TV REVIEW: Outlander, S1, E1: Sassenach (Series Premiere)

Before we begin our journey into Claire’s story, I wanted to give the heads up that I was introduced to Diana Gabaldon’s novels over 10 years ago by a good friend of mine and  I’ve been a big fan ever since, so I while I will do my very best not to mention any happenings from future books, I can’t promise anything (but will put a book spoiler alert in place if I do). I’ll also attempt to keep the Jamie swooning to a minimum but again, no promises!

There are two things you immediately notice about Outlander’s opening prologue – the scenery and the music. Bear McCreary’s theme paired with Raya Yarbrough’s vocals set atop the rolling glens, stone circles and valleys of the Scottish Highlands make for two of the most important characters on the show next to Claire and Jamie. If the show had been unable to film there, I’m not sure it would have had the same impact.

The show is beautifully shot – with large sweeping views of Glencoe, Edinburgh and other locations in Scotland. Another note is the casting: in my mind, Claire was a bit curvier with more of a “jugbutt” but Balfe and Heughan are pretty perfect as Claire and Jamie, so I’m happy to throw that image out the window.

A voiceover opens the episode describing how people can disappear at any time, the ways they can do so and that they’re found, “usually”. We soon find out the voice is that of Claire Randall, our protagonist and fiercely independent World War II nurse who doesn’t quite fit back into civilian life when it’s all over. Flashbacks to the combat are shown – a blood and gore-soaked Claire is trying to help save a soldier’s leg and soon finds out that the war is over, taking a large swig of champagne.

In present day 1942, we found out that Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, are in the Highlands on a trip to reconnect (disguised as a second honeymoon) after only seeing each other for ten days in five years. Ten days?! It’s like meeting a stranger, getting married in Vegas, going your separate ways, realizing you’re still married and don’t know each other all that well so decide to figure it out anyway. I don’t know that I’d make the same choice but there you have it. I love how Frank is portrayed onscreen – in the first book, he’s not there much at all, which makes sense given the plot. Here, courtesy of Tobias Menzies’ portrayal and the producers, we’re shown more of why Claire will miss her husband so much once she’s in the past.

Something else to note is that modern-day is shot in muted sepia and blue tones while the past is much more vibrant – a reflection on where Claire’s memories and thoughts are in each time. Their trip is pretty focused on Frank & Claire’s new hobbies and their marriage but it is Claire’s agency, her directness and taking charge that sets Outlander as a series apart from other book-to-television adaptations like Game of Thrones. A woman in charge of herself without apology and without being seen as aggressive? Fancy that happening!

In fact, the scene in Castle Leoch where Frank – ahem – services Claire, is one that brought hushed giggles to the Spreckles Theatre at the premiere, but also applause as it’s usually the other way around on most premium cable shows. Up until her trip through the stones, Claire and Frank get reacquainted in multiple ways, tracing Frank’s genealogy or Claire’s interest in botany, but usually find themselves in the bedroom. Both avoid talking about their time in the war, where he was an intelligence agent, and use sex as a method of avoiding the larger issues facing their marriage.

Instead of enjoying the afterglow of their night together, Frank wants to get up to see a pagan ritual at dawn. How romantic – or not so much to Claire. However, they watch from behind some large stones as the Wiccan women carry glowing torches and dance around the stone circle of Craigh na Dun, which book readers will know is the place where Claire begins her journey to the past – and to Jamie. It’s a beautiful sequence with a magical quality to it only enhanced by Bear McCreary’s score. They depart but Claire later returns to try to identify some flowers she saw on their first visit. But as the music becomes more ominous, we know what’s coming.

Unable to ignore the buzzing sounds from the center stone (a difference from the split-stone in the book), she touches it with both palms – her world gone black. This was a pivotal moment for me in how Ron D. Moore was going to show time travel. Too fantastical and it would pull the viewer completely out of the slow but satisfying fall into the world of Outlander. The same goes for the reverse – too logical and you wouldn’t quite believe Claire had gone back in time. I liked that he essentially showed us what the book laid out. I understood the feeling that Claire experienced without needing to really see how it happened.

GOODBYE 1942 , HELLO 1743
Claire wakes up in the same spot that she fell, but in 18th Century Scotland. Knowing something has occurred but not what, she goes to search for her & Frank’s car, which is gone. (Did it bother anyone else that she left her shawl behind?) Still bewildered, she states that her mind is trying to rationalize what’s happening, but when British redcoats start shooting at her with live ammunition, she can’t fool herself for long.

She does what anyone would do – run – and runs right into Jonathan Wolverton “Black Jack” Randall aka Frank’s direct descendant. While she knows of him from overhearing Rev. Wakefield and her husband’s discussions, she’s confused because he looks, well just like Frank (Tobias Menzies plays the dual role) and she calls out to him with that name. When she doesn’t give Black Jack the answers he wants, he declares her a whore and tries to rape her before being saved by a Highlander. However, said Highlander knocks her out before she can cause more trouble catching the redcoats attention.

She wakes up having been brought to a cottage where a group of men are gathered – lead by Dougal MacKenzie. Cold, afraid and looked upon with suspicion, she is unable to keep her mouth shut and tells the viewer so. We get our first glimpse of Jamie Fraser (not that this is the name he goes by at the moment) in pain with a dislocated shoulder. When they try to fix his arm – she shouts at them and sets about doing what she knows best (the sound of that is not a pleasant one. Ouch!). Chuckle-worthy moment here when she tells Jamie her profession – he looks at her breasts and she quickly bites out that she’s not a wet-nurse. Oh boys!

There are a few skirmishes with the British and doctoring of Jamie’s wounds but the best moment here is first time that Jamie calls Claire “Sassenach”. It’s after she’s patched him up again – he gazes at her with wonder after a multitude of curses & biting remarks fly from her mouth (something men of the time are not used to hearing from a lady). This is the moment where he starts to fall for Claire – even if she doesn’t know it yet.

But he may be one of the only ones who are kind to the poor lass at the moment – Dougal thinks she’s got something to hide, that she’s possibly a spy and treats her as such. She has something to hide but it’s not that! The group arrives at Castle Leoch – where Claire and Frank had just been two days before in Claire’s new past. What awaits her inside is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely not a good thing for our favorite Sassenach.

I really love the interpretation of this series thus far and I HIGHLY recommend you re-watch the episode (if you haven’t seen it 20 times already like me…) while listening to Executive Producer Ron D. Moore’s podcast. He reveals a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes insights into why certain shots looked they way they did, decisions on music, lighting etc. It’s fascinating and I hope it keeps up for each week! Download the podcast for Ep 101 here.

Rating: 5/5
Sharlene Mousfar

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