While we can’t argue with the appropriateness of the title of this episode, we will forevermore think of it as “The Spankening.”
Boy, we picked a doozy of an episode to start regular reviewing of this show, didn’t we? And since we opened with a joke about something that would be considered spousal abuse in the present day, we suppose we better just jump right into it and get this part of the review over with.
This is the episode where Claire finally came face-to-face with the reality of living in 1743, at a time of great political unrest, surrounded by men who distrust and fear her. It’s not pretty. And for this 20th Century woman, it’s hard to determine which part she finds worse; the constant threat of rape or the condescendingly patriarchal attitudes that literally see her as something to be owned and which express themselves in violence when threatened. Claire’s no fool and she’s been more than aware of the potential violence that surrounds her at every turn, but the sight of her husband (or one of them, anyway) coming at her with a belt sent her flying into a righteous rage. She didn’t sign up for this and she’s not going to have it. This surprised reaction tended to make her look a little naive about her situation. The reckoning of the title isn’t just about Claire learning how her actions affect others in this kind of world, but also about Claire coming to terms – finally – with exactly the kind of world it is.
This was our only criticism of the show in our initial review. Certainly, we would expect the hero of a story, regardless of her gender, to act boldly and morally throughout the tale whenever appropriate. But in the world depicted here, Claire’s boldness (especially in the earliest episodes) came off reckless more often than not, and tended to make everyone around her seem not as threatening as perhaps they should – and that includes Jamie. This sounds horrible to say, because it almost seems like we’re advocating that Claire get beaten or raped more often in order to make her seem more realistic somehow, but that’s not it. Claire needed – especially right at this point in the story – to really see the world she’s in; not just the romantic parts or historical parts; but the vast differences in culture and expectations – and the enormous limitations being put on her, now that she’s living 2 centuries before her birth. At some point she’s going to have to make a choice between her two husbands and we’d like it if it was an informed one, without any of the perceived romanticism of the past clouding her judgment. Was it hard to watch a scene like this one, with the male romantic lead literally beating the female one? Of course. In fact, our initial reaction was more along the lines of “What the hell are they even thinking, showing something like this?” But it’s not only appropriate to the period and the characters, but it’s something that kind of needed to happen to Claire to shock her out of the last vestiges of her 20th Century mindset.
And besides – and we can all debate the appropriateness of this – the scene was clearly presented, right down to the playful tone and fiddle music, in as light a tone as possible and even had some sexual undertones to it. Jamie smirking and all but winking at the camera while declaring, “I said I was going to punish you. I didn’t say I wasn’t going to enjoy it” was an attempt to cast it as sexual play. This tends to be somewhat problematic, given that Claire clearly wasn’t consenting to the beating. And while we probably could get ourselves all worked up in a lather over this, the fact of the matter is, this is a romantic adventure story with a lot of sex in it – and it’s written by a woman. We may be uncomfortable with part of this scene, but we’re not going to be the two men wagging their fingers at a woman for not writing more respectable erotica. Besides, Claire got to mount him and hold a sword to his throat while threatening to eat his heart, so we’d say she got hers back.
So… problematic scene? Yes. But necessary and as balanced as the story could have possible allowed. If you must show your lead male beating your lead female (and there really is an argument to be made that in a story like this one, at this point, you actually might need to, both for character and historical reasons), then this was probably one of the better ways to portray it. “You come from a place where things are … easier. I think,” Jamie says to her, in a moment that reveals how intuitive and observant a man he is, and implies an underlying concern that Claire’s boldness will get her and other people killed. We’re certainly not suggesting that a beating is an acceptable way to teach anyone a lesson, but in the context of this time and place, a lesson needed to be taught, and this was the accepted method for doing so.
If you ask us, the beating wasn’t nearly as shocking or hard to sit through as their epic argument, which ended with him screaming that she’s a “foul-mouthed bitch” into her face. That was one ugly little spat, which made it all the more real. No one can pull out the hurtful invective more easily or readily than two people in love who happen to be really angry at each other. And in this case, it was all the harder to watch because we could see exactly why each person was so upset with the other. Claire had just been subjected to two separate rape attempts in a 24-hour period, so she was fairly traumatized and couldn’t possibly deal with Jamie getting up in her face for disobeying him. On the other hand, for all her indignance, she was keeping it to herself that the entire reason she wandered away when she promised to stay put is because she was making an attempt to leave him forever. Of course Jamie doesn’t know that, but we appreciate that the script isn’t afraid to make Claire look a little … shall we say, difficult. Her confusion about what she wants and her reaction to violent events are more than understandable, but she does tend to be self-absorbed about it, and it’s hard not to consider the idea that she’s using Jamie or will abandon him at the first available opportunity. It’s exactly what she did, after all.
Incidentally, one of the things we love about Claire is exactly the fact that she’s so foul-mouthed – even by 20th Century standards. She’s a war-hardened woman with the vocabulary to prove it.
In other news, Black Jack Randall is clearly not entirely heterosexual. His face practically lit up at the sight of Jamie coming through his window and within seconds he asked him to a) take off his shirt, b)take turns raping his wife, and c) enjoy himself by watching Jack rape his wife. It’s all very sexually charged, and we suppose we can get offended by the idea of the evil raping gay character, but we’re willing to let this play out for a while. Jack is definitely in danger of becoming an unstoppable Terminator-like supervillain, though. We wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of a scaling back on the mustache-twirling.
Also, Jamie negotiates a peace between Colum and Dougal. Honestly, we don’t know how Castle Leoch isn’t a smoldering ruin with all the anger, resentment and high potential for violence that seems to course through the place. Then again, what castle didn’t have anger, resentment and a high potential for violence at its heart?
And finally, as if Claire didn’t have enough problems, Laoghaire MacKenzie has declared war on her for stealing her man and she’s willing to unleash the full power of … Scottish voodoo to get what she wants. Is it okay if we’re hoping to see Claire beat the ever-loving crap out of her?
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Kristen Stewart in Self-Portrait at “Clouds of Sils Maria” Screening