Outlander returns for the second half of its first season tomorrow on Starz. If you're among those who haven't seen it, here's everything you need to know — what's going on, who everyone is, why it's so good, and what to expect — before the midseason premiere.
It may seem easy to dismiss Outlander as "the Battlestar Galactica guy doing a romance novel," but that underestimates both Ronald D. Moore and Diana Gabaldon's novels. The romance part is there, yes, and it's great. But the show has a lot going on — way more than you'd think from just eight hours of television.
Outlander the TV show is based on Outlander the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. And, like most things based on books that have been out for decades, the plot is hard to spoil. The story revolves around Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe), a World War II nurse married to Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), who was a British Intelligence officer. After the war, the two travel to Scotland so that Frank can do research into his family's past. While there, Claire goes to a ring of standing stones on Craigh na Dun. She puts her hands on them and wakes up in 1743.
She immediately runs into not only a passel of Redcoats, but her husband's infamous ancestor: Black Jack Randall (Menzies again), who, true to his reputation, immediately assaults Claire. She's rescued by the Scots, ending up under the protection of/a hostage of the Clan MacKenzie. Claire is installed in Castle Leoch as a healer, using her 1940s nursing skills to make herself indispensable to the MacKenzies. That's a double-edged sword, since she does need the help but also wants to leave and get back to the stones on Craigh na Dun in the hopes of returning to her own time.
Her healing skills are so impressive that Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish), the War Chieftain, takes her with him to collect rent from the MacKenzie lands. On this trip, Claire discovers that Dougal is also fundraising for the Jacobite cause, which she knows — being from the future and all — is destined to fail. They also run into some more Redcoats, who ask the obviously English Claire if she's with the MacKenzies by choice. She says yes, but still ends up having to visit the English garrison. There she once again runs into Black Jack, who presses her for information on the rebellion the Scots are planning. Dougal finally appears and takes Claire away, but there's the tiny fact that she's English and can be commanded to return. If she were Scottish, that couldn't happen.
In order to make her Scottish and keep her out of Black Jack's hands, Dougal has her marry Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Throughout the show, Claire's been particularly close to Jamie. She healed his arm and bullet wound in the premiere, and he caught her trying to run away — twice. The two of them worked together to help a kid who was being punished for stealing. Jamie took to sleeping outside her door for her safety. And Jamie is the nephew of Dougal and of Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis), the Chieftain of the Clan MacKenzie. Jamie has a collection of scars on his back from a brutal whipping he got from — any guesses? — Black Jack. Jamie escaped Black Jack's custody, but there's a price on his head and he's in hiding.
That means that no one's dying to marry him, so he's a perfect candidate for Dougal's scheme. Plus, he and Claire have had a smoldering chemistry this whole time. The only hiccup is that Claire is happily married — to a man who technically hasn't been born yet. But she's told the Scots that she's a widow, so as far as they know, she's free to marry.
Jamie and Claire get married, consummate the marriage in a very hot, very lovely way. And then Jamie leaves Claire behind, just as she sees Craigh na Dun again. She makes a run for it, only to be captured by Black Jack's Redcoats.
There are a lot of characters in this show — Father Bain (Tim McInnerny — Hello, Darling) and Laoghaire (Nell Hudson), a girl with a crush on Jamie, are two who are likely to pop up again and cause trouble — but here are the ones you absolutely have to know:
The show established Claire as an outsider from pretty much her first scene. Everyone else is celebrating the end of the war, and she watches the celebrations from the sidelines. Traveling to Scotland with Frank, his historical quest gives him a place there, but she's still sort of off to the side. And once she ends up in 18th Century Scotland, everything — her nationality, her personality, her knowledge of the future — conspires to make her an outcast.
The non-romantic tension of Claire's journey rests in her 20th-century knowledge versus the time period she finds herself in. Her medicinal knowledge has already brought her into conflict with the Father Bain, when she saved a boy who'd been pronounced possessed. She's also close to Geillis, a local woman who also has knowledge of herbs but whom people believe is a witch. The kinds of punishments meted out for crimes in the 1700s also get Claire's hackles up, which is what led her to work with Jamie and Geillis to prevent punishment of a young boy.
So far, save a few slips, Claire's been pretty smart about how she explains herself. The story she gave is that she's a widow named Claire Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") traveling to relatives. She can't say she's married to Frank Randall, who both doesn't exist yet and shares a name with Black Jack Randall. And while she's attracted to Jamie and was almost giddy with happiness in her new marriage, she's still torn with a need to be loyal to Frank, whom she honestly loves.
Despite being the romantic lead opposi Claire, Jamie is in many ways the least complex character in the show, perhaps because his background has been so thoroughly laid out. His mother was the sister of Colum and Dougal, and she and her husband have both passed away. His attempt to defend his home and his sister from the English is what brought him into the custody of Black Jack, who ordered him whipped. When Jamie didn't break, Black Jack ordered another one hundred lashes.
Jamie's escape left him with a large price on his head, and he's been hiding from the English authorities since then. He's clearly loyal to his family and to Claire — the aforementioned business of sleeping outside her door and convincing her that one of her escape attempts was doomed are evidence of that. He also took the punishment for a girl accused of lewd behavior upon himself because he's just that kind of person.
Black Jack Randall is an objectively horrible man. He's sadistic and uses his position and the opinion his cohorts have of the Scots as an excuse for his excesses and violence. In episode six, "The Garrison Commander," he describes how he whipped Jamie, and in the process reveals just how twisted his mind's become. His obsession with catching Jamie turns him into a Javert-like character — but without any actual righteousness. At this point in the show, he's assaulted Claire three times, which is somehow less scary than when he talks.
He also looks just like his eventual descendant, Claire's husband Frank. Frank is a scholar who is as kind and good as Black Jack is vile. In 1945, he's still searching for Claire even when evidence should lead him to believe she's run off and left him. Special kudos to Tobias Menzies for playing both parts and doing an excellent job at it — to stand out in this cast is very hard.
Where Black Jack and Frank are unambiguously bad and good, Dougal is far more complicated. He's been both antagonist and ally to Claire. He was suspicious of her when she arrived, convinced she was an English spy. He also once fought off a group of men who had Claire cornered, only to turn around and kiss her himself. He was only stopped by a slap and a chair to the head.
But during a hunt, he and Claire comforted a dying a friend of his. Claire's ability to care for people dying violent deaths fosters a sort of respect between them. He was, however, completely willing to let Claire believe he was extorting money from his brother's people to line his own pockets rather than tell her what he's actually raising the money for. His commitment to the Jacobite cause and Claire's knowledge that it's doomed to fail is probably going to keep the two from ever being able to truly trust each other.
We haven't spent nearly as much time with Colum as with his brother, but he's clearly smart. He's the leader of the clan, after all, despite suffering from Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome, which makes the physical part of life and leadership very difficult. He twigged to Claire's secrets from the beginning, but exactly what he believes is still a mystery. We also don't know how much he knows about what Dougal's doing.
In a fifteen-episode season, the romantic leads didn't get together for more than smoldering glances and semi-flirtatious words until episode seven. That's the same episode where they get married. And even then, Claire and Jamie talked a lot before actually consummating their marriage. Everything this show does builds to natural conclusions, rather than rushing ahead to the "exciting" bits.
For all the period dress, hunts, and set pieces, the heart of this show is all the things that no one's saying out loud: Claire's secrets, the internal politics of the Clan MacKenzie, avoiding drawing the attention of the English, and the gathering of support and funds for a rebellion. Black Jack, for his part, doesn't hide his true nature that well, but he thinks he's doing what has to be done and that coats everything else. One of the best episodes of the season was "The Garrison Commander," and that's all down to the battle of wits between Black Jack and Claire. It ends with a violent confrontation, but that's made all the more horrible because we've spent fifteen minutes getting to know just how truly dark Black Jack is.
There are no short cuts in Outlander; the show's going to make sure that every piece is in place before giving viewers the pay-off. That makes sense, since the book makes the outcome a fait accompli. So the show's making damn sure we're watching for the journey, not the destination.
There are layers upon layers upon layers in this show. Claire's our point-of-view character, so we know what she knows. She's got a cover story to maintain and a lack of knowledge about the period she's in to hide. She's got the drive of a World War II nurse to heal, but doing so draws attention to her and makes her too valuable to let leave. She's also got her loyalty to a husband that isn't alive yet — but isn't dead and whom she might one day get back to — to reconcile with her new attraction and marriage. She's playing all of these things all the time, and she's not perfect. She slips up when her emotions overrun her practicality.
And we actually know all the things Claire's dealing with. There are clearly clan politics with Jamie, Colum, and Dougal that she's not aware of. We get a dose of that in "The Gathering," where Jamie has to either pledge himself to the Clan MacKenzie — which, given his familial connections, could put him the running to succeed Colum and thus also put him in danger from Dougal — or refuse to give the oath, enraging the gathering and getting him killed anyway. He gets out of it by taking a third option, but that's just one example of all the motivations swirling around these characters that we only catch glimpses of.
Given all the layers and all the time the show spends setting them up, it makes sense that this cast has to be very good in order to pull it off. Catriona Balfe is great as Claire — smart, capable, and headstrong. She's always an outsider; even though she connects to people in different ways, you can always see her rational mind ticking ahead to keep herself out of trouble. Sam Heughan has to be both a strong lead and vulnerable, since Jamie's in danger of being found out by Black Jack and of crossing the clan. Plus, there's his tendency to get attacked and injured.
We've already mentioned Menzies' dual performances, which are fabulous. Graham McTavish is equally compelling playing all the different sides of Dougal. Every actor, big or small, serious or comedic, is hitting it out of the park.
Here's where we just devolve into looking at pretty pictures.
LOOK AT SCOTLAND. LOOK AT IT.
Ahhh, costume porn! So much costume porn!
*Weeps* It's just so well shot.
They're so hot the camera knows it.
Claire left her guard to try to get to Craigh na Dun — while Frank investigated the same place in 1945 — and was caught be Redcoats. She was delivered to Black Jack, who was as horrible as expected. And just as he's pulled the top of Claire's top off and put a knife to her throat, this happens:
"I'll thank you to take your hands off my wife."
For Saturday: Expect to find out how the hell Jamie ended up pointing a gun at Black Jack from his window sill. Also, another narrow escape for Claire and the repercussions of this latest confrontation. If you have a Starz subscription and haven't seen the show yet, the first eight episodes are all up on Starz Play.