At the start of “Outlander,” show creator and showrunner Ronald Moore’s adaptation of the popular historical fiction novels by Diana Gabaldon, it’s just after the end of World War II. British nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her PTSD husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) go on vacation in the Scottish highlands, where one of his ancestors used to fight the 18th century Jacobite rebellion, to rekindle their marriage. It’s working, until she disappears after touching an ancient rune stone in a forest clearing. She’s whisked back to 1745, where she encounters the very same Captain “Black Jack” Randall (Menzies, natch) and falls in with a clan of Highlanders who are fiercely opposed to the British.
This rough band of warriors look after her as they travel the moors on horseback, but eventually she must marry—luckily, it’s the hunky Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) whose wounds she’s been tending. He’s been tortured, at great length and with great pleasure, by Randall, who has clearly gone to the dark side and nourishes a wee sexual crush on Jamie, as we find out at season’s end. He’s also willing to torture Claire, although she is rescued before he does too much damage. Jamie’s wounds, however, run deeper than the lattice of lash scars across his muscled back. (I interview Heughan here.)
What’s fascinating about this series is not only the well-matched attraction of a well-educated 1940s woman and an 18th-century Scottish Laird, but also how they navigate their clashing views and mores—in his world, men tell their women what to do and women obey, and they get spanked if they don’t, and healers tinkering with herbs and potions can easily be accused of witchcraft.
Executive producer Moore (“Star Trek” series and “Battlestar Gallactica”) and his team bring historic authenticity and smart storytelling craft to this well-executed series, which has earned rave reviews and a passionate fanbase. (Eight Season One episodes are on available on Netflix.) “Outlander” is not just a fantasy; it’s believable. And sexy as hell. Frequent director Anna Foerster, especially, is adept at handling the rigors of outdoor filming on horseback as well as the indoor intimacies of lovemaking — and rape and torture. Clearly, when enacted on film, both the sex and the violence in “Outlander” come across more vivid and intense than in the books.
Thus Moore and his team took care to root those scenes, especially the horrific Season 1 torture finale, in “something emotional and psychological,” Menzies told me, “a dialogue between those two people that had some scale to it, rather than gratuitous violence… he was digging into him, trying to unpick this man, it’s an investigation of another human being, which helped to make it more existential.”
These intense climactic scenes and their emotional aftermath showcase Balfe, Menzies, and Heughan’s strengths as actors. While they were robbed of Emmy nods by the television academy after Season 1, they hope that the show’s growing popularity—and its recent three Golden Globe nominations, including Balfe and supporting actor Menzies— will inspire more voters to check it out.
“Sci-fi has a bad rap,” said Menzies. “It’s ghettoized. But apart from the time travel, it doesn’t feel like a sci-fi show. It’s hard to categorize.”
I sat down with the trio the week before the Season 2 premiere on April 9th, just before “Outlander” fans, mainly women starved for believable intimacy on screen, showed up in force at a recent Writers Bloc panel at the Writers Guild in Beverly Hills. (I moderated.) The cast played to them like pros.
“Outlander” Season 2, following the books, takes a dramatic turn as the young couple escape from their troubles in Scotland and sail to France, where they get involved in the burgeoning Jacobite rebellion. This means learning how to conduct themselves at the French court in Versailles; costume designer Terry Dresbach went all out with some stunning period gowns for Claire. But we also return to 1945 and a reunion between the pregnant Claire and her other husband, Frank. Does his ancestor Black Jack survive the crushing finale of the last season, after his last intense bout of expressing his obsession with Jamie?
Menzies dug into how the two characters are similar to each other. “We’ve explored that through the show, finding different aspects of Frank in Jack and vice versa,” he said. “It was an enjoyable game to play with the audience and makes each richer.”
Also, both men are damaged by war. All the characters are. “I wanted Black Jack to be the product of what he’d been through, a really brutal insurgency war —he was not born like that,” Menzies said. “How war forms people is a big theme within the piece.”
When Claire first sees her husband Frank again, she knows that he is not the same man as Jamie’s 18th century nemesis, but you can see a flicker of fear cross her face. She and Jamie are trying to get him out of their heads, too, as they struggle to deal with Jamie’s emotional wounds. “It’s important to remember that Black Jack lives in this relationship whether or not he’s alive in life,” she said. “He’s very much present; he’s continuing to poison what they have, their intimacy.”
“It affects the relationship,” added Heughan. “They lose contact with each other in a way, they have their own ways of dealing with it. Jamie and Claire are supportive, the thing that connects them is the new hope of the new life growing inside of her. Certainly that way they reconnect —and hash it out as well.”
The cast admitted that after shooting the episodes of court political intrigue, they were relieved to return to familiar Scottish locations for the second half of the season. “I love being outside,” said Balfe, “even though some days it gets intense with the weather, and can get quite cold.”
She had more women characters to interact with at the French court, where Claire has to adapt to changing “circumstances and adapt to the rules of society,” she said. “In France she was under more constraints than she had been in Scotland in the 1700s. It’s always that kind of pressure to be a woman. The costumes are gorgeous, each is a piece of couture, but I feel very constrained in them.”
Balfe had fun wearing the iconic red ball gown, she admitted, even if she had to go through doors sideways because the undercarriage made the dress more than four feet wide. “It was a nice moment for the character to play her femininity,” she said. “They were rationing clothes in the ’40s, so this was the first time Claire could explore her female playful side.”
The series offers a chance to compare and contrast conflicting views of the way men and women should behave. “Having these conversations makes you question your own viewpoint,” said Balfe. “The great thing about Claire is that she was part of the emancipation because of the war, when women were sent to work while the men were away fighting. Being a nurse on the front lines was a very new role for women. She feels an equal, she doesn’t see herself as a strong woman. She sees herself as a person with an opinion, she demands her space and to be heard… In many shows with a central male character, the women are thinly written. This has a fantastic female character and complex deep male characters as well, with a balanced viewpoint, and honest relationships.”
The three actors are able to stand up to each other in satisfying ways. “I enjoy it when we tear chunks out of each other,” said Hueghan. “You get the exposition scenes, and also character-driven high stakes—we all we embrace that.”
Balfe admitted that both of her co-stars smacked her about over the course of the shooting: “I am forgiving when the boys bruise me and hurt me. In one scene, I get cuts and bruises, you have to. All of us share a similar approach to acting. We want to go there. I believe there’s no point in doing it… it wouldn’t work otherwise.”