Through the ups and downs of the front half of Outlander’s first season, its greatest strength always remained Claire. As the show’s protagonist, the story quite explicitly belongs to her, but Outlander takes this one step further by giving Claire power over the narrative and the way we see the narrative unfold. Seen most starkly in that steamy wedding episode, Outlander creates a woman-centric rendering of the typically male-dominated genres it blends, using the female gaze to untangle Claire’s fears and desires. After a several-month break, the show returns in a very different form, handing off the narrative reins to its leading man Jamie Fraser.
Nothing is more frustrating than when writers don’t seem to fully understand what makes their own show great. For Outlander, Claire’s position at the center of this time-travel universe has always been and will always be what makes the series smart and distinct. With “The Reckoning,” the writers seem to be answering the question “how does Jamie feel about all of this?” But did anyone really ask? If this show were told from Jamie’s perspective, it’d just be another run-of-the-mill male hero journey. There’s nothing all that interesting about Jamie’s quest toward moral clarity, which this episode tries to illuminate. It’s pretty telling that the show’s best scenes are two of the few that feature Claire: the initial fight between Jamie and Claire after he rescues her, when Caitriona Balfe sets the scene on fire with her emotional force, and at the end of the episode when the two manage to top—Claire doing so quite literally—their wedding night sex scenes.
But between all that, we get a bunch of rambling Jamie voiceovers and political scheming that conveys a lot of information but very little pathos. If you thought Claire’s voiceovers throughout the season have been overly explanatory, Jamie’s words take ham-handed writing to a whole new level, with vague and uninspired musings on what it means to be a man and the sideeffects of love. He also mends the relationship between Colum and Dougal, who argue when the former finds out the latter has been secretly fundraising for the Jacobite cause. The politics of Outlander explores give depth to the time and place. It’s a necessary element in the show’s larger framework, but Claire is completely removed from the politics of the clan, at least when it comes to the developments particular to this episode, so the plotline lacks emotional urgency.
But where Jamie’s narrative control feels especially thorny is when he decides to punish Claire for disobeying him and getting caught by the British. I won’t be surprised if people try to construe the scene as simply an intro to BDSM for the couple, especially with Jamie asking Claire to define “sadist” late on in the episode. But nothing about Jamie’s “disciplining” of Claire was consensual. Furthermore, because of the Jamie-centric structure of the episode, the scene fixes us in Jamie’s perspective, aligning us with the abuser instead of with Claire. Everything from the camerawork to the blocking, which places Jamie looming above Claire, to the strangely upbeat and jovial music works toward blurring the lines between pain and pleasure. But it isn’t Claire’s pleasure; it’s Jamie’s. And the direction choices suggest that it’s intended for the viewers to find some pleasure in it as well.
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From a story and character perspective, it makes sense that Jamie would take these actions. As he explains later on in the episode, his world is steeped with tradition. His whole life has followed the rigid patriarchal rules of 18th Century Scotland. He’s subconsciously affected by his society’s norms, frustrated by how Claire doesn’t fit neatly into any of it. So the problem isn’t necessarily with his actions or his overall arc in “The Reckoning,” which ends with his realization that he belongs to Claire as much as she belongs to him, but rather with the apparent romanticization of the punishment scene’s sexualized violence. I’ve already seen people using the word “spanking” when discussing the scene, which has more sexual connotations than, say, “beating,” “hitting,” or “striking,” which leads me to believe that the way Outlander has treated the scene easily feeds into the interpretation that there’s something sexy about it all.
By the end of “The Reckoning,” Claire regains control in their relationship, and it’s in this charged sex scene that Outlander returns to form. Jamie offers the first part of the turning point, pledging his fealty to Claire and deciding their relationship won’t adhere to the same patriarchal power structures of other married couples in the highlands. But Claire seizes his peace offering and makes it very clear that she can dominate him as powerfully as he can her, holding his own knife to his throat and threatening to eat his heart for breakfast should he ever hurt her like that again. “I am your master and you’re mine,” Jamie muses in his breathless post-coital state, and suddenly the relationship dynamics between the newlyweds are back to being a compelling driving force for the narrative. Outlander becomes smarter than a simple romance story when it makes Claire and Jamie more than just a pretty ship. Could the episode have reached this turning point for their relationship without Jamie first crossing the line? Maybe not. But again, I think the problem really comes from the fact that the episode belongs to Jamie, taking Claire’s agency out of the question until the very end.
In one of the episode’s stranger developments, Laoghaire—the young girl who’s lovesick over Jamie—is apparently shaping up to be one of the season’s villains. I have a lot of doubts about where this story could possibly go, especially because Laoghaire is such a poorly written character as she stands. She’s solely defined by her love for Jamie, and the show paints her as a foolish and wide-eyed ingenue who’s all “if I can’t have Jamie, no one can.” That’s too tired and gendered of a trope for Outlander, which is usually much smarter about the way it portrays women. Now that she’s leaving “ill wishes” under beds, Laoghaire is supposedly a more significant player in the story, but if the entire impetus for her dip into the darkside hinges on Jamie’s rejection, Outlander has just trapped itself in a clichéd scorned-woman story.
- Welcome back to weekly coverage of Outlander! I’ve missed this show a lot, especially Geillis Duncan, who isn’t in this episode at all, but it’s fine. I’m fine!
- Best Claire Sonning: A tie between “I’ll cut off your balls; I swear” and “If you ever raise a hand to me again, I’ll cut your heart out and eat it for breakfast.” Love you, Claire bear.
- Balfe and Sam Heughan deserve so much credit for their performances in this show’s sex scenes. It simply must be said that the two—and Balfe in particular—bring a lot of realism to Outlander’s steamier scenes.
- Outlander’s exterior shots remain stunning, as do the costumes.