They said he couldn’t do it, but what else are you going to do in seven days? Sam Brooks watched 42 episodes of Outlander in a single week to catch up before the fourth season premiere tonight on Lightbox.
One week ago today I sat around The Spinoff’s story-pitching firepit, and said I thought it would be a great idea to try to watch Outlander in one week, to catch up in time for the next season (which drops today on Lightbox at 8pm) and give an outsider’s perspective on what the show was like. Hubris, they said! Insanity, others said! “Do you know how many episodes that is?” another person said.
Hubris, yes. Insanity, maybe. Did I know how many episodes that is? Absolutely not.
So I sat down on Monday night, full of hubris and anticipation for a devoted but quick half-marathon of Scottish timetravelling and discovered that it was not a simple forty-two minute, eight episode series of seasons. These were thirteen-episode long seasons, each episode an hour each! I’ve had relationships that didn’t last that long.
Cut to Sunday night and I was spent, readers. I felt like I too had travelled through time, I felt like I had been in love with two men, that I had had several children, and I had to invent many social movements and medical discoveries centuries ahead of time.
But I also emerged wiser about a few things, namely…
Claire Fraser/Randall/Beauchamp is an absolute champion
Claire Fraser is the kind of person you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with, because you’d be envious of her the whole time. She was ahead of her time even in 1940s, when the Outlander story begins, so there’s no wonder everybody thought she was a witch back in the 18th century. She’s headstrong, ready with a quip, but still somehow preternaturally warm and calm, and could also cure you of your asthma with just a pipe and some grass.
As a protagonist, Claire is a gift to both writer and audience. She’s strong but vulnerable – so when she’s in genuine peril, which she often is, you believe that genuine harm could come to her but somewhere deep in your lizard brain you know it’s going to be okay. She can often be difficult but she’s always justified in that – usually it’s because other people are even more difficult, due to being rapists, murderers or sexists.
Basically, Claire is easy to empathise with while still being slightly better than we could ever hope to be. If you were going to audition for the role of yourself, you run would into Claire Fraser in the waiting room and know she would get the role, because she’d just be that much better at being you.
I am apparently last in line to want to marry Jamie
Look at him. Look at his Scottish face. You can’t see his voice but even looking at his face you can feel his voice. If you were a witch and gave voice to a dinner of steak and potatoes along with a flagon of ale, Jamie Fraser is what it would sound like.
I also know this show started four years ago, and there’s a long line of millions of women (and men, let’s be honest this guy is pure twunk) who have their girdles loosened for a go at this guy. And I am not a man to jump the line, but I’ll enthusiastically take my place and say, “Yes, I want to marry Jamie Fraser and I would run into a rock on the off chance that it would take me to him.”
Ronald D. Moore made this?
Halfway through my watch, some time around 1960s England or 18th century France, I sat down and watched the credits. The name ‘Ronald D. Moore’ briefly blazed across my darkened laptop screen. I paused.
“Wait, that Ronald D. Moore?” Because in my complete tiredness and immersion in many timelines, my skill with prepositions had escaped me.
Ronald D. Moore, fair readers and likely/potential fans of Outlander, is the guy who was in charge of Battlestar Galactica (and also Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I am a full-time agnostic on), also known as one of my favourite shows. Also known as one of the best shows of the mid-aughts that is perhaps unfairly shat upon today because it went off the rails in a way that I really enjoyed but a lot of other people did not. Also a show that, strangely enough, seems like the best training wheels for a show like this.
Battlestar Galactica was sold as a sci-fi show but, at least in the early days, it did a lot of playing around with genre. There was the dinner party episode, there was the prison episode, there was the murder mystery episode (which might well have been every episode). The show made a mockery of what a science fiction television show could be, and had little regard for the dull binaries of genre convention.
Outlander has much the same lack of regard for genre. Diana Gabaldon, the author of the series of novels on which the show is based, has been fairly vocal in not calling it a historical romance. Which is like saying that a hot dog isn’t a sandwich – call it what you what, it’s still meat between bread.
In her defence, she might be saying that it’s not just a historical romance. Because it’s really a lot of things! Sometimes it’s a comedy of manners, sometimes it’s a social commentary, sometimes it’s a big ol’ wartime drama.
So in that way, Ronald D. Moore makes perfect sense as someone to wrangle your show about pretty Highlanders pressing bodies against each other into one where lots of parts from those bodies get cut off. Unfortunately, there’s no Cylons in Outlander – yet.
It plays like fanfiction – in the best way
Let’s step away from Outlander and step into my childhood, like Claire stepping through the stones.
In high school, my mother would give me extra homework each week. One of these pieces of homework was to write a roughly 1500-2000 word report on whatever book she’d assigned from her own personal canon. Some of these books were what you might expect, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights. Others, less so! Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, Joan Didion’s The White Album, bell hooks’ All About Love: True Visions. No doubt this is what prepared me to be able to write similar treatise on Outlander today.
As a reprieve from this homework, which I generally enjoyed, I would hop onto the internet and read fanfiction. It was wild and loose, and occasionally I would step on something that was amazingly written. It was sprawling, unbound by the needs of editors or publishing houses, and anything could happen. There could be rapid shifts in genre, new characters could be introduced at a whim, or old characters could be re-introduced. I devoured it, and its unpredictability, like a Fraser who hasn’t seen her one true love for twenty real person years.
Outlander has a similar feel to this fanfiction. Over one week and three seasons, a show that I assumed was set entirely in 18th century Scotland, but with conspicuously ample cleavage and abdominal muscles on display, had in fact turned into a show that was set in France, then on a boat, and then on an island in the Caribbean ruled over by Geillis (RIP Queen Geillis, you were a problematic fave of mine).
Half of what makes the show so exhilarating is not only the feeling that anything could happen and we could go anywhere – travelling not just through the stones of time but through the stones of logic, reason and probability – but also the feeling that you’re sitting under the sheets, reading something forbidden on a laptop screen. It’s not for mum, it’s for you and your friends. It’s a nice feeling, and one that few other shows really capture.
I am hooked
This was only going to end two ways: I’d end up hating the show after a few episodes, giving up, and pretending that I’d never brought it up in the first place.
Or I’d end up completely hooked by it – immersed in the bonkers writing, the beautiful chemistry and the strong performances.
Because let’s be real, Catriona Balfe specifically is doing some absolutely golden, all-time great work here. Outlander is a ridiculous premise, intentionally so, and to do the work of a woman who has to carry her weight and love through hundreds of years and make it not just emotionally plausible but emotionally engaging is a feat – the fact that she manages to find moments to show off Claire’s little rebellions, her curt jokes at men who dare be wrong and the little flashes of self righteousness in the face of injustice while doing so is worthy of all the praise and awards.
As you can tell by the heading of this section, I am hooked. I am more invested in the relationship of Claire and Jamie Fraser than I am in many of my friends’ relationships, and honestly, many of my own. I want to see them travel to America and get into the exact right amount of drama – if they get split up again, I will claw my own eyes out in grief – and end up together. And have lots of sex. Them, not me.
If you want to keep up with The Spinoff’s Outlander content, such as Tara Ward’s weekly recaps, you can check it out here.
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox.