Prior warning: this has show spoilers and will allude to significant scenes. Avoid this post if you’ve not seen Outlander yet, please!
When I started watching Outlander, I’ll admit to being a bit of a snob. I’d always passed it off as a sweeping romance – the type I used to pick up abandoned in hostels when I went travelling. I thought it would be a lot of romance, corsets, and sweeping landscapes with little else. Many people I’ve spoken to also see in that way, and I imagine that outward preconception spreads far.
I found all those features mentioned of course, but I also found a lot more. I’m here to apologise – Outlander, I underestimated you.
What I’ve found as I consumed season one was a show that consistently uses the often elusive female gaze. It subverts tropes, pushes the boundaries of television and handles difficult situations in a way that isn’t exploitative. Sometimes it’s hard to explain how much of a unicorn that combination is on television, but believe me, it is. It’s like finding the tiniest needle in the biggest haystack.
People warned me about how rough the end of season one was but I was struck by the fact that I had never seen its equal before, and it stayed with me for at least a week after. My dreams adjusted their horrors and moments of the horrendous episode with Jamie and Randall would come back to me in the middle of the day. And yet…
These traumatic scenes had a place. They dealt with the horrendous trauma that rape can leave. The mess of emotions that can see victims tricked into feeling complicit in their own abuse. Importantly too, that rape isn’t usually about sex – it’s about power and control.
Not insignificantly, it also led me to uncomfortably challenge my own reaction – my disdain for exploitative scenes of rape invented by the Game of Thrones showrunners doesn’t leave behind the fact that I felt the trauma so deeply this time around when it was a man suffering. Do I feel less now when exposed to fictional male-on-female rape now that it’s so often featured in modern television? Or is it stereotypes that make the destruction of a man’s self far more devastating than a woman’s? Some soul-searching is needed (and perhaps a greater reflection on the industry’s responsibility).
Outlander is portraying scenes of sexual abuse in ways that other television shows could learn from. We focus on Jamie’s agony, it’s not exploitative and the effects of those scenes is felt in the character for a long time afterwards – it probably won’t ever leave him really. So much praise has and should be heaped on Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies for their work in an episode that must have been gruelling to film, but you believe every agonising moment of near-incredulity.
I could go on – there’s just so much to say – but I’ll make this a short one. Mainly I’m just staggered. As someone who watches a lot of television, both for this blog and other writing, I’ve never seen a show before that subverts expectations so consistently, challenges audiences and refuses to fit tropes. As a period drama, it’s exceptionally brave, and it’s far more brutal than anyone new could judge. There’s value in those scenes however, and they’re handled responsibly. That, above everything else, is what makes Outlander so unusual.
One should always stay open-minded and this has been a good reminder. I look forward to getting into discussions and long reads now I’m all caught up and have realised what this show brings to the table!