Described as a ‘feminist’ Game of Thrones’ by The Independent and ‘sexier than Poldark’ by The Telegraph, Outlander season 1 drew much attention both in terms of viewers and Golden Globe nominations. Adapted from the novels by Diana Gabaldon, the concept of the show, which begins with World War II nurse, Claire Randall, being transported back in time via the power of magical stones to 18th-century Scotland, sounds more like the plot of a B-list sci-fi special, and yet the integrity of the show lay in its creation of a realistic historic setting. Season 1 negotiated Claire’s challenges as a 20th-century character living in an 18th-century world, where the people still believed in demons, fairy tales and witchcraft. The fact that the lead character is female highlighted many of the challenges faced by women during the period. It was daring enough to showcase extreme cruelty, particularly sexual abuse of both male and female characters, while also bringing to light ‘the small negotiations of everyday life’ as pointed out by BSECS Critick Kathleen Hudson. However, sci-fi couldn’t stay out of the show for too long, particularly as the lead characters primed the audience for the premise of season 2 with Claire’s announcement that she and her 18th-century husband Jamie should change the fate of the Jacobite Rebellion.
In this new season, Claire and Jamie are forced to learn how to function as politically savvy, Scots-French aristocrats, where Claire’s bolshie-feminist attitude and Jamie’s bar–brawling behaviour would simply not be accepted. Claire’s interactions within aristocratic society provide rich historical detail about the roles of woman in this context. In recent years, scholarship has done much to highlight the influential role women had within 18th-century society, but it is rare to see a television show capture the nuances of a woman’s role in this social setting. Poldark’s Demelza may be a strong woman, willing to do all she can to make ends meet and unafraid to smack her man for his sexual promiscuity, but outside of the family home her role is radically reduced and she certainly has no voice in matters of business. Women barely even featured in ITVs Hornblower, a late 1990s television adaption of CS Forester’s novels about the career of naval officer Horatio Hornblower. In fact, only one episode from 1999 entitled ‘The Duchess and the Devil’ included a major female character, an actress posing as the Duchess of Wharfedale. Despite her intelligence, the character stated the ‘only card she had to play’ to protect her alias was sex.
Outlander similarly depicts sex as an extra card woman had to play in a game of political poker. The show may have been described by The Guardian as a ‘bodice-ripper’ but unlike Hornblower and Poldark the use of sex is strategically weaved into the complex narrative, particularly in season 2. This season addresses sex after sexual abuse, sex during pregnancy but also sex, and the consequence of sex, when used to cause scandal and gain political favour. Sex may have been an extra card that at times was useful; but it was not always the only card women had to hand.
This season should be commended for drawing attention to the debates surrounding the importance of women in political manoeuvring. The scenes between Claire and Louise de Rohan, aka Princess of Guéméné, where they typically sit drinking tea, may appear as nothing more that idle gossip. Yet, it is only with the development of this friendship that Claire discovers several pieces of vital information. Claire moves away from being depicted as an unwilling damsel in distress to becoming the intelligent and powerful woman behind a great man, since she is able to provide Jamie with information useful in his political scheming.
However, Outlander deals with time travel in the same manner as Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys – the past cannot be changed. Claire is unable to effect real change and in fact her presence in the past is eradicated from the history books. The tiny pieces of evidence that prove her 18th-century experiences are distorted, which means she is effectively just another invisible woman who does not feature in written history, despite her political importance and willingness to voice opinions. This provides a convenient loophole as to why Claire was able to interact with so many influential figures including the Bonnie Prince himself, and yet be historically unknown. Unfortunately, this strategic writing does not extend to all characters throughout this season. The overarching plot of the whole season positions Jamie as a prime instigator in the construction of the Jacobite Rebellion. However, this places a massive elephant in the room. Surely Claire’s first husband Frank, a known history enthusiast and direct descendent of Jamie’s nemesis Captain Jack Randall, which spurs him to research this particular time period, would have known about Jamie and his influential part in the Rebellion? Yet, despite Jamie becoming Bonnie Prince Charles’ right hand man, there is no acknowledgement of his presence in history within the Outlander world. It was disappointing to witness the creation of such a major plot hole in a show that prides itself on attention to detail.
Outlander season 2 certainly goes deeper into the psyche of the characters, but the pace is slowed and much of the charm of the first season such as the comical byplay between Claire and Jamie has been removed in favour of political intrigue. It remains an entertaining and thought-provoking show but runs the risk of becoming too absorbed in tiny details rather than tying up obvious issues with the main plot.
Season Two of Outlander is available on DVD and to watch on Amazon Instant in the UK.