Soviets and Sassenachs: My Two Favorite Historical TV Series

Time to show my hand and reveal of my favorite examples of historical moviemaking. Well, TV series-making, but then that’s just another form of the motion picture.

After spending two Anxious Bench posts developing a set of four criteria for evaluating that kind of storytelling, today I applied them to two cable TV shows: the feminist time-traveling drama Outlander (Starz!) and The Americans (FX), a spy thriller set during the late Cold War. While their settings (1740s/1940s Scotland and 1980s America) have little in common, they do share the common theme that their protagonists must understand and assimilate into their surroundings — and so, they stand in for us, invited into pasts that feel like foreign countries. And both shows more than meet most of my criteria.

You can read the full dual review at Anxious Bench. Here let me just include part of the last set of observations. While I’ve been less impressed by Outlander‘s treatment of religious history than that of The Americans,

Outlander succeeds at least as much as The Americans is in its ability to get its audience to think more historically about the past. Whatever its implausibilities, the device of time travel makes it almost impossible for the show to avoid the so-called “five C’s of historical thinking.”

For example, context and change over time. As much as she needs to dress the part of an 18th century Scot, Claire quickly learns that she must disguise her worldview. Just as the Jennings need to understand and blend in to a capitalist society whose values they (well, Elizabeth) resolutely oppose, Claire struggles to comprehend — and not contradict — premodern mores about everything from gender roles to criminal justice. In the process, she and we are regularly shaken out of what Robert Darnton famously called “the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today—allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes.” Or, in this case, the kilts and corsets.

Culloden battlefield memorial
Memorial at the Culloden battlefield – CC BY-SA 4.0 (Mike Peel)

…for both The Americans and Outlander, the single most important historical “C” is contingency. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke define it as “a powerful corrective to teleology, the fallacy that events pursue a straight-arrow course to a pre-determined outcome, since people in the past had no way of anticipating our present world.”

But in Outlander they do! Claire knows the fate of Bonny Prince Charlie and the clans that took the field at Culloden on April 16, 1746. So she tries to change that outcome, making season 2 an extended meditation on the modern assumption that history is indeterminate, that (Andrews’ and Burke’s words again) “individuals shape the course of human events.” Without giving too much away, I think it’s safe to say that she learns what historians frequently have to accept: cause and effect aren’t that easy to understand, even with centuries of hindsight.

In The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth don’t know what’s coming in 1989-1991, but they can sense the mounting urgency and deepening weakness of the Soviet government. They continue to carry out their mission, one we know to be futile. But if we find the stories suspenseful, aren’t we being invited to reconsider the inevitability of Western victory in the Cold War? And if we find the characters sympathetic, aren’t we forced to reconsider its meaning as well?

Read the full post here. If you missed them, you’ll probably want to review part 1 and part 2 first.


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