Throughout Outlander Season 5, we at Paste have continued to call the show a “warm hug of familiarity.” The final episode, “Never My Love,” may have ended with just that, but everything that came before it in that hour was the exact opposite.
Overall, Season 5 provided a narrative steadiness that made it, week to week, one of the better seasons of the show. Yes we’re in America now, but our characters are still largely surrounded by Scotsman and living on the frontier, so the change has not been that jarring. Further, though there were (as always) a number of incredibly tense situations and adventures throughout, we got to experience the extended Frasier clan working as a family unit to forge a life together. Yes, every lead still had to be rescued from certain death once, but it was less about trying to change history than the perils of life in a new world.
However, the finale, “Never My Love,” brought us back to certain torture patterns the show has used over and over again. It was an incredible episode in many ways; Claire’s fantasy of everyone being alive and together (for the most part) in the 1960s for Thanksgiving dinner was a bittersweet reverie that gave us a glimpse at what our 18th century characters would look like in another context. Both then and in its later moments of horror, Caitriona Balfe (as always) knocked it out of that park. And yet, seeing Claire brutally sexually assaulted again (after being raped in Season 2), after both her husband and daughter were also raped, is a lot of sexual assault for one show. Not to mention one family!
The attack on Claire certainly didn’t feel arbitrary; this season built up the animosity between Lionel and Claire, as well as between Jamie and the militia men. Claire’s incendiary pamphlets were a bane to the patriarchy, so naturally when it was discovered a woman was behind them, they would take their revenge. The trauma that she then goes through, and the way she forces herself to survive it and beyond it, all felt true to the character and everything we know about her. The crime against her also easily justified the murder of that entire company of men. Lionel’s final moments were also reminiscent of the half-dead evil man Jamie and Claire discovered earlier in the season, tying together a theme running throughout. And yet …!
Horror and trauma and battery don’t always have to include a graphic sexual assault. The show has spent a lot of time showing the different ways that its characters have processed and ultimately healed from a variety of unforgivable sins against them, and this was no exception. But at what point does it become torture to watch? If you’re going to circle back through a family who have already been sexually assaulted and make one of them a victim of sexual assault again, it needs to be for a reason beyond “this is a really cruel time, isn’t it?”
When critically considering an episode like “Never My Love,” this presents a quandary. It was a good episode standing on its own, but was it a good episode in context? It told its story well, but was it a story we needed to be told in this particular way once again? It really does do everything well, except for the continued sexual trauma its lead family must face ad infinitum.
Storm clouds literally gathered on the horizon to close out the episode and season, with a few threads still out there about another time traveler (though a coward). Roger and Marsali both killed men, justifiably so, but it haunts their souls. The Frasers are, for now, remaining on the Ridge, but Lionel’s brother has vowed revenge on them either though he knew his brother was an evil man (this is real hillbilly stuff). And though Roger and Bree have decided that this is their home, we were given a brutal reminder in this hour of why they wanted to leave in the first place. Nowhere is really safe, but the 1960s certainly feel a lot safer than the 1770s for these Scot-Americans.
The most confusing thing though is that, somehow, what Outlander continues to provide—even in an episode that requires a lot of processing like this one—is a show that ultimately is that warm hug. It’s a family together, gathering in front of crackling fires, working side by side to make a meaningful life, full of love and understanding. It was genuinely moving when Jamie found Claire, when Bree and Claire were reunited, and when Roger acknowledged the Ridge is home. There’s something about it—trauma aside, which is a big aside—that is even aspirational in the way these characters are so steadfast in their affections, so willing to listen, so patient, so strong. Not always, of course, but deviations are quickly resolved. It’s a show bound up so tightly by love.
In the episode’s final scene, Claire and Jamie are wrapped up together nude, in total vulnerability with one another. When asked how she feels, she says “safe.” Regardless of whether or not you felt the story’s repetition of assault was a mistake, a moment like this speaks to the show’s ultimate desire to wrap us up in its love—however fraught and traumatic the road is to getting there.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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