SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Never My Love,” the finale of “Outlander” Season 5.
“Outlander” wrapped up its fifth season with “Never My Love,” an episode that includes some potentially polarizing moments, including centering the majority of the action around the kidnap and rape of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) at the hands of Lionel Brown (Ned Dennehy) and his band of outlaws.
Although executive producer Toni Graphia calls this story, and Claire’s subsequent disassociation from the trauma, a “bold choice,” it was one that was in-line with the show’s long-time depiction of sexual assault. Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Brianna (Sophie Skelton) have been victims of sexual violence in the past as well. Although Graphia admits she knows it can be “hard on the readers and hard on the viewers” to experience such stories, these actions are inciting incidents that drive the narrative further.
“There are absolutely tentpole scenes that you have to do because that drives who the characters are,” executive producer Matt Roberts explains. “Off of this incident, 20 other things happen. How do you not do those tentpole moments in these books because they drive the characters throughout so much of the story?”
But, that does not mean depicting such action does not come without care. Claire was raped by Lionel in the season finale episode, and it was also implied that several other men raped her as well. The producers wanted to convey the true horror of the situation without doing anything gratuitous or provocative and, with that in mind, they came up with the idea for “dream escapes” as Claire disassociated.
“It’s a sensitive topic, and we did our research and we wanted to do justice to the material and not just play it in a kind of provocative or titillating way. It’s not meant for that. And we had read that not just sexual assaults, but hostages, kidnap victims, prisoners of war, they often would go somewhere else in their mind as a protection against what’s happening to them physically,” says Graphia.
Initially, the producers share, they were going to show more of the attack on-screen, which was supported by the actors. “When we first broke [the episode], I remember we were talking to Caitriona and Sam about it, and they both said, ‘Why not? Why not go there? Why not go to this place where we actually physically show all the trauma that takes place and all the attack?’” Roberts recalls.
Ultimately, they pulled back on that because the audience is meant to fill in “what they think happened to the character” and “you can fill in the gap that more than one person attacked [Claire],” Roberts says.
They also expanded the dream escapes, which started out as just being Claire dancing with Jamie. “They’re just slowly going in a circle under a spotlight, dancing,” Graphia says, “and it was just supposed to be that one image that was an escape, where she felt this protective space.”
But the more the writers talked about it, the more they kept coming back to the idea that Jamie isn’t the only thing that makes Claire feel safe and loved, so they designed sequences in which Claire was imagining her whole family in a happy setting: gathering everyone together at Thanksgiving, imagining that Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) and Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) were married, and everyone was enjoying each other. It’s maybe not how everyone would react in this kind of “horrific situation,” says Graphia, but it’s one kind of “survival mechanism.”
“And it’s also something that lets the audience breathe because it’s hard to watch — and it’s hard to shoot. It was devastating to even shoot and even simulate. It was some of the hardest stuff we’ve ever shot,” she continues.
In that same vein, because the escape is only happening in Claire’s mind, the writers did want some of the trauma to intrude, which was why Lionel showed up and why Claire imagined that Brianna and Roger (Richard Rankin) were dead — because she didn’t think she would ever see them again after they chose to travel through the stones back to their own time.
And speaking of Bree and Roger, in the finale they returned to Fraser’s Ridge and learned about Claire, which led Roger to join in the hunt for Lionel’s men. He, Jamie, Fergus (Cesar Domboy) and several other of Jamie’s men laid waste to all of them — except Lionel, who managed to survive and, in an ironic twist, ended up a patient on Claire’s operating table. As such, she could not harm him because of her oath as a doctor, but luckily, Marsali (Lauren Lyle) had taken no such oath and killed Lionel for Claire. This was a change from the books, in which the sort-of housekeeper Mrs. Bug is the one who kills Lionel. Roberts says they wanted to make that kill a meaningful moment in the show, and Mrs. Bug just wasn’t enough of a character yet to be the right choice here.
“The theme this season is, ‘How far would you go to protect your family?’ and Marsali is such a core part of that in her bonding with Claire,” he says. “Then there’s the threat [Lionel] makes, so it was natural for her to do it.”
As for other pieces of the fifth book in the “Outlander” series that didn’t make it into the season, Roberts says they could still pop up next season.
“What’s nice about some of these stories [is] you can move them around a little bit,” he says. “So whereas we moved into Book 6 in Season5, there are going to be some things some people may think, ‘Oh well, they didn’t do it, they’re not going to do it.’ Well, those things may make an appearance. There are going to be characters that will appear in Season 6.”
As the episode wound down, Claire started to ever-so-slightly come to grips with what happened to her. She and Brianna shared a tender moment when Claire was bathing where Bree repeated a line to her mother that Lizzie (Caitlin O’Ryan) had said to her after her own assault — “You have my hand and my ear if you need it” — which touched Claire.
The final moments of the episode had Claire vowing to Jamie that this was not going to be what breaks her and telling Jamie that she felt safe in his arms.
“It’s Claire’s way of saying, ‘These men did this to me, but they’re not going to destroy me. They’re not going to take this from me — the intimacy with the man I love — they’re not going to destroy my soul. They did things to my body, but they’re not going to destroy my soul,’” Roberts says.
But don’t think that when Season 6 begins that Claire will suddenly be all better. Roberts reveals the trauma will have “lasting effects” on Claire because “every attack like this is individual and how people deal with it is individual, there’s no right way or wrong way” to handle it.