The incongruities of Outlander have piled up, episode by episode, in the show's first season. What seems orthodox becomes unorthodox. Now as the season concludes – the final episode airs here Sunday (Showcase, 10 p.m.) and in the United States on Saturday on Starz – the drama's romantic conventions are being twisted into a startling reversal on the matters of sex, sadism, love and redemption.
From the start, Outlander the series and the source material in Diana Gabaldon's books, has been a tinderbox of non-conformism packed into a seemingly customary package. The package is the damsel-in-distress, woman-in-jeopardy outline. First, we acquiesce to the premise. In 1945, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a nurse hardened and battered by her experiences during the Second World War, is transported back in time to 1743 where she is drawn to some ancient standing stones in Scotland, all while on her honeymoon.
She is, therefore, in jeopardy and terrified. At the conclusion of the first hour, Claire's voiceover communicates this: "I had been assaulted, kidnapped and nearly raped, and somehow I knew that my journey had only just begun."
The template then, of a woman "assaulted, kidnapped and nearly raped," is presented, but Gabaldon's books reclaim this territory of woman in jeopardy for female readers. It is Claire who is in control of her relationships with the men around her and in particular with Jamie (Sam Heughan), the tough but naive young man she is obliged to marry for survival in this world she's landed in. While the feminist twist is blatant in Outlander – Claire is the teacher, sexually aggressive and sharp-tongued – there's a hint of the depth of Gabaldon's theme in the very marriage itself. It's about survival, as most marriages are, when stripped of romance and social convention.
In the final episodes of this season, though, the twisting of the customary has become searing. Much of the story's dynamism has been anchored in Jamie and Claire's brutal battle of wits with English Redcoat Captain "Black Jack" Randall, played by Tobias Menzies, who also plays the loving husband, Frank, whom Claire has left behind in 1945. Randall is in fact an ancestor of the good-natured Frank. The underlying suggestion in all of this is very dark – the man Claire married is rooted in an ancestral tradition of barbarity. What woman actually knows all the facets of the man she marries?
In the most recent episode and in this weekend's finale, that dynamic has become deeply disturbing. In the penultimate episode, it became shockingly clear that Randall's actual target was Jamie. Randall committed an extensive torture and sexual assault on the young man. It was raw, hard to watch, this sadistic perversity, and done with alarming power by the actors.
The sexual sadism that is, in the usual narrative, visited upon women was inflicted upon the main male figure. In Sunday's finale, which I have seen but will not reveal entirely here, the aftermath of the male rape unfolds with a fierce power. What happens to Randall has a casual simplicity but enormous symbolic force. Just as there is that same force when we first see Claire, in trousers, boots and shirt, her arms crossed and determined.
What matters, away from the propulsive storyline, is that the victim – Jamie relives his savage rape in his head – is male and the one who both ministers to him and is benumbed and hard-bitten, is female. Everything assumed about power, nurture, violence and succor, is questioned. Balfe as Claire is acutely good, which she has been throughout the series. But Heughan's work, as the rape victim in physical and psychological agony, is astounding. Both Balfe and Heughan deserve awards galore.
We live in an odd time, a time of media frenzy and sizzling pop-culture anticipation about the relaunch of Wonder Woman, that empowered comic-book creation soon to be the heroine of a big-budget Hollywood movie. It's seen as important and meaningful, this headlining female superhero. But so much about those assumptions of female empowerment being carried forward in a comic-book heroine emanates from an essentially dumbed-down popular culture, an escapism now reduced to the infantile.
For complexity, for the challenging of norms and questioning of paternal narratives, we can look to Outlander. This specific instance of a pop culture phenomenon is rare, has a female superhero for the ages and is a combustible, furious love story with the strangest sort of unsettling power.