Image: Outlander (Starz)
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Outlander over-relies on sexual assault as a plot device. I say that as someone who has praised its depictions of trauma aftermath many times before and as someone who’s about to praise its depiction of trauma aftermath in this very episode. Yes, “The Birds & The Bees” does technically portray the psychological effects of Brianna’s assault with depth, empathy, and attention to detail. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the way this rape unfolded in the first place is frustrating storytelling. It speaks volumes that this episode is the most in-depth character work that has ever been done with Brianna, so her arc hasn’t just been affected by the assault; it hinges on it.

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Especially now that it turns out Brianna is pregnant and her rapist Stephen Bonnet is likely the father, this character and her narrative on the show seems largely forged by this horrific event. Even without showing the assault last week, Outlander seems guilty of the kind of trauma porn that often infests fantasy series (Game Of Thrones being one of the biggest offenders). That said, there is some really visceral writing in this episode when it comes to her processing, elevated by a fantastic performance from Sophie Skelton. We see her in the immediate aftermath, through Lizzie’s eyes. She carries visible and unseen wounds, fractured, not entirely there.

And then Brianna has to continue to process this horrible thing that happened to her amid also processing her reunion with her mother and the father she never knew. Early on in the episode, she finds Jamie at last, and Sam Heughan also turns in another emotional, complex performance as Jamie lays eyes on his daughter for the first time and the gears slowly click into place. At first shocked, then elated, then a little sorrowful for all that he has missed, he cycles through the layers of this reunion all within the span of one scene and then continues to grapple with Brianna’s place in their lives throughout the episode.

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The bonding that happens between Brianna and Jamie is really lovely, a bit of a salve compared to the darkness that’s still very much there in the wake of last episode. He’s eager to get to know her but also doesn’t want to push too hard, has no interest in replacing Frank, who Brianna admits she feels disloyal to just for being with Jamie. There are a lot of complicated feelings underneath their excitement to be around one another, and Heughan and Skelton tap into those well. Outlander balances the heightened emotions of this episode well and avoids overly romanticizing the grand reunion. Both Jamie and Claire are of course thrilled to have Brianna with them (and to be warned about their death date), but they also know that this likely can’t last, that she belongs in her own time where there are more opportunities for her and where she can feel at home.

Throughout this reunion, Brianna still carries the weight of her trauma in subtle but perceptible ways. She dissociates sometimes, locked in the prison of her mind. It hits seemingly without warning, makes her despondent and unpredictable. Through Lizzie, we learn she has been having recurring nightmares. Claire misinterprets this all as heartbreak over Roger leaving. He boarded the Gloriana under threat by Stephen Bonnett, but Brianna thinks he followed through on returning through the stones after she told him to go ahead and do so after their fight.

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Claire’s intuition does clue her into Brianna pregnancy, and when she asks her about it, Brianna finally opens up to her mother. She blames herself, exclaiming that she wishes she had fought back harder, another visceral look at how she is struggling to process what happened. We relive the trauma again, this time through Claire’s perspective as she learns her daughter was raped. And when she finds the wedding ring in Brianna’s bed, she learns it was Bonnet, a fact Brianna initially leaves out because she learned about the robbery from Young Ian and the guilt Jamie already felt for saving his life. She doesn’t want to pile on, and she makes Claire swear not to tell him.

Brianna talking to Claire about the assault is devastating, and Skelton and Caitriona Balfe are powerful in their performances. Claire’s conversation with Jamie about it is moving, too, especially knowing that Jamie is a survivor of rape as well. Still, to define Brianna’s arc so much by this assault is a troubling story choice and one that makes it hard to believe “The Birds & The Bees” could ever really work. There’s good stuff in here, but the reason we’re here in the first place is frustrating.

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And it’s made even more frustrating at episode’s end when Lizzie pulls an Atonement and mistakenly identifies Roger, who has made it to the mountains of North Carolina in search of Fraser’s Ridge, as Brianna’s attacker to Jamie. Without hesitation and without any kind of communication with Brianna, he takes justice into his own hands and beats the crap out of Roger before throwing him over a horse and sending him off into the woods to rot. It only reiterates that this sexual assault is being exploited as plot device, creating more conflict like an issue of mistaken identity. Is this really about Brianna and her recovery from trauma? Or is it conflict for the sake of conflict? A lot more thoughtful character work needs to go into the writing of Brianna for Outlander to really overcome this.


Stray observations

  • Lizzie apparently has a crush on Young Ian. Sure.
  • Everyone talking about Jenny made me miss Jenny even more.
  • Skelton and Balfe really do look so much alike in this episode.
  • Brianna acts a little incredulous at Claire’s suggestion that she should have brought condoms to the past, but that’s the kind of easy-to-carry modern invention that actually probably would have been smart to bring back. Did Brianna bring anything back with her? Some more smallpox vaccines? Aspirin? ANYTHING?

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