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.