“Outlander” has already been described as a female-driven “Game of Thrones,” though that label, while complimentary, seems to do a disservice to both shows. There are elements of similarity, but the Starz adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling fantasy novel series firmly stands on its own, with its sweepingly cinematic storytelling and compelling lead characters. If male audiences can’t look beyond a woman at the center of this story to reap the rewards of tuning in, it would be their very unfortunate loss. For what it’s worth, there’s plenty more gore than sex in the episodes screened for press thus far.
Our heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a thoroughly modern English woman who’s spent five years mostly on her own as her new husband Frank was shipped off to World War I shortly after their marriage. They reunite and go on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands, only to be immediately separated again when Claire somehow travels through time and lands in 18th Century Scotland, conveniently in the midst of another war – this time against England.
Despite this, our English heroine taken in by a Scottish clan and comes under the protection of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the clan leaders’ nephew who’s got some demons of his own. Still, the two form a bond and Claire quickly earns her keep as a healer thanks to her somewhat seemingly magical medical skills, having been honed two hundred years in the future and all. But her heritage, her uncanny skills and her outspoken nature never fail to land her in danger, while tensions rise around her as the Scottish grow more and more fed up with being under England’s thumb.
The show feels like a slow burn with its gorgeous cinematography and understated characterizations, while in reality it moves briskly through its many plot points. By the middle of the first episode, Claire has already been transported through time and forced into close quarters with her future love. By episode six, she’s already escaped death – or worse – a handful of times, and she and Jamie feel very much like a couple to root for. Heughan is a perfect leading man, seamlessly playing in equal turns dangerous, protective and puppy-dog vulnerable, and the Scottish accent is lethal. The show truly comes to life only after Jamie Fraser makes his first appearance.
Claire as a feminist figure is also impressive. This is a woman who is in charge of her own agency, sexuality and ultimate destiny. She is strong, but not made to do manly things in order to prove it. She is equal to Jamie, and their bond is born out of deep-rooted compatibility rather than bodice-ripping chemistry – though there is some of that as well. That this decidedly modern romance all goes down, quite believably, in the 18th Century is even more impressive.
“Outlander” premieres on Saturday, August 9th at 9pm.