Outlander: Season 1

By Sarah MesleSeptember 19, 2014

Outlander: Season 1

This Week on Dear Television:

  • "Outlander votes for Scotland," from Sarah Mesle


Outlander votes for Scotland
By Sarah Mesle
September 19, 2014

Dear Television,

I AM HERE to report some excellent news: Outlander has gotten good.

That it’s taken so long to become good — the sixth episode aired last weekend — is somewhat surprising, given the material the show had to work with. Here let’s revisit Outlander’s famous central premise, which is this: a scrappy British WWII nurse “falls back in time” and has hot kilt sex with a rebellion-leading Scotsman. As should be immediately clear, this premise is awesome. Indeed, in terms of sheer wish fulfillment, Outlander’s premise is exponentially the best that television currently has to offer. “Five armies vie for a throne, plus there’s dragons” doesn’t even come close; “woman wears white silk; protects nation with strength of her intuition” hits only a distant second. In fact, I’d go even further: for a certain audience, one in which I emphatically include myself, Outlander’s premise is the wish-fulfillment pinnacle towards which all human narrative has reached, since Homer.

Yet the show thus far has been rather unsatisfying, for a couple of reasons, one of which is that not only has no hot kilt sex — the event, which as Roxanne Gay recently pointed out, is the one 97% of us are waiting for — been had, this hot kilt sex has hardly even been anticipated. Outlander has thus far been shockingly unsteamy: Claire (scrappy nurse) and Jamie (hot kilt wearer) have barely exchanged meaningful looks.

And it’s not just the kilts, if you’ll allow me the metonymy, which have been flaccid. It’s the plot, too. Plots need constriction and pressure to get viewers excited; they need some goals, and they need obstacles to those goals. There’s been no pressure so far, no sense that Claire needs to do anything by any particular time.

But in the last ten minutes of episode five, “Rent,” Outlander suddenly started to stiffen up and get exciting. This is what happened: Claire and her band of scrappy Scottish clansman passed through Culloden Moor and Claire has a realization about the miserable failed battle she knows will take place there. “Three years from now!” she voiceovers. “What of these Mackenzie men? How many of them are doomed to die on that wretched battlefield?” Suddenly Claire realizes the pressures on the people around here: they are living in a moment, unbeknownst to them, when their way of life, from their government to their clothes, is about to be taken from them. Let me clear here: the narrative event that is finally making Outlander good TV is the impending doom of Scotland. Claire has entered Scotland at a moment when one version of Scotland is at an end.

And what of us viewers, Dear Television? We will watch the next episode of Outlander with the knowledge that Scotland is still wrangling with the question of what “freedom” might mean. We’re watching at a different kind of Scottish end, and perhaps beginning.

I have written many essays that ponder the relationship of fantasy television to politics. But you guys: this is really next level. In the course of my writing this, the world has changed. If the tone of this essay is a little, oh, weird, this is why: when I started writing, it seemed like Scottish independence was on the cusp of occurring. I am now revising with the knowledge that Scottish independence, the hope for which drives Outlander, has been, once again, defeated. Politically, I’m torn about this outcome. But narratively, my feelings are quite clear: I am deeply disappointed. I wanted freedom! And my sadness around this result — a sadness which, again, does not fully align with my intellectual response to this historical moment — tells me that Scotland’s vote shapes the very meaning of the wish that Outlander is able to fulfill. And it does so in ways that help us understand more about why this Scottish story is such a perfect American historical fantasy.

This week, when it seemed that Scotland was going to vote for Independence, I felt briefly like the fantasy Outlander offered me was going to come true. I had the sense of freedom in the air — with none of my own sweat on the line. When Scotland did not vote for freedom, the deflation I felt made me ask again what I thought it was that Scotland can do for me, as both a place and an ideal, could do for me. 

I had never realized a very basic thing about my attraction to Outlander until the vote for independence put some new pressure on my fandom. I always think about Outlander — and I have thought about it for a long time, since my grandmother and I traded the paperbacks back and forth when I was in high school — as a fantasy about my love for Scotland, a similar if steamier version of my love for some Rosamund Pilcher novels. But that’s not quite it. Outlander offers the fantasy of being English and falling to be in love with Scotland. And that is a very different thing. The viewer comes to the story through Claire — through, that is, a representative of the richer, more cosmopolitan, more technologically advanced society. We come to the story through the winning side. We experience the romance of the to-be defeated Scottish rebel Jamie not through identification, but simply through attraction.

This powerful attraction is worth, I think examining. What is it about Scottish (and Irish) men that stirs our American interest, after all? I know the “our” I’m using here is vague, but it includes me, apparently Roxanne Gay, and everyone who wants to see Tom Cruise being Joseph Donnelly or Mel Gibson being William Wallace, or Bono being a younger Bono. Is there a good theorization of this fantasy? I would like to read one. My felt sense is that these Celtic men offer a strange cross-section of desirable qualities: they possess the virility and agency of a fantasy ideal of the freedom-seeking American man, but they carry no guilt for the abuses of power that are the collective responsibility of white American masculinity. If a key thing to know about the nineteenth-century is how the Irish became white, what Outlander reminds us is that there’s an appeal to the way in which the Celts have actually not entirely become “white,” with all that means for power, morality, and attraction. And it is this ambiguousness of masculine belonging that is Outlander’s tantalization trump card. 

In trading on the fantasy of the not-quite-cultural-other romantic lead, Outlander makes itself a part of a long and storied history in American letters. In this week’s episode, Claire tells her story to a dinner party of British officers, and someone quips that it’s quite a tale of “Mrs. Beauchamp Amongst the Savages.” As my friend Michelle Burnham has pointed out, if you were at a dinner party in 1743 you would recognize this as clearly a reference to any number of famed “captivity narratives”— Mary Rowlandson’s is now probably the most famous — that tell of a woman taken by colonized others, forced to encounter savage ways, and often learning, in the process, that “civilization” is a more complicated concept than she previously thought. Because women have so long been limited in the political and economic negotiations they can make, their contact zone encounters kind to orbit around sexual, marital and familiar exchange. This will sound completely familiar to any viewer of Outlander who has watched Claire field all sorts of sexual comments and threats in the five episodes leading up to this episode, “The Garrison Commander.”

It’s not just captivity novels, either. Early nineteenth-century historical romances like The Last of the Mohicans show us women drawn to outsiders and others. The trend continues into the twentieth-century, as America has used (usually white) women’s desire to sort through its own attraction to the cultures it defeats, and (usually white) women have used outsider men to sort through their own ambivalent relationship to their own society, in which they are simultaneously exalted and confined. 

What I’m saying here is that we should read Claire’s Scottish Jamie Frasier as a modern day manifestation of Mary Rowlandson’s King Philip, Alice Munro’s Chingochgook… even Fay Ray’s King Kong. This list, as you might imagine, could go on. What remains the same is the fantasy of connecting to a man who will help relieve you of the moral burden of your (always limited) social privilege, without actually requiring you to give it up. Because key to this fantasy is the idea that it will end. King Kong will be shot down; Jaime will stay in a defeated Scotland; Claire will return to a triumphant post WWII England.

Or will she?

The primary narrative task of “The Garrison Commander” was to create the circumstances under which Claire might imagine fully giving up her Englishness. At the episode’s beginning, Claire extolled the pleasure of being where she is most at home: with the British army. At its end, Claire still has not officially decided whether to let Dougal make her, through marriage, into a Scottish citizen — but when, in the episode’s final shot, she signals her frustration with her options by storming off with a bottle of Scotch, we know the choice has already been made.

What changes her primarily is the episode’s narrative climax, a protracted and graphic scene in which Black Jack Randall recalls whipping Jaime, giving him one hundred blows upon one hundred blows. The scene, and indeed the entire episode, is masterfully wrought. Indeed, we have the powerful sense that Randall is telling Claire his own carefully crafted story: he begins by drawing a portrait of her (“Beautiful lies,” he calls it); proceeds by describing Jaime’s beating and its relationship to the watching audience; and ends by punching Claire in the gut and forcing his Corporal to do the same. “That boy and I were creating a masterpiece,” Randall says of Jaime: both the show and the character want us to understand Randall as an artist of cruelty. 

What was most fascinating about this scene to me, however, was Randall’s account of why it’s so pleasurable to hurt a woman. Gesturing expansively with an aesthete’s graceful remove, he says, “it’s…very freeing.”

For an American audience, this sequence triggers a deep series of references, associations that are transposed into Claire and onto Outlander’s story. The scene of scourging, the scene of subjection, triggers the collective memory (experienced very differently, of course, by different parts of our American collective) of the black slave, rent open by the master’s whip. How important, then, how revealing, that Randall finds his violence “freeing.” In this moment we see Anglo-American power for what it is: a mortifying and perverse confusion of abuse with independent expression. No wonder Claire is so ready to cast her Englishness off. And no wonder that it’s so blissful for American watchers to outsource this scene, to send it over seas where it can be played out safely, fantastically absolving ourselves of certain memories, or certain sins. It’s similarly no coincidence, I think, that Claire is a nurse: that over and over we see her probing the wounds of victims and making them whole.

Outlander has been praised for catering to women’s sexual desire, and certainly it does. But what’s making it now, finally, really good is its exceptionally wise binding of the desire for sex to other desires. Sex is only one fantasy of belonging that Outlander offers us. It also offers the fantasy that we can have a different, and better, idea of freedom than the extended political Anglo-American empire that Jack Randall represents. 

Now, I am hoping that episode seven, airing tomorrow, will give us some relief from the darker tones of all this. I, for one, could use a break: I am hoping for some sexual rather than surgical healing. (Also: I am hoping for the wedding dress porn that Game of Thrones so rudely refused to give me.) But I still feel a bit sad. It’s hard not to think about how different it would have been to watch Claire and Jamie’s wedding if Scotland had voted yes.

I want to reiterate again that I don’t think that Scotland’s “no” vote is necessarily a negative thing, or a cause for political pessimism or defeat. Indeed, politically, I am somewhat relieved. And what the “no” vote does force me to do, as an American, is to remember that if what I want is some kind of absolution then there’s only so much a Scottish fantasy can do for me. Escapist wish fulfillment is all very well — valuable, even. But better still is the practical labor of imagining freedom in your own time, and your own place.


LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.


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