‘Outlander’ Boss Ron Moore Talks ‘Harrowing’ Final Episodes at PaleyFest

outlander cast
Image courtesy of Rob Latour for Paley Center for Media

The cast and creators of Starz’s “Outlander” were on hand at the show’s packed PaleyFest panel in Hollywood’s Dolby Theater on Thursday night, where eager fans got a first look at the show’s midseason premiere almost a month before the show’s broadcast return on April 4. Stars Caitriona Balfe (Claire Fraser), Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser), Tobias Menzies (Black Jack/Frank Randall), executive producer Ron Moore and author Diana Gabaldon partook in a drinking game and reveled in the opportunity to interact with their audience at the hourlong Q&A, with Heughan and Balfe even attempting a raucous version of the Newlywed game to see how well the co-stars knew each other.

While “Outlander” has dealt with mature themes and high stakes for its characters since its inception, the back half of the season takes an even darker turn, and “does go to some harrowing places,” Moore admitted on the panel. “If you haven’t read the book, you would be surprised by the direction it takes and that this is where it goes in the finale, which is a very unusual direction to take your characters in. One of the things that attracted me to the book in the first place was that it was very unexpected — I didn’t see any of it coming, and that’s a fascinating journey to take an audience on.”

Addressing one particular scene in the final run of episodes, Moore said, “I’m very proud of the way we realized it — I’m proud of the actors and the director; I think they were very fearless on the stage and I think it comes through in the show. I think the finale is — this is a weird word to use if you know the end of the book, but — it’s a satisfying ending, there’s a sense of completion to what we’re doing. I think it’s an ending worthy of the story; it’s a great finale. I think it’ll take you places you weren’t expecting to go, which is what the great stories do.”

All three of the show’s leads have seen their characters put into very vulnerable or disturbing positions already, and Menzies admitted that when he signed on for his dual role as Frank and Black Jack Randall, “I didn’t know very much at all, actually. I had scenes from the first episode [to audition with] so this has been all quite a journey, really. I probably wouldn’t have signed up if I’d known,” he quipped.

Heughan said, “I sped read the first book and Googled and whatever the other books,” but admitted that the writing on the show still allowed for some mystery. “You don’t know where it’s going to go — even when you read stuff, you still don’t know where that’s going to take you as an actor and a person. We know the general idea of where Diana’s books go, but then actually living that is very interesting. I think where all three of us are, our relationship at the end of this season, is really a strange but interesting place — and as Ron said, satisfying.”

Frank Randall won’t reappear in the latter half of the season, leaving Menzies to focus wholly on the sadistic character of Black Jack. When asked whether he tried to stay in character to maintain that darker mindset while filming, Menzies turned to his co-stars to see whether he behaved any differently depending on his character that day. Balfe recounted a story from their time shooting Claire and Frank’s scenes in the pilot: “We had filmed a lot of the ’40s stuff first. We were goofing around, we had a great time, we were driving around in this vintage car… when we got to the first day when he was playing Black Jack and we had that scene where I meet him by the water… Tobias was all quiet and off on his own thing, and I was like, ‘uh, where’s my buddy gone?’ But the rest of the time he’s just the same idiot that he always is,” she joked, causing the rest of the panelists to erupt into giggles.

“This is my publicist,” Menzies quipped of Balfe without missing a beat.

Unlike some book adaptations, the show has remained largely faithful to Gabaldon’s source material, and Moore confirmed that “the plan is always to stick as close as possible to the book — that was the plan in the first season; that’s the plan as we approach the second season.”

He conceded that through the process of adapting from a novel, “you just naturally start making changes because they are different forms — it’s a different experience to read something than it is to watch something, and the hour format is different than pages. So you’re making changes along the way, and at a certain point, what you’re doing on screen obligates you to continue to follow those character traits and storylines in certain ways.”

Moore used Frank’s storyline as an example, since Gabaldon’s novel is told entirely from Claire’s perspective, which doesn’t allow for trips back to the future see how Frank is coping without his wife after Claire’s disappearance — something that the TV series does explore, as the format allows for more organic changes in POV.

“Once we open up Frank a little more in the series and we cut to Frank’s point of view in episode eight of the first season, that kind of changes your flavor of Frank; that changes who you think of as Frank, so you’re obligated to continue down that line. That being said… we still want to stay in the lane, we still want to maintain what the fundamental story is, even as we go forward into subsequent seasons. That’s still the mandate,” Moore explained. “It’s a trickier thing and this is my first adaptation for television so I can’t really tell you that I have a master plan for what season five, six and seven are… we’ll just see how it develops. But I can tell you that the intent is to continue to stay as true to the story as we can while keeping in mind, ‘okay, now you have created certain facts on the TV show that then obligate you to continue that storyline,’ because there’s a fair chunk of the audience that has never read the books.”

The showrunner compared the process to that of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” of which he’s a fan. “I’ve never read those books; I watch the series and I like the series. I don’t know anything about the books, but I have to accept that television series on its own terms as it’s presented to me week after week,” Moore noted. “So our show has to serve both masters — to give the fans the joy of watching this come to life and also deliver a story to people who have no idea where the books are going and aren’t missing any things that we’ve changed, so you’re serving both those audiences as you move forward.”

“Outlander” returns with its final eight episodes beginning Saturday, April 4 at 9 p.m. on Starz. Watch the PaleyFest panel in its entirety and the opening scene from Episode 109 below.