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Photo: Starz
Photo: Starz

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Outlander Is Back, and It Still Has the Best Sex on Television

The steamy Starz time-traveling show has returned after a half-year hiatus.

Move over, Game of Thrones. For the most interesting, complex, steamy portrayal of sex on television, tune your dial to Outlander. The Starz adventure series about a time-traveling World War II nurse who finds herself in eighteenth-century Scotland comes back this weekend after a half-year hiatus. There will be bigamy, Jacobite revolutionaries, lush green highlands, impressive period costumes. Most memorably, though, there will be sex.

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Porn has trained us to see story as the pretext for sex; in Outlander, sex is the pretext for story.

In Outlander, sex is sometimes meaningful. Often it isn't. But it's always hot, it's always primarily interested in her pleasure, and it's always taken seriously as story. Whatever's happening carnally scans as motivated and true. Porn has trained us to see story as the pretext for sex; in Outlander, sex is the pretext for story.

That's still true in the second half of the first season, but if Outlander's earlier episodes were mainly interested in how a lone woman copes—socially, sexually, psychically—with an environment that's not just alien but almost entirely male (time-traveler Claire, played by Catriona Balfe, is half-rescued, half-captured by Colum Mackenzie's men), the new episodes are increasingly interested in relationships between women, and how they are both constrained and fostered by the strictures of an earlier time. Claire starts to make friends. Some of those friends are pregnant. The theme here is not just sex, but reproduction: how it works or doesn't, and what it threatens and saves.

The first half of season one of Outlander was widely praised for its not-so-precious treatment of female sexuality. The second half is equally interested in sex, but it shows how other women dealt with sexual threats and their own desire. Solutions range from murder to conspiracy to raucous laughter at a potential rapist. (In a scene featuring the latter, the show takes another bold step: it shows the flaccid male response.) Female unhappiness gets expressed in a variety of ways, none of which are especially mainstream or acceptable.

This is encouraging, if only because female unhappiness has a bad habit of turning erotic in our pre-packaged romances. You may have noticed, for instance—in your many years consuming media—that one of the most common catalysts for a makeout moment between two characters is female grief. Think of When Harry Met Sally: Harry and Sally first kiss when she's crying because her ex, Joe, is getting married. In Orange Is the New Black, Piper gets back together with Alex when she's at an emotional low. It goes back a long time, this recipe that a woman's debilitating unhappiness about something else leads to love—or at least sex. Call it the Drunk on Grief model. The idea is that women will resist unless or until their inhibitions are lowered by emotional exhaustion. It's our ugly little modern riff on the rape fantasy; women aren't supposed to want it straightforwardly.

Sex, because we see it relatively frequently, becomes a fascinating way of building character.

Not so for Claire, who's breaking records left and right when it comes to women getting pleasured on TV. She enjoys sex messily, sloppily, hair mussed, face flushed, and does so in ways that resonate as emotionally true. She's not in love, and feels no need to say she is, despite ginger beefcake Jamie Fraser's repeated professions of devotion.

One of the downsides of the Drunk on Grief model is that it retroactively codes the distress itself (and the woman's feelings, by extension) as unimportant. Let's go back to When Harry Met Sally. Because Sally was never supposed to be with Joe, and because we want her to be with Harry, the movie tricks us into undervaluing her understanding of her own life. Outlander wallops that model. Claire is astoundingly self-aware, and there are several scenes that show her receiving sexual pleasure in encounters that are entirely one-sided. More importantly, though, the show depicts Claire enjoying sex even if she's not emotionally plugged in—an approach to sexuality that's usually coded as masculine. In When Harry Met Sally, sex is breakage, the point of no return, the thing that changes everything. In Outlander, it simply isn't.

Claire and Jamie are forced to marry for for pragmatic reasons. (Claire's already married in the future—just go with it.) On a different show, their wedding night would begin with a quick nod to Claire's despair at cheating on her husband, then move on to the hot stuff. As long as we understand that she's drunk on grief and desire, we can forgive Claire for enjoying her hook-up with Jamie.

Instead, sex, because we see it relatively frequently, becomes a fascinating way of building character. The aftermath of Claire and Jamie's wedding is truly bleak, not We're-Gonna-Start-Making-Out-Cuz-Grief-is-Sexy bleak. The emotional distance between the two characters is huge, despite their mutual good will.

It makes you realize how rarely we see two smart, perceptive protagonists having sex on TV.

What's interesting is that as viewers, in this context, we're trained to want with him rather than with her: He's a virgin! He's saved himself! He's saving her! Can't she be grateful? God, can't she just pretend? But the camera's insistence on Claire's interiority in those scenes is key—it's jagged and uncomfortable, but it makes for a crazy original love scene. It's also—because she refuses to be anything but authentic, and because he wouldn't want it any other way—incredibly hot. It makes you realize how rarely we see two smart, perceptive protagonists having sex on TV; how uninterested we've historically been in the ways intelligence intersects with eroticism.

I don't think I've ever seen a sex scene that so perfectly registers the disappointment that sometimes attends a first encounter—despite their crazy chemistry, Claire is pretty unmoved the first time they fuck. Another show would have turned this scene into a tragedy, or an instructional video. On Outlander, they just...try again.

Think about that for a minute: the hottest romance on television finally gets their leads into bed and their first time is a disappointment. Luckily, they persevere. They work their way through three different sexual experiences that one night, with each encounter having a really specific and careful choreography that emerges organically from what's happening in each of their heads (rather than break down into the HOT SCENE NOW logic that so often governs sex scenes). It's incredible. It's new. Why? Why is something that has happened to virtually every sexually active person on the planet new?

The answer is obvious: most TV isn't made for the people who don't come that first time. TV these days is better for women than film; we're finally, thanks to shows like Getting On, Orange Is the New Black, Orphan Black, Doll and Em, even Girls—getting ambitious television that isn't predominantly about men. But TV's lagging behind on one important metric: equal-opportunity eroticism.

TV's lagging behind on one important metric: equal-opportunity eroticism.

Outlander's new episodes continue that streak of great, story-developing sex, but as the show develops an interest in Claire's relationships with other women, it also tackles the inevitable consequences—especially to those other women: pregnancy. Outlander's incredibly interesting treatment of female sexuality doesn't change the fact that it sometimes overshoots the mark and risks becoming a caricature of period drama. There are two major arcs that revolve around pregnant characters in the second season; one great, one...unfortunate.

Still, if the show has its flaws, it still has to be applauded for originality. Here's a show with a time-traveling bigamist who's utterly unembarrassed about her own desire—and who imports her ideas of agency and consent into an eighteenth-century marriage to pretty steamy effect. Choosing not to cater exclusively to the teenage straight cis male demographic has an upside: namely, it's produced the most erotic show on TV. Catriona Balfe combines Elizabeth Bennet's intelligence and integrity with a protagonist so expressively sex-positive she deserves an award: she's created a theater of intelligent orgasm all on her own.


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