When I chose to recap Outlander for the venerable website which you now read, it was despite the facts that a) I had never read the books, b) it had received only a middling review from a certain viewer whose tastes tend to jibe with my own, and c) I was male—indeed, I still am—and therefore patently not the target demographic. Happily, I found the show far more enjoyable than I had feared I might, with my maleness only rarely proving an obstacle, and even on those occasions when it did—such as when, say, during a sex scene, the camera traced the contours of Jamie’s body far more lovingly than it did Claire’s, or when the show retroactively excused Claire’s infidelity with a perfunctory, “Oh, and by the way it turns out her husband is secretly evil”—I found myself prompted to consider what it must be like to be a woman and to view most other TV shows, and movies for that matter, in a way that was and remains interesting and probably helpful in terms of my own personal growth.
In the case of this week’s season finale, however, I’m not so sure I can I let the show’s gender dynamics slide. And when I say I’m not so sure, I really mean I’m not sure. That is, I don’t yet feel ready to come down unequivocally on one side or the other, to condemn or condone or applaud. So excuse me, reader, while I attempt to parse out my thoughts on the subject right now, textually, before your very eyes, as I have a deadline to meet and thus cannot afford the luxury of “sitting here alone, trying to clear my head,” as Claire said to the monk when he apologized for interrupting her prayers.
For some time now, a complaint of feminists has been the casual use by popular fiction writers of rape—specifically, the rape of a (usually female) supporting character—as an easy way of upping the stakes and inciting the (usually male) protagonist to action. It seemed a valid enough complaint in theory, but I’d never personally encountered an example until last night (or is it just that last night’s example stands out because the usual genders were reversed?). For although it’s true Jamie gets very nearly if not exactly as much screen time as Claire, Claire is undoubtedly the show’s protagonist. And although Claire herself has been a victim of rape, it has never been in so damsel-in-distress-like a context, nor so extravagantly brutal, nor so pruriently lingered over, as Jamie’s at the hands of Randall. And although there were plenty of shots of Jamie looking traumatized and wishing for death, the episode still seemed primarily concerned with the way his rape and resulting PTSD affected and would continue to affect, if left unchecked, Claire.
But worst—and though I’m usually loathe to use the word, most offensive—of all is the fact that Claire ultimately decides the most appropriate means of getting through to the suicidal-to-the-point-of-catatonia Jamie is tough love. Extremely tough love. As in intentionally triggering flashbacks of the rape and then verbally and physically abusing him. And it works.
Look, I know this show is melodrama, and I know that characters in melodramas, especially romantic melodramas, often behave cruelly and irrationally towards those they love. Hell, my favorite novel of all time is Wuthering Heights, and relationships don’t get much more dysfunctional than Heathcliff and Cathy’s. But at least in Wuthering Heights, cruel, irrational, and dysfunctional behavior is depicted as what it is: cruel, irrational, and dysfunctional. In Outlander, for all the talk about saving Jamie by “stepping into the darkness with him”, and for all that Claire’s tears could be argued to show that it hurts her to hurt him even as she believes it’s for his own good, the fact remains that it is ultimately proven to actually be for his own good, which means the show expects us to find Claire’s behavior righteous, selfless, strong, and wise.
What all of this leads me to—the question I’ve been dancing around and, frankly, putting off asking because it’s very much a can-of-worms-opening sort of question—is this: Would a contemporary TV show or movie ever depict such treatment of a female rape victim in such a positive light?
And the question that occurs to me on the heels of that one is: Am I only offended by this because I think people would be offended if the genders were reversed? In other words, am I angry over the episode’s handling of Jamie’s rape, or am I angry because I assume others who would be angry over the similar treatment of a female character won’t be?
And the question that occurs to me on the heels of that one is: Are all of these criticisms merely my unconscious mind’s defense mechanism against the extreme discomfort of seeing the brutal rape of a male character played out in excruciating, real-time detail? Am I sheltering myself behind claims of “offence” as I have occasionally been known to accuse others of doing? Is what I see as hypocrisy actually an overdue paradigm shift? Do I need to check my privilege?
Like I said, reader, I’m not sure. On the one hand, I wish I could have simply enjoyed the episode without these thoughts swirling around in my head. It was, as usual, an otherwise impeccably written, filmed, and acted hour of television. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that a television show is forcing me to ask these sorts of questions. Either way, thus was the frame of mind it left me in, and it would have felt dishonest not to share that with you.
Anyhoo, this is supposed to be a recap, not an op-ed, so here’s how the episode ended:
Claire and Jamie escape on a ship headed for France, where they intend to stay with some family of Jamie’s until they can safely return to Scotland. Once aboard, Claire brings up the possibility of changing the outcome of the Jacobite rebellion—of changing the future. After Jamie says he’ll have to think it over, Claire nervously tells him there’s something else: she’s pregnant. Does this make Jamie happy? Yes it does, which this viewer was genuinely glad for. Poor fella’s had a rough go of it lately. The whole sequence is filled with shots of billowing sails, roiling waves, anchors being raised, wind blowing through our lovers’ hair, and all sorts of imagery that connotes adventure and possibility. All in all, a satisfyingly epic and anticipation-building way to end the first season.
- The first shot of Jamie lying naked by candle light, with the slow reveal of Randall lying naked beside him, was an extremely effective subversion of the romance novel imagery we’ve grown accustomed to, especially juxtaposed as it was against the jaunty, wholesome drum-and-fife march being played outside.
- That jaunty, wholesome drum-and-fife march? “British Grenadiers”, also prominently featured in one of this viewer’s top five favorite films, Barry Lyndon.
- I liked how the masterstroke plan teased at the end of last week’s episode turned out to basically be a senior prank: Let’s let a whole bunch of cows loose in the middle of the prison! It’ll be nuts!
- I commented last week on the not-so-subtle driving of a nail through Jamie’s palm after he agreed to sacrifice himself to save Claire. Well, the writers doubled down this week with the line: “So that’s your plan. To submit like Christ on the cross.”
- Was it just me, or did the monk’s enthusiastic reaction after Claire personally recapped the entirety of the first season for him seem like the writers’ dream critical response? “How marvelous! Extraordinary!”
- And finally, the last Best Line Of The Episode award of the season goes once again to Angus for: “Go on. Staying sober is not gonna heal Jamie any faster, eh?”