The Unexpected Triumph of Time-Travelling, Scottish Romance
Forget Game of Thrones, Outlander may well be the most captivating TV series of the year.
With season three of time-travel romance drama Outlander under way soon after the seventh season of epic fantasy Game of Thrones ended, we’ve picked out some compelling reasons why you should be #TeamSassenach instead of #TeamStark.
We’ll start by saying we love both shows. Game of Thrones is rightly acknowledged as one of the biggest and best TV shows of all time. It’s also a popular opinion that the show has suffered a significant dip in form in recent years.
The new series, with a shorter runtime thanks to a reduced number of episodes, is certainly a step in the right direction. We also now have a definitive end date for the George R.R. Martin saga (at least on screen, even if the author is hesitant to complete the literary source material anytime soon).
Outlander, in comparison, is a whippersnapper of a show. The first two seasons have packed in so much, and there is more to come given that Diana Gabaldon’s sprawling work of historical fiction is eight books in, with another instalment on the way.
Let’s take a look at why you should have a Highland fling with Jamie and Claire.
Realism within fantasy
Both shows have a fantasy/fiction core. With Game of Thrones, this is something that has developed over time, whereas in Outlander it is far more of a hook to get the plot to go in a certain direction.
Think of it this way — the first two seasons of Game of Thrones could easily be tweaked into a believable (if slightly gruesome) historical drama. Yes, there are spirits and white witches, but these are hardly essential to the action. Things irrevocably change, however, once the dragons are introduced properly. Now we take huge leaps into fiction and have a key player that removes all realism from the series. Whenever an important battle is now taking place, you always have the nagging feeling that a giant dragon will come swooping in and fry the duelling armies.
Outlander is set up in the opposite way. The huge leap of faith is taken in the first episode of the first series, when we see war nurse Claire Randall transported back in time from mid-twentieth century Scotland to the wilds of the eighteenth-century Highlands after touching a sacred stone.
From this point, however, Claire is left to use her wits and skills to survive the harsh conditions she finds herself in. Her actions are believable and grounded in reality. She displays enough of her more modern character to stand out, but not so much that she becomes some sort of deity. Of course, real-life battles and wars are an integral part of the plot.
The scale of Game of Thrones — its sheer scope and rapid expansion — is to be applauded. The mythology and backstory are worthy of a spin-off of their own (something which has recently been mooted), and no one can deny the ambition with which the show opened.
It wasn’t until season four that cracks in this vast landscape began to appear. It became apparent that until an endgame was in place, we would just keep on going. We were now being introduced to characters that not only had little to do with the main story, but also had little to do with the people in the show that we actually cared about.
Outlander is far more focused. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and is taken back to his clan. She is essentially a prisoner, but is also there for her own protection. In pursuit is Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall, a direct ancestor of Claire’s twentieth-century husband Frank Randall.
Season two began in the opulence of eighteenth-century France. This was a visual shift, and the tone of the show also changed, but once again the focus was clearly on Claire and Jamie, as well as their passionate romance.
Some critics — who almost certainly haven’t seen the show — label Outlander as a ‘feminist Game of Thrones’. Claire is obviously a strong woman in a male-dominated society, but there is much more to her than that.
Characters and performances
The three central characters of Outlander all deliver staggeringly convincing performances. They interact wonderfully, and portray the brutal realities of the eras they occupy. The villainy of Black Jack is extreme, sadistic and horrifying, and yet also never merely done for the sake of shock.
Both Game of Thrones and Outlander thrive in putting major characters in desperately grim situations. They face violence, torture and unspeakable abuse on a regular basis.
If you were asked, however, to pick out the central relationship or dynamic in GoT, it would be impossible to narrow it down to less than a dozen or so characters. On one hand, that is a compliment — a rich and dense universe has been created for that very purpose. But it’s also true that some performances and characters are now getting lost in the mix as a result.
A great example of how Outlander has a more refined structure is in the evolution of Jamie Fraser. Actor Sam Heughan would initially have been presented on the page with a charming, lovable rogue of a character, but then also seen Jamie develop thanks to what he endures in season one. The repercussions of the abuse he suffers at the hands of Black Jack forge him. We see the effects of this in great detail thanks to the core emphasis on the main characters.
Claire Randall also endures a great deal. We see her wrestle internally with the moral implications of her actions and her reluctance to go back ‘home’. When Caire and Jamie are on screen together, there is obvious magic.
Again, there is obvious chemistry between a lot of the characters in Game of Thrones, and this is no criticism of them, but Outlander does it better.
The idea of ‘soulmates’ finding one another despite the obstacles placed in front of them might seem like an old-fashioned romance that has no place in a 21st-century drama. Claire and Jamie are just that, two kindred spirits who defy the odds and find one another. They then face a myriad of complex moral and physical hurdles that challenge every aspect of their relationship.
Balfe’s Claire is headstrong and passionate, just like Heughan’s Jamie. The Scottish born actor was the first person cast in the show, and subsequently had a hand in picking who would play Claire. In a recent interview with The Herald, Heughan said: ‘I was very lucky to [screen] test with everyone they looked at for the role of Claire. They did all these chemistry tests and I flew out to Los Angeles a few times and we tested there and in London.
‘They couldn’t find the right girl, and then Caitriona came along and it just seemed to work. She’s great fun and there is a high level of trust between us. She is a very good friend and extraordinary in the part.’
And then there’s the Twitter banter between the pair…
There is no denying the sedate pacing of large portions of Outlander. If it’s copious amounts of bloodletting you are after, then Game of Thrones is the show for you… although both series score high when it comes to steamy on-screen sex scenes.
Outlander is far more involving and as a result takes a while to acclimatise to. It’s a tough sell, you could be given a recommendation to watch it but find the single line pitch impossible to warm to.
There’s always the hope that Game of Thrones gets back to its brilliant best. When it was on form, it was unbeatable, but the rush to get to significant milestones and churn out episode after episode has seen a major drop in quality.
In the meantime, Outlander has stolen a march on all its rivals. Season three promises more of the same with a very innovative twist (we visited the set earlier this year, but are sworn to secrecy on the details). Perhaps the recently released teaser trailer can explain better anyway…
This article originally appeared on Culture Trip, where all of Cassam Looch’c can be read.