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Sex, 'Outlander,' and the Midseason Break's Reign of Terror

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | September 19, 2014 |

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | September 19, 2014 |

In the final minutes of Outlander’s sixth episode, viewers were treated to a plot turn that set the stage for what we’ve all been waiting for: A wedding Sex.

Yes, the Starz drama based on Diana Gabaldon’s well-loved series has fans salivating for a Claire-Jamie hook-up, and don’t let our cries for sex scenes imply that’s all to which the series amounts. Outlander is a solid drama that has presented the conundrum of a 20th century Englishwoman trying to survive after time-traveling to 18th century Scotland well. The tension has built these past six episodes as Claire finds herself ever in danger and in need of an arranged marriage to garner her safety among the MacKenzie clan from sadistic British soldiers who think she’s a spy. So it’s time for a wedding — and then time for a wedding night.

Thank God.

Starz teased us with this trailer:

Unfortunately, there’s a bigger tease on the horizon: After this Sunday’s episode, “The Wedding,” only one more episode will air until 2015. Yes, Outlander has fallen prey to the latest trend no one asked for of breaking a TV season up into two parts. Some series only see their seasons split by a few months, from ABC’s Scandal to AMC’s The Walking Dead, in what are often called midseason or winter breaks. But the latter network found success (and extended awards glory) by splitting up the final season of Breaking Bad by almost a year and therefore set Mad Men on the same schedule.

The decision isn’t about the art. The move probably helps networks by spreading out filming schedule and therefore expenses, and Outlander apparently was filming at least up until this August. But mainly it’s a gimmick by the networks, not the show creators or talent involved, to prolong seasons and keep fans amped up wanting more. Outlander showrunner Ronald D. Moore confirmed as much when interviewing with TVLine at Comic-Con this July:

“We knew about it from the outset that there was probably going to be a midseason break, how long it was going to be was up to Starz and I don’t think they settled on it for quite a while. But when I was laying out the 16 episodes it’s was pretty easy to say ‘OK, this is the midpoint, this is a good place to leave the audience breathless and have them come back,’ so it was [woven into the story].”
Breaking up a season’s run isn’t a crime, and in some ways it is helpful because it allows time for others to catch up on a season or more during the time off. Breaking Bad certainly benefitted from this during its final season’s break, but a lot of its increased viewership — the first half of Season Five ended with 2.78 million viewers while the second half began with 5.92 million and ultimately ended with 10.28 million — was mainly because of Netflix. It wasn’t about the time available to catch up on the show before its final stretch aired; it was about its accessibility because it was streaming on a platform used by tens of millions of subscribers.

I watched the entire series of Breaking Bad on Netflix right before the second half of its final season aired, so the break meant nothing to me. But to fans who had been watching it as it aired, week by week? The stretch was torture. The Mad Men break is even more frustrating as only seven episodes aired this spring with the final seven airing next spring. Its midseason finale was beautiful, but seven episodes is where a season really hits its stride as it starts building momentum for the finale. To stop that in its tracks is disorienting and frustrating, and Outlander is doing close the same, stopping after eight episodes with eight more still to go.

Networks have us hamstrung because they know we’ll return for something that is popular as they reap the benefits. But our experience isn’t rewarding. In an age in which we’re capable of consuming a TV season all at once on Netflix or at least in an uninterrupted or nearly so weekly run on premium cable, the idea of withholding products from consumers is maddening. On the flip side, midseason replacement series are brought into the mix, but those often don’t garner viewers because they don’t last long enough to be worth the investment. These typically air on broadcast networks, but nevertheless, why break up one series only to fill in its gap with another that is bound to fail?

Midseason finales aren’t finales at all; they are cliffhangers, or pause buttons, on an incomplete story arc. In the case of Outlander, some fans have felt the buildup for the first half of the premiere season has been too slow as much time was spent (I’d say necessarily) building backstory and presenting Claire with enough obstacles to make her decision to marry Jaime seam reasonable for her circumstances. We’ve learned about many Scottish traditions and old superstitions, and the Jacobite rebellion, and floggings, and botany, and you name it. That’s all interesting, but it’s only part of the story. Now that the show is delving into the romance side, it has everyone’s full attention. We’re excited, and we’re going to be excited for one more week. Then, it’s time for months of disappointment. Because … because.

Everybody save these next two episodes of Outlander on your DVRs. It’s going to be a long, lonely winter.

Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.