September 28, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Midseason Finale Review: “Outlander”


For fans of his remarkable Battlestar Galactica reboot, it’s still strange to see series creator Ronald D. Moore switch to Starz’s much more old-fashioned OUTLANDER.  (Some of the abruptness of that switch was accidental:  Moore was attached to other, more BSG-like shows in the interim, but they weren’t picked up to series.)  Nevertheless, on its own historical romance terms, Outlander has been quite entertaining, especially as compared to Starz’s other efforts in the genre like The White Queen and Black Sails.

It’s not clear whether tonight’s 8th hour of Outlander was initially intended as a midseason finale, since Starz didn’t announce its plans to split the season until late in the game.  In any case, the remaining 8 hours won’t air until April 2015, so this episode, written by Moore and directed by Anna Foerster, is its de facto ending for a while.  Up to this point, the narrative has been more straightforward than the show’s pilot suggested it might be.  By the end of that hour, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), on a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) just after the end of World War II, went without Frank to explore a mystical Stongehenge-like collection of stones, and found herself transported to 1743, where she’s been ever since.  For almost all of that time, she’s been housed with the MacKenzie clan, first as a healer and genteel captive, but more recently as the wife of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), as fantasy a figure as a time-traveling bigamist could ever want:  brave, compassionate, self-sacrificing, charming, virile–and a virgin on their wedding night.

Claire was compelled to marry Jamie (not that she needed much convincing) because the marriage, by making her officially Scottish, was supposed to protect her from the British, who rightly suspect the clans of supporting the (ultimately abortive) Jacobite Catholic revolution against the King.  Both sides, sensing that Claire is hiding things but having no idea what they are, have believed her to be a spy.  In the one bit of time tangle Outlander has introduced so far, the most villainous British officer is the ancestor of Claire’s 1945 husband Frank, Black Jack Randall (also played by Menzies).  The climactic action of the episode had Claire reaching those stones she needs to get back to the 20th century–just as Frank was standing among them in 1945, calling out her name–but being taken into custody by Black Jack’s soldiers and turned over to his brutal care, only to be rescued (it would seem) in the closing seconds by Jamie.

As different as Outlander is from Battlestar Galactica, they share some of the same interests, notably political and religious intrigue and especially the mechanics of interrogation.  Along with the usual paycable license to include violence, profanity and in this case particularly sex, it’s clear that one of the aspects of being on Starz that Moore is enjoying is the freedom from the 6-act, 42-minute broadcast/basic cable format.  Hours 6 and 7 of Outlander contained just a few scenes in each (close to 60-minute) hour.  Episode 6 was built almost entirely around two sequences of Claire being questioned, first by a polite group of British officers and then by Black Jack himself, which culminated in a shocking scene of his beating her, and much of the next hour was a duologue of Claire and Jamie’s wedding night (with some flashbacks scattered throughout).  The last section of tonight’s episode was again a lengthy confrontation between Claire and Black Jack.  It’s rare, even on paycable, for a series to play out so much as though it might have been written for theater; the pace can certainly feel measured, but the resulting ability of the writers and actors to provide nuance and context for the characters makes it worthwhile.

Early episodes of Outlander were slathered with far too much stilted narration, but the scripts have wisely kept the fish-out-of-water potential for comedy to a minimum.  Claire is gratifyingly smart, and she figured out relatively quickly how to function in 1743.  The series is beautifully produced on location, shot by a series of fine cinematographers.  Balfe, who didn’t seem all that interesting in the first 1945-set hour where Claire was mostly demure, has run away with the role as Claire has taken control of her own story.  Although Heughan can’t really get past Jamie being written as sheer perfection, he and Balfe have marvelous chemistry together.  Graham McTavish is also notable as the ambiguous Dougal MacKenzie, 2d in command of the clan and with wildly mixed feelings about Claire.  Menzies is so far much more interesting as the evil Black Jack than as Frank.

Without having read Diana Gabaldon’s hugely successful series of Outlander novels, it’s hard to tell where the TV version is going.  It’s made a point of spending a few minutes of every episode in 1945, where Frank doggedly seeks his wife (and where he’s shown troubling signs of having inherited a bit of his ancestor’s sadism when given the opportunity), so despite the fact that the vast majority of the show so far has been set in the 18th century, it doesn’t appear as though the entire tale will be Claire and Jamie and their struggles with the British.  Perhaps Outlander will become more of a time-juggling narrative than it’s been.  For now it’s absorbing enough, and although the ratings have been only so-so (mostly in the 0.2-0.3 neighborhood for initial airings), Starz in its usual way has already renewed the series for Season 2, so in one era or another, the saga will continue.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."