Warning: This contains spoilers.
And so we reach the end of Outlander Season 1, a show that has been uneven – mostly in a good way – in its attempts to bring Diana Gabaldon’s historical fantasy romance to the screen. It’s only fitting that the finale should follow suit.
This 16th hour, though, takes us to a darker place than we’ve been all season, as we see the horrific culmination of Jamie and Randall’s twisted relationship.
The hour focuses almost entirely on Black Jack’s abuse of Jamie, as he languishes in a prison cell, having agreed to submit to his captor’s desires in exchange for Claire’s freedom. That means Outlander joins what feels like a long line of TV shows that have recently included rape as a major plot point. Audience reaction to Game of Thrones this year highlights the overwhelming view that programmes need to justify their inclusion of sexual assault. Rape, though, is a part of life that should not be hidden away or swept under the carpet – particularly in period dramas or stories set in a time where such mistreatment may be more explicitly prevalent. To deny it, or worse belittle it, is certainly wrong.
But there is an inherent problem with rape on television, which is the fact that an hour rarely gives writers time to address it properly. How do you avoid it seeming like it’s just there to shock? How do you do justice to the trauma the victim goes through, without brushing over it?
Outlander’s finale is even more notable because it features male-on-male rape, something that is even less common on our screens. And, like many TV depictions of rape, the result is something that succeeds and fails.
The script chooses to tell the story in flashback, as Jamie tells Claire about what happened – a decision that places the spotlight firmly on Jamie’s suffering, rather than the shock value (or even the titillation) of the act itself. We spend more time in the chapel where Jamie’s recovering than the prison cell, as she tries to coax an account of events out of him; this is a story about the impact of rape, as much as the rape itself.
Despite that apparent intention, the hour-long format requires the show to reach a conclusion that involves some form of catharsis – a fact that means things feel a little too easily resolved. Within the prison sequences itself, meanwhile, one distanced shot of Jamie bowed over a table feels borderline gratuitous, almost as if it’s making the most of the graphic act.
For the most part, though, the show makes a clear attempt to be ambiguous in its portrayal, something that’s designed to provoke and allow for conflicts possible in real life. As Randall continues his torture, he begins to use lavender oil to delude Jamie into thinking Claire is the one assaulting him; shots that see Tobias Menzies’ face blur into Caitriona Balfe’s are sickeningly effective. Jamie’s eventual pleasure at Randall’s hands also allows for the fact that physical arousal does not equal consent – another grey area that emphasises how complex Outlander’s writers are aware rape can be. The 60-minute structure, though, still works to undo some of that attempt; given the above problems, would audiences interpret his orgasm in that light?
The programme has established a theme of sex and danger ever since Claire arrived in this foreign land; while she was in control of her sexual exchanges with her husband in the “present day”, her time in Scotland has seen her been the subject of attempted rape several times. During the mid-season finale, Jamie rescuing her from Randall’s abuse felt contrived, but changing the focus to Claire’s struggle to help Jamie here is a reversal that presents sexual assault as something woven into Gabaldon’s story. Following Claire’s ordeal, Jamie punished her by trying to beat her with a belt, reinforcing the idea of male possession as inherent to 17th century civilisation. Is there a parallel to Scotland being owned by England that feeds into the idea of Claire’s modern life being colonised by this out-of-date society? Perhaps, although again, there is not enough time to explore such themes of ownership and control in such a short space of time.
What is certain, though, is that the cast are excellent in their roles: Caitriona Balfe’s Claire is distressed and confused, while Sam Heughan’s Jamie is heartbreakingly pained, physically marked by Randall’s branding and ashamed by his apparent capitulation to his abuser. His refusal to talk about events until Balfe’s wife harshly confronts him is something that many TV series would not even dwell upon – even if the ultimate resolution seems to happen during a single conversation.
Tobias Menzies is just as distressing to watch, his face a horrific mask that we often catch in close-up. There is still a sense, however, that Randall is something of an unknown enigma: his perverse desires and sadistic love of control are plain as day to see (he has attempted to abuse Claire, Jamie and Jamie’s sister in the course of this season), but what are his motivations, beyond being a bad person? The result is a commendably complex, but still flawed, attempt to present rape on the small screen.
If there are doubts about that aspect of Outlander’s finale, though, Episode 16 confirms that Claire has been the undoubted strength of the programme: even with the weakness of her unsubtle, over-used voice-over, Balfe’s character has emerged as someone who determines her own narrative. In many ways, the climax of Season 1 actually arrived several episodes ago, when she told Jamie everything about her time travelling and decided to stay in Scotland. From that point on, she has not been trapped in the past – a fact that also put an end to her metaphorical and literal peril at the hands of men. Now, she is an active agent in her narrative: she is not a damsel in distress, but the rescuer of her husband.
The portrayal of Scotland, meanwhile, has been immersive throughout, a pay-off for the slow pace that has plagued much of the show (that meandering episode with the singing still feels unnecessary). By making the time travel premise so believable, the country has become a convincing context through which to examine Claire – even the demise of Randall at the hand of Highland cows adds to the realistic depth of the world.
As it has been built in more detail, the show has improved, thanks to its ability to use threats other than sex to thwart our heroine’s quest for independence. The prospect of a second season that sees the couple sail to Scotland, where they hope to change the fate of the Jacobite uprising, is therefore welcome – after grounding our couple’s relationship, the story of their love battling the tides of history suggests more ways for them to grow. There is, you hope, also room for Randall’s rape to continue to trouble Jamie, as the couple try to move on to new pastures.
But you wonder how much life is left in Claire’s adventures out of time: the cheesy closing shot of the pair setting sail, complete with the conveniently-timed announcement of her pregnancy, only reminds you of the uneven nature of some of the show’s first run. For better or for worse, though, Outlander remains an impressively female-led story. And that, like its atypical depiction of Jamie’s torment, makes this a show that is commendably different from the pack.
Season 1 of Outlander is out now on DVD and available to own from iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. You can also watch it online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery and 350,000 eBooks available to borrow, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Where can I watch Outlander online on pay-per-view VOD?