Outlander‘s Mid-Season Finale: “Both Sides Now”

Outlander was one of those shows I had high hopes for, but more than a few reservations about. Plenty of shows have burst through the gate in a cloud of thrilling excitement only to stumble the rest of the season until a rallying finale (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead). Could Starz, a channel not exactly known for its subtlety and depth, continue to balance the male and female perspectives without pandering or objectifying? Could Ronald D. Moore smooth out Diana Gabaldon’s clunkier subplots while still branching out and making something wholly new?

I’m all for binge watching television—hell, I just marathoned both seasons of In the Flesh in the space of one afternoon—but I cannot recommend careening through the final three episodes of the first half of season 1 of Outlander. Such a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. It will leave you a blubbering mess. Someone find me the Tumblr fandom, because I have feels that must be expressed in GIFs. If “The Garrison Commander” doesn’t score Tobias Menzies an Emmy nod, I might have to throw something. He plays Black Jack Randall and Frank Randall so differently that I keep forgetting they’re played by the same actor. I actually watched episode 6 twice looking for prosthetics, but no, it’s all Menzies.

And “The Wedding,” och! I think the television version was even better than the one in the book. You could practically see Jamie and Claire falling in love moment by moment. One of the biggest disappointments in Gabaldon’s book was that I was promised by her fervent fans some sexy smex, but nay, none was to be found. TBH I’ve read spicier sex scenes in teen-rated fanfic. Moore more than made up for it, though. I absolutely love how equal the sexualization is. The camera is so frank when it comes to sex that none of the sex scenes ever feel gratuitous or obscene. There’s nothing porn-y about Claire and Jamie (or Claire and Frank) hooking up, rather, it’s the long-awaited coupling of two people very much in love. Even when the camera lingers, it does so equally between Claire and Jamie. Both are frequently topless but neither are objectified, a rare and profound thing indeed.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have remarkable chemistry. So do Balfe and Menzies. I buy Claire and Jamie on television—and Claire and Frank, for that matter—more than I ever did in the book. In the book, their relationship always seemed more of a ham-handed star-crossed lovers scenario to me than of two people genuinely in love with each other. It still feels a bit rushed, but getting to see Jamie’s reactions to Claire outside her perspective adds new layers to their relationship.

Taking it one step further, “Both Sides Now” does what Gabaldon didn’t do in her book, which was to show us what Frank was up to while Claire was off wandering the Scottish Highlands and sexing up the Lord of Lallybroch. (Let me just add that while I’ve finished the first book, I haven’t read any further into the 8 book series. I may eventually, but the first didn’t hook me as much as I’d hoped.) Splitting the half-season finale into the perspectives of both 18th century Claire and 20th century Frank gave us a good, long look at the chaos left in the wake of Craig Na Dun. It’s understandable that Claire would get so swept up in the epic romance of her situation, that the brutal reality of 18th century Scotland would take her by surprise. She’s trapped in a fairy tale of sorts, and losing her focus cost her Frank, Jamie, and her freedom.

Poor Frank is a mess without his wife to temper him. And given his behavior toward the trio who tried to swindle him out of the reward money, it looks like the only thing separating him from his sadistic ancestor is a calmer upbringing and Claire’s love. Both men are spies for their government, and both have a wicked streak, but only Frank has figured out how to (mostly) keep it in check. Black Jack probably could hide himself better, but with the Duke of Sandringham backing him, he has little impetus to keep quiet about his…predilections.

Speaking of which, there are two scenes that come a little bit further along in the book, one involving Jamie and Claire and the other Jamie and Black Jack, that I’m curious to see how Starz will handle. I desperately hope they nix the former scene altogether. I absolutely hated that scene, and if Starz isn’t careful they could very easily push Jamie into MRA territory. The reasoning behind Jamie’s actions, while sound in the 18th century and perhaps mildly understandable for a book written in the 1990s from the perspective of a woman from the 1940s, is totally inexcusable today. The latter scene, well, The Walking Dead had a similar situation a while back with Michonne and they didn’t even come close to crossing the line the graphic novel did. I can’t imagine Starz fully committing to Gabaldon’s plot. It’s an important storyline for a lot of reasons, but how far is Moore willing to take it?

I touched briefly on it above, but one of the biggest problems with Gabaldon is her habit of introducing something completely random and out of the blue only to have it be the ONE THING that can save the day the very next page. It’s a good thing Claire happens to have an interest in medicinal botany because now she’s back in time and knowing medicinal botany is the one thing that makes her useful! It’s a good thing Jamie happens to not only be extremely attractive and extremely attracted to her but that he’s also the only available man in the whole of Scotland close-ish in age to Claire so they can get conveniently married now! It’s a good thing Claire made sure we all know she and Frank are having trouble conceiving and that Jamie’s a disease-free virgin so now she and Jamie can have all the unprotected sex they want without repercussions! It’s a good thing the Highlanders just happened to have taught Claire how to use a knife not 10 minutes before she was attacked and needed the knife to kill her attempted rapist! Contrived coincidence! Whee!

The book was frustrating enough with those convenient loop holes and resolutions, but it’s even more obvious and obnoxious on camera. Moore has done a fine job of working around them or skipping them entirely, but it’s still a major problem that really needs to be addressed. Same with the voiceover. The voiceover in the pilot was just past overbearing, and while they’re slowly figuring how how much is too much, it’s still too much. Too often they rely on the voiceover as a cheat for not showing us how Claire’s feeling, and that doesn’t do her character any good in the long run. I don’t need to hear her internal monologues to understand she’s freaking out over killing a man, but I do want to see how she reacts to it.

All in all, “Both Sides Now” was a damn fine midseason finale to a damn fine half-season. We’ve got resolution of some questions, a ton of new questions, and one helluva cliffhanger to tide us over until next year. Outlander has proved itself a fantastic show, deliberately and perfectly paced, and gorgeously shot. Bear McCreary’s score is evocative, and the editing is superb. The script stumbles a little more than I’d like, but not enough to stain the experience. Spring 2015 cannot come soon enough.

Final Thoughts:

  • “I smell the vapors of hell in you.”—Pissing off the local priest won’t come back to bite Claire in the ass, no way.
  • “I think all they could see was the horror but I could see the beauty. I saw the truth. That boy and I, we were creating a masterpiece. An exquisite, bloody masterpiece.”—Paging the Marquis de Sade.
  • “I said I was a virgin, not a monk. If I need guidance, I’ll ask.”—There’s just so much I love about this line: that we have a male virgin on television who isn’t embarrassed about his status or slutshaming Claire for not being chaste, and that he’s willing to learn what Claire wants sexually. This is the feminist show we have all been waiting for.
  • “I commend you for doing your duty but it needn’t stop you from sampling other pleasures. I find you to be the most singular woman, Claire.”—Dougal, stahp.
  • “Does it ever stop? The wanting you?”—And with that, a thousand Highlander themed weddings were born.
  • Outlander is my second favorite new show of the summer (just below The Leftovers), and the thought of no Jamie being adorable, no Claire being a BAMF, and no Frank/Black Jack until April—APRIL!—is almost unbearable.
  • Now that Frank’s gone back to Oxford, is that the end of him for the show? Obvi Menzies will stick around for Black Jack, but I find myself a little sad to see the last of Frank.
  • The Hollywood Reporter has a fascinating interview with Anna Foerster, the director of “The Wedding” and “Both Sides Now” (as well as episodes 15 and 16).

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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