Outlander, Season 1, Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”
Written by Ira Steven Behr & Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Anna Foerster
Will return on Starz for season two
Bryan Fuller, the creator and showrunner of NBC’s Hannibal, gave an interview with Entertainment Weekly on May 28 about the use of rape on television. “There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience,” he told the magazine. “’A character gets raped’ is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally.” Fuller is very correct about this, and his solution (which he admits is inevitably imperfect: “If I was really putting my money where my mouth is, I would have explored rape so thoroughly that it would have taken over the show.”) has been to avoid the use of rape on his series.
Outlander is very aware of the same phenomenon, but has decided, throughout its first season, to take an approach that is completely opposite that of Fuller’s by actually exploring rape more deeply than perhaps any other TV series has. Even the show’s writers might admit that not every example of sexual violence in these sixteen episodes has been executed flawlessly, but there is certainly always an attempt to treat it with the dramatic and emotional weight that the subject deserves and that Fuller speaks of. It never feels exploitative. Last week, with the unstoppable menace of Jack Randall, the show was more unsettling than ever, and it became difficult to watch. In the season finale, that feeling only grows worse, as the episode repeatedly flashes back to Jamie’s further physical and sexual victimization at Randall’s hand.
“I just want this to be a pleasurable experience for us both,” Randall tells Jamie, but he is the only one getting any pleasure or entertainment out of the unfolding events. And truly, that is the feeling one should be left with when a TV series depicts rape, rather than the lazy plot device it usually acts as in crime procedurals or Game of Thrones. The finale becomes problematic in its complete absence of subtlety, as viewers spend plenty of time with Randall and Jamie in graphic moments of horror. “These are Claire’s hands,” Randall tells Jamie as he runs his fingers across his body. “Think of Claire.” Jamie’s brutalization reaches the point of numbing, and that’s a dangerous spot to be in.
To Outlander’s credit, however, it is given its proper consequence in the aftermath, as Jamie is truly broken and even begs to be killed. Randall succeeds in finally wearing Jamie down, and it is devastating for the audience and for Claire. It makes the Jamie/Randall scenes seem less sensationalized and more connected to the cores and arcs of these characters. The fallout feels well-considered and thought-out, the writers making sure that Jamie reacts with complexity as he moves through the trauma toward an opportunity to begin healing. And that’s no easy task, which Sam Heughan handles excellently as he goes through the stages of self-blame and self-loathing.
While the series has always taken sexual violence seriously, it does seem worth mentioning that the one time it chooses to fully flesh out the aftermath of such acts is with its male lead. In fact, when another male character forces Claire to kiss him as they say goodbye later on, it is treated as a light joke to end this harrowing journey on, and that kind of thing is rather emblematic of how television in general treats the sexual assault of female characters. A male character being terrorized in this way is just as horrifying, but is given much more consequence, time for recovery, and exploration than any example of the show’s female characters being assaulted. True, what Jamie goes through is more prolonged, but sexual assault is something that probably should not be treated as hierarchical in its representation, and the only reason the show could depict such an over-the-top assault is because the victim was male.
That said, this is still one of the most careful and empathetic depictions of such trauma and what comes after that I’ve ever seen. Jamie’s body may be healing easily enough, but his soul will take much longer to recover, if it ever fully can. It’s easy to be excited by Claire’s plan to change the future (“I believe we can do anything we want, just as long as we’re together.”) and by the fact that she is pregnant, and though Jamie seems genuinely happy about this, Outlander seems smart enough to know that it won’t be quite that simple.