Outlander season 5 spoilers follow – including the finale.
Wow. Just wow. The fifth season of time travel period drama Outlander drew to a close this week with twists and turns that even fans of the Diana Gabaldon books could not have possibly predicted.
In one of the show's best seasons so far, the series saved some of the biggest shocks until last, and featured a season-best performance from Caitriona Balfe as Claire.
(Read on only if you have seen all of season five, including the finale episode 'Never My Love', as there are spoilers ahead.)
Having settled in Fraser's Ridge in North Carolina, season five began joyously enough with the wedding of Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire's daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) to historian Roger (Richard Rankin).
However, regular viewers know that the Frasers never get to be happy for very long, so it came as no surprise to learn amidst the festivities that Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers), who had raped Brianna and robbed the Frasers, was still alive and up to no good.
While Jamie wanted to hunt down his daughter's assailant, he was also obliged to form a militia to stomp out the rebel Regulators – who just happened to be led by his own beloved godfather Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix).
As the season progressed there were traumas aplenty – deaths greatly deserved (Bonnet) and one that was truly heartbreaking (Murtagh), as well as Roger's shocking near-hanging, Jamie's almost fatal snake bite and the return of a haunted – but still adorable – Young Ian (John Bell).
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that in the penultimate episode Roger and Brianna decided that it was time to return with their son Jemmy to the 20th century, even though that journey doesn't happen until much later in the novels.
But, as the finale revealed, their departure wasn't quite what it seemed.
Although the trio travelled through the stones, they ended up right back where they started, in the 18th century with an understandably confused Ian looking on. It seems that, because both Brianna and Roger thought of 'home' as they travelled through the stones, the stones sent them back to where they belong at Fraser's Ridge. For now, at least.
Unfortunately, nasty Lionel Brown (Ned Dennehy) and his men had meanwhile devastated the Ridge. Setting fire to Jamie's whiskey still on the hillside to get Jamie, Fergus and the other men away from the house, Brown and his men went in, knocked out a fighting Marsali (Lauren Lyle) – go Marsali! – and kidnapped Claire.
Readers of Gabaldon's novels knew what was coming next – Brown and his men beat Claire, tie her up and brutally rape her – but episode writers Toni Graphia and Matthew Roberts devised a unique and powerful way to depict the attack.
Rape has been shown in Outlander in past seasons – before Stephen Bonnet's attack on Brianna in season four, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) attempted to rape Claire and Jamie's sister Jenny in the first season, before his brutal rape of Jamie in the Wentworth Prison episode.
But this depiction of Claire's assault is very different – while we see her being beaten, the rape by Brown (and it is hinted at, by others) is not as graphic as previous assault scenes but is just as upsetting. The camera cuts away from Claire, bound and bruised, and instead takes us to a fantasy that she is having, using it as a survival technique.
As the 1967 song 'Never My Love' plays, her dream takes her to a 1960s house, and there, around her Thanksgiving dinner table, sit Claire's family in sixties clothes – Jamie, Fergus, Marsali, Young Ian (in army uniform), Jocasta and even Murtagh (sob). Only Brianna and Roger are missing – stuck in holiday traffic, Jamie supposes.
Caitriona Balfe doesn't speak in these scenes but she is utterly mesmerising, and watching the blissful life Claire imagines underlines the horrific thing that is happening to her in reality.
"[Rape] is a sensitive topic, and we did our research and we wanted to do justice to the material and not just play it in a kind of provocative or titillating way," Toni Graphia explained to Variety. "It's not meant for that. And we had read that not just sexual assaults, but hostages, kidnap victims, prisoners of war, they would often go somewhere else in their mind as a protection against what’s happening to them physically."
Claire's disassociated dreams contain lots of nods to key moments in her life, too. There is a vase on her sideboard that is just like the one she saw in a shop window in Inverness before she first travelled through the stones. An abstract painting on the wall looks like the house at Fraser’s Ridge.
At one point in her fantasy, Jamie wraps her in his tartan, just as he did when they first met, and he says the words ("You’re shaking so hard it's making my teeth rattle") that he spoke when they first shared a horse on their way to Castle Leoch. One of Fergus's children plays with a dragonfly, a nod to the dragonfly in amber Claire was given as a wedding gift when she married Jamie.
There is also an orange on a table, which is a reference to the fruit that the King of France gave her when she went to him begging for Jamie's release from the Bastille in season two.
Toni Graphia explained the meaning of the reference to Elle.com. "After Claire sleeps with the King of France to save Jamie's life, the last things she does is pick up the orange and take it with her. It was a small gesture by Claire, a choice that symbolises that she's leaving with her dignity…
"When faced with the choice of whether to kill Lionel in revenge, Claire flashes on the orange – and then her walking out with it – a symbol that she takes the high road. She's got a piece of herself that no one can ever take from her."
She also imagines a rabbit – just as Jamie did when he lay on the field at Culloden, mourning the loss of Claire and hoping to die.
The fantasy comes to an end, however, when Claire imagines Lionel Brown as a policeman appearing on her doorstep to tell her that Brianna, Roger and Jemmy have died in a car crash – Claire in the real world not knowing if they have safely travelled through the stones or whether she will ever see them again.
Once Claire is rescued by Jamie, Fergus, Ian, a returning Roger and other men from the Ridge, who massacre all of Claire's captors except Lionel Brown, they return home.
There is a lovely moment when Brianna says to her traumatised mother, 'You have my hand and my ear if you need it,' just as Lizzie (Caitlin O’Ryan) once said to her after her own rape.
And there is another character who is just as protective of her 'Ma' in the aftermath. Claire, who as a doctor has sworn to do no harm, is unable to kill Lionel Brown who lies prone on her surgical table, and in a change from the books (where minor character Mrs Bug does it) Marsali kills him by injecting him with poison (we are truly loving Marsali right now, by the way).
"The theme this season is 'How far would you go to protect your family?' and Marsali is such a core part of that in her bonding with Claire," producer Matthew Roberts told Variety.
Time will tell whether Marsali will suffer guilt from what she has done, and it could be an element that is explored further in season six, just as Roger will be wrestling with the fact he killed a man during Claire's rescue. And while Claire explains to Jamie that she can't let the rape shatter her – and the final scene has her telling him she feels safe in his arms – no doubt there will be lasting effects as she deals with her own trauma in the next season.
Certainly there will be even more for the Frasers to cope with as we move into season six, which will be filming in Scotland later this year. The War of Independence is approaching, and there are questions raised in season five that need to be answered, too.
Now Brianna knows she has a half-brother (William, who has been raised by Lord John and is unaware Jamie is his father), will she get to meet him? And will Roger's ascendant, Buck Mackenzie (the son of Dougal and Geillis Duncan), show up to cause trouble?
Then there is Wendigo Donner (Brennan Martin), one of Claire's captors who turned out to be a time traveller like her, from 1968, but who was not among Brown's slaughtered men. Before he disappeared, he revealed to Claire that he wanted to return to his own time and she told him she knew of a stone circle he could travel through, so it's only a matter of time before he comes back into her life.
Lionel Brown's brother, Richard (Chris Larkin), meanwhile, poses another, more imminent, threat. While accepting Jamie did what he had to by killing Lionel to exact revenge, Richard admits he will do the same to the Frasers "when the time comes".
Claire may feel safe right now, but it looks like there won't be peace at Fraser's Ridge for very long…
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