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A Look At How ‘Outlander’ Became The Breakout Drama You Need to Be Watching

Nora Dominick ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Co-Executive Stage Editor

On Saturday, Outlander will end its second season with the highly-anticipated episode, “Dragonfly in Amber.” The 90-minute finale will include the monumental Battle of Culloden, an event that will leave Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) world forever changed. The season finale will also introduce fans to highly-anticipated characters Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin).

Ahead of the season two finale, Emertainment Monthly looks back at how Outlander became the breakout drama you need to be watching right now!

It All Started With a Man in a Kilt

In order to fully appreciate the TV show, you first have to look at the beautifully crafted book series. Long before Jamie and Claire were traveling through the Highlands on TV, the duo were turning heads in Diana Gabaldon’s romance series. In 1991, Gabaldon released the first novel in what would become The Outlander Series, Outlander.

According to her official website, Outlander wasn’t originally supposed to be published. Gabaldon wrote the novel for practice and it spiraled from there. The inspiration for Outlander and the Scottish setting actually came from a minor character in a Dr. Who episode. Gabaldon says, “[I] was taken by a minor character– a young Scotsman from 1745, who appeared in his kilt…” So that’s where Gabaldon began. She had no prior knowledge of Scotland or the eighteenth century. There was no predetermined plot, no outline, no characters in mind, she says there was “nothing but the rather vague images conjured up by a man in a kilt.”

Gabaldon also discusses the idea of time-travel on her official website. She says the idea for a time-travel novel came directly from the character, Claire. She reminisces about writing the scene in Outlander where Dougal meets Claire for the first time. Gabaldon writes, “without my stopping to think who she should be, she drew herself up, stared belligerently at him and said ‘Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?’ She promptly took over the story and began telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything.” At this point Gabaldon didn’t think anyone would read Outlander. She figured she would determine how Claire travelled to the past later on. She says, “So the time-travel was all her [Claire’s] fault.”

The original novel also earned Gabaldon a 1992 Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA Award for Best Romance of 1991. Outlander also reached number one on The New York Times Bestseller List for Fiction in 2014 following the release of the TV show.

More Than Just a Romance Series

The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Photo Credit: Amazon
The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Photo Credit: Amazon

After Outlander was published in 1991, the series took off. The second installment Dragonfly in Amber was published in 1992. A brilliant follow up to the first novel, Dragonfly in Amber brings fans into the treacherous world of 1774 Paris as Jamie and Claire try to stop the Battle of Culloden from happening in Scotland. Dragonfly in Amber effortlessly intertwines Claire and Jamie’s lives in 1744 with Claire’s present-day life in 1968 with her daughter, Brianna. With each new addition to the series, Gabaldon adds more fiercely strong, different, and intriguing characters. Each character set against the historical backgrounds of Scotland, Paris and even Colonial America. Each new book redefines the romance genre by packing as much war, heartache and chaos into the pages as sex, romance and lust.

With eight novels in The Outlander Series under her belt, Gabaldon isn’t slowing down just yet. She is currently writing book nine entitled Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone, a title Gabaldon recently confirmed on her official Facebook page. The series has also spawned “The Lord John Grey Series,” novellas, Outlandish companions, a graphic novel, a coloring book and even Outlander: The Musical.

Gabaldon’s original idea of a man in a kilt has lead to a vast community of Outlander fans on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media platforms. Sam Heughan’s fiercely loyal fans have dubbed themselves “Heughan’s Heughligans.” The fandom has raised money for charity through merchandise sales and other giving opportunities. What started out as a “practice book,” Outlander has paved the way for a devoted fan base, a beautiful TV series, and book series that has redefined the romance genre. With Gabaldon’s devotion to telling real stories and creating gorgeously written, well-rounded characters, Outlander has defined a generation of readers and now TV viewers.

Beautifully Executed Casting

The next important components of Outlander are the actors who bring the characters to life. When it was first announced that Outlander would leap off the page and onto the small screen, the first thought on fans minds was casting. Who would be tasked with bringing Claire and Jamie to life? As well as one of the most epic love stories ever? Who could simultaneously pull off Black Jack and Frank Randall? The characters had to come to life not only for long time fans, but also Gabaldon and executive producer Ronald D. Moore.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser

Sam Heughan in season one of Outlander. Photo Credit: Starz
Sam Heughan in season one of Outlander. Photo Credit: Starz

Casting a leading male character is always difficult. Casting a leading male character adapted from a beloved book series is extremely difficult. When news spread about Outlander being turned into a TV show, fans began to feverishly dream cast Jamie. He had to have the perfect red hair, he had to be really buff, have the right eye color, be the correct height, everything about Jamie had to be perfect. Of course, when news broke that the relatively unknown Scottish actor Sam Heughan had been cast as James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Frasier, some fans were less than please. Comments on Gabaldon’s Facebook announcement read, “he’s not buff enough,” “he’s no Jamie” and some fans were even offering up new casting options.

In a Facebook post in 2013, Gabaldon offers up her thoughts on Heughan’s casting and walked devoted fans through her thought process. She writes about seeing Heughan transform into Jamie for the first time. She recalls watching a scene he recorded, “First five seconds, I’m interested—he looks totally different than he did in any of the stills—and five seconds later, Sam Heughan’s GONE, and so am I. It’s Jamie Fraser, right there in front of me, moving, talking. One of the biggest thrills ever… And that’s what actors do. Good ones. They can ‘be’ someone else, totally.”

After watching season one of Outlander, Heughan transformed into Jamie Fraser right before audiences eyes. From the moment he road across the screen on his horse, he swept Claire and audiences off their feet. Throughout season one, Heughan was praised for his portrayal, but it wasn’t until the season one finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” that audiences and critics fully realized how great an actor Heughan was.

During the season one finale, Jamie is faced with his toughest test throughout the series when he is brutally raped by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) in Wentworth Prison. In a single episode, Heughan takes Jamie from a conservative soldier fighting for his homeland to a helpless rape victim who just wants to die. Heughan’s tears rip deep into the soul of every Outlander fan during this episode and he further proves he is the breakout star of the show.

In season two, Heughan re-energized Jamie’s character as he builds a new life in Paris with Claire and eventually fights for his Scottish homeland. With every single episode, Heughan showcases his devotion to create a different kind of leading male. A male character that isn’t afraid to be strong and vulnerable. Unlike other male leads, Jamie’s manliness and strength is never at the forefront. Although he outwardly appears strong and intimidating, his inward appearance is all heart. Outlander changes the way we look at leading men on TV and it’s all thanks to Gabaldon’s character and Heughan’s portrayal.

It was with Heughan’s casting that Outlander began to take shape into the revolutionary drama it has become. His work continues to be one of the strongest points of each episode. Fans (and critics) are still anxiously waiting for Heughan to receive an Emmy and/or Golden Globe nomination. There’s no other dashing Scot we could see as Jamie Fraser and we like it that way.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

Caitriona Balfe in Outlander. Photo Credit: Starz
Caitriona Balfe in Outlander. Photo Credit: Starz

For a novel to TV adaptation like Outlander, casting Jamie and Claire was the most important aspect to get right. Like Jamie, fans feverishly dream casted Claire. She had to have the right hair and eye color, have awe-inducing chemistry with Jamie and most importantly, be able to represent the feminist character on the page . When it was announced that Irish actress and model Caitriona Balfe would be taking on the role, fans finally met the actress that was seemingly born to play her.

In an interview with The Wrap, Moore discusses the casting process for Claire. He says, “It was difficult, because you were looking for a lot of indefinable qualities. Smart, because you’re going to have to watch this person think; we’re doing a lot of first person narrative. She’s literally with you continuously. She’s in every scene. This had to be somebody who can carry that kind of load, play a lot of different beats.” Moore continues saying,  “It was the same kind of moment when casting Sam. We saw Caitriona’s tape and we thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Claire.’ So, it all kind of fell together.”

Balfe was the last principal cast member to join Outlander. In an interview with W Magazine, Balfe reminisces about her casting experience. She says, “I was living in L.A., working on bits and pieces of films. My manager sent me to the audition. I didn’t hear anything for three weeks, then I got a call that they wanted to see me again. It was a whirlwind. They casted me on Tuesday, and asked me to be there on Wednesday. I had a cat, an apartment, I had to figure out all this shit. Five days later I was on location in Glasgow shooting.”

Since jumping on screen as Claire Fraser in season one of Outlander, Balfe has been mesmerizing. She has brought Claire to life with fierceness, vitality and strength. It has been a pleasure to witness her transformation into a bonafide Hollywood actress. Her work on Outlander has earned her a Golden Globe nomination and back-to-back Saturn Award wins for Best Actress in a Television Series.

In season one, Balfe led Outlander with the kind of passion Claire exemplifies in the book series. Her work in critical series moments like the infamous “spanking scene,” went above and beyond expectations. If fans and critics thought Balfe’s work in season one was amazing, season two has been extraordinary. She has taken Claire to new heights during the first two seasons. Furthermore, with hardship after hardship hurdling towards Claire and Jamie, Balfe has amazed audiences and critics alike.

One of Balfe’s strongest moments on Outlander came during the season two episode, “Faith.” Arguable the best episode of the series to date, Claire must deal with losing her newborn daughter after Jamie betrays her and goes to fight Black Jack Randall. If you want to see an Emmy Award winning performance in the making, watch any scene during that episode. With little interaction with other actors, Balfe is left alone to fully expose Claire’s heart aching grief. From the moment Claire falls down in pain to realizing her newborn didn’t survive, Balfe exceeds every expectation. She beautifully brings this pivotal moment from Dragonfly in Amber to life. She continues to triumph in the small, intimate moments on Outlander and if season two is any indication, Balfe will continue to hone her craft and deliver award winning performances in this career-defining role.

Caitriona Balfe is one of the many reasons Outlander has skyrocketed to the top of everyones must watch list. With her beautiful portrayal of Claire, Balfe is the number one actress to watch out for this TV season (especially with the Emmys fast approaching). 

A New Kind of Romance

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in the Outlander episode "The Wedding." Photo Credit: Starz
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in the Outlander episode “The Wedding.” Photo Credit: Starz

The romance between Jamie and Claire is one of the key elements in Outlander. It’s one of the biggest romances currently on TV. Seeing it brought off the page and onto the screen has been amazing to witness. Balfe and Heughan’s chemistry is breathtaking as they take fans through the duos complicated relationship. Heughan and Balfe barely need to utter any words during their scenes together. Their natural chemistry and pure love for their characters shines through in every moment they take part in. From jaw-dropping sex scenes to intimate moments, Balfe and Heughan are the very definition of sexual chemistry.

As previously mentioned, Gabaldon’s Outlander series is credited with redefining the romance novel genre. Very early on, readers took notice to the sex scenes and steamy romance between Claire and Jamie. It was different than anything else presented in novels. This time around, the strapping young man, Jamie, is the virgin and Claire is the expert in the sex department. The scenes are told through a woman’s perspective and are written with the right amount of emotion and eroticism.

One of the scenes brought to life last season was the infamous wedding-night between Jamie and Claire. An important turning point, the wedding-night gives fans the first glimpse at Jamie and Claire’s steamy relationship. Fans wondered if the scene would be done justice in the TV show adaptation. Would it be as sexy as it’s on the page? Would it continue to be equal parts pleasurable for Jamie and Claire? And more importantly, would the scene continue to be from Claire’s perspective?

When the wedding episode aired in season one, it met expectations from both male and female viewers. The scene was equal parts watching Jamie enjoy sex for the first time and Claire enjoying her new partner. It redefines the way sex is shown on TV. It doesn’t need to be more pleasurable for one gender over the other. Outlander shows that sex can simply be between two equally passionate people. That’s refreshing to see on TV. Outlander maybe set in the 18th century, but the romance is portrayed with a feminist, 21st century flair. This characteristic has allowed Outlander to stand out amongst a sea of other TV dramas.

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in the Outlander season one finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” Photo Credit: STARZ
Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in the Outlander season one finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” Photo Credit: STARZ

Beginning with a series of exquisite novels by Diana Gabaldon, turning into a revolutionary TV series produced by Ronald D. Moore and starring TV’s biggest breakout stars Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, Outlander has redefined TV dramas. The TV show and novels have transformed the way we look at sex, rape, war, pure romance and even time-travel. The characters have stood the test of time on the page and are now changing the game on television.

As season two comes to close on Saturday, Outlander will surely leave fans with another award worthy episode of television. So, as if you needed another reasons, grab your remote, a copy of the books and a kilt. It’s time to fall in love with Scotland just like us.

Outlander’s season two finale “Dragonfly in Amber” airs July 9th at 9/8c on Starz

You can catch up on seasons 1 & 2 of Outlander online or with the Starz App

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5 Comments

  1. I’d argue that it doesn’t “redefine the romance genre” by having all those other things, I’d say it pretty clearly *isn’t* a romance genre series! It’s time travel science fiction who’s characters also have rich intimate lives. Just because there is “sex, romance and lust.” in a book *doesn’t* pigeonhole it into the romance genre of publishing. If that was true, then GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire series should be shelved in ‘romance’, and not ‘fantasy’, just because it has dragons and magic.

    The fact that it keeps being marketed and reported as ‘romance novels’ is part of *why* people are so surprised by the depth of character and story- the romance publishing genre popularly implies bodice ripping, cheesy dialogue and weak plot at as a vehicle for sex scenes.

    1. Thank you, Eleri! There are two separate issues here–the popular (and often incorrect) perception of romance novels, and…whether I write them. I don’t. I do _read_ romance novels, and could tell you at no doubt tedious length what one is, in terms of structure, expectations and constraints–none of which I use, with the exception that OUTLANDER is indeed a courtship story. (All romance novels–in the modern sense of the word–are courtship stories; they don’t have sequels, because the story is over when the couple unites. This is sort of not what I do .)

      Still, I’m very flattered by Nora’s wonderful descriptions of book and show–thank you very much, Nora!

  2. Excellent review. Caitriona Balfe has been mesmerizingly watchable as Claire; but “Outlander” would not work at all without Sam Hueghan’s strong, nuanced, and emotional performance as Jamie. He is the heart of the show, and I think has been under-rated. Thank you for making that point.

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