Image: Outlander (Starz)
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“Wilmington” highlights—in the most horrifying of ways—Outlander’s persistent Brianna problem. The show has never quite figured out how Brianna fits into its narrative, at times using her and Roger to parallel Claire and Jamie but at others seemingly doing the exact opposite and evoking a dynamic that is increasingly and yet unwittingly abusive. Outlander leans into the romance with Brianna and Roger and then snaps out of it with whiplash-inducing force. And maybe that would work if it seemed like the point of their story, but it doesn’t.

In bringing Roger and Brianna to the past, Outlander seems more concerned with checking off plot boxes than with showing us the stuff that really matters and allowing these characters to fully come into their own as dynamic, compelling players in the show’s increasingly sprawling narrative. This is most evidenced by Roger and Brianna’s wildly abrupt, rushed reunion. The writers seem to have forgotten entirely the argument that first split Roger and Brianna apart, because Brianna forgets it, too. All it takes is seeing Roger once to get her to change her mind about the whole marriage-before-sex thing. We’ve seen nothing to make us believe that Brianna is suddenly ready to marry him, and the notion that she would be moved by his supposed romantic gesture to travel back in time for her isn’t in line with anything we’ve learned about the character. Or maybe it is. Because the real problem is that Brianna’s personality and motivations change at the whims of the plot.

So Roger and Brianna end up in bed together, and Outlander takes its time with this and the rushed quasi-marriage ceremony between the two, lingering on their bodies and steeping in their carnal chemistry in an intimate style meant to evoke steamy romance. They’re generous lovers in bed, and they’re madly in love, too. But post-coital, things get off-kilter. Brianna slips into some virginal persona typical of mediocre romance tales where women worry that they didn’t satisfy the sexually seasoned men they sleep with (it was a lot more interesting when Outlander gender-flipped that convention and made Claire the more sexually experienced mentor to Jamie’s sex newbie status).

And then Outlander just replays the exact same rift between the two in a way that shows neither of them have changed or grown and merely reiterates just how unconvincing it was for Brianna to rapidly change her mind about marrying Roger earlier in the episode. Roger wants the concept of Brianna, and any time she shows any kind of agency, he freaks out. That was the case when he first asked her to marry him, and it’s the case here, too. He accidentally reveals that he also found out about her parents’ death and failed to warn her about it. He tries to defend his actions by saying that it isn’t up to them to alter history and decide who lives and who dies, but even he seems to know that’s a weak argument that strips her of the freedom to choose. When she accuses him of wanting her to be blissful for his own personal gain, he pretty immediately cops to it.

Roger seems to have a twisted idea of what love means, and again, that might be easier to swallow if Outlander made it more explicitly clear. Instead, Outlander seems to want us to root for this couple despite their repetitive and emotionally abusive dynamic that often renders Brianna a doll in Roger’s fantasy. She leaves him for the same reasons as before, and it all makes the sex and romance that comes immediately before it in the episode feel hollow and indulgent rather than genuine character development.

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Then Brianna’s literally punished for her actions. Maybe that’s not the message Outlander intends to send, but the way the rest of Brianna’s arc plays out in this episode implies a weirdly punitive tone. Shortly after leaving Roger (again), Brianna encounters Stephen Bonnet, the man who robbed Jamie and Claire during the season premiere. When she sees he’s wearing her mother’s wedding band, she asks to buy it from him, and instead, he drags her into a room and rapes her. Outlander has told stories about sexual assault before, but here it slips into the same troubling area far too many television shows do when it comes to rape, which is far too often used as a plot device.

Ultimately, what does this rape scene add to the story or even have to say? It has already been established that Stephen Bonnet is a villain. Even just the underlying threat of his words when he first encounters Brianna and the way he leers at her reiterate that. We also know that the threat of rape exists in the setting of the show; it’s something that has seeped into many of Claire’s interactions with men in the past. Director Jennifer Getzinger at least finds a way to not show what’s happening, instead intentionally focusing on the ambivalence of the many men and few women who are just on the other side of the door and who can hear Brianna’s screams for help but choose to do nothing, don’t even seem fazed by what’s happening. That’s a pretty fucking brutal way to say “yep, the past is a dangerous place.”

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And Outlander doesn’t necessarily need to romanticize the past, but here’s the problem: It already does in so many other ways! The show is choosy about when it actually displays the horrors of slavery or how native people were treated in colonial America. It often bolsters the romance between Claire and Jamie in a way that downplays the seriousness of some of the historical happenings they get swept up in. The show often indulges of fantasy, and that’s part of its charm. So, no, the show doesn’t really need to include violent sexual assault as a way of acknowledging that traveling to the past would indeed be harrowing for women. The series has done thoughtful character work with Jamie in the wake of his own experiences with rape, but it has still been inconsistent in its tone and scope when it comes to some of its darker storytelling.

I don’t usually discuss the books when writing these reviews since I didn’t read them and have always written about the show as a standalone work, but I had a feeling that this rape scene came from the original source material, and it did indeed. That’s not a good enough justification on its own to include it though. Adaptations can and should deviate from source material, and it’s just difficult to understand the purpose of this rape scene to the point where it feels gratuitous, especially since it’s yet another way the writers undercut Brianna as a character. She’s rendered a helpless victim unprepared for the journey she embarked on, but that’s barely established before we get here. Plus, the juxtaposition of Stephen Bonnet’s horrific actions seemingly serves to make Roger look better by comparison, and that’s troubling, too.

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Even though Brianna and Roger are in the same time and relative place as Claire and Jamie, their paths still do not cross. Instead, Roger briefly crosses paths with Fergus—another one of Outlander’s many chance encounters. Jamie and Claire and busy with a comparatively lighter though less frustrating plotline, going to the theater to watch a play with the ruling class, where they meet George and Martha Washington and where Jamie finally has to come to terms with the fact that neutrality might not be an option at this particular point in history. He creates a diversion in order to get a message out to Murtagh to call off the Regulators’ plan, actively betraying his loyalty to Governor Tryon. Claire, meanwhile, performs an emergency hernia surgery, which is oh so very Claire.

In any case, the Jamie and Claire developments unfortunately take a backseat to Roger and Brianna, who technically harness the episode’s weightier and more emotionally driven beats but in a way that exposes some of the shoddy character development that has been happening on their side of the narrative. It should be more thrilling that their worlds are about to collide, but it’s hard to get behind that when Roger and Brianna almost seem like they exist on a different show entirely right now.

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Stray observations

  • Claire is so bad at pretending to not be from the future, as evidenced by the way she nerds out and blabs about cherry trees in front of George Washington.
  • The Regulators have a spy in their midst.
  • We need more Fergus this season.
  • Murtagh is great, and Jamie better start acting right.
  • Does Brianna just forget about her travel companion? Also, what’s the point of having her believe that Roger was attacking Brianna?

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