This post contains frank discussion of Season 4, Episode 4 of Outlander titled “Common Ground.” Proceed with care.
It’s almost too fitting that Starz should air this latest episode of Outlander during the American Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The episode sees our time-traveling lovers Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) find common ground—both literal and figurative—with the indigenous people who will be their neighbors in a new North Carolinan settlement the couple have named Fraser’s Ridge—after themselves. The episode makes a radical departure from one of the more popular, show-stopping moments from Diana Gabaldon’s novel Drums of Autumn seemingly as part of of the show’s ongoing attempt to correct some problematic racial depictions in the source material.
In Gabaldon’s book, which was written over twenty years ago, the chapter titled “Noble Savages” sees the Frasers first meeting the local Tuscarora tribe after Jamie has fought and killed a real bear. The men of the tribe, who do not speak English, nonetheless come to respect Jamie thanks to his physical prowess and the honor he pays the animal he has killed. In the show, however, the animal has been changed into a mentally ill Native man who, dressed in the pelts and claws of a bear, injures both animal and human before Jamie takes him down. This change was unpopular with at least some fans. (“GIVE US THE BEAR FIGHT, SHOW,” Vulture’s recap demanded in its absence.) Though the change was, according to the producers and Gabaldon, at least somewhat motivated by budget and logistics, this twist on the fan-favorite fight allows Outlander to sidestep some of the pitfalls of Gabaldon’s book.
In a nod to the Cherokee’s real-life respect towards its women, the man-bear in this episode was banished from his tribe for raping his partner: “He harmed his woman,” Tawodi (Will Strongheart) tells Jamie. “One year ago. He laid with her against her wishes. That is not our way.” This is an especially intriguing path for Outlander to travel considering how much controversy both the books and show have courted over the subject of sexual assault.
In addition to Tawodi’s enlightened view—which, suffice to say, does not exist in the book—the character uses English when speaking with Jamie. In Gabaldon’s book, the Native characters who first meet the Frasers can only communicate through gestures and grunting. When he meets them, Jamie is reluctant to give them whiskey because he’s heard the Natives have an issue with drinking. The men of the tribe offer a pipe as a gesture of peace before one of them grabs Claire’s breast to determine if she is, indeed, a woman. A faithful adaptation of this Drums of Autumn scene likely would not have gone over well at all—especially not during a holiday weekend when the question of white settlers and their attitudes towards the indigenous population of America is, theoretically, on many people’s minds.
Speaking with Vanity Fair about the show’s plans for its Native characters earlier this year, executive producer Maril Davis said: “Unfortunately, there are many story lines in this book that are not necessarily so flattering to Native Americans. We’re sticking to the source, but we also want to be sensitive to the Native Americans [and] show things from their perspective as well, so it doesn’t seem so one-sided.” In order to explore the non-white side of the story, writer and executive producer Matthew B. Roberts , flew to North Carolina and sought input from a Cherokee leader.
This isn’t the first time that the Starz adaptation of Gabaldon’s novels has attempted to smooth over some of the rougher edges of the author’s depiction of non-white characters. Last year, Roberts explained to Buzzfeed some of the changes the show had made to controversial non-white characters in Season 3. In the same piece, Gabaldon herself—who identifies as half-Hispanic—vigorously defended some of the language and attitudes in her books. In Drums of Autumn, for example, Jamie and Claire never stop calling their neighbors “savages.” Instances such as this, in Gabaldon’s view, are meant to be as much of a commentary on the Frasers as anything else:
Time-travel stories offer a writer a lot of scope to make social
commentary — but very few such books are making commentary on the
(always modern) time-traveler; it’s very one-sided. Mine kind of
aren’t. The main point here is that Claire is not (emphatically not)
‘a modern woman.’ She was born in 1918 and became an adult on the eve
of World War II. The point here is that Claire’s attitudes and
perceptions are those of a woman with her background, experiences and
perceptions. They aren’t much like the attitudes of an American
30-something of today.
But the Starz adaptation doesn’t always have room to thread the needle that finely. Compare Gabaldon’s attempts to depict the period-appropriate bigotry Claire and Jamie might exhibit in their dealings with Black, Native, and Asian characters with Jamie’s pointedly woke speech to Governor Tryon at the beginning of this week’s episode. When the Tryon sneeringly reports of the savagery that Jamie might find along Fraser’s Ridge, Jamie responds: “Savagery can exist in many forms, majesty . . . I’ve witnessed it in both prince and pauper.” Speaking with Vulture, Heughan said he approved of the episode’s different take on Jamie’s big fight—even though it deprived him of his “Revenant” moment. He calls the man-bear conflict “the beginning of the sort of understanding and mutual respect that Jamie has with the Native Americans. This moment, really in their eyes certainly, gives them some respect for who he is and vice versa.”
Not every attempt the show has made to grapple with white America’s treatment of the non-white population has been well-received. A slavery plot line from two weeks ago, for instance, drew criticism for falling into a white savior trope even as the show attempted to confront the ramifications of Claire’s well-meaning but misguided interference. Some particularly controversy-prone stories, such as one dealing with abortion among the slave population, have been cut from the adaptation entirely.
But even when it actively avoids controversy, as with this week’s Cherokee plot, Outlander still finds itself making headlines. Actor Will Strongheart who delivered this week’s speech about how sexual assault is not the Cherokee way, was convicted in 2010 for two counts of assault against his then-girlfriend Melanie Rope. In a statement to the CBC after a Facebook post from Rope went viral last April, Strongheart wrote: “I have addressed this many times over on my social media accounts, letters/etc. I’ve made public and personal apologies, held myself accountable for the negative actions I had done and hoped each time was the end of it.”
When confronted about Strongheart’s casting on her Facebook page Sunday, Gabaldon responded: “I have absolutely nothing to do with the casting. Sometimes, they’ll tell me ahead of time who’s going to play a particular part, if it’s an important character and they want me to announce it here when whichever media outlet they’ve chosen break it, but not otherwise . . .Naturally I don’t think it’s good that this happened. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the production people to investigate the backgrounds of every actor they hire for a minor part.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, Strongheart will only appear in two installments this season including a significant role in next week’s episode titled “Savages.”
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