REVIEW | Outlander - Episode 1.01 - "Sassenach"
Her dark curls caught in the blustering chilled wind, Claire Randall stands quietly, pensively and at a loss. The Second World War – the war to end all wars, they’d said – was now behind her, but still brimming with infinite bloody details that no matter how long she lives, she knows she will never forget. But – as we break on to the scene in Episode 1 of Starz epic new drama Outlander, entitled “Sassenach” – it’s not a warzone but, rather, a simple vase seen in a tiny shop window while she’s on a second honeymoon with husband Frank that causes Claire to wonder what the next chapter of her life might hold.
So when the highlands beckon her during an afternoon walk, towards an ancient stone circle - a place where she had witnessed with Frank only the night before, a swirling coven of beautiful druid women casting their highest spell over the ground - she could never have guessed that it would be the place that next chapter would start. Torn from home across the divide of time - over two centuries - Claire suddenly finds herself supernaturally thrust into the heat of the iconic battle for independence between Scotland and the English. And into a love story whose magnificence has captivated audiences for decades.
Set across time in the vast wilds of the Scottish highlands, Outlander is the highly anticipated television adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s beloved series of novels of the same name, and developed by Ronald D. Moore. Moore, of course, was the creative and directing visionary behind the brilliant TV series Battlestar Galactica, and fans of that will be quick to tell you that for all the sci-fi delights of that show, it was his dedication to the deep, confronting, brutal and beautiful human element of that story that made it impact so powerfully on its audience. Gratifyingly, that same dedication is at once very evident here too as he brings to life on the small screen this vast tale of love, loss and double lives lived across an ancient and impossible supernatural divide.
Joining Moore on Outlander, too, is composer and fellow BSG alumni Bear McCreary. As is par for the course for McCreary, even before the credits have finished rolling, you realise quickly that his beautiful, eloquent and lilting score is going to play a huge part in telling not just the greater story, but also the individual ones: of Claire; of Frank and his black hearted ancestor, Captain Jack Randall; and of course, that of the gallant and fiercely loyal Scottish rebel, Jamie Fraser – a man who will come to change Claire’s life and heart in a way she never could have anticipated.
How they cast Claire, Frank/Jack and Jamie was always going to play a huge part in the success of the show, and it’s hard to argue a case against the cast of actors they went with. In the case of the Randall ancestors, Tobias Menzies was an absolutely spot on one for the twin roles of Frank and Jack. As Frank – a present day history professor and former intelligence officer for MI6 during the war – Menzies does a beautiful job of bringing out the quiet, endearing and slightly unsteady strength of the character. On the other side of that coin is the vile, swarthy and vicious crown thug Jack. In a lot of ways it’s the villain that’s the crowning achievement for Menzies here, in that he has done a marvellous job drawing out the deep evil in a character bearing the same countenance as Frank: a character who we’ve already been made to sympathise with not only as Claire’s husband, but in and of his awkwardly sweet, no-nonsense self. Either way, it's a darly clever generational mirror, and I can't wait to see where Menzies goes with it.
On the other side of the divide is Jamie: freedom fighter, wanted rebel and dearly beloved family member of a clan steeped in loyalty to their homeland, whatever the cost. Sam Heughan's strong, heartfelt performance has a lot of grace to it, and indeed he's proof that sometimes - just sometimes - with the right people at the helm, an actor can be chosen for a role who utterly embodies the spirit and soul of an already beloved fictional character. Somehow - perhaps its something to do with the fact that he is Scottish, and the deeply rich patriotism and heart that must entail for him personally in taking on such an iconic role - Heughan does just that.
A lot of that too undoubtedly has to do with his formidable chemistry with Caitriona Balfe, whose portrayal of Claire is simply enthralling. Indeed she was exquisitely cast here and I think fans of the book will agree that like Heughan, she beautifully captures the heart of not only Claire but also the experience of a woman in the midst of a war. It was a particularly smart move I think on Ronald Moore's part that her chose to depart briefly from the plot of the original novel by giving us a glimpse into Claire's life as a nurse on the battlefield. That whole initial scene of her covered in blood as she operated on a dying soldier was pivotal in establishing early the fact that Claire isn't just some damsel in distress, caught up in supernatural circumstances beyond her control. She's as much a warrior as any man, and absolutely holds her own.
Speaking of which, I particularly loved her chess like engagement with Dougal - ably played by the gloriously gruff Graham McTavish, who is wonderful in this role - in that it's our first taste of the many checks and balances Claire has to negotiate in her terrifying and tenuous alien surroundings. She's a woman in a male dominated environment. Worse stil she's an Englishwoman behind enemy lines, in a land the English are terrorising. Worst of all, she is trapped in a world that is centuries apart from where she belongs, with no idea how to get home. The way they have chosen, then, to portray her developing mentality amidst all this chaos has been beautifully nuanced and I think has really set us up to travel this journey alongside Claire - close to her own heart - in an unforgettable way.
As far as debuts go - especially for a story that is so well loved by it's orginal literary fans and has been for many years - "Sassenach" was absolutely spot on. Ronald Moore did a fabulous job of using the episode to set up a number of essential elements that needed to be done right if the show was going to succeed. We had to not only love Claire and Jaime - Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe easily make sure of that - but we had to really come to sympathise over Frank too. Feeling a certain empathy over him is absolutely necessary if we are to not only believe that Claire will feel torn over what lies ahead for her with Jamie, but also to make us mentally separate Frank from his ancestor Jack: separating the awkwardly, stiffly sweet professor from his visceral, cruel and mysogynistic forebear. And in all these areas, I think they absolutely succeeded, which means that however excited we were to see this story start, we cannot help but be even moreso for episode two. With that in mind - as we leave Claire and Jamie riding into the fortress of Castle Leoch - we say goodbye until next week.