* Many a spoiler and some stampeding cattle lie ahead *
One of the most defining aspects of the television adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s series of Outlander books has been how fearless, utterly fearless its producers have been in telling its long and winding, heart-stoppingly epic tale.
Manifestly lacking in narrative timidity of any kind, hardly surprising given the series was developed by Ronald D. Moore who has made it clear on shows like Battlestar Galactica that will do what he deems necessary to tell his tale, viewer sensitivities be damned (in the best possible sense), Outlander has demonstrated over and over how willing it is to go to the dark places that define life in the brutal and politically charged surrounds of eighteenth century Scotland.
This is, after all, a period without the even-handed, relatively-impartial rule of law, the enshrinement and respect of human rights, the imparting of universal suffrage or any semblance of the equality of men and women.
Granted the twenty-first century struggles to fully manifest these advances in all their promising glory but they are at least in existence in reasonably-fulsome form; not so in the highlands of mid-eighteenth century Scotland where the English, particularly those of a questionable moral nature (and that is putting it exceedingly kindly) like Captain Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), are free to do as they wish with a defiant but still vulnerable occupied Scottish underclass.
And Black Jack most certainly did as he wished in the searing season one finale of this uniformly excellent show, treating an imprisoned Jamie (Sam Heughan, who deserves all the awards for his portrayal of a man reduced by torture and sexual degradation to a shadow of his former self) like some sort of Pet Cemetery inmate as he lurched in states psychotic and cruel between stomach-churning pronouncements of “love” most tender, and physical punishments so caustically violent you wonder how dark a soul he must possess.
While Jamie’s rescue was carried in suitably buccaneering, humourous fashion as nineteen highland cattle stampeded through the dungeon doors and into Wentworth Prison providing just the right kind of noisy distraction needed for Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), Angus (Stephen Walters) and Rupert (Grant O’Rourke) to spirit him away – the bonus being Randall inert form pinned under one of the doors in question – it became abundantly clear very quickly that Jamie’s road to healing would be a long and arduous one.
A victim of mental scarring as much as bodily brutalising, Jamie retreated into himself, fearing the touch of anyone and everyone, but most painfully, his beloved Claire (Catriona Balfe) who, thanks to some nasty mind games courtesy of a bestial Randall intent on nothing but his own sick pleasures, now reminded her husband of his tormentor.
While he was physically safe in a monastery where his physical wounds were swiftly tended, his mental shame lurched between crushing shame and suicidal angst, with Jamie understandably unable to divorce himself from culpability in his own suffering.
It’s one of the most horrible curses that a perpetrator of sexual and physical violence can visit on their victims – the sense that they are, in some twisted way, responsible and guilty for their crimes committed against them.
It is of course nothing but a foul lie, but Jamie, lost in shame and agony, stricken with the idea that he allowed Randall to make love to him so he could experience some pleasure in the midst of abject suffering and horror, was unable to see any way forward that didn’t end in death at his own, or someone else’s hands.
Thankfully the love that exists between Jamie and Claire in built of stronger stuff than even the cruellest of fates and it’s the willingness of Claire to join Jamie in the hell he is enduring, to lay everything unflinchingly out on the table, including an admission that she would sooner die than live without him, that eventually brings him to the idea that there is value in hanging onto life.
The scene where Jamie admits all to a grieving Claire is some of the most confronting, dark, full-on television anyone is likely to ever witness but in the midst of the dissection of the horrors brought to full bear against him, we also see the power of love, real gritty in the trenches love rather than the waffly, idealised Hallmark kind so often portrayed on television and in the movies, to stand in the gap and stare down its foes.
Theirs is a muscular do-or-die love and both Heughan and Balfe bring it to life in ways both touching and utterly unforgettable.
Their love becomes far more intimate and true than it was already as they share something that no couple should ever have to – the aftermath of the violation of one of their number to such an extent that death becomes an appealing option.
Watching Jamie suffer in the initial days after he set free from his torment, you begin to wonder if there is anything under heaven or earth that can save a man as broken as he is in every way but the love he shares with Claire manages the impossible and slowly brings him back to life, and while not close to whole again, Jamie is at least willing to see some light at the end of a very long tunnel.
A tunnel, which leads all the way to France and Jamie’s relatives who are sheltering far away from the long hand of the English monarchy with bonny Prince Charlie and his Jacobite supporters, and a daring suggestion by Claire as they sail across the channel and she admits she is pregnant (delightedly this makes Jamie smile at long last), that they attempt to change history.
It’s a daring idea, one that goes against one of the fundamental tenets of any drama based on a time travelling premise, but entirely in keeping with the spirit of a show willing to go places that few other shows before have dared.