Outlander understands rape. And as a television series airing in 2015, it’s nearly peerless in that regard. Recently, Game Of Thrones used rape as a trope yet again. And the writers, again, proved they have no idea how to portray rape, especially in its aftermath. Rape narratives are not monolithic, nor are they ever simple, so they are very hard to effectively capture on television. And they should be.
In the season one finale of Outlander, we see, in flashback, how Captain Jack Randall repeatedly raped and brutalized Jamie before Claire, Murtagh, and the other men could break him out of Wentworth. “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is hardly the first time Outlander shows violent sexual assault, but it’s the most terrifying episode to date, and quite possibly the most difficult episode of television I’ve ever had to get through. But unlike rape scenes on Game Of Thrones, these graphic scenes between Jamie and Randall never come off as sensationalized horror. There’s a sense that the writers have given thought to how this experience ties into the character’s arc. The sadistic Black Jack Randall has been after Jamie all season. It isn’t violence simply for the sake of violence. It’s violence that’s intricately connected to the character, his arc, and even the narratives of other characters on a show.
And the Outlander writers don’t back down from exploring the indelible aftermath of rape. Randall’s rape of Jamie isn’t treated as a linear arc with any type of real resolution. Jamie is physically removed from Wentworth, but he isn’t saved. He still experiences residual trauma in the form of hallucinations and flashbacks. He sees Claire as Randall, just as he eventually started to see Randall as Claire as both the result of Randall’s and then, eventually, as a survival mechanism. Never once is Jamie depicted as a victim in “To Ransom A Man’s Soul.” He’s a survivor; he does what he has to to keep on. Rape is so often conceptualized as violence against a body, but it cuts much deeper than that. It’s violence against a person’s soul, and the Outlander writers deal with the physical, spiritual, and psychological wounds of rape throughout “To Ransom A Man’s Soul.”
Game Of Thrones portrays rape as something that sort of just happens to women. That’s not to say the show completely denies the severity of rape, but as with a lot of the violence on Game Of Thrones, it just doesn’t seem like the writers have given any thought as to why rape exists in this universe or what it means for the characters. Writing about Ramsay’s rape of Sansa in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Sonia Saraiya at Salon best characterizes the problem with Game Of Thrones’s portrayal of violence: “A world of violence is not a narrative, it’s just a theater of horror. ...It creates a dissonance of attempting to identify with characters before seeing them suffer almost cartoonish horror in the arena of the show; the violence is titillation.” She continues:
“But rape isn’t mere violence; it’s not a punch to the head or a knife through the ribs. It’s an act that attempts to divorce a person’s soul from their body; to imitate the language of intimacy in what is purely cruelty. It is a kind of murder, except afterwards, the victim can still walk and talk and breathe.”
In “To Ransom A Man’s Soul,” Jamie wholly, painfully experiences that feeling of being both dead and alive. When we see Jamie in Wentworth at the beginning of the episode, not long after Randall rapes him and convinces him to imagine he’s Claire, he asks Randall to pay the debt he owes by slitting his throat. Jamie wants to die. He wants to die even after he’s back with Claire. Even though she knows Randall raped him, Claire, understandably, can’t wrap her mind around why he wants to end his life. She thinks her love and his freedom is enough to lead him into the light.
But here, again, is where Outlander outsmarts Game Of Thrones. The writers understand that rape leaves gashes that don’t go away, even when the abuser is out of the picture. Much like his hand, Jamie’s soul is going to take a long time to heal, and the trauma might not ever go away completely if Outlander continues to be as realistic when it comes to psychological trauma as it has been in this first season. The writers do not sugarcoat or belittle Jamie’s desire to die. Even Murtagh notes it’s a natural, justified response: “He’s been tortured, raped, isn’t that reason enough?” he asks when Claire, exasperated, wonders why he so desperately wants to die. Even Outlander’s characters seem to understand rape and its lasting implications for survivors.
Nothing about the sexual violence of this finale is sensationalized or cartoonish, thanks in large part to performances from the main cast that are convincingly terrifying (Tobias Menzies), harrowing (Sam Heughan), and heartbreaking (Caitriona Balfe). Balfe and Heughan turn in work that could easily get them the awards attention Outlander deserves.
But Anna Foerster’s direction also plays a huge role in the nuances and emotional complexity of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul.” Foerster also directed “The Wedding,”which is, I imagine, most people’s favorite episode of the season. While “To Ransom A Man’s Soul—and Foerster’s other episodes, including “Wentworth Prison”—are thematically and tonally quite different from “The Wedding,” her handling of the show’s most intense emotional moments remains consistent. Foerster captures Jamie and Claire’s intense love with close, intimate shots. She teases out the conflicting, ever-morphing emotions of each moment and presents them in all their visceral realness. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Outlander is one of the most immersive shows on television, and that’s especially true for Foerster episodes. One of my favorite scenes from the finale shows Murtagh and Jamie arguing in Gaelic, and even though we don’t know what they’re saying, the scene’s direction—as well as their performances—bring enough meaning that verbal language doesn’t matter.
Even though Claire convinces Jamie to go on living and to cut away the seal Randall brands him with, there’s still a sense that Jamie’s healing process isn’t straightforward, that the show isn’t going to suffer from short-term memory loss when it comes to this experience. The removal of the seal is symbolic—not of Jamie’s complete release from Randall but of his first steps toward that release. Even fully clothed and bandaged, bantering with Claire on their boat set for France, Jamie is not yet whole. “I’m trying,” he replies honestly when Claire says it seems his sense of humor has returned.
Then, in the episode’s final minutes, Claire drops the reveal I anticipated the moment she collapsed in Murtagh’s arms halfway through the finale: She’s pregnant. At first, I worried Outlander was about to fall off the cliff into one of my least favorite television tropes: the idea that babies—especially surprise ones—can make everything better. But, this is Outlander, and while it’s a show that certainly has its flaws, nothing about this first season has ever seemed conventional or dumb. Jamie, initially, tells Claire that the news makes him happy. But the gradual unfolding of his smile as they hug undercuts his words. I don’t think Jamie is entirely lying about being happy, but it certainly isn’t the whole truth. Just as cutting off the seal isn’t the solution to his pain, a baby can’t save his soul. Maybe I’m reading too much into such a small physical action from Heughan, but since the beginning, Outlander has possessed a subtlety in its character work. And this is one of those small moments that I took a lot of meaning away from.
Above all else, Outlander’s first season has been smart and radical, in small but powerful ways, like showing Jenny pumping her breast milk and showing male full-frontal nudity in the context of assault. “To Ransom A Man’s Soul,” as hard as it is to watch, honors all that revolutionary work the show has done on gender, sex, and power. Even though Jamie and Claire are heading to a new, safe home in France and the episode ends with more bright colors than we see in any other scene in the episode, there’s still a sense that darkness lies ahead and that Jamie’s trauma will continue to have psychological effects. A jaunty version of the show’s theme music, written by the incredible Bear McCreary, plays over the final scene, but it slows down, ending on a somber note. Just as it’s too smart and nuanced for clean-cut hero/victim dynamics, this show is too smart and nuanced for happy endings.
“I will have you any way I can, always,” Claire tells Jamie. And I believe her. I believe their love, because the writers and actors have convinced me so thoroughly of the power of true love throughout this first season. But that power stops short of being able to magically heal trauma. Outlander understands that.
- This brings us to the end of Outlander season one coverage! Through time and space, we made it. It didn’t end up having the REAL witches I was hoping for, but hey, Geillis Duncan is still one of my favorite characters from television this year—real witch or not.
- On adaptations: I praise the writers of this show significantly for the story told here in the finale, and yes, I know they are working with existing source material, but hey, so is Game Of Thrones, and the GOT show writers decided to double down on the sexual violence of the books with no justification. As I haven’t read the Outlander books, I can’t speak on how “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” do or do not deviate from the source material, but I do know that the writing here is incredibly tight. So I’m curious: Do the books handle trauma and sexual assault as well as the show does? Just be sure to mark any spoilers clearly if you have an answer.
- Claire and Jamie are going to try to change the future!!! I am so excited to see how this unfolds.
- Unlike Outlander, I’d like to end my coverage on a slightly happier ending, so let’s all take a moment to appreciate Claire’s very strong 18th-century drag look: