Nominated again for the 2018 Saturn Awards for best fantasy television series, which it won in 2016 and 2017, the Scotland-based series 'Outlander' may have at last tapped into the zeitgeist; a world where women are speaking up and men are listening. If Ursula Le Guin can write a fairy tale to address the issue of abortion, then Diana Gabaldon – in her 25-million book sales series – can certainly be said to have used fantasy to tackle the reality of how men and women struggle to maintain their individuality within intimate relationships. My training as an art historian taught me to look at the language being used to describe or criticise a work of art, as much as for what is not said as for what is actually written.
It seems to me that attempts to define and to review 'Outlander' are looking at it through a prism of language that relates to more easily defined genres, and therefore they fall back on definitions that tell us more about what it is not rather than what it actually is. For instance, that it is not really 'Game of Thrones' in kilts; that it is not really feminist 'enough'; that it is not quite sci fi nor really about fantasy. Instead, I think it is too extraordinary to be pigeon-holed. Amazing direction, superb acting, wonderful costumes, brilliant dialogue and based on a series of books that are loved by millions, there is more to 'Outlander' than immediately meets the eye. Not to mention the fact that Laura Donnelly (as Jenny in the series) has just won the Olivier Award for best actress for 'The Ferryman,' and Tobias Menzies has just been turned into Prince Philip in 'The Crown.'
To me, one of the great strengths of 'Outlander' is that it avoids a narrow definition. It is truly a tale for all time. Holding that thought in mind, I wondered if its underlying power comes from the timelessness of myth and fairy tale, and whether or not it shared some of their enduring appeal. First of all, however, it has to be said that it is a wonderful adventure, full of twists and turns and suspense, terrific characters, and much interaction between them. It creates a whole world, especially in Scotland. But one needs more than that to engender such devotion among readers and viewers; and what is that?
Like fairy tales – which come down to us over hundreds of years – there are elements that stand out and provide the deep bones of the story. Three aspects in particular are ones I want to set out here. I want to look at it as a kind of archaeological exploration of a tale that resonates psychologically.
A fairy story often involves children, one or two, sometimes siblings, but less often includes the parents. Children must search, hope to find, and fend for themselves, occasionally in harrowing circumstances. What they are really in search of is some aspect of themselves, so that they may be whole, and carry on into adulthood successfully. They may save another, sacrifice themselves, do down a terrible threat and be redeemed.
When we meet the two main characters, Claire and Jamie, they are orphans. I think this is important, even though they are in their 20s. Claire lost her parents when young, suddenly and together; Jamie lost his mother early on, and his father later, a death for which he feels partly responsible (as children would). Loss and separation are issues that never leave us, no matter how old we grow. We are ill advised to ignore this, for much of life is spent searching for a relationship that will help us to deal with it. Claire has become a nurse, where she can care for others; Jamie, in a different way, takes on responsibility for others also (such as his group of desolate Highlanders in prison after Culloden).
Both of them are drawn to children and are able to relate to them in the most natural manner, such as with Fergus or with Jenny's children. Not everyone knows how to do this. To me, all of this suggests that they come together as a couple looking to rescue and repair each other. One can be competent, large, strong and capable, and still be in need of repair.
In our own 21st-century culture there is a feeling that to be 'strong' is to not admit to emotional needs. That somehow self-protection involves denying that there is fear. This is particularly true of how men are expected to see themselves, that their power and pride are taken from them, and instead of turning to women in partnership, they see equality as threatening, or, perhaps, we construct our culture in this way in order to perpetuate it. The obvious point here is that a relationship between a man and a woman (or any combination) does not work well when treated as a competition or power play.
The whole' Time's Up' and 'Me Too' movements are witness to the struggle that is going on today. There are varying degrees of taking responsibility. Jamie and Claire help each other. They each exhibit strength in acts of humanity. Sometimes it is obvious (as in a rescue from being burned as a witch, or a medical emergency of being stitched up) but often it is the more obscure psychological wounds that they deal with. Jamie trusts Claire with his flogging scars because he says that she does not show pity, but accepts it. He doesn't need or want pity, he just wants acceptance.
The acceptance of each other is one of the great strengths of the story. And it is a strength of any relationship. It is the failure of the relationship with Frank, the first husband. We know from the beginning that it will not work, because Frank says, as Claire leaves on the train to go to the war-front, something like 'this isn't the right way around.' His sense of manhood is threatened by Claire going off. He doesn't really accept who she is. And though there was a kind of love there, there is not that much-needed sense of understanding who the other truly is.
In 'Voyager' this comes true, as Frank is unfaithful (fair enough, she got married while time-travelling) but is also vindictive in his desire to try to hang onto 'his' daughter. (And what a tour de force of acting both his roles are by Tobias Menzies.) So, Claire and Jamie. One of the best scenes of how each accepts the other, especially Jamie of Claire, is telling him where she comes from. Unfazed, he just says it might have been easier if she'd been a witch. This is a fairy tale element, but its underlying truth is a reality. Each of us has an inner self which, when we tell someone about it, we hope will be believed and understood. Jamie accepts the most improbable story, and lives with it.
As well as this acceptance of the other in a relationship, for it to succeed over time (and I am speaking here of positive relationships, not collusive damaging ones) there needs to be trust and fidelity. Claire and Jamie have this in spades, and I would be surprised if this is not why Diana Gabaldon fans find the relationship most inspiring, and one which they turn to as an exemplar. This couple grows up together. Sam Heughan radiates a boyish enthusiasm early in season one, and although Claire was married and saw the horrors of war, Caitriona Balfe imbues Claire with a great sense of humour. Their devotion to each other grows and so does trust and fidelity. One does not doubt this, which is unusual in a modern story (not forgetting that these books were begun in the 1990s).
As each helps the other to grow, they are confronted with the giants and ogres of life. Only their mutual trust will keep them from going under. I would suggest that there is a universal meaning to two situations that are astonishingly well dealt with here, which test trust. One is the rape of Jamie by his British nemesis and his resulting loss of sense of self. Claire is ready to sacrifice her life to hold on to what they have together. Both, in their way, persevere to bring their relationship back from the brink of loss. She insists that he speak. More relationships have foundered over one or the other hoping that understanding will spring from guesswork and silence than can be counted. He meets her half-way.
Then there is the childlessness question, followed by grief at the death of their child. These are quagmires for story-telling for a so-called popular audience without being unredeemedly tragic. What keeps this story afloat is the love of the central characters every time. They face it together, and they look ahead, not in an overly romantic way, but just that they must go on to survive. What 'Outlander' does is what every great story can do, it assists us in comprehending life, which includes death. Within the confines of a fairy tale, this is what children understand unconsciously. Within the series of 'Outlander', the relationship is written as a drama – a fantasy for adults that is based on reality.
There is one scene among many that shows how Claire and Jamie almost read each other's minds. They are not afraid to exchange what we traditionally accept as male/female roles between them. It is funny – with brilliant comic timing from both stars – and clever. When we first meet the rather bedraggled John Grey, trying ineffectually to cut Jamie's throat, there is an act within an act that is outstanding. As Jamie threatens the hapless teenager with a red-hot dagger, Claire appears. She takes in the scene, pauses, expresses anger at the situation and goes into a damsel in distress act.
Jamie takes only a second to see that her idea is better and seizes on a scene of ravishing Claire that takes in the innocent John Grey, who, after all, is a gentleman. Even the kick that Claire gives her husband is acted out as if given in earnest (and probably was) with a wonderful fleeting look on Jamie's face. There is such mutual understanding and cooperation in this scene that it could stand as an example in drama schools. And later, looking at the male:female power-sharing ratio, Jamie is not afraid to thank her. Previous to this scene, she had put herself in his hands when her own terrors were too much for her. And so it goes, back and forth, with trust and fidelity. These giants of loss, fear, and the remnants of former nightmares are mutually shared.
Another way in which 'Outlander' is a story for our time is its approach to sex. For fairy tales, the sex comes later. Beauty and the Beast go off into the sunset, and so do Cinderella and her prince. Nevertheless, it is understood that there is something more. Happily ever after implies an unknown but rewarding future. In 21st-century culture sex has been hijacked by an industry that distorts and diminishes sex and sexual love. Young people are presented with a distorted and damaging view of sexuality. The 'Outlander' books were enthusiastically read by many in their early 20s in the United States, and these readers are now great fans of the television series. That generation is lucky to have had these books.
It would be hugely beneficial to today's teenagers to be shown a large part of 'The Wedding' episode in schools, as an antidote to the porn that the boys, particularly, and the girls have access to. I don't want to get into the argument about how Claire is 'forced' into this (both of them in fact are pushed into the marriage) because I think that many young people feel 'forced' into having sex, by their peers, by porn, by general gossip. And curiosity. So one could say that 'The Wedding' metaphorically could stand in for any young person's first sexual encounter (okay, Claire is experienced, but she is still frightened).
There are young girls who are led to believe that it is 'all about the boys'; there are boys who are led to believe that it is all about them, and are surprised that it is not like the porn episodes they have been watching, and make their girlfriends watch so they will make the 'correct' noises. This outstanding 'Outlander' episode is tender, awkward and very funny at times. Well, sex can be like that. That's not to say that I have ever seen anything like it on television. Astonished hardly describes it. How successfully these two brilliant actors depict the insecurities of their characters, yet build the action to a mutual appreciation of each other as individuals, and amusingly portray the admiration of each other's bodies.
To return to the characters as young people who have suffered early loss; the moment Jamie gives Claire his mother's pearls is significant. He is transferring his love and trust to his wife, I believe, in this action. He says as much. He has bravely taken on that fear – which we all have who love others – that he has something to lose. He knows in this moment that he has found the person who is able, if you will, to restore him. He is 'manly' in doing so, but it is a kind of manliness that many men do not know how to do.
In the 21st century we are presented with examples such as the relationship in 'La La Land.' Yes, a charming film, in its way. Beautiful to look at. However, the relationship is positively toxic (with dancing), yet reviewed as if it were romanticism at its best. There is the inexplicable callousness, the selfishness, the lack of being able to talk to each other, and, in the end, it seems to lead to unhappiness for both. The relationships that pass for love in film and television are often shallow and far from celebratory. There is plenty of sex, but where I think 'Outlander' is very different is that the sex comes from a genuine psychological magnetism; it isn't peripheral or intrusive. It's all part of the tale.
To return to the idea of fairy tales – stories that stand the test of time because they speak to us at a deeper level, while carrying us along with their stories – location also enters into this. Scotland has a quality of unspoiled beauty, a place of nature in which a kind of magic is possible, a secret garden where a lonely soul could be nurtured into full growth.
In 'Outlander' there is loss, loyalty and reconciliation. There is also, as in all good myths, exile (20 years' worth) leading to renewal. In this case it is exile from each other, but, equally, it could represent a marriage that wakes up after 20 years and must reshape itself. Who is to say that all of these elements from fairy tales are just for children, and not needed by adults who are in the midst of the vicissitudes of life.
Through her characters of Claire and Jamie, Diana Gabaldon has created just such a story, and this is why 'Outlander' is difficult to categorise and write about, and most importantly of all why it is timeless. Reviewed as 'fantasy', which is fine, but perhaps we have reached the point where we can accept and applaud the idea that fantasy can be a very effective vehicle for explaining reality.