This column contains spoilers for recently aired episodes.
The past week has seen two notably violent episodes of two major shows (which is saying something, given that both series are already so reliably graphic). There’s been a fascinating contrast in viewer, and critical, response to their varying depictions of sexual assault — which speaks to the broader chasm between the two shows in terms of how they treat their characters — and, by extension, their audiences.
Last Saturday, "Outlander" saw Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in Wentworth Prison (also the title of the episode), facing down the nefarious Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), who tortured and prepared to rape him. The next day, "Game of Thrones" concluded the episode "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" with the marriage of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), who then raped her on their wedding night.
Viewer response to the Sansa event was overwhelmingly negative. Not only did it change events from George R. R. Martin’s book so that her character becomes Ramsay’s victim (instead of a more minor character occupying that role), but her suffering struck many as needless and gratuitous. My own feelings were a little different: Though I felt similarly nauseated by Sansa’s treatment, I understand why the show would conflate characters, given the sprawl of Martin’s writing. I also don’t think we ought to only be concerned when major female characters on this show are victimized; it’s used female extras as rape and murder fodder since its first season.
The reason the "Game of Thrones" scene was so infuriating was that the assault of Sansa seems thrown in our faces, as so much of the violence against women on "Game of Thrones" often does. There is a fundamental difference in the perspective on the acts perpetrated on these Sansa and Jamie, and it’s worth mentioning here that the "Game of Thrones" episode was directed by a man (Jeremy Podeswa) while the "Outlander" episode was directed by a woman (Anna Foerster). I certainly don’t think it’s impossible for a male director to bring depth and sensitivity to subject matter like this, but wow, is there a big contrast in the way we view what happens to these two people.
Interestingly, the violence we see done to Jamie in "Wentworth" is also changed — and amplified — from the source material, Diana Gabaldon’s book. There, we only hear about it after the fact, and in no great detail. So the fact that the show opted to actually depict Jamie’s victimization could, in the wrong hands, be disastrous — and provoke the kind of backlash Sansa’s plot change did.
Here’s why it did not: Foerster largely stayed with Jamie’s perspective during this episode, first watching fellow prisoners at the gallows and then chained in the dungeon. When we see Black Jack, we feel as Jamie does: Terrified but resolute; resigning himself to the approaching, unknown suffering. Black Jack, as a villain, is just as twisted as Ramsay in "GoT," but he’s not cartoonish, not a mustache-twirler — he’s horrifying.
Subject-wise, the episode is unusual in that it depicts sexual violence between two men (that isn’t a prison-rape joke). But "Outlander" has been subverting gender norms all along, and here it’s no different. Jamie — a strapping, classical hero — is the victim, Randall the rapist. But the situation is never presented as upsetting because its aggressor is gay; the show has taken care to spell that out for us before, when Jamie explained to Claire why he had resisted Randall’s advances. (Update: Gabaldon has stated she didn’t write Black Jack as gay: "He’s a pervert. He’s a sadist. He derives sexual pleasure from hurting people, but he’s not particular about the gender of a victim. Personality, yes–gender, no.)"
Unlike "Game of Thrones," what happens to Jamie in the prison isn’t shot torture-porn style. What we see done to Jamie isn’t pretty, nor do we see him prettily suffering. The sexualized violence with which Black Jack threatens him ––for example, caressing and licking the scars he inflicted on his back, or tearing the shirt off his back with a knife — is not meant to seem sexual to us; it’s downright repellent. And when Randall hammers a nail into Jamie’s mangled hand, we sit with a crying Jamie and Claire (Catriona Balfe), who’s holding his other hand, as it happens.
The addition of Claire’s appearance in the prison cell during Jamie’s torture is another reason "Outlander" continues to be such a rewarding, feminist show. Alone, Claire braves the inside of the notorious prison — giving us glimpses of other grotesquely suffering groups of men in cells — before coming to attempt to rescue Jamie herself, including physically throwing herself against his captors. The fact that she ultimately can’t do it destroys them both, and us while we’re seeing it. It’s a tough watch, this episode. But not in the way that the final scene in "Unbowed" was.
The rapes in "Game of Thrones" feel designed to provoke, to exploit. This one is no different. Sexual violence is photographed beautifully — as seen with Turner’s face pressed into the furs on the bed at the episode’s end. The show also seems to be having a lot of fun with the Ramsay character; he’s got a certain winking similarity to Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange." Rheon is quite good in the role, but even he has implied the show has gone too far with what he does.
"Game of Thrones" also simply doesn’t give enough gravity to any of the sexual violence done to its female characters. (I can’t remember any men being subjected to it, but let me know in the comments if I’ve forgotten any incidents.) The show packs so many storylines into every hour that rape simply flits by and is gone; there’s no time to process actual feelings about it. By way of comparison, the next episode of "Outlander" — which looks like it will stay in Wentworth with Jamie and Black Jack for at least part of its running time — will include the psychological fallout from the rape after (presumably) Jamie is rescued.
I hope the "Game of Thrones" showrunners are watching "Outlander"; they could learn a thing or two from Ronald D. Moore’s show about how to dramatize sexual violence without sensationalizing it.
If the outcry over Sansa is any indication, we may actually be looking at a sea change. If viewers really won’t put up with trivialized, gratuitous rape on TV, shows will stop doing it.