How 'Outlander' Plans to Handle Season 4 Rape Storyline Amid the #MeToo Climate

Outlander episodic embrace - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Starz

[This story contains major plot points from the fourth book in author Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and previews a big storyline from season four of the Starz drama.]

Outlander is no stranger to portraying rape and sexual assault on television. And the Starz drama again will have to tackle that heavy subject in an upcoming season four episode.

In author Diana Gabaldon's fourth Outlander novel, Drums of Autumn, a main character is raped. The assault is a pivotal moment in not only that book, but also for every novel that follows in Gabaldon's series because of the physical and emotional impact it has on the victim.

[This is your final spoiler warning; major plot points ahead.]

In Drums of Autumn, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie's (Sam Heughan) adult daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) goes through the stones and back in time to reunite with her mother. She also meets her father, Jamie, for the very first time. But with her journey through time comes a moment in which the psychopath Stephen Bonnet (Downton Abbey's Ed Speleers) rapes Bree.

While Outlander doesn't always follow its source material scene for scene, Bree's rape is important for the future of the Starz series because of what comes next in the books: Bree gets pregnant, potentially with Bonnet's child. Bree's rape will indeed be featured in the upcoming fourth season of the Starz drama. The series has featured a few rape scenes in its first three seasons, but this will be the first time the show takes on the subject in the #MeToo and Time's Up era, and executive producer/showrunner Ron D. Moore first had to decide where the line was in how much to show onscreen and why.

"We've always been guided by that principle," Moore told THR at a recent Emmy event to support the show. "We have a history of it with the show itself, [so the question becomes] how much of this material is in the show, when do we do it, when do we decide not to do it and why are we making that choice. You have to approach it on a case-by-case basis and this is obviously a big story point, so it wasn't really an option not to do it. It's more a question of how you're going to do it and what it meant to that story in how you presented it."

Unlike other series that are criticized for gratuitous and unnecessary depictions of sexual assault, Outlander has always handled portrayals of rape responsibly and sensitively. The series previously has depicted rape scenes with Jamie and Fergus (Romann Berrux) by Tobias Menzies' Black Jack Randall as well as with John Bell's Young Ian at the hands of Lotte Verbeek's Geillis. In those cases, Outlander took the time to explore the emotional and psychological trauma that followed for each victim. The show regularly subverts expectations, portraying men as rape victims as well as women. In a medium that often depicts stories as seen through the male gaze, Outlander flips the script and depicts instances of nudity, sexuality and violence as seen from the female gaze. That's not to say that women haven't been raped on the series before, as the drama's female lead, Claire, was raped in season two. Now, as the Outlander producers gear up to feature another prominent story involving rape, they're focusing on being as respectful to viewers as possible.

"As in everything we do with this show, like Jamie's rape in season one, we're not trying to ever be gratuitous," executive producer Maril Davis tells THR. "We're trying to depict things as they really happened in that time. Every scene moving forward, we're trying to do something where you understand why the character is struggling so much but not doing it in a gratuitous way."

As the climate in Hollywood evolves amid movements like #MeToo and Time's Up, there's increased pressure on producers who explore stories of sexual assault, harassment and rape. "We're sensitive to what's going on in this time right now, but we're also filming something that's a historical piece," Davis says. "So we're trying to do that with both hats on."

Executive producer Matt B. Roberts noted that the series is not trying to be political but instead be true to the historical period that the show is intent on exploring. "If we're trying to make a political statement within the show, then we've lost the plot," he tells THR. "The characters have to be true to themselves and the storylines, and if someone gleans something from that, then that's an individual gleaning something from it. But we don't set out in the writers room to make a political statement about any character or any movement or anything."

That's the biggest challenge Roberts says the staff faces when bringing the books to life onscreen. "If you harken back to season one where Jamie spanked Claire, a lot of the criticisms were about domestic violence and abuse," Roberts says. "But in that time, that wasn't even a thought. When a modern audience views Outlander through a modern lens, then yes, you can have problems with it. But if you actually place yourself in the period — and we're not saying that rape was OK in that period either — but how the characters view it is how we're showing it. We're not showing it how we view it, and that makes a difference."

As for how the series plans to depict the Bree/Bonnet rape scene, Roberts stressed the thematic importance of the story. "We won't be handling [it] in the exact same way that we always have," he says. "In a way, it tells a lot about the period that we're in and the place that we're in. We wanted this to tell [a] story and for the theme of the whole season, not just for this moment."

Producers insist that they don't pay attention to criticisms of how other shows portray rape and sexual assault — and the response to them — but that they instead focus on trying to be true to the tone of what has made Outlander a success for Starz. "We just do what's true to our show and what we feel is emotionally relevant," executive producer Toni Graphia tells THR. "We're not trying to glorify or titillate anyone with it. We just wanted to show that this is something that was unfortunately very prevalent in that period and was one of the dangers of being back there."

All involved with Outlander reiterated that it remains important to portray the reality of what it was like to live in the past, problematic behavior and all. "There weren't the same laws, there wasn't the same culture," Graphia says. "We want to show the dark parts as well as the interesting, exciting parts. We want to put our characters through those tests and trials."

Outlander season four premieres in the fall on Starz. A formal premiere date has yet to be announced.