outlander 101 – sassenach

Sassenach Title

NOTE:  This review will be very spoilery, both in general for how events transpire in the books and what happens in this specific episode, so read no further unless you’ve already seen the episode (or read the book). Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

People disappear all the time.  Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money and a taxi to the train station.  Most are found, eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.

Usually.

Strange the things you remember, single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.  Like the moment I’d realized that I had never owned a vase. That I’d never lived in any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing, and how, at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world than to have a vase of my very own…

Somehow, in my mind, V.E. Day, the end of the bloodiest and most terrible war in human history, grows fainter with each passing day. But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.

I sometimes wonder what would’ve have happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it. Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say?

I do know this: even now, after the pain and death and heartache that followed, I would still make the same choice.

– Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, Prologue

When I had originally heard about Outlander becoming a series I was excited because I absolutely adore the book by Diana Gabaldon.  If you aren’t aware, the novel is about Claire Randall, the titular outlander, which is sassenach in Scottish Gaelic.  She’s a beautiful War World II-era English nurse who, after the close of the war, is on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her somewhat stodgy History Professor husband, Frank.  Things go completely awry when she accidentally gets catapulted back in time to 1743.  Stuck in the past without a clear way back, she falls for an extremely tough and very handsome 18th century Scot, Jamie…  A mash-up of several different genres, with elements of a bodice-ripper a Harlequin Romance editor would love, but that’s in addition to fantasy-based time travel and extremely well-researched historical fiction.  What’s not to love?

Yet, as much as I loved the book and was excited at the possibility of it becoming a TV show, I could not fathom exactly how they would work that out.  The story isn’t exactly straightforward, heck the premise is nearly impossible to describe…  How could they possibly turn this into a TV show?

Although, even without seeing a single second of footage I could tell that Caitriona (sounds like kah-TREE-na) Balfe (rhymes with Ralph) as Claire and Sam Heughan (sounds like HEW-ann) as Jamie were terrific choices in casting. They both looked really good and (generally) matched the physical descriptions of the characters in the books…

Still, series creator Ronald D. Moore had a bit of work to do to get this rather lengthy book into only 16 episodes.  While the storyline of Outlander isn’t quite as convoluted as the far more grim Game of Thrones books, that isn’t to say that this is a straight-forward tale, because it’s not.  There are a lot of subplots and literary meanderings, and each book is very long, so Moore was extremely ambitious in choosing to adapt the novels.

It probably didn’t help that Outlander is Gabaldon’s first novel. While she has written quite a bit since, with seven other books (a ninth is in the works) in the main series along with various novellas and short stories featuring secondary characters from Outlander’s world, she did not have quite as sure a hand with the first book.  There are places where the story meanders a bit and, while the time was impeccably researched (Gabaldon was a scientist before she took up writing novels) the plot doesn’t always get to the point quickly enough. This first book must have given Ronald Moore fits.

He had quite the chore in distilling everything down into a workable story for a TV series, but almost more importantly he needed to figure out how to start the story out strong.

While this series hadn’t needed a ‘pilot’ episode like a network series or a basic cable show would need (to find out if the network is going to buy it), Moore still had to ‘set up’ the series so he could introduce us into the world the series is going to take us in to. This first episode of any show is vitally important to get right because needs to set the stage, as it were, so that people would get to know the world the show starts in, but also to give hints where it’s going. To build an audience, you need to set expectations so that the viewers can decide whether the series is worthy of adding to the DVR.

Any series needs to do a good job of that, even one on premium cable like Outlander, but I think it was probably doubly imperative here.  Moore had to setup the show’s parameters without depending on his audience to have read the books.  That was especially true for this show since the story does not easily fit into one genre.

In the book Gabaldon had plenty of time to introduce us into the world she created. She could more or less ease the reader into the situation the characters found themselves in. All the while dropping hints that this wasn’t going to be straight-up historical fiction. Frankly, the opening was probably the weakest part of the book. It just seemed to take forever to get going, although it really didn’t (Claire goes into the past at about page 35). I suppose I was a bit bored with Frank and his genealogical research and all the little minor characters who are introduced and never seen again, but she had more latitude to weave her story in the way she saw fit. Unlike a novelist, Moore didn’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time to get things going. And he certainly couldn’t depend on his audience being familiar with the book.

Yet he set up the parameters of the world of Outlander very well, right from the beginning. He showed Claire at work in a front-line hospital, which segued quite well into the bit of the voiceover just after that, which showed her walking through the village and looking into a shop window as a vase.   I’m not sure there is anything quite like it in the book, at least not set out so neatly, but that speech helped to frame what would come in this first episode, and likely what will happen in the series, no matter how many seasons it gets. Claire’s voiceover is almost like a mission statement; a rough outline for what Claire will feel about will happen to her… it was very nicely done.

And Moore had to move things along more quickly than the novel had done, but he must have felt like one of those Chinese acrobat plate spinners, though. He needed to always keep things moving, yet still manage to avoid breaking anything.

Moore had to do a fair amount of tinkering with the story to get it to work, however.  It wasn’t just trimming dialogue and shedding minor characters or jettisoning entire scenes: he needed to also change some of the story around.  While a purist might object to some bit getting the axe, and the literary-adaptation hairsplitting aside, the series usually turns ‘expedient’ story choices into smart ones.  For example, and perhaps oddly for the British readers of the book, he changed when the first bit of the book happened.

He changed the holiday to Halloween – or Samhain (pronounced like SAH-win) – instead of Gaelic May Day, or Beltane.  Maybe that was for the benefit of Starz’s American audience. I have no idea whether most of the rest of the English-speaking world has even heard of Beltane, but I can pretty much inform people from elsewhere that most Americans probably haven’t heard of it.  May Day isn’t really a thing for us anyway, not like the rest of the world, so maybe that’s why. But whatever the reason, I know I hadn’t heard of it before.  Although, this was probably done because the show started production in the fall, not the spring, so this was probably a very fortuitous change, especially for us Yanks.

Halloween is an easier holiday for American audiences to understand the supernatural nature of, without too much exposition needed. So: well done, Mr. Moore.  Expediency often wins out when it comes to TV and this probably worked out to be a better choice than the original. At least, Frank and Mrs. Baird weren’t forced us to go through long expository bits of dialogue so that we could get up to speed on that.

Moore also adjusted the book’s timeline, moving the scene order around to make things simpler and more streamlined, or giving lines to different characters to speak, or combining similar scenes into one.  Some of it is smart, very smart.  A line of dialogue might be stronger given to a different character.  It can have a bigger impact.

For example, when Reverend Wakefield said Frank’s line about the meaning of ‘sassenach’ was more powerful than how Frank had said it. In the book, it was tucked into a longer expository bit of dialogue about his ancestor, Black Jack.  It was probably a bit boring.  With Reverend Wakefield saying the line, it revealed a bit of his character (he almost seemed embarrassed about it), and gave the line more power since it was spoken by a Scot, not an Englishman giving a somewhat dry lesson to his wife about his ancient forebears.

The episode is filled with small instances like this and combined with a very economical combining of scenes and trimming dialogue, the story was very thrifty as a result and things moved along very quickly. Time wasn’t wasted and the dialogue was very tight and the episode flowed extremely well and kept a steady pace, with ever increasing stakes for Claire as the episode built to its end.

Still, as effective as the episode was, I’m not sure all of the choices completely worked.  One thing I didn’t completely understand was why Moore had moved the bit Claire had said about needing a disinfectant (‘Iodine? Methylate? Alcohol?’) to the scene after Jamie fell off his horse.  Why would she say that after she had come to realize she wasn’t in the 20th Century anymore, which was when she first left the cottage in the dark and didn’t see Inverness’ electric lights.

In the book, the dialogue about getting a disinfectant came earlier, back in the cottage. (Jamie was shot at the same time he dislocated his shoulder in the book.  He fell off his horse later because he had been slashed by a bayonet after the second confrontation with Black Jack’s men.)  Anyway, the only thing that probably made it worthwhile where Moore put that was it added some needed comedic relief.  The men not understanding a word of what she was saying about disinfectants until she asks for booze, was funny, but maybe not sensible.

Claire is, after all, a very smart woman.  Claire’s assumption that Highland bandits from the 18th Century would have access to sterile bandages and disinfectant while evading English army patrols on horseback in the dead of night doesn’t make any sense.  Claire’s pretty smart.  I think she probably would have gotten that sooner, no matter how tired and hungry she was…

Aside from a few nit-picky things, this first outing for the show was close to perfect. Claire’s upfront sexuality was treated with a soft touch, her initiating sex with Frank wasn’t gratuitous or made her seem shameless, it seemed natural and real. It effectively set up the fact that Claire is a very physical person and expresses that very comfortably, which lays a foundation for events that happen later in in the first book.  Ron Moore did an awesome job keeping the most important things from the book and still making sure things kept moving along.

While all three leads, Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies, are older than their characters were in the books, they nearly perfectly fit the characters otherwise.  Although Tobias is only slightly older than Frank is in the first book. Balfe and Heughan being older is probably a good thing, anyway.

They will need to be in order to believably play the characters in later books. From the beginning of Outlander to the end of the 8th book, Written in My Own Hearts’ Blood, the time span in the past is 36 years, from April 1743 until the spring of 1779. The 20th Century timeframe is nearly as long.  If the show succeeds and Starz signs on for all the following books, Gabaldon is currently working on the ninth book as I said, that time span will likely keep growing.  So, it benefits the show to cast actors as Claire and Jamie who could believably be in their mid-twenties in Outlander and be aged up to being grandparents in the later books.

Irish Caitriona Balfe is luminous as Claire.  Maybe Balfe’s taller and skinnier than how Claire is described in the books, but she’s got lovely porcelain skin and a fresh-faced beauty, so she’s otherwise perfect.  She’s also remarkably effective playing a character so passionate and up-in-your-face when confronted that she often crosses the line into becoming abrasive, as Jamie and the other Scots found out once she went back to 1743, yet she can also play Claire’s vulnerability. She plays Claire as a very sexual being, encouraging Frank to have sex on more than one occasion in this first episode, yet somehow doesn’t turn the character into an anti-feminist strumpet.

Gabaldon has said that the reason she writes strong women characters is because she doesn’t like women who are stupid.  Balfe is anything but and has no difficulty in conveying Claire’s intelligence right from the start of the series.  Her face is extremely expressive, which is good because there are so many voiceovers.  Any less-gifted actress wouldn’t have stood up as well to emoting during those.

She is in almost every second of the episode, too. Since the first book is told from Claire’s point-of-view, this will likely continue through the end of the season. (Although, it might be important to note that more recent hints about the shape of the second half of the season say that one episode, the ninth, will be told through Jamie’s point of view.)

Sassenach Bloody Jamie

Sam Heughan is an absolute joy to watch as Jamie Fraser.  He plays Jamie perfectly. It has been said in interviews that the producers thought the part would be very difficult to cast.  The book outlined Jamie using a very difficult mix of attributes to combine into one person:  tall, athletic, left-handed, smart, red haired, deep set piercing blue eyes, a long straight nose, and a wickedly dry sense of humor. I wonder that Ron Moore thought it realistic that he could find someone at all to fit even half of that description.

Well, he probably didn’t need to worry. Apparently Heughan was one of the first people to read for the part.  He’s a blonde righty who isn’t noticeably taller than Graham McTavish, as I’ve said, with a nose that isn’t exactly straight, and he is a bit older, so I guess they have to thank their lucky stars that hair dye exists that could turn his golden locks a believable shade of auburn. Although it sounds like it took a bit of trial and error from what Gabaldon said on her blog about it.

In spite of those few minor deficiencies, he is otherwise perfect.   Heughan isn’t in this first episode much, but he is memorable almost from the first minute he’s on screen. The large Scot successfully brings a sense of humor to the part, giving needed levity to his interactions with Balfe’s shell-shocked Claire, while also believably playing a man who is smart, strong and uncompromising.

I’m not sure that Tobias Menzies would have fit my idea of who Frank and Black Jack are, even though he is tall, handsome and slim, but he is perfect. It doesn’t hurt that I love hearing him talk, it’s almost silky, and he has the dual-roles down pat.  He is geeky and a bit bookish as Frank and deliciously ruthless in his one scene as Black Jack.  In later episodes the differences of the two men will become more pronounced, but in this initial outing he has successfully laid the groundwork for the two parts.  His physicality is subtly different when portraying the two men: Frank is a bit looser in how he holds himself, his language more carefully pronounced, even if it’s less formal.  As Jack, he is tense, but very stiff, more in the way as a military officer.  Yet, he shows he can be violent at the drop of a hat.  There’s an almost palpable menace there that is missing in his portrayal of Frank.  Menzies is brilliant in both parts.

In many pieces about the show, the actors and producers and other crew all say how important the country of Scotland is to the series, and it is evident here. The landscape and culture is as much a part of the show as anything else.  From the first instant, when he shot the rugged countryside, the photography is beautiful.

David Higgs is the episode’s Director of Photography and the Scottish Highlands he showed us is gorgeous. I instantly wanted to go to Scotland, it was so beautiful. The countryside scenes were terrific, but I also liked the scenes in 1945 France.  The photography there had a soft focus which was faintly overexposed colors, which gave the scenes there a slightly grainy look. It was almost like Claire’s memory, the images faded like she described in the voiceover. It showed an extremely soft touch…. I also really liked the scene where the women were dancing at the top of Craigh na Dun. It started with very dark blacks, but the best part was the dance itself. The lazy movements of the camera, combined with the drums and the non-verbal singing, added to the mystical sense of the scene. I especially liked the way the light flared at the end as the sun came up.

The show’s original music is by Bear McGreary and is as atmospheric as the cinematography. The haunting theme song, a modification of the traditional Skye Song about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight to Skye after the defeat of his forces at Culloden, is beautiful.  The music throughout the episode has strong celtic themes, with delicate flutes, martial drums, and mournful violins, along with the almost requisite bag pipes.  The scene with the Druid dancers atop Craigh na Dun was beautifully conceived.

I probably wouldn’t normally have a thing bad to say about any of the design work, Production Designer Jon Gary Steele with the help of his heads of design. He seems to keep things remarkably cohesive, even when jumping back and forth more than 200 years in time, but the wigs aren’t as quite as well-conceived.  The wig Tobias Menzies wears as Black Jack is particularly hard to believe that’s his hair, but the prosthetic make-up is terrific, as are the more subtle looks.  Caitriona Balfe is luminous and it barely looks like she’s wearing any make-up at all.

Given how well designed this episode is, I would probably have gladly put this show into my DVR. Given how ardently I adore the books, it was probably a given, but I am ecstatic that this show makes it so easy to love.  I’m going to be along for this ride as long as Starz is willing to keep paying Ronald C. Moore to keep making Diana Gabaldon’s books into this wonderful series.

This series is off to an extremely strong start…

Episode Oopsies:

  • The soldier about to bleed out in 1945 France was WAY too animated. According what Diana Gabaldon has said on multiple occasions in the books: people who have lost a lot of blood gasp like they’re are out of breath, it can be so bad they have problems speaking.  It’s because their cells are oxygen-starved and the body is forced to breath hard to get as much oxygen on board as possible.  And he was clearly losing a lot of blood. She had his leg cut open trying to clamp his femoral artery because she was worried he was about to bleed to death, yet he was writhing on the table, fully aware and awake, all the while swearing over and over, clearly not out of breath.
  • After Claire has ripped her dress to bandage Jamie’s shoulder on the side of the road, she stands and walks after Dougal, yet her hem is clearly complete.
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