outlander season finale postmortem
Image courtesy of Starz

Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen the “Outlander” season one finale, titled “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.”

Starz’s “Outlander” has seen its heroine, Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), navigate from the battlefields of World War II to the emotional minefield of the 18th century Scottish Highlands, facing threats too numerous to list — but her greatest challenge came not from a physical fight, but the struggle for her husband Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) soul following his rape and torture at the hands of Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies). It’s a confrontation that’s been building all season, hinted at in the penultimate episode and brought to gut-wrenching life in the finale.

To break down the many shocking developments in the season finale, Variety spoke to showrunner Ron Moore about tackling the challenging subject matter and adapting Diana Gabaldon’s most potent prose for the screen, as well as his plans for season two.

Since Diana’s novel is told solely from Claire’s perspective, we don’t find out what happened to Jamie in Wentworth until after he’s been rescued in the book. Did you have any temptation to keep Jamie and Black Jack off-screen for most of episode 115 to build that tension, or did you always plan for it to unfold the way it ultimately did?

I think we decided that pretty early. It was one of the reasons why back in Episode 9 we opened on his point of view, so it gave us permission to do that kind of thing, because we wanted to be able to do that once we got to this section in the story. In the [finale] you see that it is more flashback and he’s remembering, but it allowed us to play those scenes in a different way because if he’s telling Claire the story and then you’re flashing back from his perspective, it’s also influenced by what he would tell her and what he would verbalize and what he wouldn’t. By doing it objectively, it gives you a chance to just play the scene and see what’s happening in real time. It also meant that when Claire’s creeping through the fortress there’s a tremendous amount of tension because we know what’s going on in that cell and you’re waiting for her to get in there, and it just felt like a really good dramatic construct.

What was your experience of filming the scenes between Jamie and Black Jack in that cell?

All season long we obviously knew where the story was heading, so there had been a lot of conversations in the writers’ room and with the cast. We all knew where this was going to lead to, so we had given a lot of thought in leading up to those events.

Then as we got into that last block — because we shoot them in blocks of two, so 15 and 16 were shot together by the same director in the same span of time — we set aside extra rehearsal time for them so Tobias and Sam and (director) Anna Foerster would go off and would rehearse alone and we carved out extra time in the schedule for them to do that. Then at a certain point they brought myself and Ira Behr, who wrote the first episode and co-wrote the second one, and they showed us all the scenes. They had walked through them all, they’d rehearsed. Then we discussed it, we had conversations. So there was a lot of preparation and a lot of thought.

We built the prison cell set on our stages here at Cumbernauld, and it was a heavy thing. They were physically dark — there wasn’t a lot of light in there. The stage around it was dark. The crew gave them space. The crew knew what was going on. They were psychologically prepared, but it would be very long, draining, emotional days. When we were done with that section, everyone was happy to be out of that prison cell. It was a genuine sense of release once we had completed it.

What was the mood like on set during those scenes?

There was a heavy weight to it psychologically. It was not a light set. There wasn’t a lot of banter and joking going on — usually we have a very light and happy set. There was really none of that. Everyone just stepped back, stayed away from the set as much as possible. The actors kind of stayed in that place. They’re two very different actors, so they approach the material in different ways, so it’s not that they were both in the scene all the time. Even off-camera they had separate methods and ways of doing that, but the atmosphere surrounding them had a weight to it and a heaviness. We knew we were going into this area of the story and that feeling permeated the shoot.

Can you talk a little more about what you’ve observed of Sam and Tobias’ differing methods, from an outsider’s perspective?

It is just an outsider’s perspective, but I would say that right off the bat Tobias tries a lot of different things within a scene from different takes, and he’s always experimenting — not so much with the words, because he comes out of theater. We’ll have discussions ahead of time about dialogue and character and all that, and we would do some polishes and rewrites and worked with him a lot and Sam in the early days as well. But once the script was a script, Tobias is always giving you choices. He’s always trying something different in the performance take to take and scene to scene, so there’s a lot of experimentation.

And I think Sam is more into that moment and into that character — he is Jamie and he wants to maintain that focus of where Jamie is and where he is.

Were you able to shoot chronologically to allow them to stay in the moment and have an emotional throughline over the course of those scenes?

In the prison cell, I think that was shot fairly chronologically in the story. I think we set it up specifically so that we could move them emotionally through the story arc, so it’s one set and just a couple actors, so it wasn’t difficult to schedule it that way.

It’s obviously a very graphic, visceral and disturbing story arc, but there’s also a lot that’s implied rather than explicitly shown, which is a testament to the power of the performances, writing and direction. Was there more graphic content that ended up on the cutting room floor, or did you have an idea of the balance you wanted to strike before filming began?

There was more material shot than was ultimately used, as there always is — different angles, some dialogue cut, moments were cut, some of it was shifted around in editing afterward. On a certain basic level, part of my job is to make that call where you’re deciding, “what’s too much and what’s not enough?” I would look at it and try to take it as far as I could, feeling like, “OK, I want to tell this story, I don’t want to flinch, I want to tell this story, make you look at something and make you look at something uncomfortable and feel it.” But there is a point where I’m looking away, too. There’s a point where I don’t want to watch it anymore and that was sort of my [barometer]. I’d have to have that internalized, “OK, now I don’t want to watch this anymore” and “OK, that’s where we have to cut away” or “we’re not going to do that.”

Then the reverse is also true. You don’t want to cut it back to the point where you feel like you’re cheating the audience, you’re cheating the story, you’re cheating the truth of what it is. To do this tale there had to be a certain just kind of “this is a horrible thing to look at” quality to it.

Sam has previously mentioned the number of prosthetics he had to wear in those Wentworth scenes. Some of the practical effects seemed very elaborate, so can you talk about the process of visualizing those?

We had specific people to create and design the prosthetics for his hand. It was actually his hand and most of his forearm. And there’s an articulated one where he first puts the hand on the table, Jack says “put your hand on the table,” you see the fingers move — they had to have cables in there and off-camera so that they could make the fingers move just a little bit before the nail goes in, and same with the hammer. And then other times it’s makeup and prosthetics on top of Sam’s real hand. And the trick was always just deciding which one you were going to use and which angle, so that the audience always felt like it was really in his hand. So it took a lot of time and thought, but I thought that they did an amazing job with it.

Male rape is something that’s rarely depicted in mainstream media, and it’s even rarer to see your lead male hero in such a vulnerable position. Obviously that’s a credit to Diana’s novel first and foremost, but how much of a draw was that subject matter and the chance to explore something so foreign to audiences, just from a creative standpoint?

When I read the book the first time, I was surprised — because that’s not a place you take your lead male hero, and I had never read that before or seen it before. I knew, “OK, if we do this book and we do that and that’s really the end of Season 1, it’s really going to be something,” because that’s just not where you go. So the storyteller in me was really drawn to that like, “Wow, let’s go out on the high wire here. Let’s do something that no one has done and know that it’s tricky territory and there’ll be a lot of criticism one way or the other. But those who dare, so let’s go do it.”

And we just tried to then approach it with, “OK, we’re going to do this; let’s make it as truthful as possible. Let’s talk about who these characters are. We’re doing this for a reason. What does Jack want? What does Jamie want? What are their vulnerabilities? What are their weaknesses? What are their strengths? How does this game of cat and mouse between them play out? Where is the violence in it? Where is the rape? Where is the breaking?” We really went through it and talked it over and made sure that we were telling a story, we weren’t just trying to show you something that you’d never seen before. This was an organic part of this tale that was in the book, that is an outgrowth of earlier episodes. It’s part of the reason why we spent as much time as we did back in Episode 6 with Jack Randall and Claire. We kept letting him tell us the story of the flogging. Let him tell us about his obsession with Jamie, so that you’re in that character’s mind and you’re starting to lay the track for where this is ultimately going.

From your perspective, what does Jack want? What is he getting about this? I’m sure that’s a very subjective answer that differs from you to Tobias to Diana, but what’s your take on his motivations?

I thought it was a complicated question. I don’t think there is a simple answer to it. I think what he wants and what he gets can be looked at in a variety of ways. I think that on a certain level it’s power; on a certain level it’s breaking a man that he was unable to break before, the interest in that, the sort of “Why can’t I break this young man? He’s interesting to me, and then he escaped, and that’s unfinished business.”

Part of it is sadism — part of it is taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It raises questions of, can Jack experience pleasure? What is pleasure to Jack? Can he ever enjoy anything without someone else being frightened, terrified, in pain, or not? Is there jealousy involved? Is he jealous of the man that Jamie is? He can never be Jamie and is this an expression of that?

I think that there are a lot of ways to go and I think they’re all part of it because in a character like this, there are no simple answers to it. I think it’s a mix of a lot of these different emotions and a lot of these different psychological drivers.

Rape is a kind of violation that a person never fully recovers from — there are physical and mental wounds that Jamie will always carry with him following this ordeal. The season ends on a hopeful note with Jamie and Claire escaping to France and Claire revealing her pregnancy, but where does their relationship stand now?

The after-effects of this will live with them into the second season. They’re going to France. They are going to try to stop the Jacobite rebellion. They are going to try to stop history, and she is pregnant, but these shadows will be with them and this will affect their relationship into the second season. But the second season will be a very different show. It’s a very different look. It’s Paris; it’s aristocracy; it’s the court of Louis XV; it’s in the City of Light with a lot of lies. It’s a completely different look and feel, visually and in tone, than the first season was. So we’re really kind of prepping a new show and shooting a whole new television series in a lot of ways.

Looking back at the season, what strikes you most about Claire’s evolution? She’s been through an emotional and physical journey of her own, and we see a very different Claire Fraser at the end of season one.

I always said that the primary characteristic of Claire to me was her intelligence and Cait embodies that. Claire’s a smart woman and she’s always thinking. She’s thinking her way out of any situation, “How do I get out of this world? How do I get out of this castle? How do I get out of this scene?” She’s always trying to rationalize how she gets in and out of that — I think that’s the amazing part of Claire, and Cait just breathes that.

I was looking for an actress that you could watch think on camera, that you just went, “yeah, that’s a capable, strong, smart woman,” and she just is that. It’s unbelievable. And considering the physical wear and tear that we put her through in season one, which was every scene every day in all kinds of conditions, day and night, rain and sleet and freezing, she was just always a trouper and always the one on the set who’s cracking jokes while other people are freezing. I have an enormous amount of respect for her and also just appreciation because she really lived it. She really brought this character to life and pulled you into this amazing story.

I loved the scene where she’s confessing to Father Anselm — the catharsis of being able to say everything to a complete outsider, and to just be able to finally let go of some of the stuff she’s been holding onto, probably things that she couldn’t even tell Jamie, to a certain extent.

It was interesting, because that’s a scene that actually went in and out of the script and in and out of the cut several times, because I kept struggling with it in terms of “why is it in the show?” And I wasn’t sure that it was giving us that piece, because she had told Jamie that she was from the future, and it didn’t feel like confessing then changed her, it didn’t put her on a different path.

So, there were times I took it out and times I put it back. Then ultimately, Diana Gabaldon herself really fought for it and said, “Look, I feel like this is really important; it’s a key part of the book; it matters a lot to me.” And I went “OK, I’m going to listen to that, let me find a way to make this work,” and I’m glad it did because I think it is a nice part of the episode.

The season had two female writers (Toni Graphia and Anne Kenney), and one female director (Anna Foerster) who helmed four of the most emotionally and physically challenging episodes. “Outlander” is obviously a female-driven story from a female author, so how important was it to you to make sure that female talent was represented behind the camera, since female writers and directors continue to be dramatically underutilized in the industry?

That’s very true and I thought it was important. It’s a female lead show. It’s really the story of this woman and her amazing journey. I specifically was looking for a female director on the wedding episode and one of the women on the show to write it because I just wanted to have that aspect of it — men and woman sometimes bring different things to scripts and to directing, so I thought “let’s lean into that.” And once I had seen Anna’s work on that block and the way the cast responded to her and the way she dealt with the cast, it wasn’t too big of a leap to say she should do the finale too, because this is going to be incredibly emotionally complex. And I intuitively thought that in the mix of that, if we have two male actors, that the director, if it was a woman, was just going to add an element that would feel important in that scene.

What are you most proud of, looking back at the season as a whole?

I’m really proud of the diversity of episodes and stories. It’s an amazing series in a lot of ways, but just the fact that you can’t point to an episode and say, “well, that’s a typical ‘Outlander’ episode.” The cliché “Outlander” episode is what? There is no cliché “Outlander” episode. It’s interesting that each one of these was its own individual movie and that the story just kept pushing forward and that we were up to it [as a] production. It was difficult and taxing for the whole cast and crew to pull off something like this, but they were always up for it and in the end it’s a beautiful, amazing show. Visually the performances are solid. The story’s there. The music is fantastic. All the elements just came together. I’m just very proud of this team for really all pulling together as one and creating this thing.

What did you think of the “Outlander” season one finale? What do you hope to see in season two? Share your reactions below.

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