This article centers on Season 3, Episode 3 of Outlander, “All Debts Paid.” If you’re not yet caught up with the show, be warned: Spoilers abound.
Good news this week, guys: There is some reasonably hot sex in this episode of Outlander. Bad news: That sex does not happen between Jamie and Claire, and the circumstances begetting the sex are…uncomfortable, at best.
Most of the interesting stuff happens in 18th-century England this week so let me quickly summarize what is happening in 1968. Claire, Brianna, and Roger (the deceased Reverend Wakefield’s son from Season 2) work on finding Jamie in history now that Brianna knows her true parentage. They learn he was in prison until 1756 when the prison closed. After that, the trail goes cold. Brianna and Roger and Brianna and Claire grow closer as the three search various archives for more word of Jamie, but have little luck. After a particularly disappointing dead end in Edinburgh, Claire worries she is going to spend her life chasing a ghost, exactly as Mrs. Graham (Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper) cautioned against in Season 2. Brianna doesn’t want to give up, but Claire says, “It’s time to go home,” and she and Brianna head back to Boston. We’re four episodes into the season but this show is clearly going to carry out this grand tease a bit (or a lot?) longer.
Now to the good stuff. In 1756 England, Jamie is working as a groom at Helwater, an English estate, in service of the Lord and Lady Louisa Dunsany and their daughters Geneva and Isobel. Because of his reputation as “Red Jamie,” Jamie is now going by the name Alex MacKenzie. There’s always a twist or three to every plot in Outlander, and this episode is no different: Lord Dunsany tells Jamie to keep his involvement in the Jacobite rebellion to himself because he and Lady Dunsany lost their son, Gordon, in the war. The Lady Dunsany is still grieving and would not take well to knowing there was a Jacobite in her service.
All things considered, life doesn’t seem too bad at Helwater. The name is a bit misleading and as with last season, this show loves a good period costume—whether it’s the British aristocracy or French nobles or Scottish Highlanders in their kilts. Visually, this episode is sumptuous, and the attention to detail is meticulous.
We quickly learn that Geneva is what you might call a “difficult woman”—imperious, haughty, demanding. When she wants to go for a ride, the grooms always draw straws because they hate her so much. Geneva is promised in marriage to the Earl of Ellesmere and after her betrothal, she insists Jamie accompany her on her next ride like a predator playing with its food. As they trot around the grounds, Geneva asks Jamie provocative questions and insists they ride further when Jamie wants to turn back, reminding him, “You have to do my bidding.”
Geneva rides ahead, leaving Jamie frustrated and following. Suddenly, Geneva shrieks and Jamie rides to her rescue, finding her passed out on the ground. After Jamie picks her up, Geneva starts giggling and says, “I knew you’d do as I told you.” Jamie, none too pleased at being toyed with, dumps Geneva in the mud. She says, “I look forward to our next ride,” which, of course, she does. Jamie is extremely attractive and uninterested in nonsense, which is a novelty to someone like Geneva, who has never had anyone stand up to her before.
As he promised in the previous episode, Major John Grey visits Jamie, and the two play chess. Conveniently, Grey’s brother, Lord Melton, happens to be perambulating with Geneva and Isobel while Grey and Jamie are talking. Geneva quickly realizes there is more to Jamie’s story, and not one to pass up an opportunity to make trouble, she later pays Jamie a visit in the stables as he is, literally and metaphorically, shoveling shit. Geneva is going to be married in three days and she doesn’t want her first time to be with the crusty, old ass man she has been promised to. She orders Jamie to come to her bed and deflower her. Who can blame her?
Jamie’s delicate sensibilities are offended by Geneva’s “indecent proposal,” but Geneva refuses to take no for an answer. She threatens to have Jamie’s parole revoked. When that doesn’t sway him, she threatens his family at Lallybroch, and family is his Kryptonite, so he acquiesces, reluctantly.
The whole situation is really problematic. The show is depicting a gentler kind of rape than what Jamie endured at the hands of Black Jack Randall, but it’s still a violation. Jamie does indeed go to Geneva’s room that night and quickly disrobes. He is gallant and tender. He asks Geneva if he can touch her and when Geneva is nervous he says they don’t have to go any further. She firmly says, “No, I’m doing this for myself. I want my first time to be with someone like you.” Jamie warns her that “the first time can be vexing,” and assures Geneva that it won’t hurt as much “if I take my time.” It’s all very erotic—beautifully shot and well acted—but incredibly uncomfortable because of what precipitated the events.
It is a strange, awkward juxtaposition to see Jamie saying and doing all the right things while robbed of his own right to consent. It’s an equally strange, awkward juxtaposition to see a woman asserting her agency over her body and her sexuality, something we see far too little of in popular culture, when she is coercing her partner (without his consent) at the same time. If the roles were reversed, people (myself included) would be absolutely up in arms about a man coercing a woman into sex and then having the resulting scene portrayed as somehow sexy and romantic. This is a grating tension in the episode that cannot be neatly resolved. It is, in fact, not a sex scene we are witnessing, but a rape scene, and no amount of script and screen manipulation can make it otherwise.
After they have sex, Geneva is feeling the afterglow and tells Jamie she loves him but Jamie’s all, Nah girl, you’re just dickmatized. I mean, basically that’s what he says. He goes on to explain, “Love is when you give your heart and soul to another and they give theirs in return.” He doesn’t mention Claire, but it’s obvious that she is to whom he refers.
Months later, Geneva returns to Helwater to visit her family and is heavily pregnant. Outlander is never, ever subtle, and it’s crystal clear Geneva is carrying Jamie’s child, because, of course. The night she goes into labor, and of course there are complications, so the Dunsany family rushes to her side—led by Jamie, of course! It’s all completely plausible, right? Right.
Jamie learns he has a “fine healthy boy” as a son, but Geneva dies. Just like that, this character becomes a martyr despite all her bad behavior. And look, I understand Geneva and her difficult personality. Being a woman in the 18th century was a really confining experience, and though she was confined in luxury as a woman of breeding, she was confined nonetheless. But does that justify how she became pregnant? Or is the show suggesting that when a woman takes control of her sexuality, the consequence is death? It’s all a mess.
The Earl of Ellesmere threatens to kill the newborn in a fit of rage, holding a knife to its wee body as he screams at Lord and Lady Dunsany, “You promised me a virgin. What I got was a whore.” Turns out, the Earl and Geneva never had sex, so he knows the baby isn’t his. Before long, Lord Dunsany has whipped out his pistol and Ellesmere is gonna stab the poor baby. Jamie steps in, takes the gun from Dunsany, and kills Ellesmere to save his son—even though he can’t fully admit the baby is his. Honestly, this episode is amazing, but it is also one of those episodes where the most melodramatic possibilities come to pass.
Not long after, Lady Dunsany and Isobel are out on a walk with the baby and run into Jamie. Isobel tells him they named the baby William and Jamie says it’s a fine name. He is so close to his son, yet so far. He has a few moments alone with the boy and says loving things that make him even sexier than he already is, but most importantly, he tells his son, “I am here.”
Lady Dunsany tells Jamie he will not be held culpable for Ellesemere’s death. She offers Jamie his freedom by way of thanks for saving her grandson. Jamie offers his gratitude but says, “I will not go just yet.” He pretends it is so he can send money back to his family, but we know the truth. Jamie Fraser is our man in the storm.
And then it is 1764 and William, who goes by Willie, is the handsome young Earl of Ellesmere. Jamie teaches him to ride and they are obviously close. Lady Dunsany observes to a friend that Willie and Jamie spend so much time together that they’re starting to look alike. We all know what that means…it is time for Jamie to return to Scotland. Willie doesn’t take the news of Jamie’s departure well, but Jamie knows if he stays much longer, everyone will know Willie’s true parentage.
As Jamie gets his affairs in order, he meets with Major John Grey, who has figured out Jamie is Willie’s father. (It’s a little hilarious that everyone else remains oblivious to Willie’s true parentage. We are getting Clark Kent/Superman levels of subtlety here.) Jamie asks Grey to look after his son as a father and even offers himself to Grey in exchange, which is kind of rude when you think about it. They are clearly friends! Why do this? Grey tells Jamie he’ll always lust for the Scotsman, but doesn’t want Jamie out of duty or sacrifice. Good on John Grey for that and for recognizing what Geneva never did—true consent is whole hearted consent and not transactional.
Grey also has news of his own. He’s going to marry Lady Isobel and, conveniently enough, they are going to raise Willie. The two men have a sweet bonding moment and it’s nice to see how they’ve forged and sustained a friendship over the years.
Later, Willie visits Jamie in his quarters where Jamie is staring at a carving of St. Anthony. Soon the two are talking about “stinking papists,” and Willie says he wants to be Catholic like Jamie. Jamie christens the boy as William James and gives his son a carving of a snake with his name on it, promising Willie he will never forget him. It’s unbearable watching Jamie yet again do the “right” thing instead of what’s best for himself.
As Jamie rides out, Isobel promises, “We’ll take good care of your son.” Willie runs after Jamie, begging him to come back, but Jamie, ever stoic, wills himself to not look back.
As we look ahead to next week, it’s interesting to see how Jamie and Claire have each made a family during their years apart—the very thing they longed to create together—even if those family dynamics are fraught. It will be interesting to see what their families become when they finally find their way back to one another.
Roxane Gay is the author of Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and most recently, Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.