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‘Outlander,’ Back and Better than the Books

'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.)

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.

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