May 31, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Outlander”


OUTLANDER overcame a shaky conceptual start to become a thoroughly compelling historical romance, and probably the best original series Starz has aired thus far.  There’s still something fundamentally odd about the fact that the underlying plot gimmick, the trip in time that heroine Claire (Caitriona Balfe) has taken from 1945 Scotland to 1743, has been only occasionally important to the overall plot.  Historical fiction is filled with protagonists who have prematurely modern sensibilities, often new arrivals to a setting from far away, and aside from a random gag here or there (in a recent episode, Claire journeyed through the countryside singing a variation on “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”), this could just as well have been one of those.  Even the fact that Claire’s 20th-century husband and his ancestor, 18th-century villain Black Jack Randall, are played by the same actor (Tobias Menzies) turned out to have little meaning on the show.  It’s a disconnect that felt especially strong because Outlander‘s TV creator is sci-fi icon Ronald D. Moore, leading one to expect more of his prior brand of mind-bending, but perhaps the fantasy aspect makes more sense in Diana Gabaldon’s novels, which I confess to not having read.  (The final scene of tonight’s season finale also implied that Season 2 may make more use of Claire’s knowledge of the future.)

In any case, once it became clear that virtually all of Outlander was going to remain in 1743, there was plenty to enjoy on its own terms.  The narrative has been intelligently told, drenched in atmosphere and daringly paced, with some episodes that swept along with action sequences and political intrigue, roaming throughout Scotland from palace to prison, and others that stopped in their tracks for extended, nearly hour-long sequences between just a few characters, trusting that the intimate knowledge we gained about their thoughts and relationships would be enough to grip us dramatically–and most of the time they did.

Outlander has been particularly sparked by its case study in romantic chemistry, the characters and powerful performances of Balfe and Sam Heughan as her Highlander love Jamie Fraser.  On a weekend when the superstar pairing of Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone has yielded no heat at all on the big screen, it’s notable that Balfe and Heughan have held 16 hours of TV largely in their hands this season, often as the featured players in those lengthy sequences that pried into Claire and Jamie’s hearts and minds (their wedding episode being a particular example).  They’ve proven themselves a captivating couple, not to mention one that’s made the most of pay-TV’s allowance to be sexual in a way that feature films (that includes 50 Shades of Grey) simply aren’t anymore.  Moore, Gabaldon and the other writers have created a complicated but wholehearted love story that’s rare in contemporary pop culture.

All these factors featured into tonight’s mostly very dark season finale, written by Moore and Co-Executive Producer Ira Steven Behr, and directed by Anna Foerster.  It focused on the consequences of the ugly prison bargain Jamie had made with Randall at the end of the prior episode, allowing himself to be raped and tortured by the British officer in exchange for Claire’s freedom.  The finale began with Claire leading a jail break to rescue Jamie (with the help of some neighboring cattle), but then dug into some extremely detailed and disturbing flashbacks to what had happened in that cell when Jamie and Randall were alone (considerably more graphic, as it happens, than the rape scene in the recent Game of Thrones that caused the internet and one US Senator’s head to explode), culminating in Jamie’s admission to Claire that his true shame was due to the fact that at some point, addled and tormented, he had responded physically to Randall’s attentions.  All three of the lead actors were extremely strong in the intense hour, which finally allowed for some relief in the equivalent of its last reel, as Claire literally cut Randall’s brand out of Jamie’s flesh and the two of them set out for France, where she’s unexpectedly pregnant and the two of them plan to change the history of the Jacobite rebellion that would lead to the ruin of Scotland’s resistance to England.

Outlander has been a first-class piece of work, not just in its writing, acting and directing, but across all technical levels, with superb photography, production design and costuming, as well as a haunting score by Bear McCreary.  The ratings have been fair but not outstanding (Starz’s Power has had stronger numbers by a tenth or two), but the network followed its usual practice by instantly renewing it for Season 2, and since it’s as close as Starz has to a signature hit, one would expect it to have an extended run.  Given enough time, at some point we may even come to understand why its saga began in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” days.

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."