Why the 'Outlander' Season 4 Premiere Revisited a Past Trauma

Outlander Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of STARZ

[Warning: this story contains spoilers from Sunday's season four premiere of Outlander.]

Outlander finally planted its roots in America, but the Starz time-traveling drama hit the pause button on the action to revisit past trauma in a jam-packed season four opener.

Sunday's saw Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) find both happiness and danger in the colonies as they began their new lives free from political persecution. From saying goodbye to one of their friends who was hanged to helping their future nemesis Stephen Bonnett (Ed Speleers) escape the gallows himself before getting robbed by him, it was an eventful few days for the couple. But it was a much quieter moment that stood out as the highlight of the hour as Jamie helped his nephew Young Ian (John Bell) work through the trauma he suffered at the end of season three.

While the teen was able to escape from Geillis (Lotte Verbeek) in Jamaica thanks to Claire and Jamie, he didn't leave the island unscathed. When digging a grave for their fallen friend triggered Ian's PTSD in the premiere, viewers were reminded that the older woman had raped him at the end of last season. Jamie then guided Young Ian into a makeshift therapy session in which he opened up about his own experience with sexual assault from season one. The uncle and nephew spent a good portion of time having a heart-to-heart about their similar experiences, unpacking both Jamie's and Ian's complicated feelings of guilt and shame about the incidents.

In a series that constantly subverts assumptions about issues like sexual assault by making men the victims more than women — unlike most period pieces in pop culture — Outlander continues to pave the way for needed conversations. That's why the producers chose to dedicate a sizable portion of precious premiere airtime to revisiting a scene from last season.

"That is definitely one of the most important scenes in the premiere," executive producer Toni Graphia tells The Hollywood Reporter. "After what happened last year with Young Ian and what he went through with Geillis, being held captive, she's abusing young boys … Young Ian got caught up in her web and suffers trauma at her hands. We knew that we had to address that this season, just as when we addressed what Jamie went through, his sexual trauma at the end of season one.

"We carried that over to show him having to deal with it as people do in real life. Even though this is television, we wanted to be responsible."

Especially since Ian was so young when he was assaulted, Graphia knew the series couldn't just move on without remarking on how he's been dealing with his trauma.

"We really wanted to have a scene where we showed that Ian is still suffering PTSD from what happened to him, and that one of the only people in the world that could understand it, that he could talk to about it, would be his uncle, because he's been through it too," Graphia says. "Ian has been carrying guilt over it and trying to reconcile it in his head, blaming himself as a lot of victims [of sexual assault] unfortunately do. So when he confides in Jamie, he finds solace in the fact that Jamie has dealt with a similar thing and is able to impart some words of wisdom."

Jamie helped Ian realize that the blame does not fall on him and helped his nephew take a massive step forward in emotionally healing from the assault. "We knew that this was one of the most important scenes even though it wasn't necessary for the plot," Graphia says. "That's what we like about Outlander: We don't just move plot forward, we move character forward. This was very important for Young Ian's growth. His arc this season is wrestling with what he's been through, which is a lot for a young person. This is a very important step on the road to becoming the man he will eventually be."

And even though the topic of sexual assault has never been more present in the #MeToo era, Graphia maintains that the producers didn't let the national conversation color the way they portrayed Ian's journey.

"While we're certainly aware and appreciate the climate of change that’s going on in today's world, we don't consciously plan or tailor anything to today's world," she says. "We recognize that we have a responsibility, but we really only endeavor to stay true to our characters and what they've been through. The drama speaks for itself in that the fact that these kinds of things were going on even 200 years ago. Rape and sexual trauma was rampant back then, and things happened to both women and men. This shines a light on it, and I think it does add to today's conversation to show that this has been going on for forever."

She pauses, then adds, "But we don't sit around saying, 'Hey, let's come up with a story about sexual trauma.' We are following the books. This happened in the books. We chose to organically carry on this story arc in this season because of its importance."