Well, that was difficult to watch. Outlander has never shied away from showing violence, but Jack Randall’s rape of Jamie in the season one finale is one of the most unsettling things I’ve watched on TV all year. (Note: I am a season behind on Game of Thrones.) That is not a critique. I admired this episode, even if it had its flaws. There have been very few depictions of sexual violence against men on television and, all too often, they are made light of or dismissed in problematic ways. This is definitely not the case in Outlander’s season one, episode 16 (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”).
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the depiction of sexual violence on television. Though the representation of male-on-male rape versus male-on-female rape warrants a slightly different discussion, it overlaps in many ways, starting with the question of where its depiction falls on the (probably too simplistic) spectrum of exploitative to responsible. For me, Outlander’s depiction is given immense narrative weight. We, as viewers, aren’t allowed to shy away from what happened to Jamie, a conscious choice inherent in the very structure of the episode. Rather than having an Act One scene depicting the rape, Outlander relays what happened to Jamie in a series of flashbacks. Like Jamie, we are haunted by the violence that has been enacted upon the male protagonist.
Outlander has given us an entire season of explicitly horrible moments that showrunner Ronald D. Moore hoped would hint at (or, you know, bludgeon you over the head with the reality of) the show’s darker elements. Jack Randall’s sadistic nature has never been a secret. We’ve seen Randall attempt to rape both Claire and Jenny previously, as well as his lashing of Jamie.
Thankfully, the show’s willingness to “go there” extends past the brutal, and I think that’s one of the major reasons why I can stand the extreme, explicit examples of violence — both sexual and otherwise — on this show. Outlander regularly depicts sex scenes that prioritize the female gaze and experience. Just a few episodes ago, new mother Jenny whipped out her breast in the middle of a rescue mission to express breast milk. There is as much — if not more — male nudity in this show than female nudity. Basically, Outlander is nothing if not willing to take risks that go against much of the what is standard elsewhere on TV. These risks don’t always pay off, but I would also argue that they rarely seem exploitative (though Outlander’s mid-season finale/mid-season premiere had a more problematic depiction of sexual violence).
Here, and in most of its depictions of sexual violence, there is no confusion over whether we are meant to enjoy the scenes. They are disgusting, cruel, nearly unwatchable acts. I’m sure some viewers will have less favorable responses to this episode, especially given the explicit nature of these torture scenes. I have to admit that I am still sorting out my complicated feelings about this episode, but I think TV viewers should be unsettled in complicated, confusing ways more often — especially if it leads to worthwhile discussions.
One of Outlander’s strongest themes is the struggle for dominance in cultures of oppression. Jack’s sexual abuse of Jamie is an exploration of that theme on a terrifyingly intimate level (because rape is not about sex, but rather an exertion of power). If Outlander’s depiction of sexual violence (both here and elsewhere in the series) continues the discussion of real-world sexual violence and the culture that perpetuates it, then it has value.
If I have any criticism of the season finale, it is how seemingly quickly the trauma of Jamie’s rape is resolved. I wouldn’t say that it is forgotten by the end of the episode and we’ll have to wait until next season to see if there is any exploration of the long-term effects of Jamie’s trauma, but his recovery does move along relatively quickly. This isn’t the first time the show has swept complex issues under the rug by the end of an episode. (See also: Jamie’s acts of domestic violence against Claire.) The episode moves through plot points surprisingly quickly for a show that spent an entire episode seemingly pitching its spin-off film: Step Up: Sassanach.
Though much of the finale was devoted to the physical and emotional trauma of Jamie’s abuse, there were some lighter moments. (Because Outlander never misses an opportunity to give its viewers tonal whiplash.) One minute, we’re being forced to watch Jamie’s sexual abuse, the next we’re being treated to a 19-cattle prison escape plan complete with lighthearted Scottish ditty for soundtrack. It should be noted that, when the MacKenzies break Jamie out of prison, Randall is trapped under a heavy prison door, Nazgul-entering-Bree-style, as the cattle stomp over it. Something (this Outlander Wiki) tells me this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Captain “Black Jack” Randall, but I could do without seeing his face for a long while. (Sorry, Frank!)
The final scenes see a pregnant Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh setting sail for France where they hope they can start new lives free from the English forces who want Jamie dead. Or, that’s the original plan… Claire admits to Jamie that, once in France, she also plans on using her knowledge of future events to try to change the course of history, help “Bonnie Prince Charlie” assume the English throne, and save Highlander culture forever. So: attainable goals. (Geillis would be proud.)
This is one of many moments from the season one finale demonstrating just how much Claire has embraced her new home and family. We see her say goodbye to the same MacKenzies who once refused to talk to her as old friends. We see her confess her full story to a random monk (who takes it incredibly well). And we see her reaffirm her love for Jamie when he needs it the most. (Sorry, Frank!)
This show isn’t always the easiest to watch or without its flaws, but it is one of the boldest, most beautiful series on TV and I can’t wait to see what Claire does next. Technically, I don’t have to. I could read the books. But, even if I spend the Outlander hiatus consuming the novels, I will be returning for season two of this epic romance/history/science fiction drama.