When Outlander gets it right, it can produce moving, insightful and exciting television. When Outlander gets it wrong, you have to restrain yourself from throwing something at the TV and screaming incoherently at the characters.
‘Wilmington’ is one of those episodes that had me screaming and it all has to do with Brianna’s rape. The characterisation of Brianna (Sophie Skelton) in this episode is especially poor as she makes decisions that seem to contradict all her previous choices, as if her personality is required to change direction simply to follow where the plot wanders. Yet again Outlander uses rape and sexual assault as a narrative device and I was left trying to discern exactly which female character in the show had not been a victim to a sex crime; I concluded not many.
The episode opens in 1769 in North Carolina, Roger (Richard Rankin) has made it across the Atlantic without being thrown overboard by Stephen Bonnet (Edward Speleers) and is looking for Brianna. As is always the case in Outlander, he really doesn’t have to look very far because she happens to walk in to the very inn in which he is drinking. Brianna and Roger’s reunion is tender and well acted, with both Rankin and Skelton doing their best to portray two young people very much in love. Unfortunately the drama goes downhill from there.
Without much discussion on the subject, Brianna and Roger agree to get married in an informal ceremony called a ‘hand-fasting,’ partly because they love each other, but mostly because they want to have sex. Strangely they find an unattended barn for the proceedings and although this is all supposed to be very romantic, it feels contrived and simply does ring true for the characters we have come to know over the past two seasons.
Nothing has changed for either Brianna and Roger except their historical location and the date, so I was left questioning why they were suddenly resolved to forget all their disagreements. No explanation is given for why Brianna suddenly agrees to marry Roger when previously she was so vehemently opposed to the idea. What follows is several sex scenes which are pretty cliched for the show, although still as explicit as anything found in Season 1. Almost immediately after the consummation of their haphazard wedding vows, the romance is over as the two lovers quarrel and unwisely walk away from each other abruptly ending the relationship. The whole story-line is both bewildering and irritating, like watching two teenagers get together and then break up repeatedly.
Despite the fact that Brianna seems to be changing her mind faster than the wind changes direction, it is Roger’s character that I take issue with the most. Roger is not a bad man (that has been established in all the character development of Season 3), but over the course of this season he has become steadily more possessive and controlling. He views Brianna as a concept (‘his wife’) and seems to fly into a fury whenever she shows any agency of her own or independent thought. Either way Roger’s decision to walk away from Brianna and leave her in a place neither of them are familiar with, 200 years in the past feels particularly foolhardy and selfish. Once Roger is gone, Brianna, now brokenhearted, makes her way back to the inn where she is then raped off camera in an upsetting scene by the villainous Stephen Bonnet.
Obviously Outlander is constrained by the fact that it is adapted from a series of already published novels. Brianna’s rape appears in the books, as does the events that take place afterwards as a result of the attack. But the show has deviated from the story-lines of the novels before, so why not now? The main problem is that Outlander has done this story-line before. We know the show can adequately explore the issue of rape (Anyone remember Jamie being raped in prison in Season 1?) and the ramifications for the victim. Now the show is starting to get a reputation as being a production that is obsessed with the subject and regularly uses rape or sexual assault as a narrative device which feels exploitative and damaging.
To put events in to context, if we are to look at all four seasons of the show, at least five members of the Fraser family have been raped, sexually assaulted or coerced into sex. This is a pretty alarming rate of instances of sexual violence even for a story set in the 18th century. It is true that this episode does differentiate between consensual sex and rape, portraying the two situations as very different, which is always a good message for an audience, some of whom may be confused as to where the line is drawn between the two.
But I still feel cheated by this story-line. The writers have taken Brianna, a relatively naive, but clever and feisty young woman on the cusp of a career in engineering in the 1970s when women’s rights in America were about to change, and plunged her back in time to a period in history where she has very little rights, safety or opportunities. We all want to see Brianna reunited with her parents but not at the expense of her freedom and potential. As nice as Roger is, I have no desire to see Brianna become the little wife he must protect. This female character deserves better.
The rape does not make Brianna a stronger character and very often such events are used as a narrative tool to develop a female character in television and film. Story-lines involving rape and the sexual abuse of women litter not just Outlander but contemporary television everywhere. I can only assume the show is attempting to be relevant and highlight women’s issues, but in the instance of Brianna’s story arc, it has fallen short and highlighted only one thing; rape is horrible. Something we all understood way back in Season 1.
Outlander Season 4 is now airing on Amazon Prime Video.