I get it now.
When Game of Thrones first aired, I was astonished at the anticipation, especially among those who had read the books. I couldn’t imagine being that excited about seeing characters come to life as, in my experience, films are never as good as the printed word. Then, because God has a sense of humor, I learned that Ronald Moore was adapting the Outlander series.
I was introduced to this series back when only the first two books had been written. I devoured them both, promptly read them both again, and have read all the subsequent books nearly as soon as they have been released. The eighth novel was released about a month ago and, although the series has lost some of its magic, I read the book in record time.
Once I finished it, I re-read Outlander, the first in the series, in anticipation of this show. It had been a long time since I had last read it, but going back to the beginning of the series was special. I got lost, yet again, in the story of one of my favorite couples of all time. This time, however, I read it knowing that I would soon see these characters and the situations in which they find themselves. I was torn between excitement and dread that Moore would not understand the story, that the inevitable changes and cuts would ruin what I loved so much. As I said, I get it now.
Because, I loved this pilot. Moore as the producer and John Dahl as the director have perfectly captured the feel of the book. It is a story that takes its time, that builds slowly and confidently allowing us to truly know and truly understand the characters being portrayed.
The first half of this pilot is spent with Claire, a former WWII Army nurse, and Frank, her husband and a former intelligence officer. Although they have been married for seven years, they have been apart for the past five due to the war. The story opens as they holiday in Scotland, trying to re-build the relationship that they both value so much.
Because we spend so much time with Frank, we understand what it is about him that Claire loves. He is cerebral and he is quiet, but he is a presence that cannot be ignored. Because it is Starz, we get two sex scenes between them (one, the obligatory oral sex scene), but both serve to show that these two have a real passion between them. Frank is not the lame leg of the triangle; he is as strong a contender for Claire’s love as Jamie is.
The problem, of course, is that these men live two hundred years apart. Time travel is often difficult to portray, but it is done beautifully here. Claire wakes up in exactly the same spot she passed out, yet it it subtly different. One knows instantly that something untoward has happened; even Claire doesn’t waste any time coming to the inevitable explanation.
The producers made a genius decision in having Tobias Menzies play both Frank and Jack Randall. Menzies is able to portray, through simply a look, that Randall is not Frank. The scene where Claire is attacked by Randall is, therefore, very powerful. We have just left Frank, and yet here “he” is attacking the woman to whom he was just recently making love.
Luckily, Claire is rescued by Clan MacKenzie and the pace of the story instantly picks up. We quickly meet some of the key players, including Jamie. Played by Sam Heughan (my God, the man is handsome!), the chemistry between Claire and him lights up the screen immediately. The second half of the pilot is now Claire with the other man in the triangle and it works. Jamie is the opposite of Frank. He is physical where Frank is cerebral. He is thicker and lighter, and is nowhere near as accommodating as Frank. There is a scene where Jamie and Claire glare at each other that was brilliant. They, too, have a passion, but it is a very different one.
Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, is a find. She looks equally at home in both post-war and the Scotland of the past. She is able to portray Claire’s confusion and fright, while at the same time holding her own against all the men she confronts in this first hour. I was cheering for her at the end.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the outstanding production. The series is filmed in Scotland, and it shows. The light, the scenery, the feel of that beautiful country are all portrayed to perfection.
The bridges between the two worlds are there to be seen. In the beginning of the episode, Frank and Claire go to visit a ruined Castle Leoch. As Claire rides up to this very castle at the end of the pilot, the fact that it is not a ruin, that it is where she is headed, made me catch my breath.
The other choice that works is that the Gaelic is not translated for us. As Claire does not understand the language, neither should we. It is a subtle, yet highly effective way, to bring us in to her story.
I was thrilled with this pilot. I know that we don’t often rate pilots, but I can’t help myself. Four our four whistling rocks that lead us to Jamie.
Bits and Pieces:
Similar to our Game of Throne posts, I want to avoid spoilers for those who have not read the book. To discuss differences between the book and the show, foreshadowing, or anything else that might spoil the story, head over to my review of the novel.
The opening credits don’t really work for me, although they are stunning. Perhaps they will grow on me as the series continues.
The two flashbacks do what flashbacks should — they give us a great sense, in a very short time, of exactly who Claire is at the time we meet her.
The “witches” dancing in the stones was one of the most gorgeously shot scenes I have watched in a long time. The music was a perfect match.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, sexier than a man in a kilt. Seriously.
The first time Jamie called Claire “Sassenach,” I squealed. Literally, squealed out loud. That’s when I knew I was completely invested.
Claire: “When confronted with the impossible, the rational mind will grope for the logical.”
Jack: “The speech of a lady; the language of a whore. I choose the whore.”
Claire: “If nothing else, my erstwhile savior fairly reeked of odors too foul to be part of any dream I was likely to conjure up.”
Claire: “The wisest course of action would have been to keep my head down, my mouth shut, and wait for the search parties Frank must have called out by now.” The men all discuss, in Gaelic, fixing Jamie’s shoulder. As they begin their ministrations, Claire shouts, “Don’t you dare! Stand aside at once. You’ll break his arm if you do it like that.”
Jamie: “Taking a guess you’ve done this before.”
Claire: “I’m a nurse.”
Jamie, looking at her breasts: “Aye.”
Claire: “Not a wet nurse!”
Jamie: “Have a wee nip. It won’t fill your belly, but it will make you forget you’re hungry.”
Maybe the best description of whiskey, ever.
Ron Moore recorded a podcast every week that is, in effect, a director's commentary. They are all available through iTunes.
For this first episode, Moore spends a great deal of time discussing the creative decisions he and his team made in creating the series. I am always amazed to hear how much time is spent on every decision, from what color Claire's coat should be to where to shoot the opening scenes.
Moore goes into some detail about two of the scenes I loved most, the witches dance and the time travel itself. As much time goes into deciding what to leave out as to what to include.
There is one very minor spoiler and a discussion around the cheating scene that made me grin. When Frank asks Claire if she cheated during the war, I always got the impression that he had. I left it out of the review as I decided I was reading far too much into it. Turns out, Moore wanted to leave that impression. I feel better.
Like he did with his BSG podcasts, Moore drinks scotch and smokes while he is talking. The clinking ice cubes and his strong inhalations are incredibly annoying and distracting, but persevere as what he has to say about the creative process is very interesting.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.