Outlander’s day of reckoning

THIS face. ©Starz
THIS face. ©Starz

Ever since I first read Outlander, I’ve wondered how the book’s notorious spanking scene in Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”) could be brought to life, should any filmmaker be brave (or foolish) enough to take it on. How would this scene, in which a husband in 1743 Scotland applies heavy-handed discipline to his modern-thinking wife (she, is, after all, a time traveler from 1945 England), play out on screen? Would it be cut entirely? Or would the filmmakers risk the show losing viewers and becoming a social media outrage du jour? Would Outlander be slapped with the scarlet letter “P” for “problematic” — the new word used to shame entertainment that doesn’t adhere to a strict and ever-widening list of “appropriateness”?

If you’ve read my previous Outlander pieces, you know that I have no problem with That Scene. When I first encountered the scene in the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s much-loved series, I weighed my feminist convictions against my weakness for well-written, big, sexy historical yarns and, well, guilty pleasure won. Individual responses to the scene will differ and, you know what? That’s OK. We’re not all wired up the same.

But I’m just going to throw this out there: Nobody ever seems to get riled up about all the other spankings in the novel Outlander. And there is a lot of spanking, and talking about spanking, and Jamie remembering past spankings he’s received, going on in the book (so far, none of this has made it to TV).  In Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2) and Voyager (Book 3), Jamie is forever being asked to administer spankings (to his surrogate son and his nephew), or is volunteering to take disciplinary whippings to spare the men in his charge. (Interestingly, in Dragonfly, Claire asks him to beat her, but he refuses. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t gotten there yet by saying more.) There is a kinky pulse thumping through the novels’ historical romance/fantasy/bodice-ripping heart, and maybe that’s the dirty little secret of why so many women love them.

The other reason might be Jamie himself. Boyish, courageous and built like a ginger Adonis, Jamie is not just a sympathetic romantic hero, he’s an unabashed object of fetishization, as you’ll presumably see as the TV series goes along. (And if you want to talk “problematic,” just wait.) The normally courtly and sweet Jamie spanking Claire is the scene that gets all the attention; some readers are turned on by it, some see it as violence against women. But in the grand scheme of all things Outlander, Jamie is the victim, the one who suffers gruesome physical abuse in the books, not just once, but over and over. Even I have to admit, it’s weird. The irresistible quirky pull of the novels, though, lies in how fluidly Jamie and Claire keep swapping roles as the “damsel in distress” figure and the hero, and how they take turns rescuing one another.

Now, on to Episode 9, called “The Reckoning,” which aired last Saturday. The spanking scene remained, more or less as was written in the book. We saw the set-up in Episode 8, in the first half of this season; Claire ignores Jamie’s order to wait for him in the woods while he and his highlanders go off in pursuit of the one man who might be able to clear Jamie’s name as an outlaw wanted for murder. One bit of dialogue from the book was left out of Episode 8, however  — Jamie warning Claire that if she strayed from her hiding place, he would “tan your bare arse wi’ my sword belt.” I wish that line had stayed; it prepared viewers unfamiliar with the book for what was ahead, rather than having the spanking scene come out of nowhere. I think it would have also signaled to the Outlander uninitiated that the upcoming scene was not intended to be consensual sex-play.

Anyway, Claire, who hasn’t accepted the strictures placed on women in 18th century society and is subservient to no man, least of all her husband, wanders off towards the standing stones that might take her back to her own time, and is captured by Redcoats. She’s taken to Fort William, to Commander Black Jack Randall, Jamie’s old torturer and enemy, and that’s where Episode 8 ends.

Episode 9, which premiered after a months-long promo campaign, opens not with Jamie and his men busting in and rescuing Claire from Randall’s attempted rape, but with an interesting change in narrative perspective from Claire’s voice to Jamie’s. We’ve been seeing the action through Claire’s sensibilities all along, which is also how the book is structured. But in changing this episode to Jamie’s story, the material from Chapter 22 becomes his meditation on what it means to be a man. The first scene of the episode echoes Claire’s opening narration from the first episode of the series (“It’s funny the things you remember …”), except it’s Jamie saying those words, over a visual of him pensively skimming rocks in a stream. Then there’s a flashback  to the rescue at Fort William, and a ferocious verbal battle between Jamie and Claire after they’ve gotten well away.

Jamie and Claire’s fight scene lifts whole passages of dialogue from the book, and actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe generate astounding heat as their characters tear into each other with almost palpable anger. Jamie tells her that, as his wife, she must do as he says, and Claire screams back, her face contorted in magnificent contempt, “Your wife! Your wife! You don’t care a thing about me! I’m just your property! … As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel! That’s all a wife is to you — something to stick your cock into when you feel the urge!”

Of course, Claire has succinctly described the societal norm for husbands and wives in Jamie’s time, one which the naive Jamie (he’s four years younger than Claire) has never questioned before. When he sees Claire’s contempt, he suddenly sinks down on a rock in confusion and frustration. It’s all there in the book, but on film, it becomes an even more powerful moment; it contextualizes the spanking scene, when it comes, as Jamie’s last stand, his attempt to regain his sense of self according to the ideas of manhood as he’s internalized them. She put the men in danger and if Jamie doesn’t make her pay for it, he loses their respect.

As for the spanking scene … In the book, we’re inside Claire’s head, and her narrative voice flits between shock, guilt, humiliation and anger (“Whatever the justice of the situation — and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side — my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever, and for whatever reason. I felt deeply betrayed by the man I depended on as friend, protector and lover …”). On TV, Balfe expresses all of those feelings in her face, but it’s not the same as hearing her say them. This is the one point where I wish this episode didn’t have a flip in narrative voice.

I’m still not feeling the sprightly jig that strikes up on the soundtrack at the moment Claire twigs that Jamie is serious. I first thought the lively music was what turns the scene a bit too Kiss Me Kate, but then I watched the scene with the sound off and it looks the same, so the lightness must come from the way the scene is choreographed. Jamie’s facial expressions are not menacing, they’re more sheepish, pleading, comically exasperated — why won’t she let him do his duty? Claire fights back hard (in the book, she first agrees to her punishment, but on screen, there is no acquiescence), and there’s a nicely-timed kick upside the head, but eventually, the brawl ends with Jamie the victor, and the strap comes down.

Props to the TV team for not copping out and doing something dumb like coyly placing the spanking off camera. And props for allowing Jamie his believable gleam of sexual arousal at the end (“I said I would have to punish you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t enjoy it”). But the tone of the scene is undeniably lighter than in the book, and I’m not sure that playing it for comedy helps make the whole regressive “wives as infantile property” stuff more palatable. Adapting this scene was always going to be a no-win situation. And so it was.

The real meat of the episode, though, is Jamie and Claire’s reconciliation that comes a few frosty days later, after they’ve reached Jamie’s clan home, Castle Leoch. Claire has refused to sleep with Jamie since the spanking, leaving him more confused over the remorse he’s feeling. Wasn’t he simply doing his duty as a man?  In the episode, Jamie has an epiphany when he sees Colum McKenzie, who is the leader of the clan and his uncle, bend on a point of honor in order to keep peace within the clan. Jamie tells Claire that he punished her because that’s what he’s been taught a man should do, “but for you and me, maybe it has to go a different way.” He kneels and swears an oath on his knife (a serious thing for a highlander) that he will never beat her again. When she’s slow to forgive him, he sorrowfully asks her if she wants to live apart. Balfe has another outstandingly transparent moment here, when her conflicting emotions are all there on her face. “I feel that’s what I should want,” she says. But after a long pause, she adds, “But I don’t.”

“I feel that’s what I should want … but I don’t.” That line gorgeously sums up the conflict between what Claire knows should be her appropriate response in accordance with the social norms of her time, and what she really, viscerally wants, which is, to be with Jamie. It also nicely parallels Jamie’s realization that he doesn’t have to live in a prison of rigid cultural expectations. (Apply it to our own times, if you’re so inclined.) This is the moment when the balance of power in Outlander evens out;  Jamie realizes that Claire is making him into a new kind of man, and it intrigues him, and Claire realizes that, in her fantastic trek through time, she has met her sexual, spiritual equal. They make up, they get naked and have a long, stunningly naturalistic bout of lovemaking (rapidly becoming the show’s specialty) that mirrors the spanking brawl in its acrobatic carnality.

But not before Claire straddles Jamie, holds his knife to his throat and tells him that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she’ll cut out his heart and have it for breakfast.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015