Outlander, Season 1, Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”
Written by Ira Steven Behr
Directed by Anna Foerster
Airs Saturdays at 9PM ET on Starz
Outlander has had its fair share of horrifying moments, many of them having to do with sexual violence. “Wentworth Prison” is an hour of sustained sadistic terror at the hands of Jack Randall, and it is incredibly defeating and deflating. Jack is grotesquely obsessed with Jamie, with breaking him and with manipulating him and those close to him, and he finally is able to do whatever he wishes. As a villain, Jack is remarkably effective, and this episode works overtime to make him as horrifying as possible. It can feel exhausting and grueling when confined to these small spaces of abuse, but thankfully it is told compellingly and with purpose.
The show immediately makes it clear that this will be a very dark episode, as several people—including McCory—are hung, the sick sounds of their necks breaking reverberating in viewers’ ears. Randall rides in at the last second to save Jamie before he is hung, with a look of great concern on his face at the thought of his obsession being taken from him before he gets what he wants from it. And what he wants is for Jamie to surrender his pride (and his body), and admit that he is terrified by Randall. “Do I haunt your dreams since Fort William?” Randall asks him with a smile. “Is it my face you see looming in the darkness? When you lie upon your wife and her hands trace the scars on your back, do you ever think of me?” It’s enough to make one hide their eyes. By the time he is telling Jamie he’s better than this and is forcing Jamie to touch his genitals, it’s enough to make the audience physically retch.
Claire gets herself inside the prison, cleverly working the warden’s guard and finding her way through the dark and damp halls and rooms. The visual aesthetic of the episode reflects the subject matter, replacing the beautiful and lush landscapes of the series with the grimy textures and cold colours of the prison. It feels suffocating and unsettling. As Claire attempts to free Jamie, she is caught by the inescapable Randall, and brought into his torturous tormenting. This kind of prolonged horror is rare to see on television, and there is a certain kudos to be given for the courage to tell this story, despite the gruesome feeling it leaves in one’s stomach. Randall is right when he tells Claire she can do better than calling him a beast, and she is right when she hits back with, “You fucking sadistic piece of shit.” And it’s still an understatement.
Caitriona Balfe is, as always, on fire here, lending the horrors a substantial emotional weight, and allowing the moments of pure expression to hit hard, such as when she collapses outside the prison after learning that Jamie is alive but well-protected. Her delivery, later on, when she tells Randall that the rumours are true and she is indeed a witch, and whispers to him the date of his death, is absolutely perfect in its intensity and ferocity. She is not nearly as threatened by Randall as he wants her to be. Sam Heughan is extremely powerful as he continues to defy Randall as well, until giving in at the end to save Claire from Randall’s wrath. He doesn’t say very much, but the expressions and small touches tell us all we need to know. The lengths these two will go to are positively inspiring.
This is one of the most difficult episodes of television to watch in recent memory. There are some breaks, as Claire schemes with her group, but for the most part, it is a relentless barrage of deep discomfort. So much time is spent on trying to understand this powerful monster, and the only failure comes in that it remains quite unclear how much there really is to understand, beyond the fact that he is a morally corrupt, sexually abusive, power-hungry rapist and sadist, with a singular focus on dominating Jamie. Perhaps we are not meant to understand him, then. Perhaps his actions serve, ultimately, to show just how strong the bond between Jamie and Claire is, and how their love will (hopefully) conquer all aggressors. Fingers crossed for the finale.