'Outlander' finale: responsible violence in drama

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Rape is dramatic. No wonder it's a tried-and-true device for TV drama.

It's certainly a staple of "Game of Thrones," the wildly popular HBO series whose disapproving viewers "fear that rape has become so pervasive in the drama that it is almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence," as The New York Times said in a front-page story a year ago.

That uproar was renewed recently by a rape scene in the episode that aired May 17. But oddly for a series whose untamed storytelling savors graphic violence of all kinds, this particular rape (of a young virgin bride by her brutish husband on their wedding night) was contained in a brief scene staged completely off-camera.

If this depiction, downright demure for "Game of Thrones," was meant as an olive branch to outspoken detractors, the gesture didn't work. Reaction was swift and harsh, including that from U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), who tweeted that the scene was "gratuitous" and "disgusting," adding that she was "done" with the show.

Viewers who agree may likewise want to skip the season finale of Starz network's period drama "Outlander."

Meanwhile, viewers with an open mind are invited to share an unflinching dramatization of violence — sexual and otherwise — that nonetheless reflects care and artistry. And they may want to heed this spoiler alert and stop reading here until they see it. (The episode airs Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT.)

"Outlander," based on Diana Gabaldon's best-selling novels, focuses on Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a lovely British Army nurse who was mysteriously swept from her 1940s world back to the 18th century, where she fell in love with a dashing Scottish warrior, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). But their romance, not to mention their lives, are placed in constant jeopardy by Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall (Tobias Menzies), a maniacal British Redcoat officer who means to break the man he regards as his archrival.

"I just want this to be a pleasant experience for us both," he tells Jamie with chilling courtliness as the punishment that dominated last week's episode intensifies in the dungeon cell where he is holding Jamie captive.

"It's not the usual place you take your male lead characters," admits executive producer Ronald D. Moore, the sci-fi maestro celebrated for "Battlestar Galactica," ''Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

He explains that in reading the "Outlander" canon when he began work on the series, he realized this scene, looming for him at season's end, would pose a special challenge.

"There was a lot of conversation in the writers room about how we were going to make the adaptation to film," he says. "And once we had our scripts, I carved out extra time for the actors so they would be prepared for where we were gonna go.

"I don't like depictions of torture on camera," he says. "To shoot this, I had to tell myself, 'I'm going to be as frank, direct and truthful as I can, but there's a point where I wouldn't want to watch it. And that's the point where I'm going to cut.' I don't want to lose my audience, and I don't want to lose ME — I couldn't lose my own investment in the story by going to a place I felt was exploitative, which I detest."

Television has dealt viewers many memorable instances of rape: Joan Holloway by her fiance on "Mad Men." Anna Bates by the valet of a visiting lord on "Downton Abbey." Dr. Jennifer Melfi, attacked and raped in a parking-garage stairwell in "The Sopranos."

Nor has male rape been absent from the TV screen. On HBO's prison drama "Oz," which aired from 1997-2003, such attacks were commonplace. And 30 years ago on the NBC hospital drama "St. Elsewhere," Dr. Jack Morrison was raped by a male inmate while performing community service in the penitentiary's clinic.

When depicted responsibly, rape is treated not only as a violent act but also as a storm of reactions by its victim (Jamie, filled with shame and guilt, tells Claire he did "too much and not enough" in response to his assailant) that collectively drive home why rape has no place in a civilized world.

Even so, despite his care, Moore is braced for some viewers to object to what they see on Saturday's "Outlander."

"I'm sure we'll take some flak," he says. "It was going to be controversial whenever it aired, and at this moment, 'Game' is getting play on that issue. So I'm sure we'll get swept up in the same conversation. But I hope people judge our show on its own merits."


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at and at Past stories are available at