On Saturday night, Outlander’s first season came to a close with a finale that captured all of the boundary-pushing, heart-rending drama for which the adaptation has become universally known and celebrated.
The sixteenth and final episode of Outlander’s first season covered arguably the most challenging material from Diana Gabaldon’s novel of the same name. When last we saw Claire, she and her Highland cohort were desperate for a means of breaking Jamie out of Wentworth Prison and away from the sadistic clutches of the villainous Captain Randall – and the only thing at their disposal was a herd of cattle. Jamie, meanwhile, we witnessed at the hands of Randall, whose sole ambition is to break Jamie’s will and spirit irrevocably.
In “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” Outlander goes where most shows will not and it doesn’t linger in even that basic, uncharted territory, but goes farther still. Daring to take extreme risks for the sake of being true to their story, the Outlander team delves into scenes of rape and torture with very little being glossed over or merely hinted at. The risks are obvious: will the audience stand by to watch their beloved Jamie violated in such a way? Can the actors prove their mettle in the trenches of such disturbing scenes? Can the show continue its trajectory of fearless storytelling and raw emotion with such controversial material? While the resulting episode will undoubtedly be difficult for many viewers to watch, the answers to those questions were an unequivocal and resounding yes.
Much of the responsibility for carrying off his episode fell, of course, on the trio of actors at its center: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies. Despite bold performances throughout the entire season, this episode demanded more from even Menzies, who, as the story’s devastatingly sinister villain, has already delivered the atmosphere of Randall’s particular evil quite soundly. But beyond he goes, committing so fully to his character that his performance quite transcends description. If his aim is to make Randall appear to the viewer as an embodiment of cruelty, he succeeds thoroughly. Meanwhile Heughan, our Jamie, gives a bravura performance, fiercely breaking the hearts of millions of viewers as we witness his undoing. The role of Jamie is unquestionably one of the biggest book-to-screen transitions, and Heughan’s Jamie is everything fans could ever wish for in their beloved Scottish hero. His performance has been impressive throughout the adaptation, and with the addition of such gut-wrenching, charged emotions as we see cross his face and pour from his being across the screen in this episode, Heughan has proven himself a hundred times over.
Deserving particular mention, as she always seems to be, Caitriona Balfe shines once more in her role as Claire as she grittily embodies every ounce of Claire’s loyalty to Jamie. In her determination to save Jamie from the psychological torture Randall has inflicted upon him, we see Claire vomit and cry and faint - and yet, we never see her as weak. This is, perhaps, my favorite thing about Claire, my favorite thing that the writers have stringently stayed true to, and my favorite thing that Caitriona Balfe has brought to the show. This is the undeniable truth that Claire’s fortitude is not made up solely of steely determination and an iron will, but also of raw emotion and vulnerability; hers is a strength that takes liquid form, one that matches the ebb and flow of life and allows her to meld with whatever challenge she’s met with. What I especially celebrated about this is the way Outlander showcased the courage, endurance, and grace of the feminine spirit under fire, without actually shying away from femininity.
With its inaugural season, I think not only has Outlander exceeded the expectations of many - even, perhaps, the story's diehard fans - but it's also gone on to make cultural history with its intrepid willingness to go quite deeply into the shadows of some staggering emotional territory. The creative team behind the adaptation, from creator Ron Moore to the extraordinary cast and every invaluable hand behind-the-scenes, are clearly a perfect match for the material they're bringing to the screen: everyone, it seems, has been equal in their commitment to honor not only the bones of Diana Gabaldon's remarkable novel, but to carry the complex and certainly heavy emotionality of it with true determination.
In many ways, Outlander has been a cultural turning point for its generation. Not in a long time has a television show generated such intelligent, progressive conversation. And that it was a show rooted in a dangerous, in many ways unjust point in history, with a love story, and helmed by a female character speaks volumes; for the latter two reasons, especially, society would be likely to meet a show like this with low expectations of fearlessness or, for that matter, cross-gender interest. But Outlander (with no small debt paid to Caitriona Balfe’s courageous performance) has shattered stereotypes not just for women audiences and female protagonists, but also for love stories – especially historical ones.
As we close out the first season of the series, I’m sure I’m not alone when I look back on the seemingly innumerable highs that Outlander has reached in its sixteen episodes. To choose favorites from this collective visual feast is impossible. One looks back on not simply a terrifically crafted, beautifully executed show, but a goosebump-inducing, spine-tingling array of favorite scenes, favorite performances, favorite costumes, favorites swells and surges in Bear McCreary’s magnificent score, favorite grandiose captures of the breath-taking Scottish Highlands. Nothing, it seems, was overlooked in the process of taking Claire’s story from the majesty of the written word to the canvas of the screen. And nothing about the sixteen hours that have played out for fans over the fall and spring will be easily forgotten as we wait for 2016 and Season 2, which will cover the events of Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber, the second chapter in the Outlander saga.