Each episode of Starz's "Outlander" has a recurring theme. Even more prevalent than its ideas about romance and time travel, the series examines time and again what it is to exist as a marginalized person in a society that perceives you as something less than.
It's the central conflict that faces Claire (Caitriona Balfe) at every turn. How does this independent, actualized woman thrive in a time that runs counter to the forward-thinking modern era she grew up in? Does it count as compromising your independence if doing so is a requirement to survive?
"Faith," the seventh episode of the second season of "Outlander," is one of the finest episodes the series has ever done. It's also one of the worst. And at every turn, the series comes back to the same question: How do you function in a patriarchal society?
For as many emotionally charged choices as the episode contained, the show's reveal of what happened to Fergus last week at the brothel was far and away the most horrifying. Perhaps the single most upsetting moment the series has ever made, the audience sees that Jamie's (Sam Heughan) choice to duel Randall (Tobias Menzies) and break his word to Claire was precipitated by Captain Randall raping Fergus.
Rape is upsetting. That's why culture leans on it as a storytelling device. It's a palpable crime so revolting that viewers will accept anything in its wake.
But using sexual assault as a shortcut to create immediate story stakes is an abhorrent practice, something that "Game of Thrones" has repeatedly been called on the carpet for and something that "Outlander" has struggled with as well.
When Jamie is raped and tortured by Captain Randall in Season One, it's an experience and a plot that echoes long after the experience itself. One of the rare depictions of the true damage inflicted on victims of assault, "Outlander" seemed to understand that damage doesn't end just because the trauma itself has.
Not as much can be said for all of the other threats of rape on the show. Fergus isn't even the first rape victim this season, with Mary Hawkins being attacked earlier in a story that seemed to lead nowhere. Claire, herself, has been nearly raped three times. Jenny, Jamie's sister, was also threatened with sexual assault. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that most of these violent incidents come at the hands of the same man.
When I spoke to Tobias Menzies about Randall's scene with Fergus, he explains it as an event that happens in the book and that, in order to spur Jamie to break his promise to Claire, the action would have to be something depraved.
Menzies isn't being callous, but his words articulate an issue that seems to encroach more and more on the show. Sexual assault as story catalyst. Want your hero to have an easy out from breaking his promise to the heroine? Have him avenge the rape of a 10-year-old boy.
Fergus, in the series, isn't even a pawn, not really. Randall has no idea that he's under the care of the Frasers when he assaults him. He's just that evil. But Fergus is a pawn in the sense that he's a child and in the era that "Outlander" inhabits, women and children are expendable and interchangeable, just objects to be used.
More than that, Fergus, like Mary Hawkins before him, is a pawn within Diana Gabaldon and Ron Moore's "Outlander." They are individuals who suffer in order to further the story of the protagonists.
Though sex can be taken, it can also be given, as Claire proves in the airless secondary plot that fuels "Faith." After Jamie's imprisonment and Claire's stillbirth, she is determined to free her husband from prison by whatever means are available to her, namely her sex.
But before she can give herself to the king of France in exchange for Jamie's release, the show deigns to conclude the inexplicable black magic subplot that's been churning along throughout the season. Claire is forced to think on her feet and try to save the lives of Master Raymond and Comte St. Germaine, but is only successful in sparing Raymond.
Much is said of dark and light and the shadows in every heart and if it's a metaphor, it's a heavy-handed one. When Claire is done deciphering the situation for the King, she still has to give herself to him, because though her wits may keep her alive, they aren't accepted as payment anywhere.
Claire sleeps with the King. Jamie is released. He's unbothered by her choices. This is just the time they live in.
But for as abhorrent and strangely boring as the episode could be, Claire's journey through grief and loss may be the best thing the show has ever done.
It's always been clear that "Outlander" lives and dies on the performance of Caitriona Balfe and in "Faith" she is a tour de force.
In the wake of the stillbirth of her child, Claire is out of her head. Pale and trembling, full of righteous rage and bottomless sorrow, she cries out over and over for her child as infection wracks her body. She is empty. Her child is gone. Jamie is gone. Yet she is full of so much bile and anguish that her pain radiates off the screen in waves.
And around her, guiding her through her darkest night, are women. While Master Raymond stops by to work his magic on her, it is Mother Hildegarde and her fellow sisters who tend to Claire and to Faith. Hildegarde breaks her vows in order to get the child buried on consecrated ground, something that Claire scoffs at but gives her and Jamie a place to come and mourn when the time comes.
After a day spent cradling the cold body of her child, marveling at her perfection, it is Louise who is called to attend to Claire, to reach through the shroud of grief and pull her friend back from the edge. "It is time, my dear," she murmurs to Claire in French, lifting Faith from her arms before gathering Claire to her.
It is a sacred covenant of women who come together to lick each other's wounds and help each other heal, even if it requires choices that fly in the face of everything they believe in. They take care of each other because no one else will.
Claire moves forward, because she must, proceeding into the future as a brittle, bruised version of herself. When Jamie returns and asks if she hates him, she tells him her story, her voice hollow, but slowly filling with tempered steel.
Yes, she affirms, she hated him. But Claire keeps speaking. She assuages any guilt that Jamie might have had about his role in the matter.
"It was me who asked the impossible of you. It was me who put Frank before our family. It was me who followed you to the woods," Claire tells him, adding: "It's not your fault. It's not even Randall's fault this time. It's my fault."
In response to his wife, who just bore her soul and took blame for the death of their child on herself, Jamie tells Claire that he forgave her long before today for this and for anything else she could ever do.
Surviving in a patriarchal society means that you will blame yourself for the death of your child and in lieu of reassurance that it wasn't your fault, your husband will assure you that he forgives you, in a move meant to show his affection and loyalty, but that reads as cruel and condescending.
The problem with each day being a new examination of the society in which Claire now exists is that it reveals how disconnected the men she loves are from who she truly is. In a world where her sex is her currency, her worth, her worthlessness and her future, Jamie and even Frank are helpless to understand the reality of her situation, blinded by their own privilege.
"Faith" is "Outlander" at its best, when Claire finds community in an unexpected place and "Outlander" at its worst, when the powerless are unnecessarily abused to further plot. With the Frasers returning to Scotland, perhaps the show will move past its frenetic bipolarity and find a more even keel for the back half of Season Two.