Further thoughts on Outlander episode 408, “Wilmington”

I watched the newest Outlander episode (#408, “Wilmington”) yesterday evening, then posted my weekly Insta-Reaction post… and since then, haven’t been able to stop thinking about the episode and why it bothered me so much.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I’m going to be talking about specifics from the episode as well as the book series, including future developments in the books. You have been warned!

There are two key parts of the episode that I have issues with, and both center on Brianna.

Brianna and Roger

Let’s start with what most of the episode focused on — Brianna’s reunion with Roger. Having both traveled through the stones and 200 years back in time, Brianna and Roger separately made their way to the Colonies and end up in Wilmington, North Carolina. Roger searches for Brianna, and finally finds her. She goes from happy to mad to happy again, and Roger — well, much as I usually like him, he comes across as a jerk.

He’s immediately aggressive with Brianna, yanking her outside by the arm so they can talk about time travel away from the nosy people in the tavern. Out in the street, they both do their share of yelling, but Roger is the one looming over Brianna, in her face, being what an outsider would interpret as physically threatening. And as we see, Lizzie does see all this, and is rightfully worried about her mistress. If you didn’t know who this man was, it would appear that a stranger just grabbed Brianna, threatened her, and then took her off somewhere.

So then the two of them admit that they love one another, start kissing — and stop again when Brianna asks Roger if he’s changed his mind about having sex with her without being engaged first. Oh yeah, that… is what Roger’s face is saying. He hasn’t. So all of a sudden, after not seeing Roger for months and only just now reuniting with him, Brianna is willing to marry him, so they marry each other via Scottish handfasting, then get on with their wedding night.

(In a barn. That isn’t theirs. Where for all they know, the owner is going to come in any second. But I digress.)

(Oh, and Brianna gives him credit for pursuing her for 200 years — but she specifically didn’t want him to follow her! He follows her because he’s worried something will happen to her without him. Overbearing much? I love Roger (especially in the books), but somehow seeing this all on screen drives home for me how condescending some of his actions are. He’s doing what he’s doing because he’s sure that he knows best and Brianna can’t handle her own business.)

We then get one of the most awkward sex scenes I’ve seen in a while. Why is it that Jamie and Claire sex scenes are sexy, and Roger and Brianna’s isn’t? For starters, we’re not all that invested in Roger and Brianna. The show and the books are positioning them as couple #2, the next generation’s power couple, but in the show anyway, they’re not there yet. I think too that we’ve been viewing Brianna as Claire and Jamie’s daughter for the little that we’ve seen of her. Maybe I’m reaching here, but perhaps it’s this view of Brianna through a maternal lens that made the scene so uncomfortable to watch. Jamie and Claire’s scenes are always sensual and loving and steamy. This scene had no sense of physical chemistry, was too long, and simply felt voyeuristic to me.

Okay, so after blissful lovemaking (or so they say), once again the arguments start. It’s ugly. I don’t care all that much about the issue at hand (the obituary) — it’s about control, and it’s not good. Roger had information that he chose not to give to Brianna. First he claims he did this because she was happy, but really, he was taking away her ability to choose to go to her parents, and he knows it. The angrier Bree gets, the angrier Roger gets, and he basically asserts that he knows best and now that he’s her husband, she should listen to him.

And so quickly it could make your head spin, they sound like bickering children. Well, maybe I should leave. Well, maybe you should. Look me in the eye and tell me to leave. Leave if you want to. Ugh. This was ridiculous. Yes, they need to separate in order for what happens next to happen… but it’s so nonsensical for Roger to walk out like that, and reinforces the idea that these two had no business talking marriage when they’re not mature enough to actually deal with disagreements like adults. Roger just traveled back in time and risked his life (of which he reminds her a couple of times) to follow her, then is going to leave just like that? And if he was so motivated by concern for her safety, then he’d stay with her or at least remain nearby until he knew she was safe with her parents. Who would just walk out like that? It’s idiotic.

(And not much better in the book, where they argue and part, but without it seeming like quite so definite a break-up. Although, Roger still leaves to try to steal some gemstones for their journey back through the stones. Again, not very smart. They’re not leaving yet, they still want to find Claire and Jamie — what’s the rush?)

It feels extra manipulative watching it unfold on the screen, but it has to be that way so we can get to the terrible thing that happens next.

Brianna and Stephen Bonnet

And here’s where I’m going to declare that the show does itself no favors by following the books too closely.

In my reaction post, I talk about the rape scene and how awful it is, but I also stated that the repercussions of the rape ripple through the rest of the book and the next two after that. In other words, it’s so important to the plot that there’s no way the show could omit it.

And then I spent all night thinking about it some more, and I’ve completely changed my mind.

Look, the books have a lot of rape in them. There’s really no getting around that. And I say this as a huge fan of the series, but it’s a lot. Too much. Rape should not be a plot device, and that’s exactly what Brianna’s rape feels like.

Plot-wise, this has to happen, because Brianna ends up pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is. On top of that, when Roger finally finds Brianna again at Fraser’s Ridge, Lizzie identifies him as Brianna’s rapist (remember her watching the argument through the window?), and before he can introduce himself to the Frasers, Jamie and Ian beat him senseless and then sell him to the Iroquois.

Eesh. That’s a lot. And the ripple effects of not knowing the baby’s father continue through book #6, as does Stephen Bonnet’s continuing, looming and threatening presence in their lives.

But still, did the show have to honor this part of the plot? I’m ready to argue that it didn’t.

If we assume that we need a similar outcome in order for the rest of the plot to work — Brianna being traumatized, Brianna being pregnant, Roger’s being beaten and sold — I’m sure the show could have found a way to make that happen. What if Brianna doesn’t tell her parents that she’s pregnant right away? What if she refuses to talk about how she ended up pregnant because it’s all too upsetting, so they’re left to draw their own conclusions? What if Lizzie confides what she thinks she knows, so when Roger shows up, Jamie and Ian jump to the same conclusion? It could work, that’s all I’m saying.

Meanwhile, the show does not need more rape. Brianna did not have to by assaulted by Stephen Bonnet. It was a brutal scene. And does it make sense that a tavern full of people chose to ignore or be amused by the screams from the next room? This is the inn where Brianna is lodging — did no one recognize her or consider that she might need help? Not one shred of concern? In the book, this happens on board Bonnet’s ship, where he is the captain and the undisputed lord and ruler. His crew would never stand up to him, even if they thought a woman was being abused, although as I recall, they assumed it was Bonnet engaging in some sex play, not necessarily a young woman being raped. In the episode, while it’s horrifying to see all these men sitting around doing nothing, just drinking and gambling, I’m not convinced that it was realistic, especially if we assume that this is at least a semi-respectable inn at the center of a growing town. Again, is the show going for shock value? If so, they found it, but it just adds to my sense that this scene and the entire rape-as-plot-device ploy was unnecessary.

I find myself agreeing with the New York Times recapper’s comments:

This scene serves no immediate purpose. We didn’t need the reminder Bonnet is a villain. The show did not need another sexual assault to prove the past was dangerous (Roger seems proof that men can be horrible in any era). In fact, the scene is so otherwise disconnected from the episode that it suggests a chilling, unspoken conclusion: This is Brianna’s comeuppance. She gets victimized as proof that she’s vulnerable. Bonnet’s attack is more violent than Roger’s lying, and therefore Roger looks better. Brianna gets raped, in effect, because she told Roger to leave, and “Outlander” apparently wants her to regret it.

 

Final thoughts

Because I’ve read all the books, I’ve seen how Roger and Brianna work through their differences, establish a relationship that’s an equal partnership, and build a family and a life together. But if I were basing my thoughts strictly on what I’ve seen of them on TV so far, I’d think that this pair was ill-suited and not a good fit. Brianna is headstrong and independent; Roger is traditional and conservative. He wants to protect and guide; she wants to make her own decisions and set her own path. Because I know him from the books, I know that Roger has a very good heart and is truly devoted to Brianna, but on the show, he’s coming across more and more as a controlling male who wants his woman to toe the line. As I mentioned earlier, Roger and Brianna are being built up as the show’s next-gen romantic lead couple, but so far at least, their chemistry and dynamic just aren’t working for me.

As for the Bonnet plotline, I think I’ve made my point clear. I don’t care what’s in the book (shocking, I know) — the show didn’t need to go there. Rape isn’t a convenient plot device. Surely, a creative writers’ room could have come up with some other plot twist to get us to the same or a similar point, without inflicting sexual assault on yet another female character.

For a show that has gained so much praise for its female gaze, it’s a disappointment to see it falling back on rape as a way to move a story forward.