“Cosa Nostra” is what the the Sicilian mafia calls itself. It means “Our Thing.” Short of a wholesale abandonment of the source material, Outlander is a show about strong women. Those who read the books are particularly possessive of the story. This is our thing. We guard it fiercely. This is a relatively new development in the history of television. Network shows certainly doesn’t get this kind of passion (except soap operas, I imagine).
I recently read a cute article in The New Yorker entitled “How the Sausage is Made.” With just the right amount of cleverness and snark, it detailed the way that network television shows make it from the executive retreats, to the writers rooms, to the pilots, to the air. For as commercialized and imagination-thwarting as the process is today, I am so grateful that, not only is Outlander on Starz, but that it is being made now, not when Herself published her first novel back in 1991.
The latitude of the television medium today, compared to even ten years ago, has expanded exponentially. Outlander stands on the shoulders of everything from Mad Men’s period authenticity, to Sex and the City’s female sexuality, to The Walking Dead’s grit. Game of Thrones, while equally groundbreaking (imagine if it were made in 1995!), is firmly in the world of fantasy and comes from a different lineage. Outlander was, then, and is, now, a whole new ball game.
We can grouse now and again about favorite lines that don’t make it to air, and we can momentarily lament the adjustments to character, sequencing, and plot to fit the episodic format and appeal to a wider range of viewers. We loved the story first; when we criticize, we do so do so from the impetus to protect it. I’m not in the camp of “just be grateful it’s being made at all,” but I am firmly in the camp of appreciating what this show is in its own right, as well as what it means for the future of television.
For one thing, it took going back to the eighteenth century Scotland to see mother-positive labor and delivery practices on television this week. For as perilous as childbirth was in those times, and for as precarious as a breech birth is at any time—not to mention without sanitary conditions, access to anesthesia, or a trained medical professional—it was gorgeous to see the walking, crawling, and squatting that is only beginning to make its way back into the mainstream today. The next director to take on shooting a birth scene for film or television will have to think long and hard about whether the tropes of old still apply.
Ronald D. Moore and company are accomplishing so very, very much. It’s natural to want it all as we’ve pictured it to be while we’ve read the books, but it’s also egomaniacal. What you pictured is neither what I nor anyone else pictured, guaranteed. That’s the beauty of imagination.
My brain, for instance, took what little is mentioned of The Watch in the novel and amplified it. The Watch that we see back in Rent was more in keeping with the band of miscreants I’d pictured. This new Taran MacQuarrie iteration has an air of Robin Hood to it. I’m no historian, but it’s my dilettante’s understanding that this is a far more accurate depiction of the Watch, and I’m glad to have this misunderstanding of mine rectified, for the greater understanding of Diana Gabaldon’s work and the time period in general.
I like that, unlike the the Watch of the novel, there is some solidarity among these men and their fellow Highlanders. Jenny assured us in the last episode that the Fraser tenants are like family—that “Not a man, woman or child would think about betraying Jamie to the redcoats, at any price.” Scumbag Ronald MacNab betrays Jamie to the Watch in the novel. This band of militia/mafiosi/merry men doesn’t even blink when Jamie reassumes his former nom de guerre, having no idea that The Fraser has returned, let alone that he is Laird.
I am kind of rocked by the cavalier manner in which this storyline creation was discussed in the podcast, however (although how generous is it that they make the podcast at all, rather than having us wait for the DVD extras to get this wonderful insight!). Moore, this time welcoming Episode 113 writer and co-executive producer Toni Graphia and producer Matthew B. Roberts to participate, leads weekly discussion of behind-the-scenes recollections and insights over mouthwatering sips of whisky/whiskey.
I’m sure that the tone of the writers room was more serious and complex during the actual creation of the Sopranos-inspired storyline. The proof is in the final product, which had all the potential of being an Italian sausagefest but instead showed us a full complement of baddies, the likes of which remind me less of the DiMio crime family, conducting “business” out of honor and tradition, and more of the cast of Breaking Bad antiheroes fumbling through schemes and forging alliances, doing whatever they could to survive.
The three writer-producers quip about how McQuarrie is Tony (if Taran McQuarrie is a name that only exists audibly, why make it such a tongue-twister? This is my only complaint about the new storyline), Lennox is Paulie, and Crenshaw is… I don’t know, the other brother Darryl. I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of The Sopranos. Sorry.
They also talk about how the role of Horrocks, played by Lochlann O’Mearáin, was expanded when they saw the chemistry with Sam Heughan. Okay, fine. I’m just surprised that the production had the agility to react so quickly. I wonder what was lost to this deviation.
In several of the podcasts, the participants have, surprisingly enough, expressed regrets about scenes they wish could have gone differently, admitting that other choices should have been made, in retrospect. This brave vulnerability is commendable. They are, and should be, proud of their work; the humility that accompanies their pride is rare and remarkable. It’s my hope that, given the success of the show’s first season, the production will have the room to make still braver choices. I also hope they have sufficient time to work things out and reduce future regrets.
For instance, I think it would have been more compelling to stick with the Jamie’s assertion in the novel that Lallybroch couldn’t be a permanent residence for him and his lady. He knew full well that their days before the Watch discovered his presence and identity were numbered. The Jamie of the books was a man convinced of his fated, violent, outlaw nature. By having Claire tell his story, we see his humanity, but not even she purports that he is the King of Men, the shorthand of this production. Change what must be changed in service of the story, but let’s keep as much of the characters’ depth as possible. It’s all there in the novels for the taking.
It’s Jamie’s honor, which occasionally manifests as hubris, that would have conceivably led him to band with someone like Taran McQuarrie, had he not found himself a settled man with Claire. I am in the camp that can easily see him yielding to the temptation of living rough and absconding with English fortune for the good of his Highlander brethren. I can see him working to improve the Watch from the inside, not acquiescing to it, much as he finds himself doing in other circumstances in the novels to come. Rather than paying one devil to protect him from another, I think both TV and book Jamie would have preferred to have skin in the game.
It’s for the love of a good woman that Jamie’s life is saved from a more nefarious path. Cross-cutting the high-stakes, very real work Jenny and Claire accomplish in this episode with the feckless masculine shenanigans of the Watch was absolutely brilliant. I’m not just talking about the birth, but also the mediations that each woman negotiates within the fractious situations between the men. After all, Jenny tells Taran to put the gun down, has the presence of mind to disguise Jamie’s identity, and blithely washes over Claire’s being English. Claire tells her husband to simmer down and listen to his sister in the kitchen; and unlike in last episode, no one takes offense. The two women all but prevent the dinner with the Watch from devolving into a bloodbath, such is the power of their humor and redirection. Later, it’s Secretary of State Claire who fortifies her husband when he’s flustered and flailing upon Horrocks’ arrival.
When it comes time to join the Watch for the Chisholm raid, Jamie thinks he’s acting from necessity but is partly drawn by the adventurous prospects. Ian volunteers as much out of guardianship as envy. Claire tells the two to stay because of the coming baby, which is as noble as it is appropriate for her time, but not altogether practical. Jenny is the most logical and unsentimental of the lot, telling Jamie and Ian to get on their way.
One specific change to which I have read no complaint whatsoever was the revelation to Jamie that Claire may not be able to bear children. The way it was handled in the book worked within its own context, but, just like moving Geillis’ 1968 bombshell up, seeing Claire and Jamie’s emotions in the moment of revelation works better on screen. The emptiness, isolation, rationalization, consolation… it’s all absolutely heart-wrenching and beautiful.
It’s good for a man to have a brother, and no one’s better suited than Ian to guard his chief’s weaker side. I have little to say about this sequence, except I’m so glad that the writers gave the job of killing Horrocks to Ian.
Once the deed is deduced and confessed, there’s little left to do but ride.
I applaud all involved for not showing us more of the ambush. The momentary suspense about who lives, dies, or is captured is very powerful. It’s one thing for the book Watch to have taken Jamie outright. It’s quite another for him to fall in to English custody once again as the result of a double cross. And to think that this episode was the calm before the storm! Hold onto your tricorn hats and kertches, lads and lassies…