Outlander: Damn, This Show Took a Dark Turn


Apparently it was sadist weekend for America’s prestige TV drama business! (There’ll be spoilers for Game of Thrones rolled into this recap; fair warning.)

We knew these scenes were coming; we knew they were going to be rough. But there’s really no way to separate my feelings about this week’s Outlander from my feelings about this week’s Game of Thrones. Because I was covering the RT Booklovers Convention this week, I watched Sansa’s horrible violation then segued right into Black Jack torturing Jamie. Besides making for a pretty shit Sunday night, this shaped my reaction to Outlander in some very specific ways.

Claire spent “Wentworth Prison” struggling desperately to spring Jamie. Jamie, meanwhile, began the episode facing down the prospect of his own death and it only got harder to watch from there. He was snatched from the hangman’s noose—but by Black Jack Randall. (What a heart-sinking twist on the romantic-last-minute-rescuer-on-horseback trope.) Randall offers a cleaner, better death than the gallows, but only if Jamie willingly submits to him. It’s pretty clear he means in a sexual sense.

Jamie fights, and so we watch him beaten. We watch his hand crushed. We watch Black Jack force Jamie to jack him off for a couple of minutes. Randall’s heavy, Marley, gropes Claire. We watch a nail driven through Jamie’s palm. The only respite came when he was able to convince Black Jack to send Claire away, so she wouldn’t have to see anymore. But of course, to get even that much mercy, Jamie had to “agree” to give himself over to Randall. And then at the end of the hour, Randall is still only warming up. We watch Jamie cry a single tear. The next episode—the season finale, set to air May 30—won’t be any cheerier.

These scenes were only made more gripping and horrible by the fantastic work from Tobias Menzies. The man is just so magnetizing, and it’s appalling to see all that charisma channeled into something so terrible.

It was awful. And it’s just exhausting how often prestige drama feels like a contest to put your characters through the most awful, torturous, degrading experiences possible. For female characters, that plays out with rape scene after rape scene. Sometimes you wonder if they’re just sitting around those writers’ rooms saying: “What are we gonna do this week?” “Eh, throw in some sexual trauma then let’s go get a beer.” Yes, I know that both Outlander and Game of Thrones were drawing on source material, but it’s just a common narrative go-to these days that it’s hard to view these scenes on their own merits.

But as I watched Outlander, all I could think was: Well, at least this doesn’t make me want to vomit quite as much as Game of Thrones. At least Outlander was taking sexual violence against men—traditionally made either invisible or treated as some sort of joke—seriously. At least Outlander continued to invert the ways that plot generally uses female bodies. At least Black Jack’s violence felt capricious. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones in particular
felt like a punishment for Sansa. If they wanted to further explore the idea that the world has shattered Sansa’s rose-colored glasses, they could’ve just married her off to some callous old dud of a husband. Though she already had plenty of rage to fuel her rise to the position of warden of the North (which is what I choose to believe will be her endgame).

But “at least” isn’t really something I want to find myself saying about a show I generally enjoy.

I don’t know! I’m just really starting to pine for a parallel version of this show where Jenny and Claire raid redcoat patrols and English taxmen while Jamie sits at home looking pretty and fixing water wheels. Also maybe doing some light woodworking? But at least Claire got to leverage her knowledge of the future and the lingering belief in witchcraft to screw with Black Jack Randall’s head. Take that, you goddamn psycho.

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