Opinion on the Outlander finale has been very starkly divided. AV Club (my personal go-to for TV reviews) compared the episode positively to Game of Thrones, saying that Outlander is a show that understands rape and portrays it thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Hitflix described the episode as unacceptable torture porn.
And honestly, I think both the praise and the criticism is right, to a certain extent. The show is good at thinking about the psychological aftermath of rape and attempted rape. But it also uses it as a plot device far too liberally for comfort, and this episode in particular was beyond horrific to watch.
But here’s the question: is it problematic for a show to show us this much awful detail? Is that a strength of storytelling, or is it exploitative? I really don’t think there’s an easy answer.
It doesn’t matter how much Outlander‘s attempt contrasts with Game of Thrones’. If this episode had been about Claire, and not Jamie, the internet would be in uproar. And understandably so. The story involved a character allowing themselves to be brutally raped to save their love. The show showed us this assault in great detail. And yes, swapping male and female characters to reconsider a scene is not always helpful, because female characters carry with them a huge weight of marginalization and abuse as plot device, but I do think it’s important here, because it might reveal the way we are more dismissive of male rape. No feminist critic would support such extreme sexualized violence against a female character shown on screen. Why, then, should it be acceptable for Jamie?
Another argument against the flashbacks are that they don’t add anything to the narrative. They tell us nothing that we could not surmise from the episode’s opening moments and Claire’s interactions with Jamie afterward. Surely the decision to show all the gory details is little more than unnecessary torture porn.
But I’ve often criticized stories for using rape either as a casual plot device, or as something that other characters respond to, rather than a narrative that belongs to the victim. And proving flashbacks is the only way we can see this experience from Jamie’s point of view. We might not want to see it from Jamie’s perspective, because it’s a horrific perspective to be trapped in, but if the audience didn’t get to see these flashbacks, we would only learn of what happened as Claire learns. We would see the brand when she saw it, imagine horrors as she imagines them… we would be entirely within Claire’s head and Claire’s perspective. And that’s problematic storytelling too.
Hitflix’s review commented that, by showing Jamie’s trauma in detail, the episode also traumatizes the audience. And I completely agree with this. But I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Obviously, it makes for an appalling viewing experience, but if we’re watching a plotline about rape, shouldn’t we be horrified? Shouldn’t we be barely able to watch? Shouldn’t it sicken us and make our skin crawl? This scene does not treat rape as a casual plot device. It explores it in great detail.
And I hated it. But I also hate, for example, the way Hannibal uses realistic gore for its story about cannibalism. I am literally unable to watch that show because its graphic nature makes me sick to my stomach. That doesn’t make it a bad show — just one that is too awful and real for me. And we, as an audience, are used to a sanitized version of rape. One that works as a plot device, one that is off-screen and quickly forgotten, one that provides guilt to other characters before being waved away. And Outlander refused to give us that. For many viewers, including me, this episode was simply too much. But this was the story it had to tell, and it’s possible that this was the only way it could tell it well. And a rape plotline should horrify and traumatize its audience. If it does anything else, it isn’t portraying it properly.
So the show is not, as Hitflix thought, “a time-traveling historical romance with a heavy framework of feminist underpinnings.” The source material simply does not allow for that. And although the show has made mistakes in interpreting its incredibly problematic and rape-filled source material before, I think it did the best that it could here. It presented a brutal storyline in a brutal and unflinching way. Is that good TV? I don’t know. It’s certainly not TV that I want to watch. But if a story is going to incorporate these sorts of plotlines, it may be the only way to do so realistically.