Well, it's done. The first season of Outlander is over and I have something to get off my chest. I'm not one of those bloggers that recaps episodes every week, but I do like to write the occasional analysis, and call out the things that I think were great. I'm not here to gush about Sam Heughan (although that's easy to do) or my total girl crush on Caitriona Balfe, or how Tobias Menzies will be giving me nightmares for the foreseeable future disturbingly delicious nightmares.
Nope. I'm a writer, so I tend to keep my analysis to the creative choices that relate directly to storytelling; how well it's done and where I think it might have gone wrong. Up to now my posts about Outlander have been mainly positive. There has been some absolutely great television here. Although I have read all of the books multiple times, I am definitely NOT a book purist. I understand what adaptation means and I don't expect the show to follow the books slavishly or even directly.
As a matter of fact my favorite episode of the season, The Garrison Commander, was a big departure from the book. While the action of The Garrison Commander may have been different from the action in the book, the main theme was completely in keeping with the character and tone of the book. It was fantastic way to convey just how twisted Jack Randall is. I felt similarly about The Wedding. Sure there were some specific things from the book that weren't there, but at it's heart it had the necessary components and it was incredibly well made.
When you're putting together a story, you have to make choices about the focus and pace of a story. What is the story about at it's heart, and how do you convey that? When you're trying to fit an enormous book like Outlander into sixteen hours of television, you have to prioritize. What do you HAVE TO keep? What things can drop without changing the story? Of the things that fall in between what is imperative and what it incidental, which ones are more important? On the few occasions that this season of Outlander has fallen short of my expectations, it has been in that in between zone where some things have been given priority over others, and I think the heart of the story has suffered for it. Unfortunately, the finale was one of those times.
Diana Gabaldon has said on many occasions that this series of books is 'the story of a marriage'. It's one of the things I love about them. We follow this pair through some extreme trials and watch their bond be tested and strengthened over and over again. And yet in two particular episodes this season we have seen some aspects of the story stretched and other I think more important aspects shortened. In the finale we saw the extension of the Wentworth scenes and the extreme shortening of recovery. If you're going to call an episode, "To Ransom a Man's Soul" I expect the actual ransoming to involve more than a bit of lavender oil, a good smack and a wee chat. This scene and the aftermath of it was so fast that it frankly defied believe-ability even though Sam Heughan did his best portraying it.
Don't get me wrong. I would not have shortened the Wentworth scenes. I think those scenes were handled incredibly well and with a lot of sensitivity to the subject. Everyone involved deserves to be commended for that. However, I would have preferred to have skipped some of the inflated story-line in The Search in favor of rearranging some time to have given a better "ransom" scene. I won't compare this to the one in the book, but to the rest of the episode. We spent roughly half of this episode watching Jamie being raped and abused, broken as he says. Yet somehow he manages to snap out of his suicidal funk after one relatively brief conversation with Claire? I don't think so. I realize that this conversation wasn't meant to make it ALL better, but his attitude does completely change, and frankly I don't think that scene contained enough confrontation or drama to prompt that kind of turn around.
My feelings about this episode reminded me of how I also felt after watching "The Devil's Mark". In that episode there was so much time given to the drama of the trial, that there wasn't enough time to really convey the monumental choice that Claire makes to stay in 1743 with Jamie. It feels like the writers were giving priority to the immediate payoff of the sensational trial and rape scenes rather than the overall story. Look over here at this shiny instantly dramatic thing versus sticking to the heart of the story. Or maybe they were just so enamored of Tobias Menzies and Lotte Verbeek that they wanted to give them material to showcase their talents. They're both terrific and should be recognized, but not at the expense of the story.
Then there is "The Search" where a few pages of the book gets stretched into an hour of redundant and unnecessary television that could have been covered in about 15-20 minutes without taking away from the drama of Jamie being missing. That would have freed up some time to give the proper treatment to the ransom scene. The actors are more than capable of telling that part of the story in a much more effective way. I actually feel like Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe were let down by the script in this scene. It SHOULD have been so much more.
Make no mistake. I love the show, and I will definitely continue to watch. But I sincerely hope that as the writers are breaking down the even longer Dragonfly in Amber into thirteen episodes (three fewer than this season) that they are more careful with how they prioritize the time they spend on more important aspects of the story.