Outlander is the television show that has got me through lockdown thus far. Perhaps you don’t know it, but it’s wildly popular. Simply put, it’s an historical sci-fi romance epic , based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, a former Disney scriptwriter who also happens to hold a PhD in quantitative behavioural ecology. I had to Google that: apparently it involves animals, evolution and ecological pressures. Anyway, the show follows Claire Randall, an English combat nurse who is visiting Scotland with her husband in 1945, when she unwittingly travels through some stones and ends up in the year 1743, where she falls in love with a Highlander named James Fraser.
Alongside romance and adventure, plenty of absolutely horrific things befall Jamie and Claire and the rest of the Outlander gang throughout the five series of the show. They suffer through illnesses and injuries, they are shipwrecked and they lose their minds, they are assaulted and imprisoned, as well as periodically separated from their loved ones by hundreds of years and thousands of miles. This drama is heightened as they are forced to make choices that would quickly destroy any real person, choices like: “Will I stay here where there is antibiotics and recorded music or go back to being accused of witchcraft for drying herbs?”, or “Should I kill my uncle to stop the battle and change the future, or is that a bit much?”
As my life shrank to a weekly grocery shop this past year, it’s been a pure joy to see their survival stories play out on screen from the comfort of my sofa and in the safety of my imagination.
Gabaldon says the idea came to her “in a weak-minded moment” when she was watching an old episode of Doctor Who and was taken by a minor character, a young Scotsman from 1745, wearing a kilt, an image she describes as “very powerful and compelling”. There is lots of excellent sex in the show, and alongside the fact that Outlander was created by a woman and has a woman protagonist, I suspect that is a reason some may dismiss it with that most stupid of phrases, “a guilty pleasure”. To that I say: shut up. Shush. I love it there.
The show could not would work without the brilliance of the lead actors. Randall is played by Caitriona Balfe, a true star: the woman can send three emotions flickering across her face at once, making the implausible seem more real than reality itself. She plays a depressed young mother and a surgeon in 1960s Boston; an anxious courtesan and Jacobite conspirator in Paris during the time of Louis XV; a middle-aged herbalist and settler in the American colony of North Carolina in the 18th century. I don’t for a moment doubt any of those iterations. Her intelligent and compassionate performances make all the insane plot twists and time jumps, inherent in the show, absolutely credible.
Of course, Balfe has fantastic material to work with. The coolest things about Randall is how much she enjoys sex. She seeks it out with a determination the rest of us can only aspire to. She is a little thrown but ultimately also completely fine with single-handedly killing bad guys, including one rotten British redcoat who attacks her on the moor: Randall knifes him in the kidney and he bleeds out. After an afternoon of feeling conflicted, she’s back in flying form, having more adventures with her handsome husband.
Randall actually has two handsome husbands, which seems an ideal number. Fraser is the best one, but he’s far from perfect. His character is flawed in two major ways: he’s much too brave and far too loyal.
Fraser has red hair and in one episode, in which he finds himself working as a lowly groom in a fancy house, a secondary character looks at him and says, “If I had a child with hair that colour, I’d drown it.” Later, not because of that comment, Jamie shoots that same character in order to save a baby. That’s just the kind of man he is, ignoring slights, dependably rescuing babies and consistently putting in the effort to satisfy his wife in the bedroom, or by the fire, on a ship, against the wall, anywhere really. He stays ready, and that strikes me as such a nice trait.
Dithering in Lidl today over whether or not to buy chowder again this week, my mind flashed ahead to my upcoming hour with Outlander. Pathetic perhaps, but also as close as possible to an escape, an escape to a place unabashed in its effort to entertain and enthrall me. What more could I ask for, other than a trip through the stones myself?