Warning: This article features an in-depth discussion about sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
Hello Droughtlander, my old friend.After 12 weeks of romance, murder, and mayhem, Outlander closed out season 5 with its most harrowing, audacious episode to date. Jumping ahead to a storyline from the sixth book in its source material, the finale follows a brutal attack on Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe). As she is kidnapped, raped, and beaten by a group of men who loathe her influence on their wives, she dissociates to a dreamscape where she finds comfort in her family—particularly the arms of her husband, Jamie (Sam Heughan). And it’s him, along with their stepson, nephew, and son-in-law, who ultimately crush her captors.
Heughan and Balfe are first-time producers this season, and their influence is most evident in this episode, Heughan says. (You can read Balfe’s take on the finale here.) “We sat together and worked through it every day,” he tells ELLE.com. “I think it comes down to me and Caitriona pushing in one direction and Jamie [Payne, the director] being such a great collaborator and visionary.”
And while Balfe does the emotional heavy lifting, Heughan relished the action involved in Claire’s rescue. “It was cool to see him turn into Red Jamie—just ruthless,” the actor says of Jamie’s battle demeanor. “As soon as he goes for them and needs to protect Claire, there’s no thought involved anymore, it’s just sheer rage. Or cold anger.”
The episode ends on a note of hope, with Claire vowing to not let her attack break her—though Balfe promises there’s a long journey of recovery ahead for the character: “This is something that’s going to take her own patience and the patience and love of her family to get her through this.” But with season 5 officially wrapped, no Outlander for the foreseeable future is a bleak prospect in the midst of a global pandemic. Thankfully, Heughan left me with this cryptic glimmer of hope: “There might be a little something to tie you guys over. But there’ll be more [on] that in the future.”
Let’s talk about the finale. This was a tough concept to get right, but I think you pulled it off.
We were unsure about it. It’s very disturbing and graphic and challenging, so we wanted to get it right. Caitriona should be very proud. She’s done some great work there. And we have to thank the director, Jamie Payne, and Toni [Graphia], who wrote it. It was a lot of discussions [about] trying to get the tone right; we were all very aware of how graphic the trauma Jamie goes though at the end of season 1 was. We didn’t want to do that. In this day and age, we can’t do that anymore. But we didn’t want to lighten it by making it a fantasy of escapism or too comfortable. It [had to be] off-kilter and not quite right.
We wanted to be sure we were honest and truthful to the narrative, but also to the situation she’s in. It was a really fun process, and it was intense. We knew we had something that was going to be quite powerful. This whole season has been strong and surprising for the viewers, and I think this finale is our strongest yet.
How was it pitched to you?
We first read the script and it felt right, but it’s hard to imagine the tone of something on a piece of paper. [There were] a lot of mood boards, a lot of pictures trying to work out what it meant for Claire to go into this world, what she was doing and why she was doing it. Detail is probably the best part of it.
It’s fascinating to watch Claire’s subconscious marry all the different realities she’s experienced.
We wanted to reflect that in Claire’s escapism. It’s not Jamie Fraser or any of the family in the future. It’s the essence of who they are—their representation. I think I even suggested to Matt about the Browns being in her reality and [breaking in].
For me, the biggest challenge was, what does Jamie look like in her escapism? Initially costuming wanted Jamie to be in ‘70s clothing, and I thought we shouldn’t, because Claire knows Jamie can’t be in the future. Also, I wanted to see less of Jamie. I didn’t want to see him fully realized—I wanted him to be a symbol. He’s not fully realized or fully formed because it’s in Claire’s head.
It reminded me of the specter Frank sees in the pilot. Did that come up at all?
I think there’s a lot to be revealed. There’s a lot about reality and time travel—how does Claire go through time? And we did relate back to season 1 a lot: [Claire and Jamie] riding a horse together for the first time or seeing each other for the first time. We wanted to bring that back and the way Jamie looks [then].
What was that day like on set?
It was fun, and the first day when we saw all the cast together in their different outfits, there was a lot of hilarity. To see Duncan Lacroix in his corduroy trousers—he looked so good. And Young Ian in his military uniform. But it’s always related back to their stories in real life and what’s going on with them, so even though it’s a sort of fantasy escapism, it’s all based in emotional reality.
Who’s idea was it to bring Murtagh back for Claire’s dissociation?
I guess it was Matt and Toni. Claire has a strong emotional reaction to all these characters. In that escapism, of course she would bring him back. Why wouldn’t she? He’s her friend. It’s so great to see him. The Silver Fox, we like to call him.
There’s a lot packed into this episode. It feels like a feature.
It would’ve been good to do a longer version to give more time for the viewer to keep up, but in a way it keeps moving forward. And I love the way it ends. The family’s together, but they’re very fractured and there’s a lot of healing to be done on all accounts. So many of them are suffering from various things that have happened. They are together and they’re strong together, but it’s by no means cured.
When you look back at the season as a whole, what are you most proud of?
I think episode 7, the Murtagh storyline. As an actor, it was such a great storyline. It gave me and the character a dramatic decision to make. I had a lot of influence with the symbolism of the redcoat. In shooting it, there were certain things I had to push back on or ask for more time on for Jamie, and when he loses Murtagh we had to do some reshoots. It was great to have the writer and director’s ear, to work closely with them to get the best out of the story.
As a producer, [with] episode 12, I think Caitriona and I can stand up and say we had a really big influence on this. I know Caitriona was very nervous about it, but I felt we got it in the right place. It was a great collaboration between everyone.
This is Gary Steele’s last season as production designer. What was your favorite set over the years?
There were so many. Gary is so talented. I think it’s a shame that we’re losing him because he really brought so much to the show. But for me it has to be season 1, Castle Leoch and the Great Hall. I’d never been on a set like it. The fact that they had taken castings of the real Castle Doune and transported those walls to our studio. The detailing in the stag’s heads on the chandeliers, the burning fireplaces and the mud and the dust and everything on the ground. It blew me away. They built that for four weeks and then tore it down. I couldn’t get over how much work had gone into it and how sad it was that they destroyed it after.
What can we expect from season 6?
The honest answer is I don’t know. I’m about halfway through the book so I’m getting there. I’ve read a couple of episodes. I’m excited to discuss further with the writers and other producers to see where the story takes us. It is all a bit obstructed at the moment, obviously, with the situation. But we’re still working away. We’ve got great plans. Within the next month or so we should know more, firm up things including the schedule, the scripts, and storylines.
With the war coming, I assume we can expect more action sequences?
There is a war coming. We know that. I think we’ve always done really [well] with the action sequences. Certainly I think it’s one of my stronger points in the show. It’s nice when we get a bit of everything.
What’s the first thing you’re doing when you get back to set?
If I’m allowed, give everyone a big hug. There’s so many people I miss, from my makeup artist to the camera team to the drivers and locations people. I’m really excited to see everyone, though we probably won’t be allowed to hug for a little while. They are definitely my family. This break has been good for us to regroup in a way, but it’ll be fun to see everyone and be back at the grind.
Are you keeping busy in quarantine?
Actually, yeah. I’ve been busy with writing and working on producing some stuff, so the downtime has been really beneficial. I think everyone’s finding a space to put their energy into something else. [But] we’re all ready to see people now. It would be nice to go outdoors and hang.
Your piece on the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was beautiful. I can’t believe you were hiding your writing talent from us.
That’s kind. Thank you for reading it. I jumped at the chance because I’ve been writing a lot recently. I’m writing a book at the moment, so it was nice to provide a little bit about my experience in theater.
What have you been watching in quarantine? Any recommendations?
I’m so embarrassed. I’m not sure I can tell you. Julie, I’ve watched almost all eight seasons of 90 Day Fiancé. [Laughs] I don’t know what happened and I can’t stop. First, it was like, Oh, I’ll just watch a couple episodes this season. And now, somehow, it’s gone to seven seasons. I’ve got one left. I’m just going to do it and hopefully I can move on with my life. I’ve also been watching a lot of older movies, a lot of comedies. And I’m excited for sports to hopefully start again.