Warning: Spoilers ahead for the season finale of Outlander, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” This article also contains extremely sensitive subject matter.
As someone who’s read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, I knew exactly what was coming in the season 1 finale of the TV show, which aired last night on Starz. In the penultimate episode from May 16, Claire Fraser broke into Wentworth Prison and tried to rescue her husband, Jamie, from the sadistic Black Jack Randall. But Jamie ends up offering himself (and his body) to Randall so that she could escape. To seal the deal, Randall nailed Jamie’s hand to a table. It was horrifying to watch, and that was the very moment I knew the show wouldn’t shy away from the sexual torture that follows these events in the novel. And it didn't. The way Outlander dealt with Jamie Fraser’s repeated rape and brutalization at the hands of Black Jack Randall was a turning point in the portrayal of the emotional aftermath of sexual violence on television. Sexual assault has been used as a way to advance storylines and increase dramatic stakes in a lot of series this year. “Has the Golden Age of TV Been Replaced by the Age of Rape and Torture?” author Sarah Selter asked in a piece she wrote for Flavorwire earlier this month. Not only that, sexual violence no longer takes place offscreen or is merely implied. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing it play out, and that’s one of the reasons viewers were so upset about Sansa Stark’s wedding night rape on Game of Thrones. When Sansa was raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton, the camera cut away to Theon/Reek, further robbing Sansa of power by erasing her perspective. Comparisons between Sansa’s rape on GoT and Jamie’s on Outlander will undoubtedly be numerous because of the way in which the two series depicted the assaults. A lot of people are going to dwell on the fact that Jamie is a man, but the key difference between his and Sansa’s experiences comes down to perspective and aftermath. Jamie became a survivor, while Sansa (from what we’ve seen of the season up until this point) remained a victim. Jamie’s violation unfolded entirely from his perspective, and the audience watched as he worked through a series of conflicting emotions. Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s books know that these are the same feelings that lead Jamie to want to die afterward. “I roused to him, Claire,” he confesses with dread in the novel, terrified of his body’s biological and adrenaline-filled betrayal that he worries indicates a deeper moral transgression from which he can never recover. We see that same confused moment of pleasure on actor Sam Heughan's face in the scene. That’s one of Black Jack’s methods: He wants his victims to be active participants who acknowledge the power he has over them. He forced Jamie to find release because his body and mind had been completely desensitized to the ongoing pain. Although Black Jack didn’t know that Jamie would escape his clutches, he did brand himself onto him, both physically and psychologically, to the point where Jamie couldn’t separate Claire and his torturer in his mind. As Jamie struggled to come to terms with what happened later on in the abbey, he blamed himself for his participation in the assault and being complicit in it. After the last two episodes of Outlander, many viewers have questioned why such graphic and explicit scenes of rape and torture were portrayed. Author Diana Gabaldon has discussed this time and time again in Facebook posts about the series. “[T]he reason why Bad Things happen to people in my books is not to excite the reader in a watching-a-train-wreck ghoulish sort of way. It’s to reveal the true nature and deep character of the person to whom the bad thing happens — in a way that you simply don’t get when a person is responding to the normal vicissitudes of life.” “Now, over the last 25 years, I’ve had not a few people express horror at the Wentworth Prison scenes, and ask me _ why _ I felt it necessary to put poor Jamie through such awful things. I’ve always replied that 1) that’s what happened; I had to write it down, and 2) it’s necessary; it completes the arc of Jamie and Claire’s bonding and love," Gabaldon continued. As season 1 ended, Jamie and Claire were on a boat sailing to France. They were both smiling because Claire just informed Jamie that contrary to what she previously thought, she could get pregnant, and she was carrying his child. Although its first season concluded with some literal and metaphorical smooth sailing, Outlander has been making waves from the start. The show has subverted the male gaze and been heralded as one of the most feminist shows on television. Claire, its heroine and time-traveling protagonist, has escaped threatened sexual violence time and time again, while the male hero, Jamie, is now a survivor of it. Jamie Fraser’s assault will be pivotal in the ongoing conversation about how to portray the emotional, physical, and psychological repercussions of sexual violence. He’s a survivor, and it will inform both his character and the show going forward.