After showing four different sexual assaults on screen, including one in the first season that was rightfully called out for being particularly brutal, Outlander has included yet another violent, drawn out assault in its fifth season finale. The show, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon fantasy books about the adventures of a twentieth century woman named Claire who travels back in time to eighteenth century Scotland, has never been shy about depicting this violence. Unlike previous depictions, the showrunners in the most recent season (which concluded this past Sunday) were thoughtful enough to earn such a finale.
When Claire was kidnapped by the Browns in this season’s penultimate episode, I knew what was coming, or at least where the showrunners could go if they were following the text. In the corresponding book, Claire is beaten so badly she’s described by her son in law as looking not human. And as she struggles against her bonds one night just before her rescue, a man in the kidnapping party rapes her, making her the fourth member of her family to be sexually assaulted in the series. I believed there were only two ways the show could handle this plot point—keep it, claiming the importance of canon; or skip it, heeding the call of so many articles that have been written in the last few years. These arguments are not just about Outlander, but many shows who use rape as a plot point, and they claimed showrunners were relying too heavily on sexual assault to provide characters with trauma.
Ultimately Outlander turned the book’s assault – an adaptation of Gabaldon’s “A Breath of Snow and Ash” – which was commited by one man, into a more violent gang rape. It was horrifying. It deserved all the warnings that flashed on the screen before the episode aired. But as far as storytelling goes, the show handled the assault, and its aftermath, in a way that made sense for the characters and made sense for its milieu. Claire is a victim of extreme violence, sexual violence, in an extremely violent place that is particularly dangerous for women (earlier in the season, her eventual kidnapper has Claire help his wife’s broken wrist, an injury he clearly perpetrated).
Just before Claire’s assault, a fellow time traveler supplies a key line of dialogue, telling her what makes her stick out in the eighteenth century, even more than her language or medical knowledge, is how “[She doesn’t] act afraid of men. Most of the women from now do.” It’s a great line, and one that captures what an episode like this hinges on: the consequences of what can happen in a relatively lawless frontier where it is easy for the powerful to treat the powerless like their property.
The biggest surprise of the episode is not the horrific violence brought against Claire. As she points out in an impassioned speech to her husband Jaime after her rescue, she has been through wars, been beaten, and lived through starvation. While some television characters who have been through seasons worth of extremely bad luck (Meredith Grey of Grey’s Anatomy comes to mind), listing out trauma can sound ridiculous, as least through the lens of twenty-first century experience. But Claire has lived through WW2, the Jacobite uprising, and the pre-Revolutionary America, periods where violence is all the more plausible. This gives her speech a sense of genuine realism, even though the show is a fantasy. What makes this series involving, season after season, is characters who endure after they’ve been struck with blow after blow.
Outlander added one more element not seen in the books—a long fantasy sequence that imagines her entire family home for Thanksgiving in the twentieth century America. This is far, far away from charging Buffalo, snake bites that cannot be treated with anti-venom, and the threat of impending war next door. The sequence is for the fans in a simple way; it will be responsible for more GIFs than the rest of the season combined, as seeing Jaime in Claire’s time period has been a long-held curiosity for readers and viewers alike. Crucially, this fantasy sequence breaks up her brutal assault, meaning viewers saw Claire’s was a coping mechanism that also broke up intense imagery that is difficult to sit through. For a show about time travel that has involved ghosts and other forms of magic, Outlander, especially in the last few seasons, has had a straightforward plot. Though it’s hardly the first fantasy show to use an extended fantasy sequence, they’ve been deployed when a character is sick or injured, not when they’re deliberately trying to escape their reality.
We won’t really know the success of this storyline until the show’s next season. Both Jaime and Claire’s nephew Ian dealt with their PTSD in the seasons follow their assaults, with Jaimie’s narrative arc mixing “good days” with nightmares and journeys back into a moment when even his wife could not reach him. Ephemeral moments like Claire’s collapse into sobs after she’s unable to kill her rapist, her quiet moments with her family, and the moment in bed where she describes feeling safe all seem like they could put a period, rather than an ellipse, on their path toward healing. That would be a mistake.
Critics have argued that Outlander used sexual assault one too many times, that the very fact this family could have a well-attended survivors support group in their living room is proof of that. But the show has proven in the past to be adept at not just showcasing the violence of this time, but what it meant to survive. In a time and place when there would be almost no resources to process what has happened to her, Claire has her family as a resource. People all around her who will realize, even after her bruises fade, she will still have a lot of healing to do.
Outlander can be a ridiculous show. Earlier in this season, Jaimie was seemingly resurrected from the dead with a handjob, and Claire’s daughter was struck full force by a charging buffalo, dusted herself off, and walked away like nothing had happened. But they’ve treated the stories of sexual assault victims with respect, giving their stories afterward the time and consideration that is rarely seen on TV. If fans abandon the show because they would rather avoid more sexual violence on screen, I understand. But I’m excited to see where the showrunner take the story next season, to watch not just how Claire will heal, but how her family will come to her aid. That institution can be a bedrock of support, no matter what the time period.
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