Sunday, 17 April 2016

Outlander (Season 2) Premiere

The story adapted from Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber, sends a pregnant Claire and Jamie to Paris in order to sabotage a burgeoning Jacobite rebellion against Britain's King, an effort that Claire know will fail. Indeed Scotland's Battle of Culloden, which Claire and Jamie are trying to preempt, actually happened in April 1746 and led to the destruction of the Highland Clan and Highlander culture. 

The production's vision of pre-revolutionary France is impressive, turned toward decadence and retrograde attitude. Interesting? Still, YES! But for now the intrigues are small and slow-moving. Jamie and especially Claire are more passive this season, perhaps intentionally. I'm not convinced the show is well served by faithfully following Gabaldon's books as some of the best choices in S1 were deviations. S1 featured countless moments that left us speechless and we can barely speak of the infamous "Wedding" episode - in which Jamie lost his virginity and we lost track of our minds - without blushing furiously and wondering why on earth this had to be the show we discuss in depth with our mums. 

The whole cast made S1 a successful show, going from love story to war story and back to time-travel story, corrupt Claire's devotions, clanging her ahead-of-its-time feminism against old world Scottish traditions and then topping the whole thing off with a what-the-hell-just-happened, male-on-male revenge rape. Here, S2 show-runner and his writer seem interested in de-romanticizing and complicating the genre's nostalgia, escapism and sentimentality of S1. 

Moreover, Claire's 18th-century husband is also something of a unicorn on the TV landscape. Sure, Jamie fill out a kilt nicely, but his most deceiving qualities do not reside in his musculature but in his curious and open heart. As we discovered in S1, Jamie Fraser might be the bravest romantic hero of all. Diana Gabaldon may have invented a new kind of romantic hero; and a much braver one at that. Of course, it helps that Sam Heughan is stunning to look at and has a physique which, if the series were being shown on a mainstream channel, could easily have worked up a national furore similar to that created by watching Aidan Turner seething in Cornwall in Poldark. Even better, Jamie is enchanting, engaging and endearing. After all, in S1, this is a man who broke into Fort William to rescue Claire with just his  bare hands and an empty pistol (don't ask). But just as importantly for a romantic hero, he's also highly sensitive with a strong moral code. This season, Jamie has to recover from major sexual trauma. Though his sanity seems to have been saved, physically he's still recovering and still definitely damaged by it. He doesn't quite know how to deal with it. 

Claire and Jamie work and play as equals, but she's often a little more equal than him, which doesn't bother him a bit. They are now put in roles they are uncomfortable with: Jamie is anxious about trying to stop a rebellion that, at his core, he's really all for and will end up fighting - and dying - in if they can't change history; whereas Claire feels useless in high society. Claire is pregnant and she almost has to put that aside and have that as her private journey while she tries to help him heal. It's wonderfully complex and they are struggling with their own demons or their own issues separately but still trying to come together and still trying to retain that bond they have. Claire and Jamie struggle for more meaning and a more meaningful connection.

There are more memorable female characters on TV than ever these days, of course, but few of them can be found on ambitious dramas that look like a million (or several million) bucks. Tobias Menzies, meanwhile, remains a vastly underrated actor. He really does a fine job on reminding the core audience (all of us hopeless romantics) - who love the Claire-Jamie storyline - that "Hey, she's actually my wife in the present world, I love her and I miss her dearly." 

The mood feels drastically different. Of course being in France as opposed to the forests and muddy glens of Scotland, you'd expect that. Indeed this move to France is huge. And they add time jumps and plot movements here and there that really prove how much that voice over narration from Claire is needed. The motives of this season aren't subtle at all: characters want revenge, they seek love, they want to protect others and they want to escape via lust and wine - or both. This season's darkness gives depth and dimension to the drama's core optimism. Outlander strikes an unusual balance between bold colours and human complexities. It also convey the way well-intentioned people drift away from their moral foundations. 

Wile the show's agenda duels on political revolutions, it quickly initiates a pop-culture on its own: in the way it approaches storytelling and sensuality, Outlander has proved itself to be one of the most subversive series on TV. It is actually one of TV's most hard-to-define dramas. The romance is central to the series; but it is just as much a historical story - as it is a psychological drama. More than anything else this season, it plays a more mental game. As the show becomes more political, so does the sex. Sex almost always has a purpose in the Outlander world. It's founded on the idea that sensuality isn't just an outlet, or a relief, but the key to communication of joy, pain, heartache, connection and beauty as well. Finally, and maybe the most important feature this season is the fact that Claire and Jamie display some of the most gorgeous 18th century ensembles I have ever seen on any screen. It's a moving feast of fashion and if costume designer Terry Dresbach isn't talked about extensively for Emmy consideration, something went horribly wrong.

Overall, even though Outlander could be slow, it managed to weave a better-than-expected tale out of what were often dismissed as "historical romance books for women"; a sexy little epic that defies expectations as always.

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