'Outlander' focused on the victim, but does that make it any better?
Of all the things we needed from television this week, you’d think another sickening hour of rape would have been far, far down the list. But the season finale of Outlander arrived just in time to make a significant contribution to the current outcry over the representation and the amount of sexual violence on TV these days. Last week, The Mary Sue announced it would no longer recap Game of Thrones, in which the rape of women is routine and depicted with callous casualness. (Such is life in George R. R. Martin’s brutal, misogynistic fantasy world, or so the defense goes.) The move came after a well-documented pile-up of such savagery over successive weeks that alienated female viewers. Explained the website’s editor-in-chief Jill Pantozzi: “Our stance is not that sexual assault can’t or shouldn’t be in TV ever (but) that we want creators to really think about how they are portraying those crimes and the effect they have on the survivors.”
Last Friday, Bryan Fuller, the executive producer of NBC’s Hannibal, which begins its third season on June 4, told EW’s James Hibberd that TV’s rape glut – a byproduct of moment super-saturated with crime dramas—spurred him to ban such stories from his show. His sensitivity to the issue has even inspired him to modulate aspects of this season’s adaptation of Red Dragon, the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris. “It’s one of the things on the show that we really wanted to avoid. They’re ubiquitous on television, and there’s an entire series [NBC’s Law & Order: SVU] that’s about rape,” said Fuller. “We didn’t wanna glorify it—well, not “glorify,” because I don’t think any of the crime procedural shows are actually “glorifying” rape. But it is certainly explored so frequently that it rarely feels genuine.” He added:
“‘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. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation — it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape.”
The Outlander finale, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” was shot many months ago, but it played like a response to rape glut concerns. Bringing to screen the most provocative moment in Diana Gabaldon’s first Outlander novel, showrunner Ronald D. Moore and his collaborators presented a rigorously considered portrayal of sexual violence and dote on the psychic impact on the victim. It was also exceptionally disturbing, making for a most unpleasant if necessary hour of television. We watched “Black” Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), a monstrous rogue officer in the British army occupying 1700s Scotland, ruthlessly pursue his goal of manipulating his longtime sexual obsession, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), into making love to him. Randall used various strategies to break Jamie’s resistance, to make him pliable. Tenderness. Seduction. Force. At one point, Randall coerced an increasingly disoriented Jamie into marking himself with his brand. With Jamie’s dehumanization near complete— he was now Randall’s possession, his property – Randall sealed the deal by exploiting Jamie’s coping mechanism for his ordeal: Fantasizing about his true love, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a time traveler from 1940s England. Randall played the part, which succeeded in arousing Jamie, and then took advantage of it.
But the violence done to Jamie wasn’t the narrative focus of the episode. The story actually began with Jamie’s allies rescuing him from the Wentworth Prison dungeon where Jamie suffered this abuse. It then tracked Claire’s efforts to mend Jamie’s broken body, then mend his broken spirit by getting him to share with her what Randall had done to him. The scenes of Jamie’s ordeal were given to us as Jamie tried to resist recalling them or finally gaining the courage to disclose everything. In this way, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” aimed to be more about Jamie dealing with the trauma of the violence than the trauma itself.
The seven episodes that preceded the finale primed the pump for its power with a careful attention to theme and character. For me, Outlander is not all that compelling as historical drama despite its commendable authenticity – it requires a degree of interest in Scotland’s history, geography and Highlander culture that I simply don’t possess – but it works like gangbusters as a drama about a love story, the relationship between Claire and Jamie. The stories the show told during the second half of the first season deepened their bond and their need for each other. Jamie in particular was made to confront his personal and cultural attitudes about gender roles, understand how they impact Claire, and recognize the value to him of having a wife that was his equal in every way. One bit of learning and growing strikes me now as oblique foreshadowing for the season’s climactic violence: Claire teaching Jamie the definition of sadism following their own unfortunate experience of it – he over-zealously spanked her as an act of marital discipline; she subsequently took a sword to his neck during lovemaking and warned him never to do that again — in the season 1b premiere, “The Reckoning.” Jamie and Claire became better lovers of each other, gaining an emotional intimacy to match and enhance their sexual connection.
All of this set the stage for a finale where the stakes were intensely personal. By exploiting Jamie’s love for Claire in order to bend him to his will, Randall poisoned that love, and more so, their sexual connection, turning something vital to them into something painful. When Claire tried to show him tenderness, Jamie recoiled from it, and even lashed out at her for it, because it conjured memories of Randall’s “affections” toward him, and triggered his self-loathing for succumbing to it. Jamie, in fact, wanted to die. To “ransom her man’s soul,” per the title, Claire had to convince Jamie to let her inside his darkness and disabuse him of his shame. It was a beautiful idea and profoundly touching sentiment. But ironically, it was a vaguely shaming guilt trip that roused Jamie from his spiritual stupor: Claire made it clear that if Jamie gave up on life, she, too, would do the same. Jamie sealed the deal on his salvation by having Randall’s brand cut from his hide. He was himself again—and he belonged to Claire.
The performances by Menzies and Heughan in the finale were extraordinary for their courage, vulnerability and trust in each other. Here’s hoping the season 1 DVD will include some commentary from them on how they worked out those dungeon scenes. (It’s the only way the show will ever get me to watch them again!) Director Anna Foerster —whose previous credits include many episodes of Criminal Minds, one of television’s more sensationalistic pulp procedurals—helmed the episode with impressive care for her actors and with an eye toward showing exactly what was needed and no more.
“To Ransom a Man’s Soul” was not without some wanting elements or weaknesses. I wished the episode had provided Claire/Balfe with more to do than love her man back to life; Outlander is her story, after all, and she was owed more from a season finale. (I’m inclined to think that her season 1 arc peaked in the season’s 11th episode, when she made the choice to not return to the 20th century.) I also thought that Jamie’s rehabilitation was a bit accelerated for the sake of ending the season on an upbeat, romantic note. I hope season 2 will take seriously an idea like PTSD and dig deeper into Jamie’s recovery.
While Jamie’s rape was well handled, a question remains: should the rape have been done at all? I’m still processing my thoughts in this matter. I hope Moore didn’t feel obligated to honor the beat in order to please fans of Gabaldon’s novel or in pursuit of buzzy trangressiveness. Raping a character for the sake of satisfying an audience is its own kind of deplorable sadism. Fan service might fuel a business, but it doesn’t serve the higher cause of making great art or the greater interest of the culture. (I’m already loving the example of Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller, daring to make adjustments to Red Dragon for his own artistic reasons and with thought to the state of his medium.)
For those of us who come to Outlander without having read any of the books, Jamie’s rape wasn’t unexpected; Moore took care over the first 15 episodes to establish Randall’s sadistic bona fides and obsessive interest in Jamie. But I wish I understood Randall more than I did. Menzies imbued him with terrifying charisma and worked hard with line readings and expressions to suggest a complex psychology for his depravity. Still, as a much-discussed but infrequently seen character in the narrative, Randall has been more mythic bogeyman than man, especially during the second half of the season. Consequently, I struggled to connect with his internal life during the finale and the peak expression of his hideousness. It’s been a long eight months months since “The Garrison Commander,” the stand-out episode from the season’s first half that gave us some insight into Randall’s warped morality, and even then, it could have given us more. The second set of episodes would have been stronger had they refreshed us on the particulars of his pathology. Another recent buzz moment saw Menzies boldly baring his privates to depict Randall’s inability to generate an erection so he could rape Jamie’s sister. She keeps the vile worm deflated with mocking laughter. There was much to admire about this scene, but what were to conclude about Randall? That he’s a homosexual? That sex is all about power for him? That after years of unchecked debauchery, he can only get it up for extreme perversity? Last month, Gabaldon stated that she sees Randall as a “pervert” and “equal opportunity sadist.” This might be sufficient for Gabaldon and her readers, but Menzies’ performance has captured my imagination for something more; “pervert” feels too simple, too reductive for the Randall that I know. The finale left it unclear if Randall survived the stampede of cattle that Jamie’s pals used during their prison raid and rescue mission. But if the villain continues to be part of Moore’s vision of Outlander, I hope he’ll dig even deeper into his character, or at the very least, provide some remedial education so we can connect anew with his worldview and drive.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the most obvious way in which “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” differs from the usual TV rape story: The victim was a man, not a woman. It could very well be that the quality of this hour owes something to the rarity of this kind of story. Television should endeavor to give this kind of imagination and care to stories about female victims of rape, too; it’s shameful that it doesn’t happen more often. All told, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” represents a commendable but flawed act of empathy. In Jamie, we get a small sense of what it must feel like to be objectified and trolled by a man ruled by power, privilege, and twisted, lustful fantasies, to live in constant fear of sexual violence in a culture that allows such men to flourish. But in Claire, we see a fumbled response, a frustrating mixed bag of grace, outrage, selfishness, and just-get-over it. Her heart was in the right place. If the story had given her more time, perhaps she could have modeled a better expression of love. And so television’s pursuit of the best possible treatment of this terrible, complex subject continues.