Recap: ‘Outlander’ – What did I just watch?

For those of you who don”t follow me on Twitter, I have been trying to write this “Outlander” recap for over a month. I have been searching for the words to sum up my feelings about “To Ransom A Man”s Soul” since watching an advanced screener. I have written many words, and deleted most of them. But what it boils down to is this:

“Outlander” lied to me.

Having never read the books, I came into this series under the impression it was a time-traveling historical romance with a heavy framework of feminist underpinnings.

Then the slow slide into constant sexual assault and abuse began. At first, I shrugged it off as “historical accuracy.” After all, “Game of Thrones” is another gritty fantasy that traffics in unblinking realism about the human condition – AKA women get treated like hot garbage. I was occasionally outraged by how “Outlander” glossed over Claire”s repeated traumas, but soldiered on.

No more.

There is so much wrong with everything in this episode that it is a point of no return for me. Just as Sansa”s wedding night in “Game of Thrones” was the breaking point for some fans, this is the breaking point in “Outlander” for me. Let”s get down into the muck to find out why.

“To Ransom a Man”s Soul” is split into two interwoven parts. The effect of this is to force the viewer to live out the trauma of Randall”s graphically violent attack on Jamie in extended snippets. “Outlander” saw the line between examining the impact of trauma and actively traumatizing the audience, revved their engine, and blew right over it.

The show has been consistent at showing men in positions of vulnerability not often seen in entertainment. So flipping the script to make one of the men a victim of sexual assault created a narrative bookend with the mid-season cliffhanger when Jamie burst in on Claire and Randall, saving her from rape and torture. All signs pointed towards Claire returning the favor during the season finale. But then everything careened off the rails in a spectacularly terrible way.

When we first see Jamie, it is the morning after Claire was unceremoniously dumped outside Wentworth Prison. Based solely on Jamie”s demeanor and physical appearance, it is painfully obvious that Randall has abused him. Had “Outlander” opted to skip over the grisly details, or had Jamie merely recounted the details to Claire at the sanctuary sans flashbacks, nothing of value would”ve been lost. Audiences can read cues; there is no reason to move point-by-point through every excruciating second except for the shock value of “pushing the envelope.”

But push they did. The gore of watching Randall remove the nail from Jamie”s palm was fine. Disturbing, but fine. But then. What begins as merely standard operating procedure uncomfortable – Randall attempting to get Jamie interested in men via oral sex – quickly veers into horrific territory. What value does having Randall use spit for (terrible) lube and ram it home while demanding Jamie scream for him serve? Did we really need the camera to give us a full-body shot that lingered on and on? Why do we need to see Jamie crawling away with blood running down his thighs? Who thought it was a good idea to make audiences suffer through Jamie branding himself with a hot iron as his sanity slips away? And how did anyone think Jamie could possibly orgasm under these circumstances*? It seems an odd time to bring up gender-reversal, but imagine it anyway. If this had been Claire instead of Jamie, would “Outlander” have dared to go this far? Signs point to no.

*This was the breaking point for me, as this scene is straight out of terrible teenage fanfiction. If someone forcibly penetrates you to the point of tearing and bleeding – on top of bleeding out from a shattered hand and suffering a fever from going sceptic in said hand – there is no amount of magical lavender lube and fantasizing about your wife in the world that will override that pain. Human bodies do not work like this. It was unrealistic and insulting to imagine Jamie would be able to enjoy anything.

Part of the reason the show was able to take these scenes as far as they did is because of the victim. In our society, male-on-male rape is not often used as a plot device. Without the cultural baggage of female rape to temper the violence, no one pumped the brakes on Jamie”s ordeal and the result it over-the-top.

The other half of “To Ransom A Man”s Soul” doesn”t fair any better. When the show isn”t revelling in the depths of Randall”s sadism, it focuses on Jamie longing for death in the aftermath of his ordeal.

This response is perfectly normal. The things he endured were the stuff nightmares are made of. However, Claire has never once been afforded the luxury of unpacking her trauma. Lingering for so long on Jamie”s pain only brings this into stark relief. The men continuously act as if Claire has no idea what Jamie is going through. At one point, Murtagh basically tells Claire “Of course Jamie is suicidal! He was tortured and raped.” To which Claire”s response should”ve been to stare into the camera like she”s on “The Office.”

Instead of using Claire”s past suffering to help her husband process his ordeal, “Outlander” shows a staggering level of tone-deafness by implicitly stating sexual assault is only appalling if it happens to men.

Don”t believe me? In the eight months Claire has been in 18th-century Scotland, she has been attacked and sexually assaulted no less than four times – TWICE by the same psychopath that raped her husband and once by Jamie”s uncle. She murdered a Red Shirt™ rapist on the moors, has been beaten by her husband, kidnapped, held at knifepoint, put on trial for witchcraft, and lashed. Yet somehow, she is never allowed a single moment to breakdown over her ordeal. It washes off her back like flaws off a Mary Sue.

Jamie”s breakdown would be realistic if “Outlander” had done any prep work. But without showing how Claire”s experiences have left an indelible mark on her, the show”s narrative becomes lopsided and tacitly reinforces the notion that a woman”s trauma is not as serious as a man”s.

When the episode isn”t been downright offensive, it leans heavily on overwrought drama and characters acting ridiculous to push the story along. Jamie”s entire depression hinges on his shame at branding himself and then “enjoying” sex with Randall (thus meaning Jamie is no longer a man – which is an entirely different can of worms). Jamie”s reveal to Claire is supposed to be a huge moment for them, but it”s marred by the fact that Claire should”ve already known about the branding. The show asks the audience to believe that after stitching her husband”s hand back together, she didn”t look for other wounds. That WWII battle nurse Claire didn”t go over Jamie”s body with a fine-toothed comb to make sure he wasn”t bleeding or injured elsewhere.

In the final moments of the episode, Claire”s sudden revelation that maybe they CAN change the future and stop the slaughter of the Scottish Jacobites rings hollow, as it would”ve been better to stop fretting about the Butterfly Effect a few days ago. Just kill Randall. Just do it.

And this is to say nothing of the episode”s climactic moment devolving into a “I”ll kill myself if you kill yourself” drama that even Romeo and Juliet would have rolled their eyes at. When Jamie looks for a reason to keep living, Claire offers up a threat of suicide instead of the breaking news that she is pregnant. Why the show would instead save that announcement for the final moments of the episode is anyone”s guess.

There will be those that argue everything that happened in “To Ransom A Man”s Soul” is acceptable because it”s “realistic” for the time period. But no. This is a work of historical fiction. None of these characters are based on real people. The show chose to let Claire and Jamie make a series of poor decisions that cascade into this specific series of events. The writers chose to go out of their way to let this happen to Jamie. The director chose to get into the nitty-gritty of Jamie”s experience.

Now the audience has to make their choice. I know I”ve made mine.