This Outlander review contains spoilers.
Outlander Season 2, Episode 4
Outlanderdoesn’t always have the most cohesively-themed episodes and in an installment like “La Dame Blanche,” it shows. This very much felt like two episodes: pre-dinner party and post-dinner party. There’s even a random, one week time jump in the middle to illustrate the point. It’s not terribly distracting, but it does make for some awkward pacing — not to mention a second half that is, for the most part, introduced in themes and subjects divorced from its first.
There are some through lines in the episode, however, and perhaps the most intriguing one comes in the form of Comte St. Germain, that scowly-faced scoundrel who has had it out for Claire since she dared to try to stop the spread of a smallpox epidemic. (This resulted in St. Germain having to watch his pricey cargo, just arrived in France, to burn.) When Claire is poisoned (though not fatally — obviously) while attending an event in which St. Germain is also in attendance, the Frasers immediately suspect Sir Scowls-a-Lot.
The poisoning leads Claire to confront Master Raymond, her friendly local apothecary, about potentially having sold the poison to St. Germain. Raymond claims he only sold the concoction to an anonymous servant, instead distracting Claire with his dinosaur fossil and his sheep bones (oh, well played, sire). It becomes clear that Claire isn’t actually as worried about the poisoning as she is about Frank’s existence. When Claire throws the bones, Raymond assures her that she will see Frank again — a nice bit of dramatic irony for us viewers, who know for a fact that Claire will be traveling back to the 20th century sooner rather than later. Claire is unburdened with this terrible knowledge, though Raymond does give her a clue…
Master Raymond himself is a mysterious one. I’m not a reader of the books, so I don’t know what will happen with his character, but his comment concerning his interest in things from other times seemed particularly pointed, no? I’m getting Geillis Duncan vibes from him. Could we have another time traveler in our midsts? And, if so, when is he from? Could he have met Claire in the 20th century, which is how he’ll know for a fact she returns? Or maybe those bones really are magic. This is a show that features time travel…
Claire’s poisoning (and the fact that that Jamie wants to throw a dinner party for the Duke of Sandringham) prompts her to finally tell her husband about Jack Randall’s continued existence. He takes it much better than pretty much everyone thought he would, telling Claire that this news gives him something to look forward to: i.e. seeking revenge on Jack Randall for his torture and rape.
It’s frustrating that Outlanderis perpetuating the idea that the path to healing for Jamie is through the presentation of a way for Jamie to reassert his masculinity. The knowledge that he may have a chance to kill Randall immediately reignites in Jamie a sexual desire he has understandably (and probably realistically) been unable to feel following his rape at the end of season 1. Though the context is disappointing, it is, however, refreshing to see a pregnant woman having and enjoying sex on TV. This is not something that generally gets portrayed.
In other news, Louise is pregnant — with Prince Charle’s child. Apparently, they are lovers. (This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have minded getting more character dynamic development for — even if it ruined the “surprise” of this reveal. I don’t care much about Louise or Charles because they still seem like cariactures in this world.) Claire and Jamie hatch an “elaborate” plan: they will undermine Charles’ plan in front of the Duke of Sandringham at a dinner party by letting him find out about the pregnancy while they are all gathered. Louise, who has convinced her husband the child is his, will be forced to stay quiet, while Charles will explode in anger and jealousy at the thought of his child being raised by another man.
Of course, things do not go according to plan. Someone sabotages Claire’s carriage (she suspects Sir Scowls-a-Lot’s hand in this) while she, Mary Hawkins, Fergus, and Murtagh are at the charity hospital. Fergus runs ahead to let Jamie know Claire will be late for dinner, but Claire, Mary, and Murtagh are attacked while they are walking home, in what seems like an act of violence staged with the carriage’s sabotage. (Interestingly enough, the sabotage itself is depicted in the visual vignette at the end of the show’s theme song.)
Murtagh is almost immediately knocked out and Mary is raped while Claire is forced to watch. Frankly, I have a hard time knowing how to respond to most depictions of rape on TV. I think it is important to show sexual violence on TV because to pretend that it doesn’t happen in real life is almost as irresponsible as depicting it poorly. But TV’s depiction of sexual violence so often is handled poorly. Rape is all too often used as a lazy plot device to motivate male characters, completely sidelining the experience of the victim (who is usually, though not always, male).
Outlanderhas had an uneven record with its depictions of sexual violence, though I would say that, more times than not, the show takes sexual violence seriously and doesn’t fall into lazy, damaging tropes. With tonight’s episode, it is a mix of both (at least from this TV reviewer’s perspective). I appreciate that Mary’s rape isn’t a plot device to motivate a male character, but, thus far, it does seem like a plot device to motivate Claire’s character.
It doesn’t help that, before this episode, Mary’s character has, like Charles and Louise, also felt more like a cariacture than an actual person. That started to change in tonight’s episode, when we saw her volunteering at the charity hospital with Claire and then confiding in Claire about the man (Alex Randall) she has fallen in love with, but the character is still relatively underdeveloped.
Claire takes on the traditionally mascluline role in this scene. She is the one who is forced to watch, her agency taken away from her as she “fails” her friend. She is eventually allowed to rescue Mary. Then, following the attack, she is the character whose reaction we focus on as she comforts Mary, the young woman’s face hidden in their embrace.
Later, we still don’t really get to check in with Mary. She is carried into the house by Jamie, then is depicted as unconscious, having apparently passed out from the trauma. We watch Alex as he watches over her and tells Mary he loves her, but she is completely passive in the scene. Eventually, she wakes up, and is extremely distraught. Though this is a scene that at least shows how traumatic the night has been for Mary, it quickly morphs into a weirdly comedic scene when the guests rush from the dinner table when they hear Mary’s cries for help.
Alex is trying to subdue Mary to keep the others from finding out about her rape, but when Jamie, Claire, and Mary’s uncle (amongst others) rush into the room, it looks like Alex is raping Mary. They immediately jump to defend her honor, attacking Alex and causing Jamie and Murtagh to leap to his defense. Again, the scene is quasi-played for laughs.
In the context of Mary’s trauma, this is troubling. However, in the context of Mary’s uncle trying to “defend her honor,” it’s subversive — at least that’s how I read it. Outlandertreats this power play, this attempt to restore a perceived slight against one’s masculinity by proxy of Mary’s rape, as childish. Outlanderseems to recognize that this moment shouldn’t be about Mary’s stupid relatives’ honor, but rather about Mary herself. The fact that Mary’s uncle doesn’t even understand what has happened to Mary — i.e. that Alex wasn’t even involved — further illustrates how misguided his attempts to “help” are.
This subversion is further affirmed by Claire’s handling of the situation. Jamie’s first instinct is to go after the men who attacked Claire, Mary, and Murtagh, but Claire quickly rebuffs him, actively subverting the avenging rape as redeeming masculinity trope. It is Claire, not Jamie or any other man, who has saved Mary in the moment when she needed it. Claire’s reputation as “La Dame Blanche” — translated as “The White Lady” to mean here a wisewoman or sorcereress — convinces the brigands to let Claire go, which allows her to physically throw the man off of Mary.
We’ll have to wait to see how this storyline plays out past tonight’s episode. Again, Outlanderhas been a mixed bag when it comes to responsibly depicting sexual violence on TV. Hopefully, Mary will have a chance to become a more developed character moving forward, one who is shown to be realistically affected by her trauma, but not defined by it.
Ultimately, Mary’s distress disrupts Claire and Jamie’s plans to make Prince Charles lose his cool in front of the Duke of Sandringham. The Frasers were hoping that Charles’ delusions of grandeur combined with a lack of control over his own emotions would dissuade the Duke of Sandringham from throwing his financial support behind the Jacobite rebellion. Though Charles doesn’t make an overwhelmingly good impression, he doesn’t do anything horrendous, either. Plus, the Duke of Sandringham is too generally distracted by both Jamie’s beauty and his own sense of humor to pay too close attention.
This was the first week I started to get bored with the Jacobite rebellion plot. It feels like we’re moving at a glacial pace. In real life, preventing a rebellion using spotty information gleaned from the future would probably take a long time, but it’s less fun to see so much down time on a TV show. Again, I think this relative repetition of this plot would be alleviated by better development of this show’s supporting cast. Get on it, Outlander.You have too much going for you (not the least of which: Claire’s ever-increasingly fabulous wardrobe) to drop the ball on underdeveloped characterization.