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Outlander: Reckoning

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It can be difficult to return to an enchanting show after six months away. It’s exciting to finally get more to watch, but how will they feel now that the spell created by marathoning through the existing episodes is broken? Time away means time to reflect, time to read the book on which it’s based, time to think about why the show threatens its protagonist with rape every five minutes.

So what happens when the show returns?

Well, Outlander is as gorgeous as it ever was. The music swells, the setting enchants, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie crackles.

But, unfortunately for the show, its first episode back tackled an extremely controversial scene in the books. And if it intended to maintain the feminist, “female gaze” perspective for which it’s been praised, it failed in every possible way.

This episode of Outlander could be described as exploring the difficulties in Claire’s new marriage, the clash between the modern(ish) woman and the morals of her adopted time. But the exploration of this clash clashes with the tone of the show. Is Outlander historical fiction, or is it a sweeping romance? Every scene between Jamie and Claire this week contradicts that second idea, because of all the language about ownership and obeying. How can it be a swoon-worthy time-travel romance if Jamie beats Claire and enjoys it, if Claire must learn to accept that he “owns” her?

The show attempts to tie this episode back into the epic romance ideal with its final scene, when Jamie realizes that “it has to go a different way” for him and Claire and swears that he will never hurt her again. But his compromise is met with Claire agreeing that “he is her master and she is his,” which, considering the context, suggests that she gives herself up to being Jamie’s actual possession. Yes, love is all about compromise, but if the compromise is that he won’t hit her and that she will accept that he is her master… well, that doesn’t seem so romantic any more.

But the key scene, of course, was the beating scene, which left me wondering what on earth they were trying to achieve. The way it was shot was reminiscent of the opening scene with Jack Randall, forced nudity and struggling and all. It was shot and acted like assault. Yet it also had jaunty music in the background, and the “funny” interjections of the men downstairs, and Jamie’s declaration that he’s going to enjoy it. Those elements suggests that it was meant to be a lighthearted scene, but Claire’s fighting made it very, very unfunny.

Was her fighting, I wonder, an attempt to make the scene more “feminist,” to make Claire “strong”? Her struggle just made it stomach-sickening. Either Claire had to accept what was happening as a fair punishment for endangering everybody, or at least as the only way to be accepted back into the group again, giving her some measure of consent, or the scene had to create a horrifying feeling that marred the romance between Jamie and Claire. The show could not have both, no matter how faithful to the books the scene might be.

We also saw a similar reversal in the final scene, when Claire holds a knife to Jamie’s throat during sex and threatens him to never hit her again. It’s another moment that feels like it’s supposed to show Claire’s strength, but I just found it disturbing. Again, we had a moment between Jamie and Claire that echoed the near-rape scene with Captain Randall at the beginning of the episode. When he holds a knife to Claire’s throat, it’s horrifying. But when she does it to Jamie, it’s all part of the sweeping epic romance, because she’s being strong. 

The episode’s biggest misstep, in my opinion, was its use of Jamie’s perspective and voiceover. It was, I assume, an attempt to make the beating scene work, by showing us his feelings and his reasoning and struggling. But this meant that we never got to see Claire’s perspective, to get her feelings on something horrific that is happening to her. We only get her reaction filtered through Jamie’s perspective, robbing her of the right to react to several traumatic events — her experience at the stones, Jack Randall’s attack, and Jamie’s beating. By the episode’s conclusion, this drama and trauma is all resolved, so we may never get to hear Claire’s thoughts on this. And contrary to what the writers may have believed, it’s Claire’s perspective that we needed here. If it wished to be an epic romance, it needed to allow the viewers to sort through their conflicted feelings along with Claire, not be told how the abuser in the situation feels. We know he feels he is in the right because of the time period. We don’t need to hear him say it. What we do need is to hear how Claire responds to this conflict.

Of course, the show doesn’t lose its “female gaze” credentials entirely. The sex scene at the end of the episode was equal-opportunity nudity, and the camera focussed on Claire’s orgasm, which is something that’s almost never seen. The show does want to be the feminist tale that it’s been praised to be, but its source material creates many problems, and its adaptation choices this week involved mistake after mistake. It was a very difficult plotline to adapt, and the show did not succeed.

Really, the key question with Outlander is this: how much can an adaptation change about the story its adapting? And how much can it be criticized for remaining faithful to its source material? I’d argue that it has a duty to change problematic elements, especially when being touted as a “female-gaze fantasy,” or at least to handle them with the utmost sensitivity. But I know many people would disagree.

I look forward to seeing how that debate develops as the rest of the series unfolds.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

10 thoughts on “Outlander: Reckoning

  1. Argh! Yes! I so agree with this review. I am so glad to read it. I was getting very frustrated with seeing everybody praise the episode and Jamie’s narration. I hated this episode. It made me not want to watch the show anymore. I will watch the next episode, but if it doesn’t do better, I am out.
    I hate all the ‘historical accuracy’ apologism that I’m seeing everywhere. Because to me, it’s all writer’s choices. It’s not as if this is some actual 18th century person’s found diary that’s being filmed. It’s written and filmed by people with a 21st century frame of reference and they are choosing to write this.I rreally really hope I get to live to see times where our entertainment isn’t full of this rape and abuse romanticising that runs so rampant still.

    1. Oh and forgot to add: what I also found jarring was that it seemed as if I was watching all different people all of a sudden. Jamie was always so kind in the 1st half of the season, now all of a sudden he finds it reasonable to shout at and beat a woman who was nearly brutally raped twice in one day!!
      Claire seemed unhinged during the make up sex session. Leoghaire turned into a vindictive witch all of a sudden (because apparently hexing people’s living quarters is fine all of a sudden for a young religious girl).
      Colum and Dougal were at each other’s throats, the clan apparently is unapologetically on Dougal’s side.
      I didn’t understand what the heck was happening all over the place!

      1. Oh, I have a whole other rant in my head about Laoghaire. Because of course she must become the scorned woman who takes her unrequited love out on Claire. Of course.

  2. I read Outlander in the fall in preparation for watching the series, and found that after all, I couldn’t get excited to watch it because of scenes like the ones you describe here. They were troubling enough in the book. It’s interesting to read your analysis, and I agree, an adaptation of a so-called “sweeping romance” has a responsibility to change those troubling elements. I’ll look forward to reading the rest of your analysis as the show concludes.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. The historical apologia I’ve been reading about this has been disturbing enough — historically people have done some objectively horrible things and I would hope we can all agree that beating your wife with a belt is one of them — but even from a narrative standpoint, the scene doesn’t make sense. Jaime has been flogged, he last saw his sister carried off by soldiers, he saved his new bride from violent rape twice in recent days, and recently he offered to take a beating for a young girl. He’s not exactly obtuse when it comes to violence being used by the powerful against the weak and so far he’s fought that system pretty consistently. Until now, when apparently he could be prevailed upon to beat his wife because reasons.

    It’s going to be especially interesting to see how the show treats Jaime’s assault later in the story compared to how it’s treated Claire’s multiple attacks so far. If it continues to be true to the book, I’m going to assume ‘severely lopsided manner’ because Claire is a strong female character ™ and everyone knows strong female characters can’t be traumatized or they stop being strong.

    1. Could not agree more. The whole thing made no sense and it has to come down to bad writing.

      They are both new world people being forced to deal with their old world rules so much more could have been made of this. A scene built on the fact that Jamie wants to comfort his wife however cannot because he has to punish her. A Claire lead punishment scene would have been so much better and more in character for both of them.

  4. The problem is not the beating itself. It was “justice” at the time. The problem is that it’s the male lead who beats the female lead, and they are suppose to be in love, he is suppose to be a hero etc. The makers seem to forget that the story is meant for a modern audiance. Therefore, being “historically correct” doesn’t always work. If this was a documentary or a drama documentary – fine. But it’s not, it’s fiction.

  5. According to many critics one of Outlander’s strengths is that it refuses to be categorized. I agree, but I also think that it’s a great weakness, because it makes it hard for the show to decide how it wants to handle subjects like this.
    I’m with you about needing to see Claire’s reaction to all the traumatic events that she experienced over the last 48 hours and I’m very sorry about the fact we’ll probably never get go through her feelings about this. But I also think that Jamie’s POV is important. I mean he was raised in the 18th century, but he’s more than just the product of his time period. I hate when people brush this off as “part of the time” because it doesn’t show why Jamie in particular would do it and it doesn’t give me any reasons why I should try to understand it. If you are going to show me a flawed character you should give me the tools to make sense of what you are showing me. So I think that getting to see his thought process is necessary in order to get the full picture. I’d wish the writers found a way to show both POVs, because getting to see only one limits our understanding of the whole episode.
    I think that the problem with the scene in itself is that they were too faithful to the book, I mean they changed some of the most problematic bits and I appreciate it, but I wish they went even further from it. The way the shoot it meant to downplay it and make it lighthearted but when it came to something like this you can’t take away the seriousness of it. Actually while I was watching the episode I was entertained by Jamie and Claire’s back and forth, and I immediately thought that there’s was something wrong because I really hate the whole thing. So I really have mixed feelings about it.
    I don’t think that Jamie’s oath not to raise a hand to her was in exchange of her accepting him as her master. Swearing the oath to her was his own choice and is entirely apart from his statement about being Claire’s master and her being his master. I think that what he was trying to convey with that statement is he regards Claire as his equal, something he did before by swearing the oath of fealty to her, which is and oath swore to someone who is above you, someone in a position of power, and by swearing it to Claire he not only swore to never hit her again, he was putting himself under her power and bending himself to her will, something that considering Jamie’s stubbornness and his upbringing is a great gesture and shouldn’t be downplayed. But at the same time is the littlest that Claire deserved.
    After a lot of thinking about it, I understand Jamie’s situation and why being put in that position he felt like he had to do what he did. My biggest problem with this is why is he in that position in the first place? Same with Claire’s nearly being rape twice? (counting only the times when she was more immediately in danger of being raped). I mean if the author wanted to illustrate the way husbands punished their wives, she should have done it in another way because the timing is awful and makes everything even more complicated. I think that if the show wants to be successful they really need to decide when is necessary to be faithful to the books and when is necessary to change something problematic and I hope that in future seasons they learn how to do that.

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