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Spoilers ahead for the Season 5 finale of Outlander on Starz, called “Never My Love.”
Another season of Outlander has come to an end and, true to form, the finale was an intense hour of television. Claire's abduction by Lionel Brown and his men at the end of the penultimate episode proved to be about as brutal as anything this show has ever pulled off, with Claire being repeatedly raped by her captors. Readers of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander book saga knew the assault was likely coming, and it was going to be difficult to watch no matter how it was handled. Here’s how Outlander and especially actress Caitriona Balfe portrayed the brutal rape.
The episode made it pretty clear from the beginning that something awful was going to happen to Claire, not least because it completely skipped the “Skye Boat” opening credits sequence. Considering Claire was last seen being kidnapped by some terrible men and this is Outlander where sexual assault on major characters is a seasonal occurrence, even non book-readers could probably guess (and dread) what was going to happen.
The finale told the story of what happened to Claire in three parts: in the "present" as Claire as she lay beaten and exposed on the forest floor surrounded by Lionel Brown and his men, Claire flashing back to what had happened between the end of the previous episode and where this Season 5 finale picked up, and Claire trying to retreat to an imaginary world in which she was safe in the 1960s and surrounded by those she loved.
In the “present,” Claire was helpless and injured, with Caitriona Balfe portraying an exhausted and terrified Claire who was filled with despair. She had a brief moment of hope when one of Brown’s men turned out to be another time-traveler who fell in with the thugs. Balfe was so effective that I was genuinely concerned when Claire started choking on her gag and blood, and I actually had to pause the episode once it became clear what was going to happen.
In the flashbacks, Claire was slashed and exposed as she tried to make a run for it, and Caitriona Balfe showed Claire’s defiance despite the danger. If not for the scenes of her in the present, these might have been hopeful moments, but the episode had already shown that her defiance and bluffs about witchcraft wouldn’t be enough to spare her this time.
As for Claire’s imaginary world, “Never My Love” by The Association played constantly over the soundtrack, and she was hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in a lovely '60s-era red dress with Jamie at her side. Ian was a soldier on leave, Murtagh was alive with a spiffy haircut, Jocasta was happy and smiling, Fergus had both hands, and Marsali was looking like she was born for 1960s fashion.
In Claire’s imaginary world, Caitriona Balfe was serene, but showed that Claire couldn’t even entirely retreat from her present circumstances, because something was wrong and she was cold and Lionel Brown kept intruding, not to mention the “news” that Roger and Bree had died in a car crash. These flashes also included the vase from all the way back in Season 1, a dragonfly, an orange, and a rabbit that were all clearly significant but also dissonant with the serenity.
None of this is to say that Outlander skirted around Claire’s rape or left it at an implication while Claire hid away in her mind. Claire was first assaulted by Lionel Brown’s nephew, and Brown himself proceeded to rape her. “Never My Love” was replaced by sounds of Claire’s attack, and the camera stayed on Caitriona Balfe’s face to tell the story of what was happening without showing it explicitly. More men followed, and while the focus shifted primarily to Claire’s mind, her imaginary world became sinister because Outlander had made it clear what was happening while she retreated there.
Outlander spent less than 20 minutes of its 50-minute runtime on Claire while she was abducted, but it felt much longer to me as I watched. Jamie and his men finally showed up to kill her captors, and I have to give credit to Sam Heughan as well for his performance when Jamie realized what happened to Claire, and the cold fury when he said that the survivors should all be killed. Kudos to César Domboy, John Bell, and Richard Rankin as well.
The Season 5 finale was a master class in acting, with Caitriona Balfe turning in a performance that I hope wins her some awards. Her portrayal of Claire in the aftermath was just as effective as during the assault. I didn’t enjoy watching the episode, nor will I be able to hear “Never My Love” without some very unpleasant associations for a long time. That said, Balfe’s work was incredible, and I think Outlander handled the brutal twist in a way that it didn't feel like something done for shock value.
Of course, Outlander did also use the finale to set up Season 6, which is likely still a ways off. Lionel Brown was brought back to Fraser’s Ridge, injured but alive, for questioning. Claire’s oath wouldn’t allow her to kill him, but when Marsali saw how Brown was treating Claire as well as herself, she used her newfound medical knowledge to kill him.
Jamie had no issue with it, and Richard Brown seemed to accept that his brother had to reap what he sowed when Jamie took the body to Brownsville. Unfortunately, Richard Brown also hinted that he would bring retribution to Fraser’s Ridge at some point, which could mean the fire. It definitely means the Brown threat isn’t finished, on top of the upcoming war and the aftermath of what Lionel did to Claire. There was some slight good news, insofar as Brianna, Jemmy, and Roger are staying with the family in the 1770s after all.
Interestingly, Outlander actually dipped into the plot of the sixth book, called A Breath of Snow and Ashes, for the Season 5 finale, so the show already has a jump on the next installment of source material. If you haven’t checked out the books just yet, the hiatus between the end of Season 5 and the premiere of Season 6 on Starz could be the ideal time to try them. This latest Droughtlander could be the longest yet, and the books offer plenty of content.
If you’re in the market for some new TV options now that Outlander is finished for the season (or just plain need a palate cleanser after the brutal Season 5 finale), be sure to check out our 2020 summer premiere schedule.