Why Outlander’s Birth Scene Was So Unusual

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Claire and Frank. Photo: Starz

It makes sense that Outlander’s third-season premiere includes a birth scene. Outlander will now be at least partly Brianna’s story, and it’ll be about Jamie and Claire (and Frank) not as young, doe-eyed lovers, but as older, more experienced, more traumatized people. It will be about them as parents. Brianna’s birth is the foundation of that, and it’s nice to start from the beginning (even when the beginning is several centuries later than what comes next).

It’s not a simple, straightforward birth scene, though. Inevitably, the end of Claire’s pregnancy is tangled up with her feelings toward Frank and the strain on their marriage. Of course she chucks an ashtray at him, and of course she goes into labor later the same night. These are birth story gimmes; they’re a set-it-and-forget-it tension and release structure that accompanies many a fictional birth. But then the scene shifts — a doctor comes in to assess Claire’s progress. He asks Frank how far apart her contractions are. He asks Frank about her medical history. Then he wheels Claire off to a delivery room alone and anesthetizes her against her will. She wakes up clutching her empty belly and wondering where the hell her baby went.

It’s a birth scene we rarely see on TV (Betty Draper is the one other notable example), and it’s really upsetting to watch. Claire’s distress is resolved quickly, though. Frank comes in carrying baby Brianna, and the narrative shifts from “Claire is traumatized by this birth experience” to “Frank is reminded that this is not his biological daughter.” But the shape of that scene, its presence in this episode, and its role in Outlander’s bigger aims are not so easy to set aside. They’re fundamental to the best parts of the series.

When Outlander’s first season premiered, it did so to a fanfare of criticism lauding its feminist perspective, particularly when measured against the markedly male gaze of Game of Thrones. That argument is a little easier to make about the first several episodes of the first season, where Claire’s go-get-’em response to finding herself transported to the 18th century is coupled with a fabulously frank portrayal of her sexual desire. That same argument is a little tougher to make by the end of the first season, which echoes the book series in depicting multiple sexual assaults ranging from attempted rape to horrific sadomachistic sexual torture.

As the series continued through its second season, its female gaze and its feminism have drifted a little farther from view. Claire gets caught in a weird middle place where she’s trying to change a huge, paradigm-shifting historical event while also somehow keeping her own family history exactly the same, and it leads to illogical storytelling and unfortunate character-development issues. It’s a show with a lot going on, always. When that “a lot” moves away from Claire and Jamie as people and gets mired in them as time-traveling secret agents, caught up with court intrigue and the movement of armies, Outlander loses its grip a little.

But when the show is at its best, it takes the Doctor Who fanfiction premise and the soulmate story and the Scottish history lesson and uses them as opportunities to tell stories about women’s experiences. They’re often small, almost little asides. Claire’s having a hard time integrating into this Scottish clan, and oh, by the way, women use their own urine to set the dye on fabric. Jamie’s sister Jenny is dashing through the forest on a horse to try to save him from Jack Randall and, in a brief pause, has to express her breast milk into a cup because she just had a baby and she’s painfully engorged. (She and Claire have a little explanatory chat about it, just in case this is the first TV scene you’ve ever encountered that deals with the pain of an overfull lactating breast.) And every one of Claire’s remarkable costumes works this way. She’s running across moors and elbow-deep in a wounded soldier’s viscera, and it’s incredibly cold in draughty Scottish castles, so women layer the standard daily bodice with knitwear.

The strongest moments of Outlander are the ones that tie the fantasy structure together with the details of women’s experience. There’s peril in the world of Outlander — and not just because it’s time travel and Claire might change history for the worse, or die of a preventable illness, or find herself on trial as a witch after insisting on messing with a deep local superstition. (This was a pretty foolish mistake on her part.) There’s peril because there’s peril in just being a woman in the 18th century, and a huge part of that is obstetric peril. Claire suffers a late-term miscarriage that nearly kills her. Jenny has a difficult birth in the first season; difficult or no, all births are likely to be life threatening in the eighteenth century.

This is why the birth scene in the premiere is such an important part of the episode, even though Claire’s trauma doesn’t last long. The particular experiences of women — which are very often sex- and pregnancy-related, because this was the reality of life before birth control — are treated as notable, worthwhile material. It’s not even seen as worthwhile material for Call the Midwife, a women’s interest show (that I love) designed for the express purpose of telling horror stories about historical birth, either. That’s why it’s so unusual to see things like difficult births and women’s clothing and sex while pregnant as compelling details and valuable plot grist on a show that’s also about huge battles, and court intrigue, and fantasy.

It would’ve been so easy for this episode to include a birth that checked all the right thematic and structural boxes and then left it there. Claire’s water could’ve broken, she might’ve told Frank she was glad the ashtray didn’t hit him, and the next thing we would have seen would have been her holding the baby. And even as it is, the birth is a small part of an episode that’s also about war trauma, and grief, and marriage and the possibilities of forgiveness — as with the other similar moments, it’s almost an aside. But for Outlander, that aside is important. The high likelihood is that 1940s Claire would’ve had a twilight-sleep birth matters for her character, and it matters for our understanding of her in the story. It’s worth depiction. It’s as much a part of that fictional world as kilts and stone circles and violence and what women wear.

From the longer view of how season two ended and what Outlander’s third season might become, there’s good reason for Brianna’s birth to be one of the primary stories in this first episode. It’s good storytelling. It’s also exactly the kind of thing Outlander does that can make the series feel so different from other fantasy stories of freewheeling time-hopping swashbuckling grandiosity. Outlander is at its best when it keeps a persistent eye on the detailed, tangible, lived experience of the past. And that’s most especially true when that lived experience is female.

This is a different argument from one that posits Outlander is feminist — that idea is fascinating, but it puts a value on the series as espousing and performing a particular political position. And once that happens, the show quickly becomes subject to a kind of pass/fail test. (Is it, or isn’t it? Does this scene break the feminism? How about this one? Why so much rape? Does it ruin the show?) In an episode otherwise devoted to Jamie’s memories of battle, and Frank’s desire to move on from their past, Outlander also gives us Claire patronized at a faculty party, struggling to light a stove, and robbed of her bodily autonomy as an ordinary matter of course while giving birth to her daughter. Whether or not it is feminist, Outlander is unusually, stubbornly female, in a genre that so often is not. The best hope for season three will be that the show finally, fully embraces it.

Outlander’s Birth Scene: Why It Was So Unusual