When is it fair to say that a television show has crossed a line? Is it when a brother and sister are shown having sex in a broken tower (and liking it)? Is it when that very same brother overpowers and rapes his sister next to their dead son's body? Or, when a cackling madman condemns a mother and her newborn baby to be ripped to shreds by hounds? Or like, the entire Red Wedding? (Gee, Game of Thrones really seems to be racking these up, doesn't it?) Is it when Girls' Hannah Horvath exposes her vagina to her boss in order to keep her job? Or, when Philip Jennings seduces a 15-year-old girl on The Americans? The current so-called Golden Age of Television has come hand in hand with the rise of the shock-and-awe moment. More often than not, that calls for a rape scene. Some shows handle those scenes with care, others (*cough* Game of Thrones) do not. Having said that, how far can shows push the envelop before a scene goes from compelling television to distressing trigger? This week's episode of Outlander featured one such distressing scene (Spoilers!). Shortly after returning home from L'Hopital des Anges — where she suffered a miscarriage — Claire hears Fergus whimpering in his sleep. When she asks him what's wrong, he hesitates — clearly, this will not be pleasant. After much coaxing and cajoling, she finally gets the truth out of him: "The Englishman, my lady." If you're anything like me, those words caused a little shudder. In this show, "The Englishman" only means one thing: Jack Randall. And Jack Randall means one thing: unendurable cruelty. Not for the first time, that cruelty translates into rape. Child rape. Sobbing, Fergus relates to Claire that, while running an errand with Jamie in a whorehouse, he wandered off to find some pockets to pick. Attracted to a bottle of lavender scent that he wants to bring home for Claire, he found himself cornered in a bedroom by Jack Randall. "You're not what I ordered...but you'll do." At this point, the showrunners had a choice. They could either pan back to Fergus and Claire and have the former relate the events to her after the fact. Or, they could let the scene unfold in real time, subjecting viewers to a traumatic rape scene. They did both. We see (and hear) it all: Randall grabbing Fergus, pushing him face down on the bed, the child screaming, crying for it to stop, yelling for Jamie to come and help him. But we also get the aftermath: Fergus, ashamed, is convinced that the unfortunate consequences of this assault are all his fault. (But more on that later.) He is clearly scarred by the experience, and by allowing him to tell his story, the show gives the traumatic aftermath the attention it deserves. It works. While the rape scene is almost unendurable to watch, its narrative is owned by the victim. We see the live actions through his eyes, and hear about it in his own words.
Does it go too far? Yes. But sometimes that's what we need to make a story resonate.
This is a point stressed by Toni Graphia, who wrote this episode — and believe me, she knows that scene is hard to watch. "We always planned to show [the rape]," she told us in an interview. "We did have many discussions, though. We wanted to be sensitive about it. We didn’t want it to be gratuitous, we didn’t film it in any kind of titillating way, we wanted it to just be the terror of it. We wanted to convey the emotion and the fear of it. We had a lot of talks with the actor and his mother to make sure they knew we were going to be respectful. But we thought, this [Randall] is a despicable man and he knows no boundaries, whether it’s men or women or kids. He’s a sadist and he’s going to take his pleasure where he wants."
Outlander has dealt with a controversial rape scene before, and successfully. In season 1, Jamie Fraser himself was held captive and repeatedly subjected to brutal rape and psychological torment by Randall. It's a plot point that is important both in the books and in the show, and the series didn't shy away from it. In fact, much of the first half of the second season has been about Jamie dealing with the aftermath of his rape, and how it affects his relationship with Claire. Similarly, Fergus' rape isn't here simply for shock value. Let's back up a little here, because context is important. Only two episodes ago, Claire asked Jamie to spare Randall's life for one year in order to save Frank. He agrees — not out of concern for Claire's ex-husband, but rather so someone will be there to take care of her should things not work out as they should. They are after all trying to thwart a Jacobite revolt. It's a promise that means the world to Claire. It means that despite her decision to remain in 18th century Scotland, at least the man she left behind to wonder what the hell happened to his wife will remain alive and well. The importance of this promise is evident in Claire's reaction when she finds out Jamie has broken his word. "Revenge mattered more to him than me or his child," she tells Mere Hildegarde in a wrenching scene early on in the episode. "One year of grace is all I asked, to which he agreed. One year. He may as well have run his sword through me." Powerful words, and not easily dismissed, especially since we, like Claire, don't understand why Jamie broke his promise at this point. If Jamie fought Randall only to satisfy his own desire for revenge, his motives seem callous and cold. But when we find out he did it to avenge Fergus (and yes, also himself — clearly the sight of Randall assaulting another male victim triggered something within him), his motives seem pure, even to Claire.
"He made a promise to her, he never breaks his word ever, and we felt that [viewers needed to] see what upset him so much," Graphia said. "The scene was supposed to be upsetting and enrage you because that’s what Jamie felt when he saw it. This question is, what could be big enough to make him break his word to Claire? What made him go to this duel and put everything at stake? His marriage? His child? Everything, to try to kill Black Jack Randall? If we didn’t see what enraged him so much, it wouldn’t justify that moment."
To play devil's advocate for a moment, there is an argument to be made that we didn't actually have to see the rape to understand why Jamie goes after Randall. But would simply hearing about it give the viewer the same punch to the gut? I'd have to say, not really. Perhaps, in a pre-Game of Thrones, Law & Order: SVU universe, the allusion to rape would have been enough to shock viewers. Unfortunately we've come past that. The "rape glut," so aptly described by Amy Zimmerman in The Daily Beast as "a barrage of dramatized, over-sexualized, potentially triggering rape plots, all coming to a television set very near you," has made us numb to sexual assault. We now want details, plot twists, drama that can be seen. We've seen Elliot Stabler comfort too many child victims. What's more, the decision of whether or not to include disturbing material gets extra complicated when television shows are based on already existing material with a large fanbase of is own. In this case, the rape is part of Outlander's canon. "It is something that happens in the book and we don’t shy from things in the book, Graphia said. "We don’t try for there ever to be things where we say, 'We can’t do this.' We trust that the audience can handle it."
In Dragonfly in Amber, the book by Diana Gabaldon on which this season is based, Fergus' rape is used to justify Jamie's broken promise to Claire. But in the show, there is an added layer of meaning: the assault also serves as a way to cement Jamie's relationship with Fergus. Jamie's reaction shows us how much he cares about this relatively new character that he saved from the streets only a couple of episodes before. "He loves that kid, he feels responsible for that kid. He took that kid into his household and he’s like his adopted son," Graphia explained. She also added that she made a decision to add in Fergus' nightmare in order to have him tell his own story, something which doesn't appear in the book. "We wanted to draw [a parallel with Jamie].
Is the scene shocking? Definitely. Does it make you want to shut off your TV, drag it down a series of steep steps and throw it in a dumpster? Kind of. Does it go too far? Yes. But sometimes that's what we need to make a story resonate.