Ranking the Many Genres of Outlander

From romance to time travel to war story, Outlander is the most ambitious genre mashup on television.

Outlanderjust wrapped up its second season with an episode that deftly flitted between time travel tragedy, historical romance, and domestic melodrama as easily as most shows flit between shot, reverse shot.

This isn’t a new development for the TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of novels. From the very beginning (and, before that, as a bestselling book series), Outlanderhasn’t had any time for silly genre boundaries. Like its central protagonist, Outlanderis a story that refuses to fit into any one box. Outlanderloves itself a good trope, but it picks them from various genres — from the war epic to the romantic fantasy — and never dwells too long in any of them.

As we head into the post-season 2 hiatus, we’re taking the time to explore the many genres of Outlanderasthe TV series represents them. Which genres does this time-traveling adventure do best?

9. The musical

Hey, remember that time Outlanderbriefly and randomly changed into a musical comedy? In season 1’s “The Search,” Claire and Murtagh join forces to find Jamie. Well, actually, their plan is to attract enough attention to let him find them and they decide to do that by putting together a musical act. Because obviously.

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First, we get Murtagh’s delightfully atrocious Highland sword dance. Then, Claire steps up to the plate and uses her 20th century knowledge of music to set Scottish lyrics to the melody of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” — aka one of the catchiest songs of the last few centuries. It’s a weird, borderline silly detour for Outlanderto take, but I can’t say I hated it. Plus, it demonstrated that, if Outlanderever wants to turn into an all-out musical, it could probably pull it off.

But it probably shouldn’t. It does other genres better.

8. Scotland tourism video

OK, I jest a little bit, but I defy you to watch this show and not want to immediately board a plane to Scotland. Apparently, Outlanderhas led to a surge in American tourists coming to visit Scotland — and VisitScotland has even organized campaigns around the hit TV show.

Like Lord of the Ringsbefore it, fan pilgrimages to Scotland for both book and TV fans is a real thing. It’s a bit of a stretch to call “tourism video” a genre, but, if it is, then Outlanderfalls into it.

7. Espionage thriller

Ironically, in season 1, the MacKenzie clan suspects Claire of being a British spy when she first stumbles into their company. In season 2, there is nothing unfounded about the accusation that Claire is a spy to sometimes dull, sometimes gloriously tense results. Le Carre it is not, but Outlandergot its spy thriller on this season with its foray into Parisian court life where Claire and Jamie concocted increasingly elaborate schemes to sabotage the Jacobite rebellion.

One of the best examples of Outlanderas espionage thriller came when Claire, in her role as La Dame Blanche, was forced to poison Comte St. Germain, rather than give Master Raymond up. The scene relies on many of the tropes of the spy thriller genre to craft a suspenseful, high-stakes moment that has far more going on than meets King Louis’ eye.

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6. War epic/military historical drama

Season 2 really doubled down on the war epic genre in the middle of season 2, giving us one of the more impressively wrought battle sequences on TV this year. The power of the Battle of Prestonpans came not in any elaborate action sequences or in one character’s impressive fighting prowess, but rather in the gritty brutality of the violence and death, as well as in the thematic resonance of a battle fought literally in the fog of war.

The fog was actually a real historical detail that necessitated finding a creative solution for filming, but, on a purely visual thematic level, it worked beautifully as a metaphor for the uncertain obscurity of battle, as well as a tangible reminder of the stakes of the larger war: the land of Scotland.

More than this one battle, however, Outlanderdelves into military history with the occasional key scene of Prince Charles Stuart planning his war campaign with his commanders and most trusted allies (hey, Jamie), as well as giving us a taste of Claire’s experiences in World War II via flashbacks to her time as a nurse on the front lines.

5. Historical fiction

Odds are, your knowledge of Scottish history has increased tenfold since adding Outlanderto your TV-watching schedule. The Jacobite rebellion. Clan culture in 18th century Scotland. The Battle of Culloden. We even got some pre-revolutionary French history thrown in there for good measure. 

Outlanderuses its meticulously-researched history as a backdrop, rather than a pedantic tour through history, with its best historical moments not coming in recreations of major historical events or people, but rather in the small details of both the mid-20th century world Claire is from and the 17th-century world she has stumbled into.

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In the season 2 finale, there’s a particularly memorable moment when Claire remarks on a museum’s recreation of Bonnie Prince Charles, saying, “They’ve taken a fool, turned him into a hero,” calling into question the flaws of historical narrative in general — one of the many, subtle ways that Outlanderchallenges its own tropes and seemingly simple assumptions in complex ways.

4. Medical drama

Speaking of Claire’s time as a war nurse, Outlanderhas never been shy about showing off Claire’s impressive medical knowledge — or demonstrating just how brutal and gross a medical drama can be. (Seriously, it’s right there in the credits.)

Claire’s role as a nurse (and, come 1968, as a surgeon!) has been an integral part of her identity since the very first episode, but season 2 got a bit more organized with its medical drama aspects by introducing Mother Hildegarde, her dog Bouton, and the L’Hospital des Agnes in Paris.

The doctoring is one of the most interesting aspects of Claire’s character and the show, giving us a tangible reminder of the frailty of human life no matter the era, as well as perspective on just how much the field of medicine developed over the course of two centuries. Basically, Outlanderis like no other medical drama on TV. Except maybe The Knick.

3. Feminist melodrama

In some ways, the category of “feminist melodrama” is redundant. Melodrama has a history of being feminist, if only because it has a history of being female-centric and — in a popular culture defined by the patriarchal society it is a part of — pretty much anything with well developed female characters is, sadly, in the minority. But it’s more than that. Feminist storytelling isn’t just about giving us Strong Female Characters. Rather, it is about giving power to traditionally feminine traits — such as empathy, intuition, and emotional intelligence — and highlighting women’s issues that all too often get ignored in most mainstream storytelling.

That last point is something Outlanderdoes incredibly well, depicting everything from sex from a female’s perspective to breastfeeding to miscarriage. That last one in particular was the subject matter of one of season 2’s strongest episodes, “Faith,” which sees Claire struggling to deal with the death of her unborn baby. It is heartbreakingly, complexly, and all-consumingly depicted in a way that we rarely get to see on TV drama. It also indulges in the emotional repercussions of such an event in the way that melodrama so refreshingly prioritizes. If melodrama is the storytelling form of heightened emotions, than Outlanderis one of the best examples of the genre on television.

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2. Boddice-ripping romance

Outlanderis perhaps best known for (and, all too often, conflated solely to) its romantic elements, and it’s no wonder why. If you were forced to throw Outlanderinto one genre, you might choose this one. The romance novel genre is woven into the very fabric of this story, which — at its core — is a love story that transcends time.

Unlike many of the other genres Outlanderembraces, its boddice-ripping romantic roots are much more fantastical and tropey in their execution, but there’s something singular about a prestige TV show that so fully embraces romance as a worthwhile genre (which it certainly is). In an age where romance is the thing that gets added as a half-hearted, underdeveloped subplot to the biggest pop culture events of the year, Outlanderstands as one of the few popular mainstream stories that unabashedly embraces romance as a genre.

1. Time travel fantasy

In my opinion, Outlanderis at its absolute best when it is actively embracing its time travel elements (reason #1 why the season 2 finale was so freaking good). So far, Outlanderhas taken the bolder, less common time travel narrative route and chosen to keep a fixed timeline. Basically, this means that, so far, Claire has been unable to have any effect on the timeline. As far as we have seen, she exists in a closed loop and can have no effect on the future or past. 

Most time travel stories — especially serialized ones — tend to go the route of the open loop, in which protagonists can affect change on a macro level. This tends to be easier to pull off, as creating a sense of suspense and convincing readers/viewers that our protagonists choices, you know, matter can be difficult with a closed-loop storyline.

Outlander, however, has had no such problem. After all, we knew from the very first episode of season 2 that Claire would go back to the 20th century, that the outcome of the Battle of Culloden would stay the same, and that Claire would reunite with Frank and leave Jamie behind. This didn’t take away from the unpredictability and enjoyment of season 2 because, when it comes down to it, Outlander‘s use of time travel as a plot device is secondary to its interest in using the consequences of time travel as a way to motivate characters and explore their emotionality.

Whether Outlanderever chooses to embrace an open-loop time travel narrative, I hope the story never loses sight of those admirable and affecting priorities. It’s the best part of the show and, usually, the best part of the time travel genre.

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Twist ending: the ranking doesn’t really matter.

I probably could have saved myself the time and energy of ranking Outlander‘s various genres because one of the best things about the show is that it treats all of these genres as equally valid. This egalitarian judgment is perhaps the most feminist aspect of the show. It values its bodice-ripping elements — a traditionally female-centric and, therefore, less valued narrative category — as highly as it does its masculine war drama elements.

And this is where the magic comes in. After all, any TV show can borrow tropes from various genres to complement its primary narrative leaning, but Outlandermay be the only show on television that so enthusiastically commits to so many genres at once — and treats all of them as modes of storytelling worthy of prestige television.