimpse of what is to come — Sassenach means Englishman or outlander. Foreshadowing!

There’s going to be a journey but Claire is going to stay put. Mrs. Graham is mystified so she asks to see Claire’s hand where there is more mystery—a pattern she’s not seen before. “Strong minded and a will not easily crossed,” our Claire is. We also learn she has a healthy sex drive and these lines indicating two marriages on her hands are forked not broken. Get it, girl.

Later, Claire is in her bathroom brushing her unruly hair (that is merely Hollywood unruly) and cursing (MODERN WOMAN!). Frank, on the street below, sees a Scottish man in full kilt staring up at his wife, but when he tries to confront the man, it’s as if the Scotsman wasn’t there. Foreshadowing! In their room, there is an awkward conversation that has clearly been a long time coming. Frank basically tells Claire it’s okay if she nursed one of her soldiers back to health in more ways than one. I underestimated Frank. He is a thoroughly modern man. Claire is not pleased with this tender accusation so they resolve their disagreement like most of us do, with more sex, of which we see not nearly enough, but Claire is on top, her bosoms finally heave, and once again, we see her owning her sexuality as the modern woman she is. Frank may be boring, but he is a vigorous fellow.

In the wee hours of the morning, Frank and Claire sneak off to a Druid ruin and secretly observe a beautiful ritual involving women in flowing dresses, their hair hanging long as they dance with paper lanterns in and around the stones. Frank and Claire rudely watch, and then poke around the place but must skedaddle when one of the women returns for something she has forgotten. Later, Claire who has a deep interest in botany and the healing properties of plants because she is a medical professional, decides to return to the ruin to find the plant which, she suspects, is a forget-me-not. Foreshadowing! She touches one of the large stones in the ruin and then all hell breaks loose but in a really elegant and artful way.

When she awakes, it is 1743 but Claire doesn’t know that yet. Instead, she runs around the Scottish countryside, trying to find her car even though cars haven’t been invented yet and then she happens upon some British redcoats who are giving chase and firing muskets. To Claire’s credit, she handles the situation with remarkable aplomb and she also looks amazing. Time travel and danger become her. Before long, a dastardly British soldier who resembles her husband, Jonathan Randall, aka Black Jack Randall, esquire and Captain of Dragoons, tries to have his way with Claire because we cannot have a show about a strong woman without at least a glimmer of sexual peril. We must always remember she is a woman and therefore, she is in danger.

Claire’s virtue is saved by a Scottish rogue who takes her back to his lair where a bunch of other Scottish rogues are hanging out, all brogue and kilt and dirty swagger. He knocks her out to do this so he is clearly not to be trusted. Also, he smells terrible, and thank god Claire brings this up. Whenever I contemplate history, I shudder to imagine the odor of it. Claire quickly realizes she’s going to have to play along. One of the Scotsmen, Jamie, has a dislocated shoulder. His body is amazing, and I mean, AMAZING, and he is incredibly hot. Finally, the episode becomes deeply, deeply interesting.

Claire steps in just before the Highlanders do irreparable harm to beautiful Jamie’s finely muscled arm and thank goodness. A body like his should only be handled by professionals. I volunteer as tribute. “Don’t you dare! Stand aside at once,” Claire snaps and because she is a fierce, modern woman, the Highlanders indeed step aside. This is how love begins — with the setting of bones near an open fire.

Once Jamie’s arm is set and settled in a makeshift sling, Claire is forced to travel with her captors. She rides, of course, with the strapping young Jamie, who is a rogue and a gentleman because he covers her with his tartan to keep her warm. In an uncanny coincidence, they pass near Cocknammon Rock again and Claire remembers one of Frank’s boring history stories about how the redcoats used the rock for ambushes. She shares this information and the Highlanders believe her crazy story. Jamie shoves Claire off his horse and orders her to hide. There’s a skirmish and she tries to get away but Jamie returns, looking sexier than ever because he is covered in blood like a real man. Jamie and Claire exchange words. She doesn’t want to go with him. He insists and threatens to throw her over his shoulder if she doesn’t go willingly. This entire episode might be better summarized as “foreplay is overrated,” because clearly these two are already hot for each other but we have to like, endure some “plot” and so on before we can get there.  

They continue riding and suddenly, Jamie falls from his horse. Turns out he was shot during the skirmish but, typical, he was being too manly to confess his suffering. Claire starts talking her fancy modern talk about disinfecting and iodine and such and the Highlanders gape at her. Finally, she snaps, “Alcohol,” and there is a knowing nod among the men. Eighteenth century or twentieth century, alcohol is what unites our clans. 

Eventually Claire and the Highlanders make their way back to Castle Leoch where only two days earlier, Frank had fallen to his knees to pay his respects to Claire’s vagina. “So far, I had been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and nearly raped and somehow, I knew that my journey had only just begun,” Claire reflects, nestled against the firm chest of a different, hotter, way more interesting man. Alas, Claire, such is the way of most modern women.

Looking ahead:

  • Are the incessant voice-overs to help us understand Claire and her predicament going to continue?
  • What is she going to do about her period and birth control?
  • Why on earth would she want to return to 1945 (minus of course, electricity and cars and medicine)?
  • How long do we have to wait before Claire and Jamie get down?

Roxane Gay is the author of Bad Feminist, a 2014 best-selling essay collection that Vulture calls “uncommonly entertaining.”

Photo: Ed Miller/Starz