“Outlander” returned from its six-month hiatus on April 4, and the midseason premiere, “The Reckoning,” forced Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) to renegotiate the rules of their relationship, after Claire’s decision to return to Craigh na Dun without Jamie’s knowledge resulted in her capture and near rape at the hands of Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). Although Jamie and the Highlanders managed to rescue her (with unloaded weapons, no less) Claire’s choice put everyone in danger, and Jamie wasn’t afraid to let his wife know it, resulting in an explosive fight and subsequent spanking which threatened to derail their romance entirely.
“I don’t think she realizes what she’s done by putting all the men in danger and what the repercussions of that are going to be, obviously,” Balfe told Variety. “But the fight that her and Jamie have… sometimes when you’re scared or when you’ve been hurt, you don’t know what to do with all of this emotion, so you just lash out. And I think both of them are just giving it to each other and you really see them push each other’s buttons, but it’s coming from a place of fear. And it’s like a parent who’s like, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ And it’s incredible to watch them have this big thing, but then when he really shows her, ‘it’s because you scared me,’ all of her defenses just melt and she’s like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.'”
For Heughan, that fight was a way of vocalizing all the stress and terror Jamie had been feeling after discovering that Claire was missing. “We start the episode from Jamie’s point of view, and you see where he’s gone, what he’s had to go through to get to the rescue,” he pointed out. “Caitriona and I really relished that scene. It was kind of the first time I really got to do some gritty acting, and it was great. We sort of tore it out of each other. I think it might have been one of the first scenes we tested on, actually. You get to see the frustration and the anger, and it almost becomes physical. It was really intense, and great fun to work with her. And it really takes the relationship somewhere [new].”
Executive producer Ron Moore noted that although they had Diana Gabaldon’s book to work from, their focus was on “digging in to the scenes themselves, and the page, and working with the actors, and really wanting it to be as raw and emotional as it was. It’s the culmination of a lot of things that they just haven’t been sharing because [they were] in that magical ‘get to know you’ kind of phase. And then here [we thought], let’s have a real problem and really see them go at each other. It was a great opportunity.”
But the verbal confrontation wasn’t the end of the argument, as Claire discovered after the Highlanders began to shun her for putting them in danger and disobeying her husband.
While Heughan understood why the spanking scene might’ve been shocking or repellent to modern audiences, he was able to rationalize Jamie’s decision, given the time period and surroundings the Highlander was raised in. “He has to punish her, whether or not he believes in it. He says he doesn’t, but he has to because otherwise the Highlanders won’t protect her. She’s in danger. There’s a moral code, and it’s the way he’s been brought up, and he’s now got responsibility, and he’s trying to do everything that’s right. He’s trying to play that role and be responsible, and she keeps bloody messing with it,” he laughed. “And obviously, out of that, he learns a very valuable lesson, and she does, and their relationship is yet again developed and moved forward. And if he hadn’t, if he’d said, ‘I won’t punish you, it’s okay — it’s not the right thing to do, but you’re very naughty,’ then they wouldn’t have learned anything. And I think it’s interesting, because this relationship is just developing, and it’s like any marriage — it’s taking on different forms. It’s going to keep doing that. God knows where it’s going to be in a year’s time.”
Moore admitted that the producers and writers “talked about a lot” before the scene finally arrived. “I always knew we were going to do it because it was a key moment in the book and we wanted to do it. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s really about justice and that’s what Jamie says in the scene: it’s a scene about justice; it’s not a scene about domestic abuse; it’s not a scene about anger. These were the mores of the time. As he says to Claire, if she was a man, she would’ve had her ears cropped, or something worse. And so there was a sense of righting the scales of justice. To her mind and to ours, as 21st century people, we kind of recoil from it like ‘oh my god,’ but I think we also understand the context of the time and why he’s doing it and what it’s about.”
“We knew it was going to be a controversial scene that people were going to ask a lot of questions about,” Balfe conceded. “We really had a lot of conversations about it. We went back and forth with the writers about how they wanted to do it and what we felt comfortable with, but we had the blueprint of the book, which was great. But we really wanted to give it the respect that it deserved, because it’s not something that can be taken lightly. And the thing we always came back to is that we have to understand that, no matter how we as modern people perceive it, this has to be taken in the context of 1743, and this was a perfectly acceptable justice in that time.”
While the scene itself is memorable, it’s the aftermath that truly redefines Claire and Jamie’s relationship. “What happens after is very important because here we see two people figuring out how to make their marriage work, because not only has Claire suffered physical wounds from this, but there’s been a great psychic wound,” Balfe observed. “And I think that the betrayal she feels — that this man she’s fallen for with heart and soul has now betrayed her, in a sense — that’s a big thing for her to get over. But I think the thing they’re learning within the confines of their marriage is that you don’t always have to accept what the person does, but if you can understand where they’re coming from, then you can build a bridge to forgive and move forward. And he also realizes, ‘okay, I can’t treat you as everyone else treats everyone else in this time, and I’m willing to change, and to grow, and to meet you halfway.'”
Claire doesn’t forgive or forget easily, however — banishing Jamie from their bed and giving him the cold shoulder even once they’re back at Castle Leoch, until they finally confront their feelings and reconnect physically — allowing Claire to pick up Jamie’s blade mid-coitus and warn her husband that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she’ll cut out his heart.
“She really draws her boundary line,” Balfe noted. “When we have that other intense sex scene, I think that that’s her saying, ‘Look, I will love you with every fiber of my being, but not more than I love myself, and as long as you respect me, then we’re good.'”
“Outlander” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
What did you think of “The Reckoning” and the spanking scene? Weigh in below.