This post contains frank discussion of Season 4, Episode 8 of Outlander, titled “Wilmington.” Proceed with care.
A tremendous amount happened in this weeks episode of Outlander. Roger and Brianna were “handfasted” (a.k.a. married-ish) and consummated their relationship, Jamie and Claire performed a tense and daring bit of subterfuge in order to save Murtagh, all while George and Martha Washington made a cameo appearance. But these plot points feel especially “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” in light of the latest sexual assault perpetrated on a member of the unlucky Fraser family.
Many book readers will have been bracing themselves for the moment when Sophie Skeltons Brianna met Ed Speleers Stephen Bonnet with devastating results. Skelton spoke with Vanity Fair not only about how the shows version of events diverged from the novels but, with some regret, about the more explicit footage she filmed that wound up on the cutting room floor.
Though sexual assault is a rather common occurrence in Diana Gabaldons novels, members of the media have been asking Outlander producers and writers for some time now how they planned to handle the attack on Brianna in light of recent heightened sensitivities around both sexual assault/misconduct in the real world and the way such acts are portrayed in the film and TV. Would Briannas rape be cut altogether in the glare of the Times Up movement? Nope! There are future plot-based reasons why the Outlander writers felt this particular assault was impossible to avoid, but executive producer Maril Davis also told The Hollywood Reporter way back in March that her team was “sensitive to whats going on in this time right now [and] also filming something thats a historical piece. So were trying to do that with both hats on.”
In order to wear both hats, Davis and her writers took another major departure from the books—one that resulted in a thoughtful and shockingly relevant commentary on the current climate of sexual assault given that the episode itself is set in the 18th century. Unlike in the book, where every gruesome aspect of Briannas assault is described in vivid detail, the Starz adaptation chose to place the bulk of the confrontation behind closed doors allowing the camera to linger on the impassive, uncomfortable, and smirking faces of the men and women who turned a blind eye to Briannas distress.
It wasnt an easy decision. Skelton said she filmed multiple versions including one where the camera sticks with Brianna throughout her ordeal. After much “debate,” the footage of Briannas full attack was cut. For her part, Skelton says she understands that the writers were “trying to be sensitive to the time period that we are in now” but that from an actors point of view she thinks its a “shame not to see the whole thing” because its important for audiences “to witness what Brianna went through.”
In the book Drums of Autumn, as in the show, Brianna notices her mothers wedding ring in the possession of Stephen Bonnet while making her way through a crowded taproom. But here is where the narratives diverge significantly. In the nove,l Brianna—who, for the record, is much, much taller and brawnier than Skelton—meets up with Bonnet days later, not mere hours after losing her virginity to Roger. Brianna in the books cannily takes the precaution to visit Bonnet on his ship the Gloriana in the daytime hoping she will be safer with the sun out. In the show, Brianna also has reason to believe she might be safe to follow Bonnet into a back room of the crowded pub. Shes not just exhibiting time traveler naiveté for the way things worked in the 18th century. After all, the door to the back room was wide open and the front room was packed to the rafters with eye witnesses.
But heres where the show makes its sharpest parallel to the harrowing tales of sexual assault that started pouring out in earnest in late 2017 and have yet to stop. Stories of sexual assault are, of course, nothing new, but the 2017 Harvey Weinstein case with its stable of high-profile celebrity female witnesses cast a new light on the epidemic. In December last year The New York Times published a particularly damning report titled “Weinsteins Complicity Machine” which detailed how Weinsteins many alleged crimes could not have happened without either the willful ignorance of or willing assistance from high-profile Hollywood managers, agents, and assistants.
Its exactly those enablers who inevitably come to mind as Bonnet shuts the door and Outlanders camera leaves Brianna screaming for help to focus on the faces of the gamblers and drinkers in the outer room. Theres no question that everyone in the room knows and can hear what is happening to Brianna. One woman—a prostitute—has the grace to look uncomfortable at the noise coming from the back. Some of the men chuckle and turn at the sound of Briannas screams. Others look mildly displeased. In the episodes most casually chilling moment, one man nearly trips over Briannas boots which Bonnet has tossed out of the back room. The stranger stops to tidy Briannas shoes well within earshot of her rape. But, significantly, not a single person makes even the slightest move to stop him or help her.
This depiction of complicity has a slight parallel in the books where Brianna flees Bonnets cabin after hes already assaulted her and his ships cook trips the girl up in order to give his boss time to catch her and attack her even more. But the shows choice of a more passive, public collusion kills two birds with one stone in that it both engages directly with the less overt villainy revealed by the #MeToo movement, and allows the camera to skip the brunt of Briannas attack.
In this choice, there are both similarities to and a world of difference from Game of Thrones infamous Season 5 rape scene where the camera left Sophie Turners Sansa Stark being sexually violated on her wedding night in order to focus on the face of Alfie Allens Theon Greyjoy as he grappled with his own guilt and anguish at watching her suffer while not being able to bring himself to help her. Though both approaches spared audiences the horror of watching yet another TV rape, Game of Thrones (possibly unintentionally) made a huge mistake in emphasizing Theons pain over Sansas. Outlander much more sensitively kept Briannas ordeal as the emotional core of the scene even when the audience could no longer see her.
But Skelton, who did a good deal of research to prepare for this moment, wonders if the scene might not have been even more powerful if the episode included all of the footage she filmed of the attack. In the book, when Bonnet goes after Brianna a second time, the girls body shuts down. Gabaldon wrote the whole rape scene as a flashback that Brianna relates well after the fact and Claire and Jamies daughter says that while her physical defenses broke down, in her mind she was still fighting off the attack. Skelton interpreted Gabaldons description as a condition known as “tonic immobility” which is an involuntary paralysis that researchers believe is a not uncommon response to sexual assault. Thats how she played the attack that audiences wont see:
When we filmed the rape scene, I played tonic immobility—your body completely cops out on you and you go black. Its like a machine, it just stops. Briannas eyes glaze over and shes just not in the room basically. So at the end of the rape, you can see the sudden aftermath with Brianna waking up in a way and then her body starting to feel the pain and everything else. She is shaking like an animal thats frightened. Involuntarily, just shaking, shaking, shaking, but she herself in her mind kind of feels numb.
Skelton says that numbness and pain is with Brianna as she approaches Bonnet to get her mothers ring back and is the over-riding feeling when she goes to collect the boots that have been carefully stacked by the door: “No ones helped. Its not even disgust in that moment, its just pain. I think the disgust comes in later and the anger and everything else.” Skelton promises that her research into tonic immobility and the very specific, self-recriminating strain of PTSD that comes with it will feature in future episodes this season.
But while the actress in her may regret the performance that will never see the light of day, Skelton also acknowledges the power of the version that made it into the episode: “I think you might get split opinions on whether it shows how far weve come or how far we havent. I do think it will encourage people to talk about the bystanders. Theyre not the ones doing the rape, but the fact that theyre seeing it and doing nothing puts them on the same page as being guilty.”
Speaking about this scene with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, executive producer Matthew Roberts said its never the shows intention to get overtly political: “The characters have to be true to themselves and the storylines, and if someone gleans something from that, then thats an individual gleaning something from it. But we dont set out in the writers room to make a political statement about any character or any movement or anything.” In the case of this episode of Outlander, though, the silent complicity of the crowd does speak volumes about the way we live now.
Later on this season, we can debate whether or not Outlander could have have figured out how to play out Briannas future book plot without this sexual assault at all. But if the writers truly felt they had to do it in order to keep true to their mission of staying as close to Gabaldons text as they could, then at least this episode found something sharp and relevant to say with one of TVs most exhausting and exhausted tropes.
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