Content warning: This post discusses an episode depicting violent rape and other forms of mutilation, assault, and torture.
Last night, “Outlander” aired the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen on television. A few films, here and there, have surpassed the horror of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” — but it’s significant, I think, that the few I recall are all about genocide, such as “The Killing Fields” and the Canadian film “A Sunday In Kigali.” “To Ransom A Man’s Soul,” the first season finale, tells the same story as the books. Jamie (Sam Heughan) makes a devil’s bargain with the sadistic redcoat captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies): In exchange for his wife Claire’s safety and the dignity of a clean death, Jamie will allow Randall to have sex with him. But in the book “Outlander,” this story is narrated to the reader as it is told to Claire, who discovers the details of Jamie’s imprisonment in the weeks following, as he’s struggling to recover. In the show, the torture is conveyed to the viewer directly. Any scene, rendered from text to screen, becomes more tangible. This particular scene comes to life in spectacularly brutal fashion. Randall anally rapes Jamie, so much so that Jamie screams in pain. He pounds Jamie’s hand with a mallet, and then nails it to the table. He kisses Jamie, rapturously, and tends to his wounds, before raping him again. Jamie vomits (from the pain or emotional trauma, it’s not clear). Jamie is forced to orally service Randall. Randall brands Jamie with his seal, heated to red-hot in a brazier. And in what Jamie says, later in the episode, was the worst deprivation of all, Randall manages to arouse Jamie enough that the captive orgasms. The camera does not cut away from the torture; imaginative lighting does not screen the audience from the abuse. It is meant to be stunningly awful, and so it is.
As a feat of performance, “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is incredibly successful. It’s hard not to feel entirely consumed by the brutality of the scene. In almost every other way, though, it’s a flat episode — in large part because it struggles to recover from the brutality it introduces with Jamie’s torture. The show sets off a narrative bomb and then tries to glue the shattered remnants of story back together, ending, as the book does, on a moment of quiet triumph. It’s impossible to not see the messily mended seams.
As such, “Outlander” raises a lot of questions, ones that have already been circulating this month following yet another disturbing rape scene on HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” and the continued obsession with sexual violence against women exhibited in shows like “Law And Order: SVU,” “True Detective,” “Criminal Minds” and others. Not only because the scenes in “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” are extraordinarily explicit, much more so than scenes in any of the above shows — but also because the victim of rape here is the show’s male protagonist, Jamie, a character who has been up till now more hunk than human.
Up until now, the conversation about rape as it is depicted on television has mostly argued that (largely male) writers are creating a violent fantasy for an (intended to be male) audience. The rules of our world don’t permit rape (although we do a bad job enforcing those rules) but the rules of these fantasy worlds can make space for unregulated, taboo acts, even if (especially if) those acts traumatize, endanger and injure other people.
“To Ransom A Man’s Soul” confounds elements of that argument. Creators of television shows often use the convenient moral corruption of the worlds they’ve built to absolve themselves of responsibility for what they’re portraying. (“Game Of Thrones” is the most highbrow example, but this irresponsible storytelling about the vulnerability of women’s bodies ranges from Nancy Grace to “Law And Order” to the recently canceled “Stalker.”)
But “Outlander,” from the start, had differentiated itself from the pack. The show made remarkable use of the oft-elusive female gaze; if women were raped or near-raped, it was a part of their story. And the political history in the background of “Outlander” is secondary to the storytelling of the individual characters’ relationships — meaning that everything boils down to trust and intimacy, physical or otherwise. A narrative of imprisonment or war becomes, in the hands of “Outlander,” a narrative of the safety of the character’s body. And concerns of the body come to the forefront not just through sexual relations. In “To Ransom A Man’s Soul,” Claire (Caitriona Balfe) painstakingly cleans, sets and sutures Jamie’s mangled hand in 1743; surgery, 150 years before Joseph Lister. So although this show is capable of great gore and violence, it has come to that violence in what is largely a considered way — and, crucially, balances out that violence with a lot of tenderness (“Outlander,” in terms of pure minutes on screen, has some of the longest sex scenes on TV). Bodies are always on the mind in “Outlander” — fragile, precious, powerful, and capable of loving.
And unlike most other stories, those bodies are not just female bodies. The books, narrated from Claire’s perspective, carefully detail Jamie’s physical appeal. More often than not, Jamie is an impossibly perfect cliché, seen entirely through Claire’s rapturous eyes. He is not so much a person as an idea — that relegation of form and spirit that is so often the province of female characters. As a character built so consciously to please female audiences, Jamie is something of an exciting anomaly, an example of a story going against the grain of the dominant narrative.
This is a lot to juggle, mentally, while approaching the “Outlander” finale, which rather viciously breaks apart any sense of security the viewer might feel in this historical and fantastical world. It’s not just that the content is shocking; much of the way the books have been adapted make the show a lot more affecting. Ronald D. Moore and Starz have taken the “Outlander” books — consciously lightweight, well-crafted escapism — and turned them into a lived-in, almost too-accessible torture chamber. Jamie has significantly more interiority (he even narrated an episode) and in Menzies’ hands, the character of Jack Randall is horror come to life, not merely a caricature of a caricature.
The result, in this brutal finale, is that the show taking events from the book and rendering them on-screen with far more vivid detail. This isn’t just the transition from text to TV; this is the transformation of secondhand story into firsthand experience, of hastily sketched characters into fully realized human beings. It has made the show memorable and fascinating. It has also made the events of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” very, very real. Most of the time, more grit and realism and detail add well-needed texture. “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is a reminder of the comforts of distance.
And that leads to a far thornier question: Why? Why depict such horror? Why depict it like this, with this particular sort of grisly detail? One of the most alarming threads of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is how the torture, for Randall, takes on the aspect of romance. At some point in the night, captive and captor sleep — Jamie likely passes out from pain and blood loss — and their resulting pose, of two naked men sharing a pallet, purposefully recalls a romantic relationship. This is a comparison made in the book, as well. Claire, as she’s being led out of the cell, hears Randall tell Jamie he will return shortly, and as she describes it: “It was the voice of a man taking reluctant leave of his lover, and my stomach heaved.” The scene is both homoeroticism and homophobia, portrayed through forced homosexuality put through the paces of what is, on some level, a very drastic form of BDSM play. That might not raise the concerns that I’ve had about the sexual violence against women, but it raises some other questions. Is this the literal demonization of the only character with homosexual tendencies on this show? Is depicting abuse like this exploitative with regard to these men’s bodies? And is there a purpose beyond pure gratuity?
On one hand, I cannot deny the power of those scenes. The episode delves uncompromisingly into the nature of torture — its mechanics, not just physical, but psychological. The night of torture reveals not just the sadism of Jack Randall, but also the all-too-human roots of his sadism. Pain breaks down Jamie’s defenses, until he cannot remember the difference between love and pain — which makes him, in that sense, more and more like the vicious Randall, who sees his expressions of horrible cruelty as his way of showering Jamie with affection. Remember: Both Randall and Jamie believe that the outcome of this evening is Jamie dead on a slab. Which heightens the strangely romantic associations for the evening, at least in Randall’s mind. The character is in love with Jamie, insofar as he can feel love; obsessed and/or fixated, the way that serial killers love their victims. It is a trip into a twisted but still recognizable psyche, the mentality of a man who can only feel intimacy with people he’s actively destroying. It’s not pleasant. It’s an unpleasant glance at the teeming ants underneath a little-disturbed stone. But it is horrifically riveting — and it feels very real, very possible, very likely. I began to dread every scene change in the episode, worrying that I might see flickering torchlight on dank dungeon walls.
Furthermore, the aftermath of the torture is the main story for the rest of the episode, as Claire throws herself into the task of making Jamie feel whole again. The show makes a concerted effort to build the sexual assault into a character-building narrative, to limit the perception that the scenes of abuse are random or merely shocking. Jamie’s experience is also an illustration of rape as a tool of warfare, waged by men on other men and women for centuries (and still waged today). His experience forces him, Claire, and the audience to confront what it means when a hero is made into a victim; and Jamie has to struggle with his own relationship to masculinity, especially within the context of a society where people still use the term “buggery.” The episode also takes care to deconstruct what it means to recover from trauma, including how Jamie can learn to think of himself as a man again can let himself feel physical attraction for Claire. These are solid, worthy topics, and ones that “Outlander” has not pulled out of thin air.
But as I observed above, “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” is otherwise a fairly sloppy season finale. It’s true to the source material, but also exposes how flimsy the source material is, in this instance — the action moves from bloodied despair in a prison cell, in first scene, to optimism and freedom above a ship bound for France, in the last. From end to end the episode rushes through a lot of disjointed storytelling — not only is Jamie tortured and then begins to recover from torture, but Claire is pregnant, there’s that surgery, she confesses her past of time travel to a monk, and in what is perhaps the craziest kicker, Claire manages to revive Jamie’s will to live by getting them both high on opium and making him relive his trauma, through her. It’s kind of like makeshift, drug-induced regression therapy — and about as risky and reliable as that sounds. Because this is a story about 1743, we’re not going to get careful grief counseling. Not even Claire, trained as a war nurse in 1945, has ever heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder.
And the sloppiness of the episode exposes the biggest question at the heart of this debate: What’s the value of this scene? What makes this story worth telling? Whose vision is being honored? Whose reaction are the storytellers seeking? And maybe most importantly — is any of that worth watching unmitigated brutality? These are questions that lie with the audience, not the creators. What I’ve learned over the past few weeks in attempting to write about rape on TV is that most audience members have a visceral reaction to seeing something so brutal on television. A type of violence as horrible as rape is the type of thing that defies textual analysis or multiple interpretations. I have no clear answers, just a lot of conflicting information. And no desire whatsoever to watch that episode again.