Isolating With Outlander

Sing me a song of a virus that’s gone

I’m a TV addict, so I was practicing social isolation long before my governor ordered me to shelter in place. I’m generally addicted to the really good stuff. But then there’s Outlander, my secret obsession.

Outlander, adapted from the brick-like novels by Diana Gabaldon, is a glorious, kilted Scots Hogmanay that ranges from Boston in the 1960s, Scotland in the 1740s, Versailles before the Revolution, and America when it was colonies. The story begins a few months after World War II ends, when former combat nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) go to Scotland to repair their marriage after years apart in the war. Scotland is a place of ancient magic; the first thing they see is that someone has daubed all the doors in blood.

They tour the ruins of Castle Leoch and the moor where the disastrous battle of Culloden took place in 1746. Frank Randall is an historian looking for signs of a relation named Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, who was part of the British regiment in Scotland during the Jacobite rising. Their tour of Scotland can be a bit dull for Claire. She’s been busy and active during years of battle, while Frank, who trained spies during the war, is eager to return to a glorified past of history books and quiet study.

A local housekeeper bemuses Claire by reading her palm and telling her that she will marry twice, and that she’ll travel while staying in one place. When she sees the housekeeper dancing the next morning at the standing stones at Craigh na Dun, Claire finds the ritual moving, if puzzling. Claire returns alone to the stones the next day to look for a medicinal flower. A loud loud buzzing sound overcomes her, along with an irresistible urge to touch the tallest stone. When she awakens, she’s in the exact era her husband had been studying in dusty books. For Claire, the 1740s are now the present, and she’s about to meet the prophesied second husband, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

I’ve been embarrassed by my love for the show because it conjures up images of cliched bodice-ripping passion and romance. But little actually ends up ripping in an era of homespun closed and unlaceable corsets. Nor is the show especially romantic. There’s no place for rose petals or swooning when the Battle of Culloden Moor, or the American Revolution, is approaching.

Outlander
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan cuddle up for Season 5 of Outlander, on Starz.

Outlander celebrates sex and romance in marriage. Claire has a satisfying relationship to both her first husband Frank and her Scottish husband Jamie, and there’s plenty of married sex, time-travel sex, angry sex, costumed sex, stable sex, and occasional floor sex. All of which could be found in any of the shows on the tackily-named Starz. And the situations can be ridiculous–the books are often ridiculous–but the acting is superb. The show’s producer/writer is Ronald D. Moore, cultish enough to have inspired a Portlandia episode, and he’s managed to trim the considerable fat off the novels to weave a taut, meaningful story.

What makes Outlander so special is the wide range of its weirdness. I became a devotee because of moments like these:

•When Claire meets Jamie, the first thing she needs to do is pop his dislocated shoulder back in, and the details are graphic.

•Jamie is a beautiful man, but an unusual romantic lead. His back is striped with scars, courtesy of Black Jack Randall.

•The Laird of Castle Leoch has Toulouse-Lautrec’s disease, long before the painter exists.

•In perhaps the most startling moment in five seasons full of whippings, breech births, and smallpox, there’s the time when Jamie’s sister Jenny had to pump her own breast. That was a surprise.

• Although it is quite startling when A MAN RAPES Jamie. In fact, it’s Frank’s relative, Black Jack Randall.

•There’s also the freakish moment when Brianna meets her father, Jamie, as he’s urinating in public. Which is exactly what people who travel through time should expect.

• A more recent freakish moment is the colonial tonsillectomy. Claire grew penicillin in her kitchen–as I predicted at Comic Con–and took out two sets of infected tonsils.

The fifth season of my beloved Outlander has been shaky. The new music is just shy of awful. The first episode was the single worst in five seasons, while episode five was among the strongest. Still worth it.

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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