Outlander, Starz's adaptation of the Diana Gabaldon book series from Ronald D. Moore, premiered last night and it was very good. It's rare that a pilot fires on all cylinders: look, character, plot, and tone. Also sex and violence, because this is cable.
I don't think anyone watching Outlander was unaware that it was about a woman who finds herself timetraveling to 18th Century Scotland. But the show managed to resist the temptation to begin in media res and instantly mine the confusion of that change.
Instead, we spent a lot of time in the main character's "home" time. We see our protagonist, Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) during World War II and after the war, visiting Scotland with her husband in order to "reconnect" after being separated for so long. In addition to setting up the show's slow-burn tone, this choice does a lot of valuable character work.
First, by spending all that time with Claire and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), we understand why she would want to go home. More than just the general need desire to go back, which we can all sympathize with, we get to know the specifics of this character's need to get back.
Second, this show is essentially a period piece squared. Claire's only just left World War II, a world apart from our own. So, starting with Claire acting as a nurse during the war and mining the way she's changed because of it is essential. The first few minutes of the episode immediately establish Claire's character: She's a capable nurse and, when everyone else is caught up in the jubilant celebration of the war's end, she just tiredly drinks from a bottle of champagne, watching from the sidelines. She's already an outsider, even before she ends up in the past. (Incidentally, the surgery she's involved in very gory. Blood drips onto the floor and feet of the people around it. If you thought it was just a romance story, be aware: it's also a war one.) Claire is very used to the war and is having as much trouble adjusting to life after the war as you'd expect anyone to. The fact of her "home" timeline isn't a throwaway factor that allows the show to mine the 1940s for style — it's an essential part of her character.
When she and her husband travel to Scotland in order to "reconnect" after the war, and she's an outsider there, too. Not just because she's an Englishwoman in Scotland. Frank is likewise English, but his obsession with his family's connection to the area and his historical knowledge of the area make him far more comfortable there than Claire is.
Third, for those not in the know, Outlander is billed as romance. And the obvious thing is that Claire's romantic interest in the past is going to be Jamie (played by Sam Heughan). The easiest way to make that happen is to either make Frank boring or bad for Claire, so that the audience easily roots for them to get together. Instead, we see that Claire and Frank actually suit each other. Even if they are having some trouble now, as a result of Claire having spent all of the war dealing with casualties and Frank having worked in espionage, they have easy banter and history. And sex. They also have sex, and it's not the dutiful kind between two uninterested spouses. They have real chemistry, and there's the sense that the marriage could be repaired.
This actually brings us to the second reason the set up in 1940s Scotland is so important: they do a lot of foreshadowing there. We have the Scottish lady reading Claire's tea leaves and palms. This was honestly the only trope that seemed a little too convenient. Claire's fortune has her going on a journey, but staying put. Having two marriages, but not ending one and starting another. On the one hand, it helps set a mystical tone for the event that sends Claire through time. On the other, it's a little too much for an episode that wasn't so hamfisted at any other point.
There's a lot of infodumping, too: Frank tells Claire about a place the English used to ambush the Scots in. Claire learns about Frank's ancestor having a powerful patron and being a terror in the past. Although they didn't emphasize that he looked just like Frank, which was nice. And Frank mentions that he wouldn't be troubled if Claire had been unfaithful during the war, but the implication infuriates Claire. There's another bit of foreshadowing for Claire's future in the past.
So, after Frank and Claire witness a Druid ritual at a circle of stones, Claire goes back to get a flower she saw there. And falls through time. There, she has the same reaction any of us would to seeing people in 18th Century uniforms with period weaponry: She assumes they're actors. Live ammunition cures her of that belief. As does running into Frank's ancestor, who is definitely not Frank, who is bookish and caring. He's a cad, who pins Claire to the rocks, only for her to be saved by a Scot.
Even though this is a bit damsel in distress, Claire subverts that idea in other ways. For one, she smartly doesn't blurt out her real life to either Frank's ancestor, Jack, or to her saviors. She does ingratiate herself to the Scots who save her by likewise helping them. She uses her nursing skills to help Jamie's injured arm. She warns him about the English ambush, from the information Frank had given her earlier. And then, she tries escaping, only to be found by Jamie. When she has to nurse him again, because he has a bullet wound.
The episode ends with Claire arriving with the Scots at their castle, and realizing that she's trapped.
The first episode gave me a lot of confidence in the cast — Catriona Balfe is great at being both utterly at home at nursing and as someone who is epically lost, both physically and mentally. And Tobais Menzies is clearly having a ball playing two such opposite characters. And while Menzies and Balfe have a comfortable, if troubled, relationship, Balfe and Hueghan have a much more traditional, snarky kind of chemistry. It's a good contrast and a real conflict.
The contrast between the 1940s and the 1700s is more than cosmetic. While everything the 1940s seemed grey and depressed, which is thematically appropriate, the 1700s are brighter and more action-packed. And the Scots are far funnier than anyone we saw in the 1940s. I did sort of hate myself for laughing at the bit where Claire tries to get medicine from them, and only getting a response when she asks for alcohol. That bordered on offensive stereotyping, so let's hope it doesn't keep happening.
This premiere was surprisingly well-balanced between introducing the premise and characters, making you want to come back next week, and being a entertaining hour on its own. I haven't been this excited about a pilot in a long time, and I will be heartbroken if the quality drops off spectacularly after this. Not that I think it will — the premiere clearly indicates a show that's in it for the long haul.