*SPOILERS AND RAW BRUTISH INHUMANITY AND YES ENDURING LOVE INCOMING*
There has never been a scintilla of doubt that the producers of Outlander are committed to showing life in the often mercilessly brutish world of eighteenth century Scotland in its all confronting, intensely dehumanising horror.
This unwavering commitment to showing life as it really was, and not as many less faithful historical romances would have it be, has been a hallmark of the show since day one, a reflection of the books upon which it is based, none of which, at Diana Gabaldon’s immensely talented hands – here she explains why the horrific scenes in this episode matter – failed to keep true to the times they depicted.
Even so, watching the events of the first season’s penultimate episode, “Wentworth Prison”, it becomes apparent in ways both discomfiting, sickening and painful that this commitment to realism is not going away anytime soon, that there are no easy answers, no quick rescues, no fairy godmothers of neat dramatic resolution coming in to save the day in the narrative nick of time.
Life in the time of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Captain “Black Jack” Randall, who spend much of this episode monstrously sparring in the suffocating confines of the former’s prison cell deep within the bowels of Wentworth Prison, mere hours after the hangman’s merciless noose almost claimed him, is as real and dark and unforgiving as it gets with no easy coincidences or quick fixes to lighten the mood or gift us with more palatable, easy to digest, and consequently less satisfying, drama.
In any other drama I suspect, the cavalry in the form of Claire (Catriona Balfe), Murtagh Fraser (Duncan Lacroix), Willie (Finn den Hertog) and the others would have found an ingenious way into the prison, ducked and dodged around some unforeseen complications, almost lost the day before snatching Jamie out of harm’s away and riding away, everyone living happily ever after.
But Outlander is like very few dramas out there, making it clear within minutes of “Wentworth Prison” opening that this is not Ye Olde Ocean’s Eleven, full of jocularity, mateship and narrow escapes, but real life in all its messy, uneasy to untangle yourself from nastiness.
Not only that, but there is no happy ending as such even if by episode’s end Jamie still lives, though barely.
No, this is unflinchingly real, the dark side of humanity in the form of Black Jack’s sordid psychopathy on full and unrelenting display.
We are not spared anything from the mallet hammering down hard over and over on Jamie’s ever more pulverised hand (which is later nailed to a table), the Captain’s obscene sexual gestures – obscene not because they were between two men but because the lasciviously, manifestly broken English captain forced Jamie to fondle his genitalia and later kiss him mere seconds after bloodily and sadistically brutalising him (the horrified look on the face of the Captain’s jail keeper attendant said it all) – or his drip-drip-drip softly whispered taunts of death not so much spared, as cruelly delayed.
The Captain played with Jamie like a cat with its prey, switching behind professions of love – a love so grotesquely malformed and hideously manifested it is as night to Jamie and Claire’s day – and the bullying torturous pronouncements of a man at war in ways beyond reason with the innocent party he opposes and persecutes.
We bore witness to the Captain’s treatment of Claire, who having risked everything to ingratiate her way into the prison by posing as a “good Christian English woman” seeking to visit a poor imprisoned Scottish felon, found herself, agonisingly close to freeing Jamie, also in the clutches of a man who it is doubtful has had a sane, emotionally-sound thought in his life.
What made these twisted machinations all the more confronting was that Black Jack wasn’t presented as mad or psychotic, but rather as coldly, calculatingly rational, a man who knew exactly what he was doing, from burning up Jamie’s letter of complaint to the Duke of Sandringham about Captain Randall’s immoral and unethically cruel behaviour to threatening to kill Claire if Jamie didn’t submit to his demands that Jamie submit to whatever freakish sexual perversions were coursing through the Captain’s veins.
It was made clear that this had less to do with the fact that the Captain was gay – he referred as one point to his “unnatural desires” – than the fact he is a rampant sadist, a man whose only means of reliving his own torment and despair is to inflict even greater degrees of it onto others.
And inflict punishment and pain he did, repeatedly and in any ever darker ways, till you were left reeling at the extent of his depravity.
In the midst of all this darkness however, there was some light.
Chief among them Claire’s deep, unyielding love of the man she has chosen to remain in the eighteenth century for, a man for whom she has given up much and for whom it is clear she is prepared to give up even more, even her own life if it comes to that.
The stakes are high for both Jamie and Claire in this episode, a reminder that great drama works just as well when it’s two people whose lives are on the line as many – see again Diana Gabaldon’s excellent blog piece on that very thing – and that love true love is a ferociously strong beast, able to surmount mountains and overcome adversaries, and not simply some fey, winsome creation of card companies and flower shops in the middle of February.
This is love as it really is – muscular, unyielding, brave and unflinching – and even in the middle of all the great violations and privations visited upon Jamie by Black Jack, and Claire’s impotence to countermand or end them, it was a full, proud display, as real and true as the ground upon which Wentworth Prison stands.
As too is the loyalty and commitment of men like Murtagh and Willie, who against manifestly unequal odds, are still prepared to try and free Jamie come what may.
Reality may be bleak, cruel and nasty at times but it can also be uplifting, inspiring, inspirational and wonderfully human and Outlander made sure in “Wentworth Prison”, perhaps it’s deepest, darkest, most real episode yet (with agonisingly impressive performances by the entire main cast), that both of those facets were given prominence in a drama that only seems to get better as it goes on.
*We have a small break till the final episode of the season “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” which we’ll likely need to get over the tension and horror of this excellently-wrought episode …