Dec 16, 2019
RECAP: Outlander, episode 1 - The Slow Talk Express
After just one episode, Starz has already renewed Outlander for a Season 2! With all the fan excitement, it’s not hard to see why. More than 600,000 people watched the premiere episode online before it even aired. But did the pilot live up to the hype? The HNTP recap starts now!
We kick things off with a voiceover. Get used to it. We’ll also end with a voiceover and voice over everything in between – it’s pretty much voiceovers all the way down. “People disappear all the time,” we’re told in a breathy English accent. “Most of time, these disappearances are explained, but mine won’t be. Just warning you now so you won’t bitch about it on Twitter.”
Fair enough. Meanwhile, we’re looking at the most generic footage of the highlands I’ve ever seen, which is a shame because later we’ll get some amazing cinematography of the lush Scottish landscape so why start your show off with rejected National Geographic b-roll?
Next, we get to see the face behind the voice, Claire Randall, our heroine. She’s actually kind of badass, not that you’d know it from her introduction, in which she stares earnestly at a vase in a shop window and tries SO HARD to make it the most profound and symbolic vase in the history of western television.
“I’ve always wanted to own a vase,” she muses, “because owning a vase means you have a real home. No one would buy a vase if they live in a shitty apartment they’re going to leave in six months. Vases are only for people with families and, like, deep bonds and shit. Vases, man. Whoa.”
Before anything can happen in this scene other than intense longing, we jump back six months to a war-torn European village on the final day of World War II. Here is Claire (not time travelling yet, just flashing back) performing ultra-gory surgery on a soldier’s leg in a back alley. It’s a hell of a lot more intense and revealing that watching Claire think deep thoughts about a fucking vase, so I’m not sure why we didn’t start out here.
At last a few of the characters get to speak to each other, but just barely. They mostly just announce facts to the audience (“The war is over!” “You are a stoic modern heroine!”) and Claire stubbornly refuses to engage any of them because that’s her job. But, hey, it’s early yet. This is all essentially a prologue; surely we’ll see some actual character interaction once we settle into the story, right?
Just when you hope something relevant to the plot might happen, we’re back at the vase store. Is someone about to walk up to Claire and kick start the action? Hell, no. She just stands there, all alone, and silently stares at the vase some more. Oh, the pathos.
CUE THE OPENING CREDITS.
Next we’re riding along with Claire and her husband Frank as they drive up to Scotland for a second honeymoon. Claire continues to babble at us, saying she’s barely seen Frank in five years because they’ve been stationed in different parts of Europe for the war effort. It’s not that they couldn’t have worked this into the dialogue; in fact, they will. A LOT. It’s literally the only thing these two have to talk about anymore. (Granted, they will spout an obscene amount of random, soon-to-be-relevant historical factoids at each other, but that hardly counts as a conversation.)
They arrive in the town Inverness to discover the blood of animal sacrifices smeared over everyone’s front doors. No, it’s not Jews at Passover but pagans at Halloween. Yes, Scotland in 1945 is practically indistinguishable from the Congo in a Joseph Conrad novel, what with all the primitive natives and their blood magic and superstitions. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see white people treated like noble savages for a change, if you can get past the stupidity.
They check into a Scottish Inn, because apparently Frank is a cheap bastard and won’t spend more than $29 a night for a room—what? Oh, Scottish inn with a little “i.” Frank and the innkeeper lecture each other on the pagan roots of Halloween – for whose benefit it’s not clear, since they both obviously have an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject and concise, well rehearsed speeches to share. And by now we’ve already heard the word “pagan” used more often than anywhere outside of a WND War on Christmas fever dream.
The innkeeper warns that ghosts get to do what they will this time of year, so I guess there is a tiny bit of explanation for Claire’s upcoming time travel. And it’s good enough for me; getting into the technical details on this kind of thing only drags down the story because it’s all bullshit anyway. (Besides, anything’s better than “The Cylon god did it. All of it. Everything.”)
Claire and Frank retire to their room to ruminate on how long they’ve been apart. Then it’s time for naked sexy sex with boobies.
The next day Claire and Frank drive around the Scottish countryside to visit various ruins and have sex in them. Claire is very sexually aggressive without devolving into a puerile male fantasy sex kitten, which is nicely done.
Claire also faithfully continues her monologue, explaining that she could totally live in the 1700s, you know, just in case that becomes relevant or something, because her archeologist uncle used to take her to exotic lands where they had to live without modern conveniences. Judging by how casually destructive she is to the Scottish historical sites they visit, I’m guessing her uncle must have been Indiana Jones. The voiceover about archeology is accompanied by a quick flashback in which nothing happens, which is appropriate because nothing is happening in the present either.
This is the point where the audience should start to realize that what’s happening on screen is entirely secondary to Claire’s diligent narration. It serves the same purpose as a PowerPoint slide show: just a bit of visual interest to keep you from getting too bored during the lecturer’s speech.
Next up is a visit to the local priest/genealogical expert. Frank wants to learn more about a specific ancestor of his, Colonel Jack “Snidley Whiplash” Randall, from a specific period of Scottish-English warfare, and you can probably guess which one, because coincidence be damned.
Claire slips away to have a cup of tea with the priest’s housekeeper, who is also a pagan fortune teller, because of course she is. Having a native servant who turns out to have supernatural knowledge and/or powers that they only use to benefit the protagonist is a pretty offensive racist trope, but the entire cast has only three specks of melanin between them, so I guess it’s okay?
The housekeeper looks a Claire’s tea leaves and warns her that she’s going to be “traveling far away from here without leaving this place.” If that’s not on-the-nose enough for you, she then reads Claire’s palm and declares, “you’ll have two great overlapping romances, you sex-crazed monkey.”
The thing is, Claire does absolutely nothing with this revelation, and it’s all stuff we the audience knew anyway from the show description. The scene adds nothing, not even a whiff of wonder or foreboding. I’d blame Claire for showing no emotional reaction whatsoever, but after watching the housekeeper’s cartoonish attempt at dawning horror, I think stone-faced acceptance was probably the best decision. So the audience is left sighing and wondering when the prologue will ever end and the show will start for real. Sorry, folks, this IS the show.
That night, Frank is wandering the streets alone for no apparent reason when he spots a peeping tom spying on his wife through the hotel window. But when Frank tries to confront him, he vanishes into thin air! A gh-gh-gh-ghost!
OF COURSE the first thing Claire says to him is “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.” Fortunately my groan didn’t drown out the best bit of character interaction in the whole episode. Claire even gracefully shuts up with the voiceover for a few seconds to let it happen. Frank and Claire start out by once again talking about how long they’ve been apart (sigh), but this time it leads to Frank questioning if Claire was faithful the whole time. “Only,” says Frank, “it doesn’t matter.” He loves her wholeheartedly and they’re committed to each other now and from this moment on.
Up to this point, Frank has been a brooding, disinterested twat. He’ll have sex with his wife if she initiates, but otherwise he barely acknowledges her – other than to pepper her with genealogical and historical facts that she can’t possibly be interested in. Still, his stirring little speech gets him laid again, with a little more T&A to reward the audiences for toughing it out this far.
It’s still dark when Claire and Frank wake up because they want to sneak into the forest to secretly watch some pagan women perform an elaborately choreographed dance to welcome the sunrise. Is this it?! The big pagan spell that sends Claire back into the past?! Nah. It’s all very pretty, but ultimately pointless because everyone wanders away home again without a single word of dialogue.
Later that day, Claire is wondering about a flower she saw at the ritual site. She suspects they’re forget-me-nots. Now I’m not an amateur botanist, as Claire claims to be (specializing in medicinal herbs like might be around in the 1700s, she unsubtly assures us), but are forget-me-nots really something that would peak the interest of anyone who knows a rose from a rhododendron? I think someone just wanted an excuse to cram that oh-so-significant flower name into a story about someone who disappears, don’t you? Very eighth-grade writing assignment.
Anyway, when Frank realizes he left something at the pagan dance site, Claire volunteers to fetch it for him so she can get another look at the flowers. So off she goes. Alone. Dun-dun-dun!
Yes, the big moment is finally coming – but after the previous anti-climax, I’m feeling more frustration than excitement. Why didn’t they just zap her during the big ceremony? Why drag this shit out another two scenes? I suspect that’s exactly how it happened in the book, but CONDENSE, PEOPLE!
So Claire returns to the ritual site and starts laboriously examining the baby Stonehenge thing that the pagans were dancing around. When Claire touches one of the stones, she vanishes. Poof. I can’t emphasize how humdrum the whole thing is. Sure, Claire tries to gussy it up with some overwrought v/o, but this isn’t a book-on-tape. If you’re not going to show me any drama, I’m not going to feel any.
Did Ronald D. Moore forget that television is a visual medium? At least throw in an exciting visual effect, you lazy asshole. Even better, add some sort of drama to the 1945 storyline that Claire is either desperate to escape from or desperate to get back to! I don’t care if it’s not in the novel. You’ve done nothing before foreshadow this one event for 38 minutes now!
Foreshadowing a plot twist is great. But spending 38 minutes of a 60-minute episode foreshadowing an event we already know is going to happen is excruciating.
But here we are at last! 1743!
What’s changed? Well, the cinematography is suddenly stunning. It was adequate before, but now every shot is meticulous and beautiful.
Other than that, not much. Claire is still going to narrate every thought and detail rather than interact with any of the other characters. We might as well be sitting in Claire’s living room while she shows us slide show photos of her time travel vacation.
As stone-faced and stoic as ever, Claire takes her change in circumstance pretty much in stride. Calmly, rationally, she decides to hide from the English Redcoat soldiers firing rifles in her general direction. But what’s this? Her husband is wearing an English army uniform!
She approaches him carefully. “Frank?” she whispers. He sneers at her, a most un-Frank-like sneer. “You’re not Frank! You’re some other character played by the same actor!” she screams. “Brutus from Rome, maybe! Or Caitlin Stark’s idiot younger brother!”
“No, I am Colonel Jack ‘Snidley Whiplash’ Randall!” he roars. “And since I have only three seconds to prove how evil I am, I think I shall rape you at first sight! Bwahaha!”
He tries, but some noble ruffian Scots come to the rescue. And I try my best to get excited about finally reaching the meat of the story, but the Scots are every bit the one-dimensional caricatures that Col. Randall is. We’re not even in a romance novel anymore; we’re stuck in the blurb on the back cover: When unflappable army nurse Claire Randall finds herself trapped in past, rescued from a heartless English aristocrat by a roguish band of Scottish outlaws, can love be far behind?
And it isn’t. The outlaws/freedom fighters/whatever (their actual mission and motives are never hinted at, at least not in this episode) haul Claire back to their camp where the most handsome of them lays injured.
Hey, you know who’s good at medical stuff? Claire, that’s who! Brushing off additional offers of rape (yes, really – and from our “good guy” Scots, no less), Claire sets the injured man’s dislocated shoulder so they can ride away to safety.
Off they go, riding through the night and into the next day when Claire recognizes the mountain formation in front of them. “The English like to use that mountain as a spot to ambush Scottish troops,” she parrots her husband from a previous sce—what are you doing? You don’t have to flash back to it! We remember – it was this very episode!! THIS IS THE ONLY EPISODE!!! STOOOOOOOOP!!!
Sigh. So we watch the previous scene again, then we watch Claire explain the previous scene to her new compatriots. And guess what? Even though they’re looking at the mountains in the distance, they’re actually standing in the very spot that the English use for their ambushes, and the English choose this very moment to spring their trap.
So her warning was completely pointless. But at least we get an exciting fight scene out of it.
We follow Claire as she flees into the woods and never see a damn bit of the action. Fortunately, we’re never bored so long as Claire keeps chatting at us, or so the show thinks, so she helpfully recounts some things we already know. Eventually, Studly McFancykilt — whose real name is Jamie — gathers her up after the battle is won, and they’re off once more on their interminable horse ride.
I can’t stress how little dialogue there is during all of this. As a result, all the Scots are allowed one and only one personality trait each, like Smurfs. Except Jamie, of course. He gets ZERO.
After a while, Jamie falls off his horse, unconscious. Turns out he’s been shot but didn’t want to tell anybody. Chick dig that macho shit, right? There’s nothing sexier in a man than self-destructive silence. Shut up and suffer, I believe that’s the exact advice my dad gave me on my wedding day.
Of course, Claire saves the day again. At first she calls out for modern disinfectants. Maybe this is supposed to be funny? Unlikely; the show adamantly refuses every opportunity for fish-out-of-water humor with Claire’s time displacement, or any other humor whatsoever. Instead, it just makes Claire look like an idiot.
Eventually she hits on alcohol and bandages Jamie up. And off we ride again. Yeehaw.
The exciting conclusion of our journey is the castle Claire and Frank visited in the future. Claire sums up the episode with some “So far, I’d been…” voiceover (WE KNOW! WE JUST WATCHED IT!) and the credits roll.
And the end may just be the most baffling part to me. Remember in Game of Thrones when Bran gets shoved out of the tower window by the incest twins? That’s how you end a series premiere! Instead, our protagonists end the hour completely safe, in friendly territory, with all loose ends tied up – with the exception of if/how Claire gets back to the future, which we know isn’t going to be resolved any time soon anyway.
Why not end when the ambush starts? Or why not shorten the languid 1945s stuff and drive us further into the plot? As is, episode 1 provides no compelling reason to watch episode 2. The overall premise may be interesting enough to keep you watching for another episode, but story itself is a dud.