It feels like it’s been a long wait since the first half of Outlander’s first season wrapped up last fall. Certainly there’s been a lot of anticipation to return to our favourite protagonist, Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser, and her highland adventures–not least from this particular viewer. I may have had reservations when the show first began, based on my experiences reading the book by Diana Gabaldon, but the series soon won me over thanks to stunning scenery, some marvellous acting from series lead Caitriona Balfe, and a few minor tweaks to the original material that seem to have balanced pleasing the book fans while also pleasing those more critical people like me.
(Warning for discussions of rape and abuse under the cut. Also contains spoilers for “The Reckoning” and book talk)
But as excited as I was to start the second half of Outlander’s story, I was very worried about this episode going into it. As I wrote in my last review, when I read the book years ago I did enjoy it for about half the story… just up until the point where we ended. We last saw Claire in pretty dire straights, at the mercy of series villain Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) with the threat of rape held over her once again. (One of the many things that bothers me about the book being the threat or execution of sexual violence being Gabaldon’s go-to trope. Something the tv series has unfortunately not really mitigated.) And knowing what I knew from the book, I didn’t think Claire’s rescue by her new husband Jamie–while certainly an improvement on her current situation–would turn out to be such a joyful experience for her, or for myself as a viewer.
In the book’s timeline, Jamie rescues Claire from Randall and then once they’re away safely begins to berate her for getting kidnapped, thinking it was something she did deliberately to punish him, igniting a screaming match between the two of them before Jamie breaks down in tears prompting Claire to acquiesce to apologize. Then later that night, bowing to expectations from the men, Jamie beats Claire with his belt for disobedience (and gets off on it). Once they return to Castle Leoch with the rest of the rent collecting party, Jamie and Claire spend a couple of days simmeringly pissed at each other and mired in misunderstanding, before they reconcile and Claire gives into Jamie’s pressure to start sleeping together again, but not before extracting a promise–at knifepoint–that he will never beat her again.
On the surface, this is nearly verbatim the events of episode 9. It so closely echoes it in fact, that I watched Claire and Jamie’s screaming match (acted with superb feeling and tension by Balfe and Heughan, quickly establishing the hurt feelings, relief to be out of danger, and that they’re both a pair of hotheads) and particularly the beating scene from behind my hands. At the end of that scene my main feeling was, well that could have been worse. I still really object to the sexual overtones in the scene, but I recognize that it was toned down somewhat from the book.
It was the second half of the episode that changed my mind from worry and grim fatalism to actual enjoyment, however. This was done with a quick little scene where Claire firmly shuts down any delusions Jamie has about crawling into bed with her with a snort and a very pointed “think again.” Vitally, Jamie immediately listens to her and doesn’t push further, but merely picks up his things and leaves Claire alone.
It’s the tone shift that’s the key difference here. Jamie may not technically rape Claire in the book–but only just. A brief passage from the book reveals how serious that threat is:
“I didna ask your preferences in the matter, Sassenach,” he answered, voice dangerously low. “You are my wife, as I’ve told ye often enough. If ye didna wish to wed me, still ye chose to. And if ye didna happen to notice at the time, your part of the proceedings included the word ‘obey.’ You’re my wife, and if I want ye, woman, then I’ll have you, and be damned to ye!” Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, pg 181
Jamie may not go through with these remarks and wait until he’s extracted a yes from Claire, but this threat plus the obvious physical power he holds over her make her consent fairly suspect. As Claire herself observes a few paragraphs later, “James Fraser was not a man to take no for an answer.” It’s clear from Gabaldon’s writing that that threat of sexual violence is something both Randall and Jamie hold over Claire–but on one side it’s villainous and on the other it’s supposedly attractive. It’s a remarkable disturbing and irresponsible way to tell a story, and I was so relieved that the episode excised it in their adaptation.
I think it was an interesting choice to begin this second half of the season with Jamie’s internal monologue, even though it was initially jarring after growing so accustomed to Claire’s point of view in the first half of the season. But it helps establish Jamie’s conflicted feelings about his new marriage and his love but misunderstanding of Claire, without the knowledge that we as viewers have about her being from the future. The literal perspective into Jamie’s thoughts also helps the viewers track his more metaphorical perspective shift on how his marriage is going to work–or not work–if he behaves in the ways he thinks are expected of him, as opposed to actually forming a partnership with Claire and listening to her.
Jamie and Claire’s reconciliation and sex scene when it comes is important, because it uses EXPLICIT CONSENT without coercion, something that is utilized far too rarely in tv and films now–regardless of whether they’re set 200 years in the past or now. As S remarks below, Jamie’s apology was a definite highlight of this episode for both of us, because unlike in the book where he seems to do it grudgingly to get something from Claire, through the insight we got into Jamie’s mind this episode, we see the sincerity and work he has put into understanding what his actions have done, and trying to put it right again.
This episode was a real turning point for me with Outlander the show. There are still a lot of problematic aspects to the material, but at least I now perceive the show as attempting to address them, rather than colouring them as ADMIRABLE as Gabaldon does in the book. The next four episodes really take off from this strong ending and hurtle the story along at breakneck speed, and are some of my favourite in the show so far. There’s lots to look forward to, and I am finally unabashedly excited to see them.
S on Apologies
A real apology is rare these days. Our media is littered with celebrities and politicians telling us they’re sorry we were offended and passing it off as an apology. Evading the blame indicated in the act and placing it on the recipient. , we’re living in a world of “I’m sorry you were offended”, etc words that do nothing to actually implicate that person in bad behaviour or take ownership of it and the impact.
Apologies are a tricky thing. It’s easy to say you’re sorry and not mean it. It’s easy to apologize in a way that is designed to make the person apologizing feel better, putting the onus on the recipient to forgive. It’s much harder to deliver a thoughtful apology that is sincere, and is actually for the injured party.
The reason Jamie’s apology worked was not only because of what he said, but also how we saw him examine his actions and do the work involved in understanding why what he did was wrong and what he was apologizing for. It was also designed for Claire.. She knew why he was wrong and told him as much at the time while he used his power as a man and status as a husband to win that argument, further taking away her power. This apology saw Jamie attempt to restore the balance of power in their relationship in a way that could actually help Claire rather than soothe his own guilt.
Jamie began by admitting that what he did and said was wrong and hurtful. This is an essential first step, and one many so-called-apologies leave out. He then explained to Claire how he came to understand the impact of his actions. He takes her through enough of his thought process to show her that this isn’t something he takes lightly, or is saying to smooth things over with her, but something that has come with real self-examination and situational awareness. He then made a promise and a proposal of how he would behave differently in the future to correct this behaviour.
Now tell me, is there anything more romantic than a thoughtful, heartfelt apology in front of a crackling fire?
A few bullet points as we wrap up our return from the Droughtlander:
- This episode, in the way it set up and played out the tensions in Claire and Jamie’s relationship, required a level of trust of the viewers to watch all the way through, truly giving the storytellers the benefit of the doubt. “The Reckoning” contained some seriously difficult moments which paid off in the way both Claire and Jamie reacted to, and learned from them. But the payoff was not immediate, the entire hour was used to draw out these tensions, very effectively but it really does trust the viewer to commit to the story.
- Sam Heughan is sporting this half-perma-smirk all the time now. Was this happening in the first half of the season as well?
- Is anyone actually interested in the Jacobean politics part of this show? Bueller…?
What did you think of “The Reckoning”?