The series Outlander is many things. It is fantasy-sci-fi-historical-fiction-erotica aimed at women. It is a love story. It is a story of rebellion in an occupied country – Scotland in 1743. It is also one the best series on TV and, apart from being a romance and a thriller, lends itself to extensive, intense study of its layers of meaning about women, power and sex.
It's back. Outlander (Showcase, Sunday, 10 p.m.) returns for its second batch of episodes. The first batch, which began airing last summer, became a sensation. While it had a guaranteed audience, thanks to the popularity of the novels by Diana Gabaldon on which it's based, the TV version stunned viewers and some critics, including me, and also brought a male audience to the drama.
The first new episode, The Reckoning, hinges on the most famous and controversial scene in Gabaldon's books. A scene in which a husband spanks his wife for disobeying him. It is a sensational hour of drama – fraught, tense, erotically charged, emotionally raw and hair-raising in its ferocity.
The bare bones of it is this – Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a time-travelling British Army nurse from 1945 is somehow cast back to 1743 Scotland, and becomes emotionally involved with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highlander fighting against English rule.
At this point in the tale they are married, an arrangement made by the Clan MacKenzie, to avoid Claire being compelled to undergo interrogation by the menacing, sadistic English captain Jonathan (Black Jack) Randall. With Claire married to a Scot, she cannot be compelled to obey Randall's orders.
As followers of the series and readers of the books are fully aware, at the point where The Reckoning opens, Claire has been taken by Randall, who views her as a prostitute and spy. It is Jamie's task to rescue her. What unfolds is mind-blowing. There are four key scenes. The rescue. Then an argument, which, in its viciousness, is like a slap in the face. There is then the infamous, much anticipated scene of punishment (called "tawsing" in the books) that plays out as a tangle of interlaced limbs to a soundtrack that's a cacophony of coarse language and emotional fury from both parties. Finally, there is the scene in which Claire makes it crystal clear what she will not tolerate. To say more would be to diminish the shocking sexual wildness of it.
Giving away the spine of it isn't a spoiler. Each scene has layers of meaning and each can be studied from a variety of angles to assess the organic growth and propulsion forward of Outlander. At the same time, no amount of analysis lessens the livid carnality of it all.
This not to say that Outlander is a sort of "Fifty Shades of Tartan." Far from it. It is unique in its emphatic loyalty to the female perspective. This is Claire's story. And as such, it is the story of a woman from 1945, vastly experienced as a nurse in wartime, who is thrown back into a world in which a woman's status is dramatically different. Her knowledge gives her power but makes some men afraid of her. This she enjoys.
More specifically, Outlander is about the way in which Claire makes Jamie a man more sensitive, open-minded and understanding of women. She is older than he is, for a start. He is a decent man, but naive and a warrior drenched in tradition. Drawn to Claire and at times unsure why, he is only vaguely aware that she is shaping him into the man she wants him to be.
There is the matter of the female gaze, too. While the story is told, essentially, from Claire's perspective, it is also her shrewd female eye that guides the visual viewpoint. The camera views Jamie's body as it is viewed by Claire, while Claire herself, in mind and body, is the cogent physical force, the anchor of everything. There is nothing like this particular dynamic at work in any series of the moment.
Outlander would be a lot less were it not for Balfe's formidable embodiment of Claire. It is a performance of outstanding naturalism. Balfe imbues Claire with an earthiness and an off-hand comfort with her own body while simultaneously displaying with ease the steely intelligence of the character and Claire's unending tenacity. It is rare to see an actress as casually dazzling, instinctively secure in a role so physically demanding.
All of it matters in this strange, fabulous work of fantasy-sci-fi-historical-fiction-erotica. Outlander transcends classification, and it's not, obviously, only about the weight and notoriety of the key scene of physical chastisement in Sunday's new episode. It is one powerful stew of elements.
Me, I've seen the second episode, too. And then I had to be supine with a cold cloth on my head. That powerful, yes.