When Starz debuted its most recent series, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander,” online last week, critics debated its relationship to “Game of Thrones” and romance fiction and wondered whether men would turn out to watch it (they did). I have had the opportunity to watch the first six episodes of the show, and while I will write about them in more detail later, I was struck by the small but important way in which “Outlander” functions differently from a lot of historical fiction.
Historical books, movies and television shows often generate their drama from the contrast between the values of readers or viewers and the characters on screen. That alchemical reaction happens off the page or screen in the lab of our own reaction to the story or characters. In “Outlander,” that conflict is the essence of the story.
Sometimes, the purpose is to suggest that we have lost something, and that with a little moderation, the values of the past might serve us better than contemporary norms. Regency romances get a great deal of their kick from the suggestion that in affairs of the heart and loins, men and women alike might benefit from a synthesis from the courtship processes of the past and the sexual ethics of the present. Women tend to serve in a civilizing role, convincing men that it is worthwhile to settle down, but are rewarded with partners who appreciate their intelligence and liveliness and are attentive to their sexual pleasure.
More often, though, moral relativism helps us figure out who are the heroes and who are the villains. On “Game of Thrones,” we hated the late, unlamented King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) not simply because he was an impossible brat but also because he combined that teenaged entitlement with a gleeful embrace of despotism. By contrast, the experience of discrimination has made Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) a slightly more modern man. In the savage environment of “Game of Thrones,” if not in our own time, he is a paragon and a welcome respite from the ugliness so often exhibited by his peers.
In “Downton Abbey,” Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) may provoke shocked reactions when she turns up in pants and runs off with the chauffeur, but we know her views will be vindicated. Maybe we are even a little grateful for Lady Sybil’s contribution to our own freedoms. Her untimely death after giving birth to her daughter is a tragedy not simply because it is the result of ignorance and stubbornness but also because it denies her the opportunity to witness the arrival of a new age.
Most of these stories work with two moral orders: our own and that of the characters. “Outlander,” unlike most historical dramas, introduces a third perspective, that of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe). Randall nursed in World War II and is celebrating a second honeymoon with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), in Scotland when she is swept back in time to the 18th century and forced to navigate not just the norms of that time but also a volatile struggle for Scottish independence from Britain.
Claire is from a time slightly earlier than our own, but her values do not differ much from ours. She is a professional who handles even the most gruesome wounds with aplomb. She likes sex quite a lot, and though she worries about the fact that she and her husband have not been able to conceive a child, that anxiety has not infected their passion for each other. Claire can also drink like a champ.
So when she finds herself shifted back 200 years in the timeline, Claire is enough of a proxy for us that her experience lets us imagine how we might have adapted to similar circumstances.
Would our skills translate to another setting? Claire’s training as a nurse allows her to make herself useful to Clan MacKenzie, the family that takes custody of her after finding her being threatened with rape by a man who turns out to be a brutal ancestor of her own husband, Black Jack Randall (also played by Menzies). Would we be able to hold our tongues about practices we find abhorrent or about history we know that the MacKenzies do not, as Claire is often incapable of doing? Is she trying hard enough to get back to her own time?
Claire’s experiences test our confidence in the superiority of our ideas and in our ability to survive moral and political regimes that do not resemble our own. And Menzies’s double role as Frank and Black Jack raises uneasy questions about what we inherit from our ancestors and what we forget when we admire them from a distance. In “Outlander,” the past definitely is not past. As historical fiction, it collapses the distance between past and present and the lessons we feel confident drawing when we believe that distinction is clear.