'Outlander' EP on Portraying Rape — and Its Aftermath — on Screen

"There is no easy way to portray rape on television. There just isn't," executive producer Maril Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter of the tragic yet pivotal moment from the book.
Starz

[Warning: this story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Outlander, "Wilmington."]

One of the worst moments of Outlander finally came to pass.

In Sunday's episode, "Wilmington," fans were taken on an emotional roller coaster as Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin) were joyously reunited after traveling back in time. The episode began on such a high note as their romantic reunion resulted in them becoming "handfast," a traditional commitment ceremony essentially meaning they're now married. They consummated their relationship, Brianna lost her virginity to Roger, they were happy and all seemed well.

Until, that is, Roger let it slip afterward that he knew that Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) were destined to die in a fire and didn't tell her before she went back in time on her own. The argument that followed between the newly married couple was only the beginning of a long line of disastrous events for Bree. In the heat of the fight, Roger said he should just go back to the present, and when Bree didn't call his bluff, he left in anger. Bree then ran into the evil Stephen Bonnett (Ed Speleers), who was in possession of Claire's wedding ring after he stole it from her earlier this season. Bree immediately recognized the ring and offered to buy it from him, not knowing who he was or what he had done to get the ring in the first place.

Instead of accepting her money, Bonnett raped her in a moment so horrific that the camera didn't stay on them. The sound of the act was traumatic on its own, but the fact that he did it in the middle of a packed pub — where everyone could hear Bree's screams and yet did nothing to help her — made it all the worse. In fact, someone even went to pick up Bree's boots that Bonnett had thrown out of the room and line them up neatly outside the door as everyone tried to pretend they didn't hear what was happening behind the closed door. "Complicit" doesn't even begin to describe all the cowards in that pub.

Having years to prepare for this pivotal yet controversial scene from Diana Gabaldon's Drums of Autumn helped give Skelton the time to figure out exactly how she could do it justice while remaining sensitive to viewers who experienced the same kind of trauma in real life.

"It's one of the hardest things that a person can go through in life. The main thing we follow is the aftermath of the event," Skelton tells The Hollywood Reporter. "For me, the challenge was getting into that headspace and making sure that I played it in a way that can hopefully in some way help women who have been through it. I know it's going to be an exceedingly difficult thing for women to watch, and I have spoken to a few fans who have been through a similar situation and they are saying that they are kind of dreading watching the episode because they'll be reliving something through Brianna."

That's why Skelton knew focusing on Bree processing the trauma afterward was so important.

"I hope that they can relive the aftermath and dealing with the event through Brianna, too, and I hope that it can in some way give a cathartic element to their trauma," she says. "Sometimes seeing something that you've been through, lived through someone else and seeing them come through the other side of it hopefully will give some strength to women who have been through it. The challenge really was trying to do justice to it and trying to play it in as true a way as possible."

While this week's episode also featured a side story with Jamie and Claire, the producers always knew this episode would by and large be Bree's journey.

"It's such highs and lows for Brianna. She has, in less than the span of 24 hours, one of the greatest nights of her life and also one of the worst nights of her life," executive producer Maril Davis tells THR. "It's heartbreaking. We had so many conversations with Richard and Sophie about their handfast scene and that moment and where it all goes wrong. It's such a beautiful moment and seeing their relationship evolve to that level, so we had so many conversations with them and in the writers' room about what would cause Roger to leave that room? How hard would that be?"

In the book, Roger leaves to try to steal back the jewels and ring that Bonnett stole from Claire and isn't seen for months afterward. Davis and the other producers changed the story to make it more appropriate for the characters in that moment.

"We had to escalate that fight so that he would need to leave for what happens next," Davis says. "That fight really showcases where they are in their relationship, the fact that they do love each other, they're ready to make this commitment, but there is still lots for them to learn. It's all very new. They haven't worked out all the kinks, and it's very evident in that fight, it's a fight of new lovers as opposed to a fight of people who have been in a relationship for a long while."

As for what came next, this is hardly the first time Outlander has tackled rape. But as was the case with each sexual assault scene in previous seasons, the producers had multiple discussions about how much they needed to show — and whether the scene was necessary at all.

"The tragedy of Brianna at the hands of Stephen Bonnett, which we've talked so much about how much rape there is in Diana Gabaldon's books, do we have to see them all?" Davis says. "This one, unfortunately, is very integral to the plot and as we move forward, so we needed to include this moment of violent aggression."

She pauses, then adds, "There is no easy way to portray rape on television. There just isn't. No matter if we see it, if we don't see it. The important thing for us is the aftermath, that it happened to this character and making sure that we're sensitive to that journey and that we're not shortchanging it at all."

Those who have read Gabaldon's source material have been dreading this episode for a long time because it's such a controversial moment for Bree, and the producers were extremely cognizant of that.

"From the outset, we always knew, and we talked to the director [Jennifer Getzinger] about this, but we weren't going to remain with Brianna and Bonnett in the room the whole time," Davis says. "We certainly start there, but we also wanted to show the tragedy in this time of how rape was not seen as that big of a deal and…how horrible it was that no one raised a hand to stop it. All these people in this bar knew this was happening and didn't reach out to help this girl, and that's tragic.

"Whether we show the rape occurring or we're outside that room, it doesn't lessen the tragedy of that horrific experience for Brianna. But we also wanted to show the tragedy of this environment that she's in and thrust into this new world and the violence and the fact that no one was going to help her and how awful that was."

The image of her boots lined up outside the door as she left, in shock and pain, and the realization that someone picked them up but didn't help her, was the final straw on that awful night for Bree. "That's exactly what we talked about, the juxtaposition of these horrible people that did nothing to help and yet someone lined her boots outside the door," Davis says. "It's the brutality of this time that she's in, and it's just heartbreaking."

In the book, Bree's rape plays out much differently. In fact, readers don't even know that she's been raped by Bonnett until much later, as it's recounted in flashback well after the fact. It's only after Bree arrives at Fraser's Ridge pregnant that the truth is revealed to the readers. Davis knew they couldn't go that route in the television adaptation so some changes had to be made.

"In the book, we don't know that rape has happened; several things pass and we just find out about it in flashback," Davis recalls. "We felt like that's certainly an interesting way to go, but we wanted to see her struggle with it and not have to have her hide it. We see that she's working through this, and we stay on that journey with her as opposed to having to look back and seeing if we could track where this happened. We wanted to give Sophie the ability to play that as a character as how it would affect her moving forward because this is a life-altering moment."

Bree's PTSD in the days after her attack is a big focus in the remainder of the season. "The next episode we'll see the morning after where Bree just doesn't want to be touched," Davis says. "She has the kind of horror and skin crawling feeling and doesn’t even know how to deal with it. We wanted to give that its time and give her that moment." 

While Outlander is a period piece taking place several hundred years in the past, the conversations surrounding rape and sexual assault have completely changed Hollywood and its depictions of assault over the past year. The climate has evolved both onscreen and behind the scenes. But Davis says the Outlander producers and writers try to not let that affect how they're telling this historical story.

"It comes up but I'll be honest: it's hard," Davis says. "We have to try really hard because we are doing a period piece. We're not in a contemporary time. We can't be swayed too much. We're not trying to tell a political message in this show. Claire as a character is already a beacon for women's rights and feminism. We don't have to do a lot to convey that image or push forward that agenda."

Not only do they have to stay true to Gabaldon's source material, but the writers also have to stay true to what was said and done in that time and place.

"We try very hard not to put a contemporary spin on this show," Davis says. "People did act differently in that time. And certainly rape happens now and I have no doubt that there are instances where people don't lift a hand to help someone but even in showing that in that time, people can take from that what they will in this time. Yes, it's been 200 years, but let's be honest — not that much has changed. You are going to get that from this show anyway, but we tried very hard to keep a historical perspective and try not to bring in too much of a contemporary look on it or get political or champion certain causes."

Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.