An Outlander Community
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There’s undoubtedly a sensationalism and often thrilling fantasy in the display of beautiful bodies in film and television, a fantasy Starz and fellow premium cable channels HBO and Showtime have a long and sometimes problematic history in enjoying. Particularly in recent years several television shows, including many that have otherwise been critically lauded, have come under scrutiny—whether justly or unjustly—for prurient, male-entitled nudity with, it is argued, little to no storytelling merit. Nudity, as some showrunners have confided to the media, is a mandate for many premium cable productions.

This is the television and critical climate Outlander inhabits. Whatever the “necessity” or “merit” of exposed bodies and sex among its programming company, and however equally—if differently—sensational and pornographic the reputation for literary romance which the novels have—again, justly or unjustly—inherited, Starz’ Outlander is doing something interesting and subtly groundbreaking.

[Note: Although the questions and observations that inspired this post rely heavily on anticipating details from the novel, this discussion includes no spoilers beyond the third episode “The Way Out”. If you choose to include any specific details beyond this in the comments, please include a spoiler warning and hide the relevant text until highlighted. All image credits: Starz.]


BODIES

I laughed at the memory of Corporal Chisholm. “He told me, ‘If I’m goin’ to lie on my face wi’ my buttocks bared, I want the lass under me, not behind me wi’ a hatpin!’” (Chapter 1, “A New Beginning”)

Or, “Don’t tell me my ass offends you too.” (Episode 3, “The Way Out")




There’s something of a paradox of attitudes towards nudity in Outlander’s forked timeline. Claire, whose sensibilities of the human body are firmly rooted in both her mid-20th century habits of fashion and sex but also her extensive experience as a combat nurse, thinks nothing of her fine white knee-length dress until she finds herself transported to the mid-18th century being lasciviously leered at by men, English and Scots alike, who mistaking her dress for undergarments think she may very well be a whore. Castle Leoch’s Mrs. FitzGibbons is mildly scandalized by Claire’s attire. But, when it comes to remedying her wardrobe, she is unabashed by Claire’s naked body, distracted instead by her unusual “corset”. Conversely, Claire may be willing but is visibly embarassed by undressing in front of an entirely non-body-shy stranger, guarding her chest with her forearms, smiling nervously, and bashfully sliding out of her knickers. It’s a brand of physical intimacy the 18th-century housekeeper barely registers but the 20th-century nurse finds distinctly uncomfortable. As such, it’s also a telling vignette of Outlander’s disjunctive anachronism. Claire’s relationship to her own body and her sense of privacy about it become markers for her degree of acclimatization.


But, though we’ve seen little of it, Claire shows minimal embarrassment or reticence with wounded or debilitated bodies. Like Mrs. FitzGibbons dressing the lady, the professional context mitigates her interaction with those variably exposed bodies. Claire betrays no particular interest in Jamie’s body in Episode 1 outside of treating his injuries, and she’s confident and sure in her handling of it accordingly, resetting his disjointed shoulder with authority and bandaging his musket wound with a steady hand. She’s able to observe and diagnose Colum’s painful and disfiguring disease without shrinking in horror or gawking rudely. Her tactful candor regarding his therapy and her amused—yet unabashed—demeanor when casually presented with his bare ass, especially when followed by her unflinching treatment of his lower back, reinforce her professionalism. But Episodes 2 and 3 present a perhaps more uncertain tone for Claire and Jamie’s physical contact. No doubt, the circumstances shift: Claire now disinfects and bandages his wounds beside a castle fireplace rather than on the roadside with dirty rags and whiskey, and perhaps she’s just as delicate with all her patients when she has leisure to be, but the privacy and nearness her care imparts the pair, the more they seem to lapse into fraught eye-gazing.

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“But when you see it yourself, it’s like”—he hesitated, looking for words—“it’s a bit…personal, maybe, is what I mean.” (Chapter 8, “An Evening’s Entertainment”)




There’s a moment just before his wrap falls to his waist that Jamie—if you can tear your eyes away from his impressive chest long enough to notice—visibly balks, at first surprised and reluctant to allow his back to be exposed, then self-conscious and resigned in turn. Claire’s steady, if curious, hand and their conversation somewhat ease his manner, but Jamie is circumspect about having his mutilated back define him, a worry that keeps him from letting Old Alec see his scars. Part of it can be attributed, as it later is by Jamie himself, to Claire's deft bedside manner and battlefield training. Quite honestly, she's seen worse. But between these two, such an unveiling seems both confessional and erotic.

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“Her dress was torn a bit.” (Chapter 4, “I Come to the Castle”)




As TV.com reviewer Lily Sparks points out in her review for “Castle Leoch” (here), Outlander transforms the flippant phrase “bodice-ripper” into a far more sinister and menacing designation, just one in any number of de-romanticizing strategies prevalent in Gabaldon’s novels and their adaptation. At the violent hands of the nefarious Captain Randall, Jenny Fraser’s clothes are ripped open, her chest is exposed, and her head pried back by her hair. It’s a posture of vulnerability and subjugation, a violent demonstration of English force and Scottish (and perhaps also feminine) helplessness.

But, although Jenny shares considerably in the scene’s violence, it is—primarily even—designed to humiliate and terrorize Jamie, forced by Randall to face his sister’s exposed body with no power to intervene. Recounted to Claire, it is not a story about Jenny and how horrible it must have been for her. It’s a story about Jamie, how terrible it was for him to be viciously taunted by the spectacle of his sister’s exposed and debased body. Shortly after, the exchange devolves into alternating violations of both siblings’ bodies: Jamie’s bare back is whipped for his interference in view of Jenny, Jenny is terrorized into submitting herself to rape to keep Randall from slitting Jamie’s throat, and after being knocked out with the butt of a sword, Jamie wakes on his way to Fort William to be mutilated and flogged to near death, twice.


No doubt, Outlander’s leads are very fine eye candy. Caitriona Balfe’s tall, lithe frame and alabaster skin make her a stunning heroine, validating the amorous attention she receives from Frank, Jamie and others. And Sam Heughan’s tall, muscled physique and strong, elegant bone structure make him a pleasantly suitable vehicle for the sexual fantasies Jamie inspires in Laoghaire, Claire and others. But Outlander’s nudity is more interesting, and ultimately more fun, than just that. It discloses character even as it allows for the quiet titillation that bare flesh stirs, in both the other characters and us viewers.


SEX

He sprang the clasp of my brassiere with one accomplished flick of the thumb, and bent to pay a skilled homage to my breasts. (Chapter 2, “Standing Stones”)




Claire and Frank are good at sex.

“Sassenach” makes a few changes to its source novel—adding the off-camera sex scene immediately after their arrival to Mrs. Baird’s, relocating Frank and Claire’s sex at the hill of Craigh na Dun to the “troll lair” in Castle Leoch, and reframing it as oral sex for her pleasure—but it remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of their relationship. Claire and Frank, trying and struggling to conceive a child, nevertheless have a flirtatious sexual dynamic, one that teases Mrs. Baird’s eavesdropping or bantering about the love lives of trolls. Their relationship may be more immediately difficult for an audience to invest in, since their romance—their love story between first meeting and falling in love—is unseen, but they have an easy, if a little estranged by wartime separation, rapport.

It’s also a relationship that empowers Claire. Twice it is she who initiates sex. She pulls Frank down to her after jumping on the bed to tease Mrs. Baird and begins removing his clothes. While exploring the castle ruins, Claire escalates the sexual moment, inviting Frank by seductively flashing her stocking suspenders and with a guiding push requests oral sex for her own satisfaction. She’s desirous and assertive about her desires, and though he never drops his polite English bearing, Frank seems impishly pleased to acquiesce.



In short, through its both sweet and piquant sex scenes, “Sassenach” succeeds in establishing a satisfying tone for Claire’s sex life with Frank and separately precedent for Claire’s own self-assured sexual appetite.

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“I don’t hold wi’ rape, and we’ve not the time for it, anyway.” (Chapter 3, “The Man in the Wood”)



If ever there was an unconvincing statement of principle, Dougal’s intervention on Claire’s behalf nails it. Like her lightly clothed body, sex changes its meaning for Claire after she travels through the stones. Rather than a vehicle to reconnect with her loving husband through pleasure and physical closeness, sex quickly becomes something to fear. Beginning only minutes after arriving in 1743, she’s nearly raped by her husband’s evil ancestral doppelgänger, threatened rape again by her would-be Scottish rescuers, menaced into submission at sword point with the threat of being thrown over a shoulder and carried back like a petulant child, and suggested a beating for being a heretical, foul-mouthed woman, all before she even reaches Castle Leoch.

Claire’s stubbornness doesn’t waver, but her growing awareness of her physical vulnerability gives her a different, unwelcome perspective on her own body. Although Claire sexual keenness doesn’t abate, as she confides to the audience in Episode 3, she is now under near-constant threat of sexual assault.

Not completely exhausted after all. (Chapter 4, “I Come to the Castle”)


The more I return to the scene, the more I’m convinced Jamie’s unseen and unmentioned erection is responsible for Claire’s sudden discomfort and his reassuring non-apology: “Ye need not be scairt of me. Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye.” It answers those very fears of sexual violation visibly troubling Claire.

It’s an odd scene, one whose on-screen representation elevates the most immediate erotic resonances that the book intimates, and Claire and Jamie’s moment staring into each others' eyes—a moment that is again echoed in her surgery in “The Way Out”—is rich with diverse meaning. It’s an intimate moment, one which by itself could easily take Claire aback, since her fidelity and her love still belong to Frank. She could easily be surprised as much as anything by the unconscious acknowledgment of her own attraction to the impressive young Scot. Such a physically intimate moment, especially but not necessarily one that is made unexpectedly and unambiguously sexual by the sudden awareness of his erection, would be an intrusion on that sincere affection. It also recontextualizes her budding friendship with Jamie as something that, in this new world, perhaps should be feared. In fact, Claire appears to have felt less threatened by his holding a sword to her neck in the last episode than she does here.

poll


What are your impressions so far on how Outlander has presented bodies and sex?

Are there any scenes that particularly deserve revisiting? Are there any that prove particularly irksome or troublesome?

How do you feel about Jamie's flashback to his first conflict with "Black Jack" Randall? Any thoughts on the differences between his and his sister's bodies?

Has Outlander sufficiently established Claire's marriage with Frank as a viable love interest to rival her burgeoning flirtation and undeniable chemistry with Jamie?
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Apr 21, 2015
My husband and I watched all of Season 1 and some of the first episode of Season 2 of Outlander. We are both fans of historical fiction and were enthralled by the storyline of Outlander. Our real discomfort with Outlander began with "The Wedding" and the propensity of overlong, graphic sexual scenes that lent NOTHING to the story except the cheap thrill of what is, frankly, televised soft (and maybe not so soft) pornography that we saw was becoming the norm in each episode. We watched some of Season 2's first episode, hoping the writers had gotten over their sexual focus now that the series was taking off and would get back to concentrating on the story in Season 2. Unfortunately, we were sadly disappointed. When once again the overblown sex scenes began in that first episode of Season 2, we disgustedly changed the channel, removed Outlander from our DVR's previous and future scheduled recordings, and gave up on the series. Is there no voice of reason or at least ONE truly creative mind among the writers of Outlander? Or is the intent to simply make the biggest splash and the most money using a high-budget production, a little bit of story, and a whole lot of graphic sex? It seems so. What a shame ... Outlander has a great storyline, the production itself is very well done, the actors are good ... it could have been a classy and "classic" series were it not for the overlong, overly produced, sex scenes. More peripheral character development, side stories involving those peripheral characters, would add so much more to the series than "how are Claire and Jamie going to fight and have make-up sex tonight?" At some point, fellas, all that sex is gonna get so ho-hum and predictable until the steamy sex scenes will be all Outlander is remembered (or watched) for. Wouldn't the producers of Outlander prefer the series to be remembered (and syndicated for a long time) as the quintessential production of a superb story than a soft-porn go-to watched only by those looking for the impetus to a cheap thrill during the wee hours of the morning? I'm certain my husband and I are not alone in thinking the Outlander story is being done a grave injustice.
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Apr 21, 2015
I appreciate that sex scenes make some viewers uncomfortable, in the same way that graphic violence turns off some viewers, but I think that it's reductive to assume that the only purpose for Outlander's sex is titillation or that the only thing the show may be remembered as is "soft porn". While, like you, my favorite elements of the show are largely unrelated to Claire's romantic conundrums, I think it's a mistake to dismiss sex scenes as "overblown" or "cheap thrills".

More importantly, I think the sex in Outlander is VERY telling, informing characters and relationships in expressive and important ways. And they're very integrated into (and integral to) Claire's story.
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Aug 27, 2014
Inspiring article, and expertly written. You describe the subject matter(-s) in great detail. I'm hoping for another look at the topic once we are further into the series!

So far I'd consider Outlander pretty tame and mature in its depictions of nudity, intimacy, or sexuality. Doesn't seem like anything's been thrown there just to meet some imaginary quota that premium cable channels are (as one theory goes) supposed to maintain. It'll be interest to see whether the show keeps at it or compromises at some point by adding extra, plain "eye-candy" scenes.
In that, the series keeps reminding me of Spartacus. Also a show where many scenes (that's not to say all of them) involving nudity served another purpose beyond the obvious, by vividly depicting characters in these moments and serving as a commentary of sorts. Most sexual or nude encounters in Batiatius' abode carried with it extra meanings.
It's also something that I believe Game of Thrones has been trying to do, albeit with mixed results. Sometimes they succeed at painting a broader picture through such scenes (vide Oberyn, most recently), but at the same time the show can't escape (often valid) accusations of unnecessarily piling up on disposable nude takes.

Back to show at hand. To address one of the questions you posed: alas, I do not think that Outlander had enough time to spend on Claire and Frank to sufficiently convince us of their bond. Yes, they had a good rapport, and they seemed to go along well. But some of the passion and desire is missing there; it's also hard to tell whether it existed before the war forced them apart. Flashbacks might play a significant role towards establishing that. Overall though, Jamie does not seem to have a valid competitor in Frank.

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Aug 28, 2014
As of yet, I've seen very little of Spartacus, though it is a show that many have suggested, though they each insist I would need to commit, since it takes a while to establish its meatiness. Game of Thrones is always an interesting and polarizing litmus test for nudity, since it's routinely maligned and routinely defended in more or less equal measure and with equal substance and consideration. [A note: I was more referencing the statements made by True Detective writer/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto about HBO's "mandate" for nudity, which, he claims, he only added to please the brass, so to speak. Buzzfeed intereview here.]

As for Frank, I almost whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. While I do believe the show—probably more so than the book—gives us a few sparks for their relationship, the limitations of our view, the substantial time the characters spend apart in life-redefining circumstances, and the complete absence of details of their falling in love the first time around make it nearly impossible for us to see Frank as a romantic competitor for Jamie. That said, it's also true that Claire (at least as she later articulates in the book, in a moment I very much hope they keep) *very minor not-really-a-spoiler spoiler* recognizes the different between love and infatuation, in the same way that deeply committed couples may have passing and thrilling flirtations without compromising their commitments. There's also some indication that, though she never cheated on Frank, she may have often felt that inclination already in the past. Romance in long-term relationships waxes and wanes, and I would like for Outlander to seize the opportunity in the flashbacks to make us believe in Claire and Frank. I think they could better than they have.

Thanks, and it probably is a topic I will return to as the series heats up and sex becomes even more integral to the story.
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Aug 26, 2014
all, gratuitous AND necessary :)
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Aug 26, 2014
Thanks to your icon, I heard your comment as spoken by Will Arnett. Not even consciously.
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Aug 27, 2014
(visual) it ended with 100 pennies thrown on the table :)
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Aug 25, 2014
Surely, the five years apart during the war has changed both Claire and Frank, and I don't think their love withstood the prolonged separation. At least, I'm not seeing it on the show. KittyKato is correct in her comments below, and I haven't even read the books.
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Aug 26, 2014
This is one of the most jarring deviations from the books for me.
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Aug 25, 2014
First : I've read the first four books.
Does the the sex scenes in the show bother me ? Yes because there are too many, specially in the first episode. Then, sex scenes can be useful to the story, specially one between Jamie and Claire. But gratuitous sex scenes ? I'd prefer to see the story move on.
Does the nudity bother me ? No. As long we see women and men in equal proportion. Nudity is not an insult, it is not disgusting...

I'll add a point though. The scenes of rape shock me whether in the show or in the books. Why ? Because there are already been 2 in the first three episodes. Because they are not centered on the victim, Jenny or Claire, but they are here to establish characters : Black Jack Rendall and Jamie. And I think there are other ways to establish character than to show this horrible crime.
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Sep 19, 2014
I think the looming presence of rape is also meant to establish the historical context. As the point of view is Claire's, it would make sense that rape is a prevalent worry, not only as a violation of her physical being, but also as a potential consequence of being too independent. It was a dangerous time and a dangerous political situation, particularly for women. The fact that Claire was threatened with rape by both the English and the Scottish after crossing over proves that.
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Sep 08, 2014
I disagree. I think establishing Jack Randall's sexual deviance early on and beginning to show how he equates pain and violence with sex and love will be crucial for later events.
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Sep 08, 2014
You can establish Black Jack Randalĺ´s sexual deviance by focusing on the victims of the rape. Not on the people around. Rape is not a harmless thing. Would it have killed the author of the writer of ten who's to focus on the victims ?
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Sep 24, 2014
I certainly can understand being made uncomfortable by the rape in the book and the show and that it might be triggering, so apologies if you found my comment dismissive of your reaction. Different people will find different things appealing about the story. That's why I like these discussion boards.

BOOK SPOILERS
For the record, I think that Gabaldon came to have an over-reliance on rape as a lazy shorthand for trauma and by the 5th book and Brianna I was well over it and found so much of that storyline problematic, but I think the first book did a good job of turning several established tropes on their heads with a male victim and showing an incredibly honest portrayal of how that emotionally and physically impacted him. A great deal of time was spent dealing with Jamies trauma. The horror of Jacks actions weren't glossed over or romanticised in any way. Jamie couldn't stand the scent of lavender for the rest of his life due to Jack. Surely that is showing Jack's cruelty and deviance by focussing on the impact on the victim? I think with Jenny also, we are meant to be incredibly angry at the injustice done to her, so that when we find out that not only wasn't she raped, but that she emasculated Jack by laughing at his impotence, it's such a great moment and part of how her character is established as a strong, brave woman in her own right, not just "Jamie's sister".
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Sep 23, 2014
Have you read the books? Rape is NEVER portrayed as a harmless thing and the victims are very much focussed on. The show is following the books. You get snippets from various people's point of view at different times which come together to make a whole picture. Gabaldon spends quite a bit of time in later books exploring the situation from Jenny's perspective and how the actions of everyone involved lead to other events.
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Sep 23, 2014
Yes I have. I read it till the 5th book. Have you read my comment ? I thought I made it clear.
And I have the right to say that I don't like the way Gabaldon focuses on rape. It is always described very easily and the solutions are always simple. Someone, I won't say who, gets raped and ten minutes later makes love. WTF ?
So : I like the live story between Claire and Jamie. I love the history parts in the books. But the fantasy of rape makes me very uncomfortable.
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Aug 26, 2014
I would agree. I think we could have lost a Frank-Claire sex scene and instead developed more relationship intimacy between them, which would make her desire to return to him more believable. Because you know sex with Jamie is going to be totally hot, so she doesn't need hot-sex-Frank. But what she does miss about Frank is the long emotional intimacy they have
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Aug 25, 2014
So, another observation about Claire's massage of Colum:

I don't know whether Gary Lewis was the actual body in the lower limb shots, and certainly his disfigured legs were CGI'd, but next to Balfe's admittedly long-fingered but very feminine hands, Colum MacKenzie never seemed so small and frail. His hips are tiny. She can practically wrap her hands all the way around them.
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Aug 26, 2014
That fit with my impression of Colum, much more than the scene with the tailor did. His presence comes from his brains, his wit and his charm, even though his body is twisted and frail. This is someone for who riding a horse, or walking long distances (as would be common for people of that time) is something he cannot do without great physical sacrifice and pain, and so his body is withered and he doesn't have the typical musculature of an active man. In fact, I think it showed what we know from the books - Colum is a presence of mind, so much so that you forget about his frail body. Whereas Dougal is a presence of body, but someone Claire can learn to outwit, once she finds her feet. With Colum, though, she never feels fully confident that she can outwit him.
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Aug 25, 2014
I don't think that the show has shown the love for Frank at all convincingly. The sex was just sex without any tenderness in my opinion and he basically told her that he had cheated on her when they were apart. Even if I hadn't read the books I'd be cheering for Jamie at this point.
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Aug 25, 2014
Do you think the show is accurately representing the novel's characterization of Frank?

I've only read the first book in the series, so I don't know how Claire's relationship develops with either man beyond that, but one of the more complicating (and interesting) consequences of Outlander's structure is that we see only small, oblique portion of her marriage to Frank. We don't see them get together. We don't see either of them during the war, but not even flashbacks from Frank. As of the first book, Frank as an individual is a largely unknown quantity.

Perhaps because Tobias Menzies is charming and the show writers have distilled (and in some cases created) Frank's most winning moments, but I very much like the show's depiction of Frank. It doesn't mean he's not without his flaws, but neither is Jamie. They're different men with different flaws.

What do you mean by "tenderness"? *minor book spoilers, highlight for text* One of the things I found really interesting about the novel's portrayal of sex is that Claire used physical intimacy with both Frank and Jamie as a way to establish/re-establish their relationship intimacy. Claire and Frank's second honeymoon, in that specific regard, resembles her "honeymoon" with Jamie. *end spoilers* I do think, probably for many reasons, that Claire is better with Jamie, but I'm not sure that necessarily has to be to the detriment of Frank. And while the show could have accentuated the complications in Claire and Frank's marriage—the discussion of adoption, for instance—it seemed to have taken a more generous stance for Frank.
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Aug 26, 2014
I think my opinion of Frank is definitely colored by my reading of all the books so I don't want to say too much. I don't find Tobias Menzies charming - rather the opposite actually but I think that is an accurate portrayal of Frank who I never thought was charming. I never felt from either reading the beginning of the first book or from watching the show so far that Claire was deeply in love with Frank. I know lots of people don't agree with me though.
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Aug 26, 2014
I have to admit a potential bias toward Tobias Menzies, because it's difficult for me to see him without thinking (at least briefly) of Brutus from Rome.
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Aug 26, 2014
I like show Frank, in fact, I'll have him when Claire's done. But I am also aware that I know a lot more about Frank as a book reader. I love his nerdiness, his gentle devotion to Claire, the struggles with reconciling five war years (which both of them have to do) and what he's seen and done, and probably can't speak of. I think the book makes us a lot more sympathetic to Frank and makes us feel the found again romance between Frank and Claire. The TV Frank-Claire struggles to find this, they had it just at the beginning and then *whoosh* and she's in the 1700's and who was Frank, again?

I will put a disclaimer here that I don't particularly like TV Claire at this point. She's derisive, arrogant and I'm not sure she actually deserves Frank. In fact, if I were Frank, I'd give her up for a bad job and move on with my life after she disappears. She plainly holds his interests in disdain and mentally mocks him. Frank seems far more concerned about finding her (in the show) than Claire does about getting back to him. The books did a much better job of holding the Claire-Frank tension alongside the Jamie-Claire burgeoning interest and keeping them both authentic feelings.

From looking at reactions of non-book readers to Frank and Claire, they aren't getting a Frank-Claire vibe, either, and I think this is because TV Claire doesn't seem to be particularly in love with him anymore. And that leaves us feeling that she has no compelling reason to get back to 1945 except that she seems to find the 1700's filthy, disgusting and frightening, which is completely unlike book-Claire. Her longing to return to Frank, when stated, seems really out of place and the crying on the balcony scene in Ep 3 feels affected. In fact, even as a many time book reader, I was thinking, "Oh, yes, Frank. That's right, she should be desperately sad for him and trying everything to get back,". And then she got over it and the story moved on, poor Frank was forgotten again.
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Aug 25, 2014
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