'Outlander' Did Something Radical Again

04/27/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

This post discusses the events of “Lallybroch,” the April 25 episode of the Starz drama “Outlander.”

So “Outlander” just did something revolutionary. Again.

In Saturday’s episode, a man’s genitalia was seen on screen in a sexual situation. I’ve been a TV critic for a long time, and I can only recall seeing that kind of scenario one other time.

I’m not keeping a meticulous penis count, but I know in recent years, there have been some scenes in which men’s equipment has been shown in non-sexual situations (there have been brief glimpses like that on “Looking,” “Spartacus” and “Game of Thrones,” and perhaps there were other moments I missed). But for many deep-seated reasons -- some of them understandable, some of them not -- even premium channels have shied away from showing men’s equipment during sexual moments. The last time I recall seeing a man’s member during a scene of that nature was during the 2007 run of HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me.” That show only lasted a season, and you have to wonder if its sexual honestly and frankness, which was at odds with the superficial prurience that many "sophisticated" shows settle for, helped doom it to a short run.

A prosthetic penis was depicted in place of actor Adam Scott’s actual equipment in key “Tell Me You Love Me” scenes, but in “Lallybroch,” it looked as though actor Tobias Menzies was using his own body (Update April 28: I have confirmation from Starz that a prosthetic was not used). Menzies and the creative team behind “Outlander” deserve a lot of credit for going to that place, because it must have been mighty intimidating to go against decades of TV taboos.

The good news is, “Outlander” isn’t alone -- another premium cable drama goes to the penis place soon. I don’t want to ruin that scene for you by telling you which show, but it’s a worthy, adventurous drama I’ll be writing about soon.

Before I get further into this discussion, I just want to acknowledge that this is an incredibly complicated issue, and I don’t necessarily fault any particular writers, networks, actors or even viewers for the hangups our culture has about depictions of genitalia. As a culture, we have a lot of hangups about sex, and I’m not immune to various kinds of cultural and social conditioning. Years of Catholic schooling made me unable to write an email to a P.R. contact asking if the penis in “Lallybroch” was a stunt penis or a real one. I have limits that I’m muddling through, as is the case with the TV and film industries.

In any event, I’m glad that TV is finally taking on this taboo, which is less and less defensible as time goes on.

Now, I don’t think “Outlander” is a great show -- I think its radical simplicity in a number areas works both for and against it -- but I will defend it to the death as one of the most important shows on TV at the moment. In its first season, it has given pride of place to a sincere and joyful exploration of the female gaze, and it’s willing to take on ideas about dominance, submission, social and political power, sexuality, violence against children, sexual assault and fertility. Next week’s episode has a woman talking about sexuality as it intersects with her experience of pregnancy. One of the things I ask myself about a given show is, “What other show is asking these questions or delving into these areas?” When it comes to a number of fascinating topics and ideas, “Outlander” is often out ahead of the pack.

Taking on complex subjects doesn’t always mean the show handles those subjects well. I think the domestic violence scene in “The Reckoning” was pretty thoroughly mishandled, though the resolution of the episode partly redeemed some serious missteps. Still, in its first season, every step of the way, “Outlander” has been willing to take apart, bend and break the “rules,” taboos and conventions that have grown up around bodies and sexuality on TV.

It’s about time.

High-end TV dramas on many different networks have shown us just about everything that can be done to human beings and then some, and TV’s neverending overuse of naked and dead female bodies is so fetishistic as to be dispiriting on a day to day basis. Even on “Outlander,” I get a little tired of how often sexual assault comes up; it can be a lot to handle. And yet, context always matters, and I realized while watching “Lallybroch” and next week’s episode, “The Watch,” that the entire show is a metaphor centered on power and dominance, really.

England wants to dominate Scotland, just as Jamie wants to be the boss of his new wife and, in “Lallybroch,” rule over his tenants in the way he sees fit. That’s not necessarily new: Many of the best TV dramas are all about the acquisition of status, power and some kind of autonomy. What “Outlander” constantly does is give voice to both parties in any struggle for dominance. Everyone gets to have a point of view -- the dominant and the dominated -- and those roles are far from static and unchanging.

Claire, Jamie’s wife, plays the role of Scotland in their marriage: She may mime deference when she needs to and she is still learning to play by an alien society’s rules. But, like the Scottish people, she is not actually cowed and demands to be taken seriously -- heard, seen, understood. Sometimes, she’s too brash and stubborn, but neither Jamie or the English give ground easily. All progress and compromise is a struggle, and sometimes compromise is just not possible.

I don’t care much about the various Scottish factions and their idealistic plans to oust the English -- “The Americans” is doing a better job of making me care about those on the front lines of a hopeless struggle -- but “Outlander” is often fascinating when it delves into the struggle between the powerful and the powerless and when it explores methods of control, defiance and subversion. The importance of some supporting characters tends fade away when they’re not on the screen -- and occasionally my interest lags when they’re right there on the screen -- but that is usually not the case with Jamie, Claire and Jack Randall.

Jack (Menzies) is sexually turned on by all kinds of dominance, but the ending of “The Reckoning” showed that Jaime and Claire enjoy a bit of role-playing as well. “Outlander” doesn’t demonize anyone for having that predilection, but it does show how damaging it is for Jack to impose his will on unwilling, fearful and non-consenting people.

“Lallybroch” leads us to believe that Jack is homosexual, which is why he wanted Jamie’s sister Jenny (Laura Donnelly) to turn her face away from him when he attempted to rape her. Presumably he wanted to imagine her as a guy, and he clearly has a fixation on her brother, as evidenced by his sexual threats against Jamie and the pleasure he took from flogging the Scottish man’s bare back.

I’m a little wary of Jack veering into the stereotype of the repressed homosexual who takes out his frustrations on others through violence and intimidation. So far, however, Menzies has done a fine job of making the man so specific and individual that Black Jack works as a character. This particular guy is using his job to do violence on an entire populace and to commit sexual violence on specific individuals, and his place in the social order allows him to get away with it. Given the prevalence of rape and assault by powerful men in our culture -- and given how often powerful men get away with little to no consequences for their actions -- the show doesn’t have to work too hard to make Jack seem all too real.

Even so, sometimes the details on this show don’t quite add up. Nobody told Jamie that his sister was married, even though she got hitched four years ago? So far, the world-building on "Outlander" has indicated that about 60 percent of the people in 18th Century Scotland spent the majority of their time roaming the land, gossiping, drinking and occasionally robbing each other. It’s odd that Jamie wouldn’t know that, and it’s also odd that Black Jack just left Jenny in her home after she laughed at his inability to perform when he attempted to rape her. Yes, Jack knocked her out, and I don’t mean to diminish the actual assault that Jenny went through, which was terrifying (and sensitively depicted), but given his character, he doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would tolerate mockery. You’d think he would punish her far more after that moment.

That said, there’s a lot that worked in “Lallybroch.” Jenny’s assault was given the weight and dimension it deserved, and the show broached another topic that is too rarely explicitly discussed: sexual violence against men. Jamie was not raped, but he was coerced with threats against himself and his father, and because of the male code of silence, he never told anyone that Jack menaced him in that way. And there has certainly been an element of sexual obsession in Jack’s relentless pursuit and physical abuse of Jamie.

The final Jamie-Jenny conversation was an excellent example of one of the things “Outlander” does best: In an argument about power, choices and conflict, both sides got to give their two cents. Common ground was found because both were willing to listen. True to the way he was raised, Jamie had been oafishly possessive of Jenny’s “honor” -- itself an antiquated and highly problematic notion -- but Jenny got to tell her own story and defend her own choices. It’s interesting to note that a day after Jenny and Jamie and Claire and Jamie had a series of frank talks about pragmatic sexual exchanges, potential and actual, on "Game of Thrones," Sansa Stark found out she was to be married off to the torture-prone Ramsay Snow, who isn’t all that far away from Jack Randall on the sociopath scale. But neither Jenny nor Claire has been broken by Jack, and though "Game of Thrones'" objectification issues and its treatment of sexual violence have been works in progress, to put it mildly, I don’t think the TV version of Sansa will be broken by this turn of events, thanks to a thoughtful re-write of her arc.

Sonia Saraiya wrote recently about how “Game of Thrones’” revision of Sansa’s story line has given her more agency, even within a world that is intensely constricted for women. Like Sansa, Jenny is not a “pants-wearing rebel” like Arya or Brienne. As the sister of the laird and as her own person, Jenny made her own choices and is willing to live with them. She is not a noblewoman out of a courtly tale, an ethereal being with “less personality and agency than the furniture.” She did what she did to survive, and she isn't sorry about that.

If anything, it’s the hunky Jamie who can occasionally seem a bit like “a dream unicorn,” as I put it to a friend recently. He’s accepted his wife as a time traveler, he is super hot and he’s great in bed, and he is willing to learn from his wife and is happy to be impressed by her at every turn. In next week’s episode, he utters the phrase, “I let you down,” and Sam Heughan imbues the line with so much charismatic sincerity that it’s utterly irresistible. Heughan and Caitriona Balfe have visibly grown as actors since the show began, and watching many kinds of intimacy grow up around those headstrong, caring characters has been a real pleasure.

But to say that the wistful Jamie is almost comically perfect -- and by the way, I’m 1000 percent fine with the existence of hunky Scottish dream unicorns -- is not to say that “Outlander” is.

Even though I know it’s a story about repression and domination, political and otherwise, there’s a lot of that kind of thing. Claire herself has endured a number of assaults this season: At one point, she was attacked by British soldiers, and she has been assaulted more than once by Jack Randall. She hasn’t had a lot of time and space to process those deeply disturbing events, and it also feels as though “Outlander” wants to skate away from Dougal’s assault on Claire, but, well, it can’t. That’s one reason I just don’t care about the guy -- he’s not only not terribly complex or interesting, he’s a creep who assaulted Claire. At no point have I ever been particularly interested in what he wants out of life, nor am I likely to be.

But in a weird way, it's the raggedness of “Outlander,” not to mention its radical sincerity and its joy, that keeps drawing me back and makes me feel such affection for it. Like human beings, its messy contradictions are what make it fascinating (and frustrating, at times). And there's no doubt that the curiosity coursing through its veins helps offset the darkness, the ugly conquests and all the assault. The show has a remarkably game willingness to explore the social, political and emotional costs of all kinds of power transactions, and it does so within the context of an old-fashioned cliffhanger in which people swan about on horses through gorgeous countryside. The fact that it looks so lush and delectable helps.

With some shows, I find myself thinking about what the people are doing when they’re not on screen because their inner lives and agendas are so rich and dynamic. “Outlander” isn’t that kind of show for me, but I think about it all the time, partly because its many collisions produce so many interesting frictions. We see Claire’s 20th Century baggage collide with Jamie’s 18th Century ideas about what’s masculine and what’s feminine, what’s proper and what’s not. We have to filter all that through our preconceived ideas about those eras -- and then we have to remember that we’re watching a commercially-minded TV drama that is emphatically not a documentary about 18th Century Scotland. (And let’s hope we never have to watch a more realistic version of the story of the Scottish rebellion, because it might show us what people look like when they sleep outside half the year and subsist on nothing but alcohol and bread products. They would not look like Sam Heughan standing stark naked in a Highland river, and that would be tragic.)

As I wrote last year, though it uses fantastical elements like time travel, “Outlander” offers some very real, concrete and complicated attractions that keep drawing viewers, myself included. It offers end runs around our intellects with strategically deployed man candy. Its central duo offers sweetness and undeniable chemistry. And amid all those palpable, sensual pleasures, it never forgets that, in every battle for control, there is a winner and a loser, and they both have tales to tell.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Outlander" in a recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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