On Outlander, How Much Violence Is Too Much?
Violence, and sexual violence in particular, is used to create narrative tension in books, television, and movies with alarming frequency. The violation of a woman or man—or, in Outlander, both women and men—becomes the heart of the story, the narrative raison d’être. But when violence is such a significant part of storytelling, it’s easy to become desensitized. Or worse, indifferent.
That, perhaps, is why Jamie’s rape and torture at Black Jack Randall’s hands last season was so incomprehensibly graphic and brutal. There was no way to watch detachedly. And this seems, in fact, to be the show’s strategy for handling violence in general: make it unwatchable.
I’ve said it before but I will say it again. There is no limit to suffering. There is no limit to the amount of violence a person might encounter over the course of a lifetime. Outlander, though, seems truly hellbent on demonstrating the infinite nature of suffering, and I wonder if it’s becoming too much.
Saturday’s episode, “La Dame Blanche,” starts off innocently enough, with Jamie and Duverney playing chess. The Comte St. Germain is there, sneering at everything. Suddenly, Claire starts gasping and choking, and Jamie gallantly sweeps his wife into his arms and takes her home. While Claire sips some tea and recovers from her spell, probably triggered by St. Germain giving her some kind of dastardly herb, she and Jamie chat about their political machinations. Jamie decides to host a dinner party, inviting all the players in their little intrigue. When in doubt, entertain.
Claire also chooses this moment to share that Jack Randall is alive. Instead of freaking out, Jamie is thrilled that he might get his chance to exact revenge, and he’s even willing to wait. Somehow, all is right in his world for the first time in a long time.
A suspicious Claire pays another visit to Master Raymond to ask if he gave St. Germain the poison that sickened her. They end up chatting and consulting some bones about dreary Frank’s future, and Master Raymond gives Claire a magical necklace that will change color if she finds herself near poison again.
Later that night, Jamie comes home drunk and randy and more than ready to make love to his wife. (We, it should be said, are also more than ready.) But when Jamie undresses, Claire notices bite marks all over his impeccable, albeit pale, body. Jamie pulls a Shaggy but explains that what really matters is that he wanted to fuck the whore at the brothel because he feels like a man again. They argue, and finally Jamie shares what it has been like trying to deal with his rape. This is Outlander at its best; the scene is outstanding, showing not only what recovering from trauma looks like, but also how it can affect a marriage.
After their argument, Jamie decides to sleep in another room, but Claire finds him and crawls into bed with him, naked, straddling his lap. Yes, ladies and gentleman, while the show has handled Jamie’s storyline well, it graciously takes a moment to get back to what we love so much about Claire and Jamie: the passion they share. “Don’t say a word,” Claire says. “Come find me, Jamie. Find us.” She can call it finding, but I call it hot, romantic, cathartic sex.
Their afterglow is interrupted when Jamie hears an intruder, but it’s just Prince Charles Edward Stuart, heartbroken and nursing a wound from a monkey bite. As one does on a Saturday night. Turns out, the would-be heir to the English throne is Louise’s side piece. This is great news for the happily sexed couple: Jamie and Claire decide to invite Charles and Louise to their devious dinner party, hoping Charles will make an ass of himself in front of the Duke and therefore lose all the pledged funds for his campaign.
On the day of the party, Claire runs off to the hospital—there’s been an explosion, and she’s the only woman in Paris who can possibly help. Jamie stays at the manor, doing the work of being a gracious host while one of the show’s seemingly infinite harpsichords plays on in the background. When Louise arrives with her husband, Jamie introduces them to a simpering Charles, who takes Louise’s hand and basically slobbers all over it. Not at all awkward.
At the hospital, Claire simply couldn’t be more fulfilled by her volunteer work—so fulfilled, in fact, that she helps set a patient’s compound fracture (to gruesome effect). When she’s ready to leave, her coach gets ye olde flat wheel, so she, Murtagh, and Mary Hamilton, who’s also hanging about, decide to walk home. What could possibly go wrong?
Not surprisingly, everything. Claire and company are accosted by four masked brigands, and Murtagh is beaten unconscious. Once again, sexual violence comes front and center. Both Claire and Mary are overpowered, and Mary is graphically raped. One of the other brigands moves toward Claire but freaks out, shouting that she’s la dame blanche. What does that mean? Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers in this episode. (Except to the question of when the use of violence becomes too much—because this might be it.)
It’s not long before Jamie is called away from his hosting duties and finds Murtagh, Claire and Mary in the courtyard. Claire quickly fills Jamie in on what happened and, of course, Jamie and Murtagh are ready to hit the streets of Paris searching for the culprits. Level-headed Claire dissuades them, and they head back to the party—the overthrow of the English crown waits for no trauma.
The dinner party is a disaster. Jamie spills the beans about Louise’s pregnancy; Charles is shaken, but he manages to hold it together. Upstairs, Mary wakes and freaks out. Jonathan tries to calm her down, but Mary assumes he’s another attacker. They wrestle; rather, she loses her shit and poor Jonathan does his best to contain her. It’s quite the commotion, and when the party guests discover them they assume Jonathan is raping Mary. Since nothing helps violence like more violence, all hell breaks loose…until Charles admonishes the crowd—”There is no reason to be uncivil”—and that’s that.
There’s no reason to be uncivil: advice Outlander doesn’t seem interested in heeding. Certainly, the show is trying to not only consider the source material but convey what life was like during the 18th century; still, to see yet another character subjected to sexual violence leads me to wonder if the show’s writers are capable of telling a story without violence at its center.
It’s a shame, because this is not an unsophisticated show. Jamie’s recovery, still handled with such sensitivity and care, demonstrates that. But each time a new sexual assault is introduced, the show comes ever closer to undoing the groundbreaking and important work it’s done to depict the realities of trauma. That is the most uncivil thing of all.
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