[Editor’s note: Spoilers for “Outlander” Season 3 Episode 6, “A. Malcolm,” follow.]
If you thought it was a little excessive, for “Outlander” to wait until nearly halfway through the third season to bring together its star-crossed stars, know that showrunner Ronald D. Moore deemed it necessary.
“I was firm on that,” he told IndieWire about denying fans the reunion of Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe). “I was like, ‘I want them to want it. I’m happy that they’re going a little crazy. Let’s make them earn it, getting them back together.'”
His reasons, though, weren’t based in sadism — instead, the veteran showrunner wanted to stay loyal to the novels he was adapting for the Starz drama. Thus, following Claire’s return to her own time at the end of Season 2, the couple at the center of the Starz drama would spend 20 years living separate lives in their original time periods.
“It felt like there was no scenario where we were just gonna skip over it or just do it in little flashbacks,” he said. “It’s too big of a change in who these people are, to not really show what they went through. I felt like, ‘Well, I want to see some of that story.'”
That took the show to a number of new realms, which was all part of Moore’s plan. “I knew it was going to be an ongoing saga and a traveling show,” he said. “You knew that the characters were going to change over a long stretch of time and that you were going to have an opportunity to play different stages of evolution in their characters, which is an exciting prospect.”
However, he didn’t take for granted the idea that he’d actually be able to do any of that. “At the beginning, that’s all very theoretical. All you really care about at the beginning is just getting Season 1 done,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Oh I hope we have the problems of whatever Season 3 and 4 are gonna be.’ ‘Oh this will be kind of cool if it goes.’ And, ‘Oh, once we get to that stage of their relationship, it will be interesting what we do with those 20 years.'”
Because before he could get to that reunion, there were two decades of time to cover. As a showrunner, Moore had some experience in manipulating time on screen, infamously skipping forward a year during the Season 2 finale of “Battlestar Galactica.” Twenty years, however, is a very different beast. “I was kind of looking forward to it. It was an interesting challenge because it wasn’t something I had seen done on another TV show. That alone made me interested,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, “It was fun to do. It gave you a lot of new backstory to play around with and ways of deepening the characters. But to really take your two main leads and age them 20 years and play that over the course of multiple episodes, it was just new. It was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how we’re gonna do that. I don’t know how it’s going to be,’ but I was looking forward to getting to try it.”
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When Moore says that he didn’t know what Season 3 might be like, he did have a guidebook for this terrain. While many creators adapting novels often make major changes to the narrative, simply to suit the medium better, Moore’s loyalty to Diana Gabaldon’s books played a large role in the show’s structure.
“We quickly decided on the basic structure because the book just sort of pointed it out to us,” he said. “Jamie’s story in [the book ‘Voyager’] is episodic. He’s at Culloden, then he’s in the cave, then he’s in the prison, then he’s at Helwater, and then he goes to Edinburgh. That’s five episodes. Once you put those cards up on the board, it was like, well it seems they’re gonna get together after five. All right. Let’s construct a parallel Claire line to go along with that. Because unless you were gonna pull one of those entire chapters out of Jamie’s life, it was always gonna be five episodes. Once we did that, we just never really changed it.”
Finally, though, Claire did return to the 18th century at the very end of Episode 5, ensuring that there’d be a great deal of anticipation surrounding Episode 6, “A. Malcolm.” In preparing for that, Moore explained, “The big thing was we said, ‘Let’s clear out the rest of the plot.’ Let’s not get involved in the smuggling story, really. We can start setting up some elements and suggesting things that are gonna happen, but let’s just clear out the story and take the time to just have the characters get to know each other again. That was the key thing.”
Doing so, for Moore, drew comparisons to Episode 7 of Season 1, “The Wedding” in which Claire and Jamie got married and became intimate for the first time.
“It’s not about anything else, other than the relationship of the two characters,” he said. “That was sort of our parallel. Let’s say this is kind of the wedding episode of Season 3. Just take your time. Let the characters just be together. Let them talk. Let them catch up in each other. Let’s see them struggle with how they’ve changed or how they fear they’ve changed and what their perception is of the other. And just let it breathe. Don’t worry about the length. Let’s not worry about the scenes being too long. Let’s trust that the audience has been waiting for this and they’re gonna enjoy it, so let’s give it to them. Let’s not get too caught up in moving on to the next thing.”
In fact, “A. Malcolm” is the longest episode of Season 3 to date, which Starz had no issue with. “They understood the importance of it, so we had no problem with the running time,” he said.
“Outlander” was renewed for two seasons following the end of Season 2, which means work on Season 4 is already underway. Unlike “Game of Thrones,” Moore is in no danger of running out of source material anytime soon, as Gabaldon has published eight novels so far in the series (and there’s a ninth on the way). Which may be why he plans to stick to a book-per-season plan for the series, especially should the show get renewed for Season 5.
“I think each season we’ve kind of approached it, said, ‘All right. Let’s look at this next book. Does it make sense to do this as one season?'” he said. “When we started working on Season 3, there was a lot of talk internally about, ‘Well, this is such a big book. Maybe we’re gonna split this one up into two.’ But then we started putting the cards up on the board and the way it felt sequentially, we kind of went, ‘No. Actually, this will work in one season.’ It was kind of a surprise, but when you really boiled down the plot story and what was really happening, and how it would all fall together, it was clearly still one season. And Season 4 feels the same way.”
However, as Moore said, “every year you have to reevaluate. I could see situations where we split a book or we combine them or whatever. But we won’t really know that till you’re with the writers together and you start putting it up on the board and looking at it, feeling the rhythm of is this too much or is it plenty or is it not enough? I haven’t done the next book. You just never quite know.”
One thing is for sure: “Outlander” fans will remain hungry for whatever comes next.
“Outlander” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.