Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) neck is on the line as Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and co. rush to save him.
Let’s bitch it out…
“Oh god, this FREAKING show”
-cinephilactic’s notes for ‘Wentworth Prison’
Reviewing television has its pros and cons. There are times that you don’t want to have to think about what you’ll say about a particular episode. Other times you can’t wait to start the conversation because there are so many things to discuss. And then there are episodes like ‘Wentworth Prison’; episodes where it is difficult to even consider the review because you’re so engrossed in the drama unfolding on the screen.
Outlander has demonstrated a particular talent for delivering these kinds of bottle episodes: the narrative unfurls in a single location with a few of its very talented actors, discussing at length the latest conflict. It’s a structure that has worked wonders because it allows the audience to invest deeply in the drama. There’s no need to reacclimatize or adjust when the show jumps to another set of characters or a new location because we’re spending most of our time in a single place with the same characters.
In the case of ‘Wentworth Prison’ there’s one additional strength of focusing almost exclusively on Jamie’s plight: it allows for events to escalate in a horrifying fashion.
Outlander has been fearless in a number of ways over the course of its first season: peen shots, lactation, flogging and fairly graphic sexual encounters. It is a very visceral show – its writers and directors understand the power that accompanies a startling (and unconventional) image. Much like Black Jack’s (Tobias Menzies) suggestion that he haunts Jamie’s nightmares, there’s a sense that the people who make Outlander want to create similarly memorable set-pieces that will stir up the viewers and create a dialogue about the show (the fact that it’s good publicity probably doesn’t hurt, either).
‘Wentworth Prison’ has these elements in spades. It’s an accomplished, confident and truly excellent hour of television; it’s also really fucking hard to watch. The quote at the top of this review appears no less than twice in my notes – both times when Jamie is forced by Jack to place his hand flat on a table. For squeamish viewers, I can’t imagine that this was a pleasant episode to watch, but it is important to acknowledge why Outlander took its narrative to such extremes. There is an element of shock and titillation, certainly, but it’s also very much an exploration of the relationship between sex and power.
Sex and power are firmly within the Outlander wheelhouse, which has dedicated ample time to female sexuality (refreshing), as well as the abuses made possible by power. By intermingling the two, and focusing on the still-taboo subject of male rape, Outlander once again breaks new ground. I imagine that this was actually a repulsive episode for many because it is dedicated to the perverse fantasies that Jack has for Jamie, which aren’t so much queer as they are sadistic. That’s the key take-away for me: I remember being disappointed when Jack first announced his desire for Jamie because I thought that the show was exploring a tired trope about “evil gays”. I should have put more faith in Outlander‘s writing staff, because Jack is less of a queer figure than someone who gains sexual pleasure by dominating others (preferably men). Jack is interested in having sex with Jamie, yes, but he’s more interested in claiming power over him, of owning him and conducting violence on him. Jack wants Jamie to “surrender” and in some senses that suggests a physical submission, but the show clearly wants us to understand that there is more to Jack’s fascination with Jamie that mere physical relations. Jack wants Jamie to submit to him, to acknowledge that Jack has beaten him, that Jack has “won”.
Whether or not Jamie understands Jack’s motivation is immaterial; his staunch refusals deny Jack the pleasure that he seeks and increases Jack’s desire. This is why Jack becomes so irate with the jailor, Marley, when he nearly strangles Jack during his first escape attempt. To Jack this is as much a game as a negotiation: he’s looking to break Jamie on his own terms. Which is why the circumstances in which Jack achieves what he desires are so interesting: it is only when Claire arrives on her ill-fated attempt at a prison break and Jack nearly suffocates her that Jamie finally relents. This should turn Jack’s victory into a hollow one: he has not truly gotten what he desires from Jamie so much as he has forced Jamie’s hand via Claire. And yet their final scene, after Claire has been pitched through the trapdoor and literally expelled from the prison, Jack has coerced Jamie in their most intimate engagement yet. For me, Jack’s methodical removal of Jamie’s shirt and investigation of his flogged back is the most disturbing scene of the episode; not the mallet to the hand or the nail through the palm (blech). There’s a psychological element that is present in Jack and Jamie’s final scene – a threat of not only rape, but of glee at the humiliation and suffering of another.
Jack is a truly disturbing character and Menzies’ skill at making him such a unique monster must be commended. With that said, I think I need a shower…
- Claire’s discovery of a locked back door to the prison, which she manages to leave open before she is discovered, smacks of narrative convenience. It’s just a little too easy that the keys from Fletcher’s office happen to contain exactly what she will need to rescue Jamie in the finale.
- With that said, I’m intrigued to see what role the cattle play in the rescue attempt. I love a good animal distraction!
- Alas poor Taran MacQuarrie (Douglas Henshall) meets his maker in the opening scene. As an introduction to the episode, the hangings set an appropriately sombre tone to the proceedings.
- The opening scene also serves two important functions:
- It reminds us of Jamie’s philosophy about dying on his own terms (going out fighting), which is why his “surrender” at the end of the episode is so devastating and
- The hangings also reiterate how “lucky” Jamie is to have Jack’s interest. I recognize how contradictory that term may be (hence the quotations), but if you consider it, this is the second time that Jack has saved Jamie from execution. Sure Jack does it to satisfy his own perverse sexual interests, which may render the term moot, but Jamie is still alive, whereas MacQuarrie is not.
- Finally, gotta love the sound effects that accompany all of those broken necks. Kudos to the sound guys!
- Jamie (to Black Jack): “I prefer the rope to your company.”
- Claire (after Jack insists she can do better than “animal”): “You fucking sadistic piece of shit!”
- Jack (when Claire is captured): “I myself am not in the mood for cunts today.”
- Jack (after nailing Jamie’s hand to the table): “Now kiss me.”
- Jack (stroking Jamie’s scars): “It’s a masterpiece.”
Your turn: how did you handle the torture scenes? Do you agree that Jack is more sadist than queer? Sad to see MacQuarrie go? How do you think the cattle will play into the rescue? And are you still enjoying the series’ interest in exploring the interplay between sex and power? Sound off below.
Outlander takes a breather for the Memorail Day holiday and returns Saturday, May 30 at 9pm EST for its S1 finale on STARZ