I recently rage-quit Outlander. Now, if you think that sounds a little extreme . . . you’re probably right. I usually save that type of reaction for video games when I can’t beat a boss. But, as a show-only watcher who has never (and never plans to) read the books, I watched Jamie and Claire’s journey for seven seasons before I narrowly avoided chucking my computer across the room. Why? Because it broke all three of my show deal breakers.
How did Outlander end up on my DNF list? I’m breaking down my three deal breakers for all stories and why, in my opinion, Outlander committed all of them. In true dramatic fashion, I rank them from least important to most important, so make sure you read to the end before you throw your popcorn at me.
Content Warnings: Includes discussion of kidnapping and sexual assault.
Disclaimer: This is my current personal opinion on storytelling devices that negatively impact my enjoyment of a story. Additionally, as I have never read the books, I only discuss the TV show. Please feel free to watch for yourself and form your own opinion.
Point 1: Delivering on Promises
Entertainment hooks an audience by promising to deliver on a premise. For example, Transformers promises a power struggle between two powerful Cybertronian factions–those who love peace and those who choose tyranny–and holds a great war as the focal point. The Uncharted video games promise an everyday guy on a personal quest to achieve greatness–with adventure ensuing. Game of Thrones promises political factions vying for rulership over a fictional realm–with dragons and a looming threat featuring as a very intriguing bonus. What do all these successful franchises have in common? They deliver. If the story takes a side quest, you know they’ll circle back around to the main premise, and eventually, your perseverance and patience will pay off.
This is where Outlander started to lose me. The Outlander TV show launches with a premise of a time-traveling romance staged during a pivotal part in Scottish history. I enjoy learning about history from different parts of the world, so I clicked. And I watched . . . and I watched. I watched them change locations, villains, and the overall goal of the main characters many times. They move from war to war, conflict to conflict, their surroundings ever changing, until it feels like the point of watching the show is to see if they’ll get out of whatever new situation they find themselves in–but because it’s primarily a romance, the main couple has a 97% survival probability and serious plot armor. The Revolutionary War doesn’t feel any bigger in the story than the Jacobite Rising, so there isn’t a “ramping up” moment, sense of progression, or growing suspense when watching.
As a viewer who enjoys entertainment with a focal point, I began to feel unmoored. The lack of focus left me bored and annoyed. Without a main villainous or antagonistic force–a clear thing to fight even if it’s an idea–a story can sometimes lose its “why.” Jamie and Claire are together now, and the circumstances that continue to provide the conflict romance thrives on–keeping the lovebirds apart–begin to feel contrived. For instance, in Season 6, Richard Brown prepares a very obvious setup where they lure Jamie out of the wagon and then hold him hostage while they take Claire away to her trial. In Season 7, Jamie travels to the same city Claire is held prisoner in, so all they really achieved was to separate them, once again, while we waited for the next season. Contrived is where you lose me, which brings me to dealbreaker number two.
Point 2: Repetition
While many stories include common themes, tropes, symbols, and ideas, the goal is to maintain a satisfying amount of unpredictability and surprise. When characters begin to repeat choices, lessons, and events, I feel distanced from them and find myself thrown out of a narrative. I have two examples of repetition that impacted my enjoyment of Outlander:
The “Claire’s A Witch” storyline.
In Season 1, we go through the “Claire knows medicine from modern times, so she must be a witch” storyline. They then put her on trial, and Jamie saves the day. I had no problem with it the first time; modern medicine in the past is something that would make the average citizen look at you kind of funny; I get it. I also am 100% here for someone saving the day for the person they love. However, in Season 6, we rehash the danger and skepticism surrounding Claire being a woman of medicine and, thus, being perceived as a witch. Again, it culminates in Claire being shipped off to a trial–and while this one is for murder, we can’t discount the influence of the many characters who were suspicious of her medical practice. She avoided the trial because, this time, Christie saved the day, and I was not the least bit worried the entire time–clickbait opener included.
The “Claire’s Been Kidnapped” storyline.
I have no problem with a character being kidnapped if the choices and circumstances leading to the kidnapping are realistic. I also have no problem with a character being saved, provided the choices and circumstances leading to the saving make sense. However, Claire has experienced some form of kidnapping multiple times throughout the series. Firstly, the stones technically kidnapped her conceptually. Second, she ran away from Jamie and right into the hands of their enemies, and Jamie and Co. rescued her from Fort William. In Season 5, Lionel Brown abducted and assaulted her. In Season 6, Richard Brown and the committee of safety arrest her, then separate her from Jamie on the way to her trial. Claire’s daughter, Brianna, is also kidnapped in Season 5 by Stephen Bonnet. I can just feel it in my bones; there’ll be another one. At this point, there is so much repetition and reliance on this as a plot point serving as a source of conflict for the story and providing separation for the couples that I clocked out.
Point 3: Character Development
I’ve adopted this philosophy: we engage with entertainment for the characters involved. If you don’t care about the characters, you don’t care about their story, and you don’t care about the entertainment product you’re consuming. Additionally, from a storytelling perspective, no matter how good your plot is, if your characters fall short, the story won’t reach its peak potential. Looking for a surefire way to make viewers stop caring about your characters? Mess ’em up.
There’s a myriad of ways someone could fail their characters. The characters could make a choice they should know better than to make at that point in the story. Or, they could “forget” important lessons they’ve already learned and repeat faulty choices. They could even react in a way they would never actually react. Speaking of unusual reactions, my rage quit moment serves as an excellent example. In Outlander Season 7, Episode 4, “A Most Uncomfortable Woman,” Christie kisses Claire without her consent. Claire is a survivor of multiple instances of sexual assault. She is also a married woman whose love story is the central focus of the plot. However, she does not lay ground rules for Christie in the episode and does not ask or tell Christie not to repeat his behavior. Neither does Jamie, her husband. Jamie’s first reaction is to ask if she liked the encounter, and upon her hesitation (that hesitation is a whole separate conversation), then asks if he’d better go kill Christie for it. They then appear to be turned on by jealousy and do the do. This was very different behavior than what I expected of these characters–characters who have in the past behaved and reacted very differently in events where consent is concerned. So much so that I had to do a double take and a rewatch, just to make sure I understood the events properly.
All this to say, as a viewer who values complex, dynamic plotting and main characters whose relationships are not subjected to many similar events, I rage quit Outlander. The story had previously grown meandering and predictable–unless you were trying to predict a satisfying amount of action, then you’d be dead wrong. If you, like me, are done with Outlander, a friend of mine recently recommended Peaky Blinders to me, and I’ve watched it all the way through and loved it. So if you want a TV show that will spoil you (and is perfect for the rainy winter days coming up), that’s definitely one to watch. When you have Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, Outlander really doesn’t touch it.