The History of time
“Outlander” is a smart wartime drama that succeeds because it takes sex seriously.
Credit Illustration by Bill Bragg
Spoiler: in two of the best dramas on television, something terrible is going to happen. Worse, it can’t be stopped. In “The Americans, ” set in the nineteen-eighties, that event is the end of the Soviet Union, which will ruin the lives of the Russian spies who are the show’s unlikely protagonists. In “Outlander, ” it’s the Jacobite rebellion, an eighteenth-century Scottish uprising that will end in a bloodbath, two soul mates in its path.
You likely already know about FX’s “The Americans, ” a brilliant espionage thriller that’s really a dark poem about marriage and morality, which has won many deserved raves. “Outlander, ” on Starz, gets less press, probably because it’s based on a series of historical romance novels and has a supernatural element. But beneath its guilty-pleasure surfaces (or maybe kilt-y ones), the show is surprisingly analogous to “The Americans”: it’s a smart wartime drama that’s gripping precisely because it takes sex so seriously, treating it as life’s deepest joy and its most terrifying risk, as dramatic as any act of violence.
When “Outlander” begins, just after the Second World War, a British nurse named Claire (the gorgeous Caitriona Balfe) is in the Scottish Highlands, trying to rekindle her frayed marriage to an intelligence officer. Instead, she’s thrown back, magically, to a period before modern medicine or parliamentary democracy. As a random English lady with a freakish knowledge of antibiotics, Claire is both physically vulnerable and under suspicion of being a witch. She’s headstrong and strategic; she’s also trapped and depressed. For protection, she winds up married to a virginal farm boy named Jamie (Sam Heughan), a situation that is, for viewers, a delicious fantasy, like a time-travel hall pass: Claire has no choice but to go to bed with this brawny innocent who knows how to shoe a horse, a nice break from her mansplaining husband. But the bond between Claire and Jamie—who has his own scars, literally and figuratively—slowly becomes far more complex, a rule-breaking love affair that the audience roots for on every level.
If you don’t watch shows that include sexual violence, please avoid “Outlander.” (Actually, you might rethink “The Americans, ” too.) Like “Game of Thrones, ” “Outlander” is set in a universe in which rape is a constant threat, and not just for women. There’s an incident of ultra-violence near the end of the first season, and I’m going to describe it, because it’s the fulcrum on which the show pivots; it’s also grotesque enough that fans of the books wondered how the show’s producers would handle it. They did so head on, with a dreamlike hyperfocus, for better or worse. Late in the first season, the sadistic Captain Jack Randall rapes Jamie, but in a way that is especially violating, since he drugs him and deliberately evokes memories of Claire, aiming to destroy not just Jamie’s body but his ability to feel safe with his wife.
Even for an organically kinky show, that’s a baroque scenario; to add to the intensity, the villain is played, beautifully, by Tobias Menzies, who also plays Claire’s modern-day husband. (He’s an ancestor.) We could argue all night about what it means to present near-pornographic suffering onscreen—it’s a fraught debate that hovers over much of contemporary television. But, admirably, once the show returns to its clever costume-drama intrigues, with Claire and Jamie shipping off to Paris, it doesn’t paper over the seriousness of what they’ve been through. This is not “24”: no one bounces back from torture. Attending Versailles-era costume balls, Jamie and Claire reinvent themselves as spies, hobnobbing with royalty and conspiring to prevent the Jacobite rebellion from occurring. There’s catty banter and ballgowns with plunging necklines; there’s a pet monkey and a brothel. There are graphic surgical scenes that make “The Knick” look prissy, and another time-travel twist.
But the risk of those episodes lies in what’s not happening: there are none of the sex scenes that viewers rely on and almost certainly watch the show for. However many tentative, well-meaning gestures Claire and Jamie make, the bridge between them keeps crumbling. Eventually, Jamie delivers a touching speech, in which he describes the wreckage of his private self, which has left him feeling tiny in a dizzying, jungle landscape. “That’s where I’ve been ever since, Claire, ” he says. “Naked. Alone. Trying to hide under a blade of grass.” This may sound overwrought on the page, but on the screen it’s not. “Outlander” is, finally, as thoughtful about male vulnerability as it is about female desire, a rarity for television. It’s a quality that makes the show appealingly romantic in multiple senses.
Jamie is a soul brother to Philip Jennings, the tormented spy played with astonishing complexity by Matthew Rhys, the most underestimated actor on television. (Put him on all the magazines! Give him the Jon Hamm treatment. Seriously, he deserves it.) When “The Americans” began, it was a show about a marriage that was, like the one on “Outlander, ” an arrangement: in their early twenties, Philip and Elizabeth were “set up” by their handlers. As undercover agents, they brought up two children, but only Philip “caught feelings, ” as the kids say. Elizabeth was the family iceberg, full of secrets—but in the show’s pilot, when Philip found out that she’d been raped, at eighteen, by her spy trainer, it led the two, in a moving mutual leap, to become a real couple.
In the course of the show, however, it’s become increasingly clear that Philip is just as much a survivor of abuse as his wife is. Last season, “The Americans” emphasized with disturbing clarity exactly how predatory the couple’s job is: when they lie to their “targets, ” they remove any right to meaningful consent. Philip gets ever deeper into a second marriage with a duped innocent, Martha; in addition, for a while he was deputized to seduce a teen-age girl. The assignment troubled him, and in a flashback we saw why: it dredged up memories of his own adolescence, when Philip was essentially molested by the state, trained to “make real” the sex he has as part of his job. He talked about these disturbing memories with Elizabeth; eventually, he also revealed himself to Martha, pulling off his own disguise, in what may be the most terrifying scene in a frequently very tense show. A practiced fake, Philip now has a real wife who knows him and a real mistress who loves him. No wonder he’s been sneaking off to est meetings.
Although the show is about the power of deception, it won’t let us fool ourselves into luxuriating in antihero escapism, the way many dramas might. In one of last season’s best episodes, Elizabeth rationalizes her life to a motherly older woman (a fantastic Lois Smith) whom she’s about to kill: she’s committing bad acts for a greater cause, she says. Smith replies, in horror, “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.” Eerily, a nearly identical exchange takes place in “Outlander, ” as Claire and Jamie face the fact that they are harming people they’ve falsely befriended. “We’re doing a bad thing, but for a good reason, ” Jamie argues. “Isn’t that what all bad people say?” Claire asks. On both shows, pulling off even the best-motivated con is corrosive, because, in the end, what even bad people crave isn’t power, it’s intimacy, to be known and accepted for who they really are.