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Outlander Drew a Line Between Rape and Sex. Does It Need So Much Rape, Though?

Spoilers for “Wilmington,” episode eight of the fourth season of Outlander, lie ahead.

Outlander’s eighth episode this season, “Wilmington,” puts two scenes in conversation with each other. One of them is a sex scene between Brianna and Roger, who’ve both traveled to the past and somehow managed to find each other on the other side of the world. They become handfast in an intimate wedding ceremony from an ancient Scottish tradition, and then consummate their new marriage in front of a roaring fire. It is romantic, and like many Outlander sex scenes, it’s also explicit.

The second scene shows a rape. Brianna spots her mother’s ring and tries to haggle with Stephen Bonnet to get it back, before Bonnet leads her into a private back room where he knocks her to the ground and then pins her to a table. After that initial attack, though, the rape scene that follows is as circumspect as the preceding sex scene is revealing. Although we can hear Brianna’s weeping and her attempts to fight back, the sound plays over images of mundane activity in the pub. A woman pours beer for the men. Someone knocks over a pair of boots in a hallway and then props them back up. Men play a card game, and they occasionally turn around, listening to Brianna screaming in the background. One man gives a half-shrug, and continues staring at the table. When the camera cuts back to the pub’s private room, Bree is bloodied and weeping, and lifts herself gingerly off the table. Bonnet gives her the ring, and then Brianna walks away, injured and stunned.

When Bree and Roger have sex, it’s sexy. Roger gazes at Bree’s naked body in appreciation; her nudity is sexual, but it’s also a display of her vulnerability and a sign of their intimacy. The effect has less to do with Roger’s (or the viewer’s) pleasure in Bree’s body, because the camera usually lingers on Bree’s face. Outlander has an established history of sex scenes that focus on female pleasure, and the show has gotten so much attention for its sex scenes in large part because of showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s insistence that they be realistic and prioritize a female point of view. The foundation of the first season’s wedding episode is a radical trio of sexual encounters, beginning with Claire’s underwhelming first time with Jamie and continuing through a plot that ties communication and emotional openness to the experience of female sexual pleasure.

The sex scene between Bree and Roger in “Wilmington” is visually and ideologically in keeping with the scenes we’ve seen between Claire and Jamie in the past. It is physically specific, and it’s focalized through Bree’s experience. Bree’s a virgin, so when Roger does penetrate her, we’re aware of her arousal as well as her pain. Afterwards, Roger performs oral sex on Bree, and once again, we see her face so that we can’t miss her pleasure. But in between those acts, while he’s still inside her, Roger puts Bree’s hand on his heart and asks if she can feel his heart beating. “Tell me if it stops,” he tells her. This consummation scene is seductive because it’s a sex scene, and some measure of Outlander’s sexual appeal comes from its simple, straightforward precision. There are no obscured bodies rubbing against one another in baffling, physically inexplicable ways. But the scene also goes to extensive lengths to illustrate its participants’ joy and lust, particularly Brianna’s. Roger puts her hand on his heart as proof of his pleasure, but his arousal is primarily used as fuel for Brianna’s attraction.

It’s hard not to think of the two scenes — Bree and Roger’s consummation scene, and Bree’s subsequent rape by Stephen Bonnet — as connected. They follow each other so closely that the two events seem to go hand in hand. But writer Luke Schelhaas and director Jennifer Getzinger seem to have done everything they can to turn the collision of these two stories into a productive, meaningful argument about the difference between sex and rape. Outlander has depicted physically explicit rape scenes in the past, including a few scenes where Claire’s nearly raped by British soldiers, and in the incredibly violent scenes between Jamie and Black Jack Randall. The rape scene in “Wilmington” is different. We have the audio as a way to understand Brianna’s trauma and to witness her pain and helplessness, but by eliding all visual representation of the act, “Wilmington” draws a line between its sex scene and its rape scene.

What happens between Bree and Roger is sex, and as viewers, we consume and witness their pleasure visually. What happens between Bonnet and Bree is rape, and by shielding it from our view, it’s as if Outlander is trying to prevent even the suggestion that we think of the two scenes as analogous. There is no possibility of a visual echo between the scenes, no ghost of a similar pattern. By refusing any visual representation of the rape itself, “Wilmington” seems to be trying to protect the sex scene between Bree and Roger, to prevent it from being sullied by any visual link to what happens to Brianna afterward. One is about pleasure; the other is only about power.

On some level, it works. In a deep, sort of twisted way, depicting one very visually explicit sex scene followed by one stubbornly hidden rape scene is a way to successfully distinguish one act from the other. Four seasons into Outlander, though, the question becomes whether that distinction is enough.

As an adaptation, the TV version of Outlander has been almost painstakingly true to Gabaldon’s books, and from that perspective, Bree’s rape by Stephen Bonnet feels like an unavoidable plot point for the series. It’s a crucial turning point in the plot of Drums of Autumn, the book Outlander’s fourth season is based on, and abandoning Brianna’s rape would’ve meant fundamentally altering Gabaldon’s original story. Through season four, the major story changes between the books and the TV series have been issues of timing or embellishment, things to do with concision and focus. The core skeleton of the story has stayed remarkably faithful. Without that rape, and without the sex scene that immediately proceeds it, the TV series would split from the book series forever. The argument that Bree had to be raped by Stephen Bonnet, that this rape was necessary, makes a lot of sense.

The opposing argument makes sense too. “Wilmington” does a remarkably good job of protecting the romance and seduction of its sex scene, and of making sure it’s unmistakably distinct from the rape scene that follows. That doesn’t change the broader picture, though. Outlander is still a TV series that consistently relies on rape as a major engine of narrative tension. And because the series is more narratively compact than the books, it also feels like characters are experiencing or being threatened by sexual assault all the time. There is so much sexual assault. Every one of the show’s four seasons so far has involved a sexual violence plot, and some seasons have had several such moments. Deep into its fourth season, it’s beginning to feel like Outlander is as much a story about sexual violence as it is about anything else, and in spite of that topic’s immense importance, it’s frustrating that Outlander’s characters apparently have few other ways to experience sudden emotional turmoil. Perhaps, if just for the sake of not using rape as a bruising emotional crucible that also becomes a major plot arc, again, this moment could’ve been the one when Outlander’s TV series finally decided to stake out its own territory. Maybe it would’ve been nice to see what the Frasers’ lives could look like without sexual assault for a while.

If that story had to be here, though, it’s hard to argue with the way “Wilmington” has executed it. Hiding the rape scene between Brianna and Bonnet from view had no impact on its brutality — it was every bit as awful as it could’ve been if they’d shown us more of it — but it also made absolutely clear that the assault was a completely different act than Bree and Roger’s consensual sex. Still, I wouldn’t be mad if in the future Outlander had many fewer opportunities to draw that distinction. (Article Source: Vulture)

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