Outlander 2×04

I’m behind! I’m behind! D:

I read this Wall Street Journal review of Outlander 2×04 and (in combination with plenty of other articles I read during the past months) it made me wonder, how do we actually talk about rape on television? We all agree that it’s a weighty topic, and that it is often mishandled. So the conversation has started to evolve around a single question: „Is it done right here or is it done wrong?“. “Wrong” means that it is cliché, upholds harmful stereotypes, doesn’t deal with the complex effects of rape on the victims, reduces it to a quick, cheap plot device. “Right” usually means that it treats the victim with respect, focuses on their experience, shatters stereotypes and so on.

This is an important question, but it’s still really tedious when, in the second season of a show like Outlander, which has been dealing closely with rape and the aftermath of rape for a while now, journalists and fans alike still appear vaguely unsure and wary of the topic, and talk about it pretty superficially in terms of right/wrong, necessary/unnecessary.

Just accept that Outlander is a story not just with rape, but about rape – with a lead character who is a rape victim and a main antagonist who is a rapist. Rape will always play a role. And then perhaps we can actually talk about this story and these characters, because I think there’s much more to observe about Mary’s rape than “yet another rape” and ~ugh why.

Btw: “yet another” kind of implies that there’ve been a lot of rapes happening on Outlander, but technically, there’s been just two (of Jamie and now of Mary); there were more rape attempts (aimed at Claire and at Jenny) and other forms of sexual assault and harassment, but I don’t like lumping them all in together.

I mean, as awful as it was, as a plot development it’s really interesting, because the way the characters and their relationships have been set up, it’s obvious that Mary’s rape will have greater repercussions than just the immediate effect of disrupting Claire and Jamie’s dinner intrigue. So I was a little disappointed to read in the above piece,

However, it is unfortunate that Mary’s rape occurred within the same episode as Claire’s poisoning, Jamie learning that Black Jack is still alive, the Frasers’ sexual reconciliation and the climactic dinner-party brawl.

Leaving aside the obvious nitpick that the brawl only breaks out after, and because of Mary’s rape, I disagree strongly that the plot is somehow less poignant because the episode also deals with Jamie’s ongoing rape recovery. On the contrary, the two plots … complement each another?

In this episode, Claire tells Jamie that Randall is alive, and to her surprise, he is happy and relieved by the revelation, because he will get to kill Randall himself! That’s not such a strange reaction, really. Jamie wants to take back power and control from Randall. The last time they interacted, Jamie was helplessly begging him for death, and cried when Randall didn’t kill him. It makes sense that Jamie wouldn’t want that to be the conclusion of his five-year struggle with his nemesis. After this revelation, Jamie is even able to engage in physical intimacy again without suffering flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. Hence a sex scene. He also articulates how he has been feeling since his rape, which is vulnerable, alone and confused. And some attention is drawn to the fact that Jamie has not really dealt with the pregnancy and his impending parenthood: When Jamie says that he finally has „something to look forward to“, he means killing Randall, not having a baby. Obviously, the rape still occupies his thoughts and overshadows everything else, even the things he would normally be happy about. He obviously really wanted children when they talked about it in 1×13.

Really, the episode draws attention to the fact that rape is awful, that is has long-lasting effects and messes up the victim’s sense of self in various ways. That’s a not a bad thing to do in an episode that features a second rape.

Jamie’s recovery and Mary’s rape are not presented as separate issues that compete with each other for attention, they’re juxtaposed: Just before the scene when Claire, Murtagh and Mary are attacked, there’s the scene where Jamie meets Alex Randall, the little brother of his rapist. Though Jamie was prepared for this meeting, he reacts with obvious discomfort. (Poor oblivious Alex, who doesn’t appear to notice that people keep reacting weirdly when his brother is mentioned …)
And this is followed by Mary happily telling Claire about the man she is in love with. Claire is apprehensive because she remembers Frank’s family tree, which lists Mary Hawkins as Johnathan Randall’s wife (which is an awful thought by itself, btw), but Mary is talking about Alex Randall, and innocently asks: „Is there another?“ – just before they are attacked.

In other words, there are plenty of (thematic etc.) connections. And a strong streak of dark irony … The final bit of irony happens when, due to a terrible misunderstanding, it looks to everyone – everyone not in the know, that is – as if Alex had raped Mary, when he is perfectly innocent and was just trying to calm her down. That’s completely the wrong Randall brother getting accused of rape.

By the way, it’s easy to say that Claire shouldn’t have left a man to look after Mary, but I can understand why she thought it would be alright to leave Mary with the person she loved. Also interestng, some of the things Alex tells Mary while she is unconscious – “I’m here.”, “You’re safe now.”, “I’ll take care of you.” – are directly echoing things that Claire said to Jamie in the aftermath of his rape.

WSJ also writes that it is „upsetting to see how the person most affected by [the rape], Mary, was treated like a supporting player“, but that’s really because she’s unconscious for most of that time. The other characters had to decide how to handle the situation, and mistakes were made, mistakes that look like they will have consequences.

Also, well, Mary is a supporting player. It’s important to acknowledge that, because it’s part of the reason why rape is so often mishandled by teleivison shows. Rape storylines are often only given to one-off characters. The typical crime procedural victim who gets two or three scenes in one episode, and is never mentioned again afterwards. It’s hard to do justice to the magnitude of rape (and other life-changing traumatic experiences) when you have only about 40 minutes to explore the issue. Long-term consequences like PTSD are impossible to address in a meaningful way.

Bryan Fuller talked about this issue when he explained why Hannibal would not have rape scenes (although rape is still implied in some moments, so it’s not as if Hannibal is totally rape-free … I have mixed feelings about this, but that’s a topic for another day).

Serialized television offers better conditions, because this format allows for more character development – for main characters. That’s the key, I think. It’s hard to do justice to trauma if the traumatic stuff only happens to side characters who won’t stick around for long. It has to happen to a central character with a prominent role in the story. And that really takes commitment. I don’t think writers should do this lightly, because once you have something so life-changing happen to a character, you can’t go back.

Which leaves us with the issue that yes, Mary is a supporting character. Her story is only going to be important when it intersects with the story of Claire and Jamie. The good news is that Mary is tied up with the main story pretty tightly through the whole Randall connection. But she’s still only a minor character and I don’t expect her trauma to be given the exact same attention as Jamie’s. I do expect the show not to forget about it, though, and to dedicate some time and attention to Mary’s emotions. Why should I doubt that, at this point? Outlander has never treated rape as ~just something that sorta happens to people, no big deal, oh well, those were the times~. There have not been any random rapes happening to unnamed characters in the background for the sake of an edgy atmosphere, or whatever. Outlander may  yet screw things up in the future, but it will do so on its own terms. And it has not screwed up yet (after 2×04).

I understand that people want to be cautious  about this topic – especially if they turned a blind eye to problematic depictions of rape on other TV shows in the past, and are afraid of repeating that mistake. But I don’t think it’s useful to suspect every TV show of secretly being Game of Thrones in disguise … especially if it means that you stop thinking about the show as its own thing with its own rules and themes and messages.

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