The Sexiest Show On TV Is Finally Back — But That's Not The Only Reason To Watch

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for season 2.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe
How do a virgin Scotsman, son of a laird, and an English nurse, dropped in the middle of his time by providence, join to rip her bodice and change history in the process?

I won’t attempt to continue with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhyme scheme, but I do hope I have your attention. Outlander, the TV show adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling novels, begins its second season April 9 on Starz, and I’m here to convince you that it’s well worth your time. I am not throwing away my shot, you could say.

We can start at the very beginning, of course, for anyone who might be not be in the know about Outlander. “Where have you been, under a rock?” says star Sam Heughan. The Scottish actor plays the aforementioned strapping Scotsman Jamie Fraser (who’s no longer a virgin by the end of the first season), and I’ll let him give you the gist of the story. “It’s about a 1940s field nurse called Claire who’s transported back in time 200 years, where she — amongst many other adventures — meets a group of Scottish highlanders and is very quickly forced into a marriage with my character. It’s set in a time of great rebellion and uprising in Scotland. In season 2, Jamie and Claire have traveled to Paris to try to change the fate of history.”

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking right about now. Time travel? Changing the fate of history? Forced into marriage? Trust me. I, too, was skeptical. I had zero interest in watching a show about a woman living in a time (the 1940s) where females were unequal to men, then traveling back in time to a period where women were considered even more subservient to men. As the Scots say, “Och.”

Don’t worry; all of this is handled quite deftly. The time travel doesn’t happen every episode — in fact, it only happens once in the first season. Then, there’s Claire. She is our type of woman, carving out a space for herself and finding gender parity no matter which century she finds herself in. The entire series is told from her perspective, making Outlander one of the most radical shows on television right now. Sure, there are other shows told from a female perspective, but there’s no point of view quite like Claire Randall Fraser’s.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Caitriona Balfe
“She’s brave, bold, and smart. She loves fiercely, she fights fiercely, she has sex fiercely...she’s a very passionate woman,” says Caitriona Balfe, the Irish actress who brings Claire to life on Outlander. “The beauty of Claire is she doesn’t see gender, in a way. She sees what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s what she’s interested in and she’s very outspoken about it. She’s not going to adhere to societal norms or what people are supposed to do. She’s going to do what she sees as right, and that’s the most feminist thing you can do: Just do what you want and not conform to what people think you should be or do...It’s forced me to look at my life and where I’m making compromises, and ask if I’m doing enough to give voice to women.”

One of the ways in which Claire demonstrates her zest for life is through her sexuality. “Claire is not apologetic about how sexual she is, nor should she be,” Balfe says. In the very first episode, she and her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), visit the ruins of a Scottish castle to which she’ll eventually travel back in time and witness as part of a thriving community. Claire ever-so-sensually prods Frank to perform oral sex on her on a table among the rubble.

Balfe knew how important a role sex plays in Gabaldon’s books, but she had never even filmed a sex scene when she signed onto the role. “I sat down with Ron [Moore, Outlander’s creator and showrunner] because, obviously, that was one of my concerns: ‘How is this going to be? I’m not interested in doing gratuitous sex for no reason.’ Ron was very adamant that any sex scene was going to be there for a purpose, and it was going to tell something about Claire, or it was going to to tell something about the story and move it forward. We’ve stuck to that.”

The result? Some of the steamiest sex scenes you’ll ever see on a TV show — scenes that look intensely pleasurable for both partners. When Heughan says that Claire was “forced into marriage” with his character, she actually did have a choice in the matter. Their characters had such intense chemistry that it just made sense for them to tie the knot, especially given that Claire was having trouble wandering around 1740s Scotland as an unattached Englishwoman who couldn’t explain how she got there. (There’s that disappointing lack of gender equality again. A lone male wandering around in that time might be presumed a highwayman or soldier returning to his regiment. A lone woman is obviously a witch.)

Also, Claire has one extremely surprising leg up on Jamie: He’s a virgin. She isn’t, given that she’s married to Frank back in 1943. “I guess it’s always sort of assumed that men are these sort of experienced lovers, but that’s part of Jamie’s character," Heughan says. "You’re like, how could he be a virgin? He’s a man of his time. He’s young, impulsive, and passionate. But he’s also religious and saved himself for the woman he will eventually love.”
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan
This makes for one of the most interesting wedding nights you’ll ever watch. (It’s season 1, episode 7, by the way, and I suggest you take a look.) While it’s technically called “The Wedding," I much prefer The A.V. Club’s alternate suggestion: “The female gaze for days.” During their first night together as man and wife, Jamie and Claire don’t just dive right into sex. They explore each other bodies, first from afar, then from up close. They make important discoveries — Jamie didn’t realize humans have sex face-to-face, since he’s only ever seen animals mating on his farm. “She’s teaching him,” Heughan says.

They also talk...a lot. After all, they’re still getting to know each other, and this is the night they become as intimate as two people can be for the first time. It’s not the type of 21st-century going at it we usually see in this sort of scene. Jamie and Claire actually take the time to get to know each other, and — I’m going to try to say this in a way that doesn’t make us all want to vomit a little bit — it almost makes you realize why the word “know” means “have sex with” in the biblical sense. “To be honest, it wasn’t about one having more power than the other; it’s about two people finding out about each other, and they’re equals. That’s the joy of Jamie and Claire’s relationship, that they’re equal in everything,” Heughan says.

In season 2, Claire is pregnan with Jamie's bairn, and Balfe fought for sex scenes that include her baby bump. “I think there was a little bit of fear that they didn’t want to show the pregnant belly, and I was like, ‘No, you have to.’ I think women are so sexual and sexy when they’re pregnant. If we’re gonna do a sex scene, it has to be about A) [the fact that] they’re bonding; and B) the pregnancy is part of it. It’s part of what brings them closer together.”

also has fun with the sexual mores of 1740s Paris this season. When Jamie visits a brothel for a business meeting, the madam is selling dildos. When Jamie and Claire visit the court of King Louis XV (Lionel Lingelser), there’s a woman wearing a dress that displays both of her breasts. Her nipples are decorated with two accessories similar to the ones Janet Jackson wore during the famous Super Bowl incident. Did I mention this show is progressive even though it’s set in the past?

Outlander is not always sunshine, roses, and glorious, lustful sex (sometimes al fresco), though. This isn’t a genre-bending bodice-ripper about a one-dimensional historical heartthrob who’s merely wish-fulfillment for viewers and a damsel in distress who finds herself lost in 18th-century Scotland. First of all, we’ve already established that Claire is no damsel in distress. Second of all, at the end of season 1, Jamie goes through a traumatic experience at the hands of the sadistic Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies, again), a captain in the British army and Frank’s ancestor.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies
While Black Jack has Jamie jailed in Wentworth Prison, he rapes and tortures Jamie, mentally and physically breaking him down in order to make Jamie forget his life with Claire and lose any semblance of human dignity and personhood. “Black Jack destroys Jamie’s body, breaks his mind, and destroys the memories of Claire. Whenever Jamie thinks of Claire, he can’t help but think of Randall,” Heughan says, adding that in the aftermath, "Jamie has a lot of guilt, and that’s a big factor for survivors of any sort of assault of that nature. It’s this sort of punishing oneself, thinking it’s their fault. It changes Jamie. He’s experienced challenging times before this point, but he’s gotten through them."

The traumatic isn’t neatly dealt with and never spoken of again. “Jamie doesn’t recover from this quickly, nor should he,” Balfe says. “Sam and I fought for the relationship not to just bounce back, because when someone’s assaulted sexually or through PTSD, it affects the whole unit. Claire is trying to be empathetic and understanding and give Jamie his space and time...It’s difficult for them. They really struggle with trying to figure out how to recover and keep their bond strong.”
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan
Jamie now has recurring nightmares and flashbacks to his torture. He has trouble having sex with Claire. She assures him that Black Jack Randall is dead, but — surprise! — he’s not. In his usual Black Jack way, though, he sees his actions at Wentworth as almost honorable. “In his weird way, however twisted he may be, he has a code of honor,” says Menzies. “He has his passions, as well.” Those passions may include sadistic torture, but hey, he’s found his thing.

That’s just a little bit of what we have to look forward to in season 2. Plus, Claire travels back to the 1940s, where she again meets up with Frank, whom she now can barely look at without seeing flashbacks to Black Jack. Frank has to decide whether to believe her whole story about time travel and he has to accept that not only has Claire fallen in love with and married another man, she’s also pregnant with his child.

Oh, the tangled web Outlander weaves, ye ken?

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