The final episode of Outlander’s fifth season sparks a big question about using rape to drive the show’s storyline. Trigger warning: this article discusses rape and sexual violence in detail.
We need to talk about the Outlander season five finale. It was the conclusion to what has arguably been the best run of episodes since we first met Jamie and Claire in Scotland in season one. We’ve come a long way since then – via Paris, Jamaica, Boston and North Carolina – with plenty of wild (and sometimes, inexplicable) turns along the way.
But the latest season took the time-travel show back to its roots. It brought all the Frasers together and focused on family, love, community and, perhaps most importantly, Jamie and Claire’s companionship.
The death of Jamie’s godfather, Murtagh, was one of the saddest moments throughout the entire series. Claire’s introduction of penicillin and contraception in 18th century North Carolina were the kid of gutsy moves we know and love her for making. Stephen Bonnet finally being brought to justice by the law and Brianna was a huge sigh of relief. And watching the Frasers adapt to family life on the ridge – including that picture-perfect wedding – was the kind of wholesome content we all need right now (with a few racy scenes in between, obviously). Heck, we even saw Roger redeem himself.
And yet, when it came to the last hurdle – the finale – the show might just have let itself down by reverting to the one trope it seems to always get into trouble over.
Outlander has always relied on rape in its narrative.
In season one, Claire is constantly threatened with sexual violence, but it is Jamie who ends up being imprisoned and repeatedly raped by Black Jack Randall. Season two sees Claire having sex with King Louis XV in exchange for Jamie’s freedom, while Black Jack rapes Fergus (a young boy, at this point in the story). Skip to season four and Claire’s daughter, Brianna, is violently raped by Stephen Bonnett – who is the potential father of her child. And just when we thought the series could finally continue without another distressing rape storyline, Claire is repeatedly raped by a gang of men in the season five finale.
The episode – Never My Love – follows Claire after being kidnapped by Lionel Brown and his men. They feel threatened by her new-fangled healing methods and want to put a stop to them – but they don’t kill her straight away.
Tired after days of being held captive and beaten as they travel the road, Claire starts to hallucinate about a time in her future where everyone from her past reunites at a 1960s dinner party. It’s incredibly powerful storytelling and we all just want Claire to escape into this gorgeous moment of happiness.
But the dream sequence quickly crumbles when a policeman arrives at the dinner party to announce the news that Brianna, Roger and Jemmy have died in a car crash.
It’s a sharp reminder of the brutal reality Claire is currently in, and not just physically.
We’ve never seen Claire so mentally defeated and, for people who haven’t read the books, it’s like she’s about to give up on life. Caitriona Balfe truly gives her finest and most heartbreaking performance yet. But in the following scene, which is horrifying and truly distressing to watch, things somehow become even worse.
Claire is repeatedly raped by different men who refer to her as a “hedge whore”. Lionel – the instigator of this kidnap and man who has caused trouble for the Claire throughout the season – is one of the men who laughs while raping her.
Jamie and his men finally find her and kill all the men – but there is no satisfaction in this after seeing exactly how scarring this will be for Claire.
Balfe recently explained the importance of showing these storylines, telling The New York Times: “We have a problem in our society with sexual assault, and it’s reflected in our storytelling.”
She added: “We had so many conversations about how to empower Claire. You never really see the attackers. We didn’t want to give them any space. One of the shows that did that really well was Netflix’s Unbelievable. That was something we talked about, in terms of how we were going to shoot it.”
She is of course right: we need to expose these stories. And yes, rape was a bigger daily threat for women in Outlander’s time period. It’s also perhaps important for the TV adaptation to follow Diana Gabaldon’s book plots (which this storyline was taken from).
But it’s just starting to become very noticeable and uncomfortable: does the series really need to rely on such violent acts of sexual assault to drive the story in every season? And should we expect to see yet more of it in season six?
We’ll have to wait a while to find out.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12pm - 2.30pm and 7pm - 9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre here or visit the website for more information here.
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…