Season 4, Episode 9: ‘The Birds and the Bees’
The aftermath of Brianna’s rape was always going to be a tough needle to thread.
In narratives about sexual violence (particularly against women), each bears a burden of universality: Every story about rape is, in some way, a story about all rapes. It doesn’t help Brianna’s story that two seemingly-contradictory things are true: Sexual assault is depressingly frequent in real life, and yet “Outlander” overuses it as a plot device. But the real-world stories are the reasons stories of assault should be carefully told, not justifications for scooting a story forward.
Watching Brianna struggle at Fraser’s Ridge, then, was a cognitive-dissonance affair.
It is deeply uncomfortable that Brianna’s rape was apparently a defining moment for her character. We didn’t see enough of Brianna before this to know her as a person, so her character is being formed in front of us primarily as a reaction to her assault. This gets even more complicated given that she’s pregnant, likely by Bonnet. This is the sort of story moment that needs as much character specificity behind it as possible to avoid being exploitative, and we just don’t have that background for Brianna.
At least Brianna gets a full episode in which to process what happened. “Outlander” tends to be myopic about sexual-assault recovery. (Jamie’s healing after his rape took several episodes, while Claire — on the receiving end of countless sexual threats — hasn’t been given time to process any.) But Brianna gets the narrative space to be affected by her rape. We see her struggling in the wake of her reunion with her birth parents: shying away from touch, flinching at the sight of Claire’s new wedding ring, disconnected from life at Fraser’s Ridge.
And she doesn’t immediately move past what happened. We see her struggling with her memories and second-guessing her experience, including her confusion and self-recrimination as she finally tells Claire that night: “I didn’t fight him hard enough. Why the hell didn’t I fight him?”
It’s just as well that the rape in last week’s episode played out behind closed doors so that we weren’t invited to relive the specifics of it this week. (Knowing it happened is enough.) That said, the episode manages more visceral horror when Claire finds her old wedding ring than it finds for Brianna after she experienced such violence.
There’s no easy gauge for whether “The Birds and the Bees” succeeds — or if it can. The episode tries to show sympathetically the process of someone dealing with rape. But the situation is so fundamentally frustrating that it’s hard to imagine a version of this arc that would be satisfying. The episode gives Brianna space to develop after what happened, but developing someone largely in the aftermath of sexual assault is a storytelling tactic that wore thin long before this. Showing the emotional impact of assault is important, but “Outlander” has leaned on rape so many times that this feels like trauma-as-usual.
It doesn’t help that the episode ends with Jamie and Ian beating up Roger in a case of mistaken identity — men defending the honor of a woman who wasn’t even alerted to, much less consulted about, the return of someone who ostensibly hurt her. Maybe next episode, the way “Outlander” views Brianna’s agency will change. It just hasn’t yet.
• I appreciated the family reunion scene. Claire and Jamie felt restrained and a little melancholy, which helped avoid tonal whiplash from Brianna’s trauma.
• Another welcome moment: Jamie and Brianna talking around the awkwardness of their budding relationship. When Brianna sympathizes with the bees they’ll be moving, Jamie breezily promises her that even though they’re unable to return to the wild, “they’ll be content. Content in their new home.” It’s no surprise Brianna is unconvinced.
• Maybe don’t give love tokens with a “not at all” multiple choice option and then repeatedly act like a jerk. Just some advice.
• “When it comes to you, Auntie Claire, I’ve learned it’s better not to ask too many questions.” Ian, letting slip the supporting characters’ best practice.
• Family ties form much of the backbone of “Outlander.” But Jamie’s “child of another man” emphasis on bloodline with Brianna starts to feel a little weird. From what we saw, Brianna loved her father and felt nothing wanting until she learned about Jamie.
• Given this show’s emphasis on bloodline, I shudder to think what’s in store for Brianna and this baby, should she choose to keep it.
• I recognize that Roger’s getting beaten by Jamie is framed as a tragic misunderstanding that Lizzie unwittingly sets in motion. On the other hand, if you manhandle women, people are likely to assume you’re a terrible person.
• Rollo, who can run behind a horse and stop on command, remains a very good dog.
• The nature and insect footage was great. Kudos to the bee unit. (I’ll show myself out.)