Outlander is a televised airport-novel cover: a pearl-clutching, bodice-ripping, ab-rippling romance. The Starz drama is also, in no particular order of significance, a period piece, a fantasy, a MacGyver-esque medical procedural, and a war story. As its second season — or “Book,” in honor of Diana Gabaldon’s source material — draws to a close this Sunday, though, fans will remember it through the “Droughtlander” for the earth-shaking connection between English World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). There’s a lot going on here, but the story of a woman who teleported through time and the Highland Fabio she fell in love with will always take priority.
Created by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, the show takes a historically trivialized genre — several, really — and maximizes it. But Outlander doesn’t pointedly avoid tropes à la Game of Thrones, whose success can sometimes feel like a backhanded compliment to its fantasy origins. It leans into them: yearslong investment in a multilayered relationship, equally developed male and female leads, and yes, sex scenes grounded in a woman’s perspective.
Outlander does all these things better than any other drama on cable, and the internet has responded accordingly. But the stuff that sets Outlander apart from the rest of the pack doesn’t come at the expense of Serious Television values like realism and nuance. That’s because Outlander is also one of the most gory, raw, and violent shows on television, often more so than the gritty, fatalist dramas that typically serve as its foils. To say so doesn’t qualify its core romanticism — it augments it.
The first half of the season — an interlude in Paris that almost stands as a miniseries unto itself — captures this quality perfectly. On the run from their English oppressors, Claire and Jamie take over his conveniently absent cousin’s wine enterprise, switching out their tartan for business baroque without blinking an eye. The costumes look like a Versailles docent’s peyote vision. Oliver Twist’s long-lost French twin (?) joins the household with minimum fanfare. All this requires not so much suspending one’s disbelief as locking it in a corset until it passes out from lack of oxygen. It’s pure, unabashed fantasy, and it never pretends otherwise.
Until the fantasy collapses in on itself. Masked thugs attack unarmed women sounds like the plot of a penny dreadful (and not the kind with Eva Green), but Outlander’s version — the on-camera rape of a teenage girl and its tragic aftermath — is deadly serious. And in the France arc’s climax, a heavily pregnant Claire experiences a miscarriage. By episode’s end, she is driven near-insane by fever from the unpassed placenta that’s begun to fester inside her, insisting on cradling the body of her dead child. The camera makes sure to linger on its face. It’s a brutal scene, and the show doesn’t let the viewer brush it off.
The show mastered this counterintuitive blend of sensitivity and depravity long before Paris, with no better example than its treatment of its villain. For starters, Capt. John “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies) — a British officer stationed in Scotland and, in a cruel twist of fate, the direct ancestor of Claire’s husband in the present — is a villain, itself something of a rarity in a TV era that began by humanizing gangsters, adulterers, and drug lords. And where Game of Thrones established Ramsay Bolton’s character as “evil is as evil does” and left it at that, Outlander looks directly into the abyss. A closeted bisexual whose fixation on Jamie has an increasingly obvious erotic component, Black Jack is able to see and even name himself for the monster he is. Over two excruciating episodes at last season’s climax, Black Jack puts Jamie through physical, psychological, and sexual torture, a sequence that is, bar none, the hardest thing to sit through I’ve ever seen on television, culminating with Jamie so utterly broken he voluntarily brands himself. It’s a gruesome display of Black Jack’s tics that still never fails to prioritize Jamie’s pain. After he’s been rescued by Claire, the shame of being complicit in his own trauma nearly drives Jamie to suicide, and the two opt to leave the country in an attempt to outrun their demons.
They can’t. The inability to get out from under war’s long shadow is another tenet of Outlander’s core philosophy, and it manifests in ugly ways. Jamie’s symptoms are both medical and mental: He struggles with impotency — a subplot that overlaps with the show’s frank treatment of intimacy — and a damaged sense of his own masculinity. Once the couple returns to Scotland and gets involved in the armed struggle for independence (yep!), Claire has her own cross to bear as the campaign triggers PTSD from her time with the Allied Forces. These issues are fascinatingly gender-flipped — Jamie is the rape survivor repeatedly rescued by his wife; Claire is the scarred veteran — and continually reinforced.
It isn’t trivializing to call these scenes or the chain of events that lead up to them disgusting. This show wants to confront us with the viscera of childbirth, just as it wants us to dwell on the horrors of sexual assault and its perpetrators. The effect is often more disturbing than the curb stompings and crucifix stabbings that merit double-edged buzz words like “brutal” and “uncompromising.” In part, this is because Outlander’s focus, in both storytelling and depicting violence itself, is on the abused rather than the abusers. These acts aren’t another item on a “gritty TV” checklist. They’re life-changing, and Outlander sticks with survivors long enough to make sure we feel it.
What makes Outlander such an effective portrayal of violence is therefore exactly what makes it an effective romance. This is a show that commits fully to its characters and the situations it puts them in. It doesn’t flinch from the implications of a wartime setting, or pregnancy, or a sociopathic villain. It doesn’t back down from preaching the power of true love, either — or heroism, lush period detail, or anything else that might lead viewers raised on a steady diet of meta comedies and grim dramas to dismiss it as cheesy or indulgent. Forget irony, or darkness: Outlander is a show with conviction, and conviction has a habit of winning you over.