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Meet Outlander, the Anti-Game of Thrones

Meet Outlander, the Anti-Game of Thrones

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Originally published July 30, 2014.

Ever since I heard Starz was adapting Diana Gabaldon’s racy, time-travelingOutlander series, I’ve been hoping they don’t screw it up. It’s prime fodder for cable fare, with its resourceful heroine, period dress, sweeping Scottish vistas, and no small amount of bodice-ripping.

Or, to quote Taystee in the second-season finale of Orange is the New Black: “Lady travels back in time to Scotland… hooks up with this big, sexy outlaw type, and they be gettin’ it day in and day out. Yo, it’s hot!”

The names attached were promising: the show’s creator is Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica. His BG collaborator Bear McCreary did the music. The director of the first two episodes is John Dahl, whose female-noir filmThe Last Seduction is one of my longtime favorites (his Red Rock West andYou Kill Me are pretty great too).

Well, I’m far from alone in my anticipation. At New York’s 92nd St. Y Monday night, Starz screened the first episode (premiering Aug. 9) and hosted a cast Q&A for a crowd of, to put it mildly, highly enthused Outlander fans. Female ones, by a very large and vocal majority. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” marveled a fellow journalist as she dropped into her seat beside me in the theater.

I’m so delighted to say the premiere didn’t disappoint. The show’s gorgeous: it could go toe to toe with Game of Thrones for sheer cinematographic grandeur. Dropping us into the middle of World War II, the episode opens on Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) with her hands bloody and buried in a soldier’s gaping leg wound, barking orders at her fellow nurses. Shortly afterward, when the war’s end is announced, she stands back from the celebrating masses, swilling a bottle of champagne with world-weariness.

She’s a tough broad – and also happily married to Frank (Tobias Menzies), her academic husband. It’s worth noting that the first intimate scene between these two is him going down on her amidst some dusty ruins. Word, Ron Moore.

The plot takes its time working up to the pivotal event, in which Claire and Frank secretly observe a pagan ceremony being conducted at a Stonehenge-like circle by women – “druids, not witches,” Claire corrects her husband – and suddenly she’s transported back in time when she touches the stones, arriving in the mid-1700s in the midst of a battle between English troops and Scottish Highlanders. She’s taken prisoner by the Scots, who bring her back to their home base to decide what to do with her.

So, remember how GoT took some of the consensual sex and relationships from the books and made them more rapey and generally more shitty for women? I feel Outlander has (deliberately?) done the opposite, tonally, playing up Claire’s ability to command and her clear intellectual advantage via modern medical knowledge. In this clip, she first meets love interest Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a wounded Highlander, when she pops his dislocated shoulder back into place, as his fellow soldiers amusingly stand around wincing.

One of the book’s central concerns is the idea of just how difficult it was to be a woman in the 18th century, let alone one with a 20th-century education and independence. Claire’s medical know-how will, eventually, get her accused of being a witch. But at the outset, anyway, Moore and Dahl’s focus is to introduce Claire as a force to be reckoned with, and showing how baffled – and, ultimately, grateful – her male captors are by her ability to heal wounds that would otherwise largely prove fatal.

To be fair, the first novel (and, possibly, the show) is hardly a feminist handbook. There are plenty of ensuing adventures that feature Claire being manhandled, nearly raped, thrown down on beds, and swept up into Jamie’s musclebound arms. One scene in particular between the two features a spanking that wanders into Fifty Shades of Grey territory. But Moore’s series is so firmly rooted in Claire’s fundamental smarts and survival skills that it seems unlikely to reduce her to some passive receptacle like the hapless Fifty Shades heroine.

Indeed, Moore said as much in the Q&A afterward, when asked about his search to cast the part. His main goal, he said, was to find “an actress who projected intelligence – which informs her adaptability, her sexuality. I needed to find someone you could watch think on camera.”

He also added that the reason he got the idea for the show in the first place was the urging of his wife, who is a fan of the books.

About that Q&A: what surprised me most, at the panel’s entrance, was despite the cheering and shrieking for the very good-looking Heughan, the biggest round of applause was reserved for Gabaldon herself, who proved a hilarious and bawdy interviewee. When asked about her favorite scene in the Starz series, she chose Claire and Jamie’s wedding night, praising Moore for how beautiful and tender and passionate the scene was. “But,” she nodded toward Heughan, “honesty compels me to add: you have one fine ass, man!” (The crowd, as you might expect, went nuts.)

I can see the criticism of this show from a mile away; Vanity Fair has already published a withering post questioning whether it really ought to be so blatantly targeted at women: “It’s a given that the rabidly devoted Outlanderaudience (a largely female readership who will pre-order each installment months in advance) will show up. But will the men?”

I really want Outlander to succeed; I don’t want it to be relegated to niche entertainment. But, news flash: women are not a niche. They are the dominant force in cable viewership, and they’re also becoming an increasingly powerful demographic at the movies, showing up in huge numbers at the box office this summer and proving that female-centric entertainment can equal big business. Just this past weekend, for example, Lucy kicked Hercules‘ ass.

And many of us female viewers are beyond tired of the rationalizations we need to make in order to enjoy big-budget adventure shows and films with complex plots and first-rate screenwriters that are still, by and large, primarily targeted at men. As I’ve mentioned here before, I often have a hard time reconciling my continued viewership (and, yes, enjoyment) ofGame of Thrones with its abysmal treatment of most of its female characters. I adored Breaking Bad, but it depressed the hell out of me that so many fans hated Anna Gunn’s character while rooting for Walter White. I’m an ardent Doctor Who fan, but I do wish there was room in the Whoniverse for a female Doctor; no go on that score, not anytime soon.

So the arrival of Outlander really inspires in me, in response to Vanity Fair’s questioning whether the men will show up, a certain catchphrase making the rounds: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

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