Game of Thrones, Outlander, and TV’s rape craze
I’ll admit, I’m late to the party with Outlander, the Starz series based on the bestselling novels by Diana Gabaldon. Thanks to the magic of binge watching, I was able to take in the entire first season this week via Starz Play. The show has drawn a lot of comparisons to another one of my favorite shows, HBO’s epic book-to-screen adaptation, Game of Thrones, particularly in the way it handles sexual assault. I’m going to be talking about season five of Thrones and the season one finale of Outlander a lot below, so be warned that there are major spoilers. Don’t read the rest of this if you don’t want to know what happens in either show.
By now we all know Game of Thrones. The fifth season finale drew over 8 million viewers, and it’s a pop culture phenomenon that is frequently discussed, gif-ed, and memed all over the internet. This season, Thrones drew more criticism than ever, with some people swearing off the show altogether. And that’s not surprising. Season five featured so much rape, death, and misery that it was hard to look forward to another agonizing Sunday night. We know our favorite characters are never guaranteed to survive a season of Thrones—in fact, they’re usually more likely to die horribly—but watching this season was, at times, a thoroughly masochistic experience.
Outlander is a relatively new kid on the TV adaptation block, beginning in August 2014 on Starz and concluding its first season sixteen episodes later in May 2015. When I first started watching the show, I found it a refreshing relief from all the rape and torture of HBO’s flagship. Of course, being the impatient spoiler fiend that I am, I ran to the internet to find out the fate of my new favorite characters. That was where I learned just how dark things were going to get. But I was already too invested in Claire and Jamie to be swayed by gruesome horrors, so I kept watching.
Both shows operate in the realm of historical fantasy, though George R. R. Martin’s Thrones delves more into traditional fantasy, complete with dragons. Outlander opens in the 1940s after the end of World War II and transports us to the Scottish Highlands circa 1743 via a mystical ancient site. Both shows feature battles, blood, and boobs, though the execution of the more TV-MA content is handled differently.
Thrones became famous (or infamous) early on for using naked women to keep viewers interested through more dense or political monologues. Why have a discussion about Westerosi history in a banal location when you could have that same conversation at a brothel with nudity? Outlander nudity is used more sparingly, and typically with context—Claire and Frank getting intimately reacquainted after the war, Geillis Duncan’s pagan ritual, Jenny’s attack by the despicable Capt. Jack Randall. Nudity is important to the plot in these scenes, as opposed to just using nipples as set dressing.
Violence is handled rather similarly between the shows. If anything, Outlander contains more gory and bloody scenes than Thrones, in part because its main character, Claire, is a military nurse who knows her way around a war wound. Some of the most stomach-churning violence on Thrones was in season four when the brutal and sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) transformed a formerly cocky Theon Greyjoy into the subservient “Reek” through prolonged and gruesome torture.
And that brings me to the elephant in the room: rape. Things get very heavy and disturbing on both shows when sexual violation enters the mix, and I intend to talk about that here, so be warned that this section is not for the faint of heart.
Both shows feature sexual assaults, which is no doubt why so many have drawn comparisons between the two. The primary one that I’ve seen all over the internet is between arguably the most disturbing scene in Thrones season five—Sansa Stark’s wedding night rape by the monstrous Ramsay Bolton—and the outrageously traumatic rape and torture of Jamie Fraser at the hands of sadistic sociopath Capt. Jack Randall in the Outlander season finale.
First, let’s talk about Sansa. This was easily one of the worst things to happen in Westeros—and that’s really saying something because this show throws rapes at us like they’re mardi gras beads. The scene plays out almost entirely via a closeup on Theon Greyjoy’s face as he witnesses the rape, forced to watch his former childhood friend “become a woman” by her new husband (and the most hated character since Joffrey) Ramsay Bolton. Prior to this point, Ramsay showed off his twisted depravity by brutalizing Theon, even going so far as to mutilate him. Theon has endured immeasurable violations at the hands of Ramsay, and now he is forced to watch poor Sansa become a victim as well. There is no nudity or violence—the whole event happens offscreen—but we hear Sansa whimpering and see Theon cringing and weeping. It’s a testament to the acting skills of Alfie Allen that we have such a strong emotional response based solely on some sounds and his facial expressions. In fact, it was so horrifying that it had many people, including senators, vowing to never watch the show again.
I thought the scene was powerful, and clearly very hard to watch, but I had some big problems with it, too. Up until this point, the show had set up Sansa as a victim who was just starting to gain a little power. She’d endured Joffrey, and now she was finally free of Lannister torment and on her way back home to Winterfell, where we all hoped her storyline would get a little less grim. Unfortunately, it took an exponential turn for the worse, and we were left cringing in anxious anticipation of the horrors she would continue to endure now that she was married to one of the most sadistic characters of all time. When we finally got to the wedding night, we knew it would be bad. Part of me was grateful that we didn’t have to witness it, as Theon did, but part of me was also annoyed that Sansa’s rape was reduced to an emotional moment for Theon. It stopped being about Sansa and started being about how Theon felt about the whole thing.
Sansa’s violation was particularly troubling because it was just one more in a long line of rape scenes featured in Thrones so far. From Daenery’s wedding night with Khal Drogo in season one—which is very different in Martin’s original work—to Joffrey’s torment of Ros and another prostitute, to Jamie attacking Cersei beneath their deceased son’s body, the show really loves to victimize its female characters. Aside from Theon’s mutilation, we don’t see any men threaten each other with sexual violence, yet the female characters endure rape threats, and actual rapes, all the time. It seems rape is more common than a sneeze in the Westeros of the TV show, and this makes it lose impact. By the time Sansa is raped, we’re so far removed from how horrible it truly is that we only experience it via Theon’s reactions.
Outlander takes a different approach to rape, painting rapists as horrible right from the get-go. We see Capt. Randall attack and attempt to rape Claire just minutes into her journey to the past. We see Randall humiliate and attempt to rape Jamie’s sister, Jenny (Laura Donnelly), and we hear that Randall has quite the reputation with both the Redcoats and the Scots for being a total psycho rapist. In fact, despite the historical setting and the idea that the 18th Century was a harsher time, the women of the show are not constantly enduring the threat of rape from every man they encounter. Randall is made all the more heinous by the fact that he is the only one who takes pleasure in the sexual violation of others.
But don’t be mistaken; the show still has some seriously harsh moments. Despite the sweeping romance that is the show’s backbone, Outlander features one of the most graphic and disturbing rape scenes in TV history, something that is sure to stay with you for a while after you see it.
Our hero, the gorgeous, loyal, good-to-the-core Jamie Fraser, is captured and brought to prison, where he is reunited with Randall, the man who tried to rape his sister and flogged him nearly to death years earlier. Randall has been shown to be a sadist and genuinely twisted fucker who enjoys the domination of rape, the tears and screams of his victims, and the thrill of causing others immense pain. Previously, Randall had tried to get Jamie to “surrender” his body, but Jamie opted for a gruesome flogging rather than submit. Ever since then, Randall has harbored an obsession with the strong-willed hero, and now he’s got him right where he wants him. Jamie’s wife knows this is bad news, and through unshakable determination, sets out to rescue her beloved husband. But everything goes wrong and Claire is captured by Randall. Jamie, in an act of sacrifice, offers himself to Randall if he’ll let Claire go free. Randall, of course, happily accepts, and the nightmare-inducing abuse begins.
We view Jamie’s torture through a series of flashbacks after he is (thankfully) rescued by Claire and a team of his kinsmen. While we know he is physically safe now, we see the traumatic physical and emotional scars left behind by what he endured. He’s broken, not at all the Jamie we knew and loved. This narrative structure really serves to heighten the emotional impact, and rape is shown as the despicable, cruel, traumatic horror that it truly is. We’re right there with Jamie as he recalls what happened, and it hits like a slug to the chest every time we cut to that jail cell and Jack Randall’s torment.
Both shows are brutal at times (though it seems like most of the time for Thrones lately) but Outlander didn’t feel like it was using brutality for some kind of shocking twist. It felt central to the storyline, important, and meaningful. Thrones started to feel like they were obligated to have one break-the-internet moment in every episode, so they started chucking horrors at us left and right to see what could become the biggest trending topic. This was the premiere season of Outlander, and perhaps that was why it felt so refreshing. Thrones is such a pop culture phenomenon that perhaps it is too self-aware and has strayed from its roots of strong story, character development, and political drama.
Maybe it’s because I binge watched, but at the end of the Outlander finale, I had the TV equivalent of a book hangover—where you’re so caught up in a fictional world that you feel like an alien in the real world. I found the show to be powerful and moving, something that captivated me and left me emotionally invested the whole way through. Yes, the last two episodes could be classified as hard to watch, but there’s a difference between hard to watch because it’s moving and hard to watch because it’s an unpleasant viewing experience. Thrones’ “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” only left me thankful that a brilliant comedy like Silicon Valley came on right after to wash away some of that lingering horror.