But the broken heart it kens, nae second spring again
Tho’ the waeful may cease frae their weeping.
(But the broken heart cannot know second spring again
Though the woeful may cease from their weeping.)
Traditional Scottish Folksong
Considering its 8.7/10-star rating on IMDb, I may be one of the very few viewers who’s not deleriously happy with Starz’s new series Outlander, based on the best-selling books by Diana Gabaldon, but I’m throwing my metaphorical hat into the reviewing ring anyway. I’ve never read the books, but the premise of the show is fascinating: a World War II nurse, Claire, goes on a post-War “second honeymoon” to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank, where she touches the tallest rock in a Henge, and is inexplicably transported to the same place 200+ years in the past, in the midst of the wars between the Scottish clans and the British Empire. I’ve watched all 5 episodes of the series so far, waiting for something else to happen beyond the initial premise, and I find that the show has as many weaknesses as it does strengths.
Warning: Spoilers throughout
- Instead of the intriguing philosophical Voice-Over that began the series (and which may not have been in the book since the “prologue” where it appears is only in the Starz tie-in version) — “People disappear all the time” — the voice-over has begun narrating what we’re seeing on the screen — “15 paces to the sentry tower” (as Claire is walking there) — or justifying Claire’s behavior — “I was jealous” (which the viewer already knew) — or explaining what the viewer could figure out for himself — “the hunting game was more than a game” (as Claire is continually looking up at the sentry on the watchtower while she’s playing with the children). That makes the Voice-Over a repetition of what we’re seeing onscreen, a redundancy, or simply an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. Whatever it’s meant to be, the Voice-Over isn’t working any longer and is getting tedious.
- I’ve watched the entire five episodes which open the series — several times — and after Claire (Caitriona Balfe) inexplicably disappears, not once do we get a glimpse of what her poor husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) must be going through in 1945 without his wife, who’s been gone for months. (In an earlier show, while at the castle in the 1740s, Claire mentions that she’s been here for weeks; in last night’s episode, when she accompanies the clan members on a rent-collecting trip, she mentions that the group has been on the road “for weeks.” That now equals months, yet no indication of what Frank is doing or experiencing, and I, for one, am worried about him, although Claire does not seem to be: she’s only been sad, for a few seconds, and specifically mentioned Frank once, though she often, at the end of a show, says she has to get “back to the stones.” )
- Lots of atmosphere in the setting but no Urgency or forward plot momentum. In short, nothing of note has happened since she ended up in the past.
- The 1940s music over the 1740s setting is more than a bit disconcerting.
- The long, untranslated, un-subtitled dialogue and monologues in Scots Gaelic, which I assume are authentic since Starz boasts its Scots Gaelic dialogue coach/expert, are dull in the extreme since I don’t know what’s going on. In episode 5, Claire complains that the group is intentionally speaking in Gaelic to “exclude her” and make her feel like an outsider. Claire, honey, you’re not the only one. At least you didn’t mention being bored during the long Gaelic passages, as I am.
- The supposed clan conflict with Claire’s supposed love-interest in the past — Jamie — makes no sense to me, though I watched episode 4, where it was convolutedly explained and temporarily solved, three times. Nope. I still don’t get the problem with Jamie and the clan. Maybe you have to read the books to understand it. But that makes it a weakness for the series.
- I don’t see any chemistry between the actors who play Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan). I keep looking for it, but beyond the fact that he has a nice body, which, in itself, does not guarantee sexual chemistry except between shallow individuals, I don’t see or feel any sparks. I don’t know if it’s the acting, the actors, or the script.
- No one ever asks Claire who or what “Roosevelt” is in her most frequent curse: “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.” Now, you may think that’s petty, but in a world where women were severely discriminated against and accused of witchcraft for disobeying their husbands or being different or for looking at someone sideways, I find it odd that no one asks what that means, or, worse, thinks she’s casting a spell on them (especially since one of the characters came and asked Claire for a love potion, so her “supernatural abilities seem to be assumed).
- The hints that the show’s other “healer,” Gellis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), may be a time-traveler as well are very intriguing, especially as she seems to have accepted her fate, and makes many pointed comments to Claire that you can make a good life for yourself even if it’s not one you ever imagined.
- Good chemistry between Claire and Gellis (actor Lotte Verbeek). Most of that may come from Verbeek, but whatever the reason, she’s a delightful character, and the scenes she’s in with Claire are some of the show’s most interesting, especially when she asks if Claire, who’s hoarding food for her escape, is pregnant and “eating for more than one.”
- Beautiful clothes. Look at the fur Claire’s wearing as she accompanies the group on its rent-collecting chores.
- Since Claire had “naught but her shift” and shoes when the clan members found her, someone in the castle is very generous, lending Claire dresses, furs, and very nice jewelry whenever needed.
- Absolutely beautiful countryside (the show was filmed in Scotland).
- Claire quotes John Donne’s poetry (albeit only once so far), so she’s well-read.
- Claire’s managed to heal quite a few people, including a boy everyone assumed was possessed by the devil and who would have died had she not administered the antidote (belladonna, itself a poison) to the poisonous plant (Lily of the Valley) she assumed he’d eaten (he was unconscious).
- When she can’t heal them, she is able to at least make them feel better, as when she massages the base of clan Laird Colum MacKenzie’s spine rather than his deformed legs (as his former healer used to do).
- When she can’t save them, she’s honest about it, and helps them die as peacefully as she can (the boy mortally wounded in the boar hunt, which earns her the clan’s respect).
- Claire’s mostly cool-headed, even if she occasionally does things a 20th century woman would do, like when she teases Jamie — at dinner, in front of others — about his sexual interaction with another woman, and continues to do so despite his warning kick under the table.
- Her guards, whom she also refers to as her “shadows,” are amusing. Whether that’s the actors themselves improv-ing or it’s in the script, it works. In episode 5, for example, they and the other members of the rent-collecting group beat up men in another group for calling Claire a “whore” in Gaelic. Afterward, while she’s tending to their minor scrapes and bruises, calling them “big babies” and asking what it was all about, the funniest “shadow,” Angus, tells her, quite matter-of-factly: “They called you a ‘whore’. You’re a guest of The MacKenzie. We can insult you, but God help any other man that does.” That was the first time I laughed aloud at anything in the show.
- Dougal’s cool. (On left in photo above. Played by actor Graham McTavish, Dougal’s an uncle to Jaime and brother to clan leader Colum (Gary Lewis), on right in photo.) Dougal’s got just enough bad qualities mixed with good ones to make him a totally awesome character. I like him. Especially in the scene where the young man gored by the boar asks him, “Did ye bed my sister?” and Dougal admits, “Aye. She was a bonnie lass,” leading the dying boy to conclude that Dougal “always could charm the lasses.”
- Whatever conflict Jamie has with the MacKenzie clan, who are his kin, it’s intriguing. I admit that I don’t quite understand it, but it’s intriguing nevertheless. That makes Jamie’s nature interesting.
- At last, Claire showed a sense of humor. When one of her “shadows” was telling a tall tale about his sexually having two women at the same time, each jealously fighting over him, she responded that she believed his “left hand was jealous of his right,” causing all the men to laugh, and him to say, in astonishment, “I never heard a woman make a joke before.”
- And finally, in a show where one of the major conflicts is Claire’s arrival in a time when the Scottish Highlanders were about to stage a major rebellion (the last attempt to put a Stuart on the throne of Scotland, which marked the end of the clans) with the British, at the end of episode 5, the British arrived!
Do Outlander’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses? I can’t decide yet. But I’m hoping the slow pace of episodes 2-5 will pick up considerably now that the British have arrived and asked Claire, in front of Dougal, whether, as an Englishwoman, she was “voluntarily” with the Scottish clan.
So I’ll keep watching, hoping there’s a good reason for author Gabaldon’s Outlander series to have become a bestseller (besides lots of women just liking to read 800+-page novels), and an even better reason for Starz to have made it into a series, and to have renewed it for a second season before the episode 2 even aired (besides just trying to capitalize on its bestseller status, because I seriously doubt the show’s going to be up for any kind of awards).
Besides, I love the opening theme.