“I’ve always known I’d live a life unlike other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another; never forward, never toward some place I knew not where. And then one day I turned around and looked back, and saw that each step that I had taken was a choice: to go right, to go forward, or even to not go at all…The sum of those choices become your life.”
Reopening the second half of the Outlander‘s first season is an episode about masculinity, ownership, and justice, told from Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) perspective. The opening lines echoed Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) from the first episode of the series: “Strange the things you remember.” In different ways both monologues meditate on choices, arguing that the moments we remember are the ones where a number of different routes were available, each a very different life. Entitled “The Reckoning,” a series of decisions are made that determine the course of the remaining season: Jamie’s rejection of Laoghaire (Nell Hudson), Colum (Gary Lewis) returning the bag of Jacobite gold to his brother (Graham McTavish) to suture burgeoning clan factionalism (assuming there is no chance in hell the Bonnie Prince would be coming to Scotland any time soon), the resulting summons of the Lord Sandringham to assess the state of Jacobite sympathies, and the reveal to Black Jack (Sam Menzies) that Jamie is back in England. The reckonings—the actions of estimating things to come—at the center of this episode are the choices made to heal rifts, Colum with Dougal, and Jamie with Claire.
The episode includes one of the most controversial moments from the books: the spanking of Claire. (See comments in Salon and Jezebel, among others.) It is a complicated moment of spousal abuse necessitated by the larger militia group: in a place and time where it seems only a bag of gold (if that) can make people obey, Jamie suggests violence—cropped ears, flogging—are the only ways Claire can “know” what she nearly cost “to all the men” and give them “justice” for the risk they took in saving her from Fort William. When we frame the episode in terms of justice, the question becomes clear: why do the men need to be justified in their risk?
Claire’s spanking is a symptom of a larger political issue with the clans: because they are falling a part and loyalty to their chief becomes increasingly unclear, morality and fealty are no longer virtues enough to justify actions. Jamie demonstrates his loyalty to Claire by saving her and to his clansmen by punishing her. This does not justify the violence, of course, but does put it in a context. The weakness of this structure of justice through spousal “taming” is complicated in two ways. First, Jamie attempts to reason with Claire and rationalize the ethics of her punishment with belt in hand. Second, after a thorough struggle in which Claire kicks him in the face and says “I’ll never forgive you,” the scene concludes with Jamie saying as he spanks, “I said I was going to punish you; I dinna say I wouldn’t enjoy it.” Both moments juxtapose Jamie’s traditions (belt and spanking) with his inherent feminist respect for Claire (rationalizing and playing on their pre-established aggressive sexual relationship).
Of his wife’s discipline he thinks initially “Justice done. Problem solved.” But of course it isn’t so easy, especially once they return to Castle Leoch to the ire of Colum and he’s booted from Claire’s bed. Colum assumes the Jacobite gold given to him by a loyal member of the rent party was skimmed from the rent collection. He is convinced that it was raised honorably eventually, but rages still against Dougal making political decisions for and on behalf of the clan without his consent. Dougal confirms his fealty to his brother on the same dirk from episode four, “The Gathering,” but won’t apologize or back down from his Jacobite sympathies. The scene is followed by a snowy confrontation among the men, both ganging up on the snitch and excising the Fraziers, Jamie and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), from debates of fealty. The question is openly asked: to whom are you loyal—to Dougal, Colum, or Scotland?
At this juncture Jamie is placed in a situation where his next step will have implications for Colum and the clan, for Laoghaire, and for Claire. In his attempts to assuage clan politics, Jamie effectively counsels Colum to “remove the source of the immediate conflict by making a gift of the gold” and allowing Dougal to “play the rebel.” It is his first successful role as a political advisor, perhaps forecasting a major theme for season two if the show continues to follow the general arc of the books. The actual gift-making is less than smooth however, as Colum questions the oath fealty Dougal swore on his dirk but a month earlier, insulting Dougal by implying he buys back his brohter’s loyalty by returning him the Jacobite gold. Having found success with his clansmen, Jamie contemplates how to approach the open wound between he and Claire, only to be interrupted by a near-naked Laoghaire. Jamie is tempted by her last-ditch effort to bed him, but ultimately decides otherwise as a show of loyalty to his marriage.
And an overt show of loyalty it is. At the gathering of the clans, Jamie did not swear a traditional oath of fealty to his uncle, being a clan leader in his own right (if not for the price on his head). Suggesting that peace has become more important to him than custom (and the power of consent), Jamie apologizes for the spanking by saying to Claire “maybe for you and me it has to go a different way.” Uncertain of his “next step,” he instead takes out his own dirk and, inspired by Colum and Dougal, makes that traditional pledge of fealty to Claire. Claire is unimpressed by the vow, and without a model, Jamie asks if she simply does not want him anymore. In that moment Jamie makes himself an object of ownership rather than continually trying to assert and revise the terms of his ownership over Claire.
The following negotatiation of this rhetoric of ownership and consent is complex. Claire does acknowledge she wants Jamie, and Jamie confesses that her ring is made from the key to Lallybroch: Claire has the key to his kingdom; in other words, he does not own it without her. Next Jamie says: “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe. Will you have me?” It is then that Claire pins him to the floor, holds him down by the throat, and they begin to have sex. With her other hand she reaches for his dirk again and holds it to his throat, saying “If you ever raise a hand to me again, James Frazier, I’ll cut your heart out and eat it for breakfast. Do you swear?” He swears, then turns her over, saying “I mean to make you call me ‘master.'” As they cuddle on the floor after climaxing together, Jamie says to Claire, “It seems I cannot possess your soul without losing my own.” Bouncing back and forth in this moment is a rhetoric of ownership and loyalty for which the two need their bodies into order to negotiate. As in episode seven, “The Wedding,” these characters revel in the possession of the other, the objectification of their bodies and presence. This episode tests the darkness inherent in that kind of mutual ownership within a military culture at the hands of brutal “English justice” exhibited on Jamie’s back. In the mutual ownership of one another, they seem to agree to consider the other exempt from freighting justice for outsiders—outlanders to their emotional island.
But Scottish justice is no better nor exempt, especially in its violence against women (if we recall episodes one and six). That Jamie has made a promise to keep one-sided violence out of their relationship is one thing. But the larger question at hand in light of the spanking, problems of fealty, and this sliding scale of justice, is to ask where is the role of punishment in this culture? In culture more generally? It seems relevant that Jamie punishes Claire while he himself is an escaped convict; the narrative continually pulls the two of them back to a space of incarceration and discipline. If the show continues to follow the general arc of the books, this season will end again in Fort William. In many overlapping ways the series is turning into a consideration of violent discipline in the shaping of masculine identity as much as it is the subjection of women to the implications of that violent formation.
- CITATION: “The Reckoning.” Outlander. Television. Directed by Richard Clark. Written by Matthew B. Roberts. 4 April 2015. UK: Tall Ship Productions, 2015. STARz cable channel.
- Like my writing about television and/or Outlander? Check out my essay, “Claire Kens Well,” in the the collection, Outlander’s Sassenachs: Essays on Gender, Race, Orientation and the Other in the Novels and Television Series, available now from McFarland.
- Check out the promo clip for this episode below: