“Outlander” never shies away from challenging material, and there are few issues more challenging than the death of a child and sexual assault — both of which were present in the harrowing latest installment of the Starz drama, which saw Claire lose her baby after witnessing Jamie’s duel with Black Jack Randall — a fight that was precipitated by Jamie discovering Jack raping Fergus, a boy who works for the couple.
The episode, sensitively written by Toni Graphia and directed by Metin Hüseyin, exemplifies why “Outlander” stands head and shoulders above the majority of other primetime dramas, especially when it comes to portrayals of rape and loss. While it’s often hard to stomach the violence that human beings inflict on each other, “Outlander” takes pains to explore the emotional aftermath of its physical cruelties, not glossing over them for narrative expedience or using them simply to shock the audience (or as a shorthand to prove how “evil” a character is). It’s supposed to be painful, but what makes “Outlander” so groundbreaking, even in the era of Peak TV, is that it gives time and weight to those heinous acts and their repercussions without objectifying the victims, sitting with characters in their grief and giving space to their trauma instead of barreling on to the next plot twist.
The moment when Claire holds her baby in her arms, knowing that she’ll never see her daughter’s eyes open or hear her laugh, is one of the most devastating scenes ever committed to screen, and beyond being a performance for which, if there’s any justice, Caitriona Balfe should win every acting award ever devised, it also gives a face to a woman’s grief in ways that many shows still fear to explore — especially on broadcast networks. Oftentimes, female characters still have to fit into rigid boxes to be acceptable on TV, but Claire has never been a stock Strong Female Character, and you can’t put her into a box any more than you can label any real woman; we contain multitudes.
In Graphia’s script (adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s “Dragonfly in Amber”), Claire runs the emotional gamut, from denial and righteous fury to dissociation and deceit. We’re with her in private moments of desolation and public moments where she’s fighting to maintain her composure, following the emotional rollercoaster of her losing her child; discovering Fergus’ own trauma; deciding to free Jamie from the Bastille by petitioning the king; performing as La Dame Blanche to try and save Master Raymond and the Comte St. Germain from death (and failing, in the latter case); revealing the truth to Jamie, and finally grieving with him, two devastated parents united again as they decide to leave Paris. It’s an emotional tour de force from Balfe, complemented by powerful turns from co-star Sam Heughan and the show’s many outstanding supporting cast members, Romann Berrux (Fergus), Stanley Weber (St. Germain), Dominique Pinon (Raymond), Lionel Lingelser (Louis XV), Frances de la Tour (Mother Hildegarde) and Claire Sermonne (Louise).
Variety spoke to Balfe and Graphia about the events of Episode 207, and portions of those separate conversations are combined below.
Catriona, what was your first impression of Toni’s script when you got it? You knew that Claire was going to lose the baby before you read it, correct?
Balfe: Yeah, I knew where the story was headed, and I knew that Toni was writing it, and Toni has such a beautiful, poetic way with her writing. I knew that it was going to be in very safe hands. So when I first got the script, I mean, I cried. I emailed Toni straight away, and I was just like, “This is so beautiful. You’ve made me cry like a baby.” I loved how Toni handled it. It was in such a respectful way, and such a beautiful way, and I think it’s such a defining moment in Claire’s life and for her character, that in a way, you just relish these moments as an actor to be able to go through this journey with the character.
Toni, how did you approach adapting the episode, because you have a lot of ground to cover in terms of narrative, and it unfolds a little differently from the books. Were there specific beats you wanted to hit, or a moment you wrote that made you finally feel like you nailed it?
Graphia: I think figuring out the moment when Louise comes and takes the baby from her, which is my favorite scene, was the moment that I knew that I had nailed it. Because in the book yeah, it goes on for chapters and chapters — and I loved those chapters, make no mistake, Diana did a great job — Claire’s in the hospital for weeks and weeks. Claire goes to Fontainbleau with Louise and Louise helps her heal, but over weeks and weeks, and I knew that we just had this hour-long episode. And I wanted Louise to figure prominently and I thought, in the book we do not see her in surgery or trying to save the baby. We don’t see the moment that they tell her the baby’s gone. The book chapter starts with five days after she’s lost the baby and she’s talking to Mother Hildegarde and she already knows the baby’s gone, and I thought, “How can we not see that? I want to see it.”
So I decided early on that my original opening was going to be rushed into the hospital, like an 18th Century version of “ER,” a show that I always loved, and to see how the King’s executioner, ironically, is the one trying to save her life. And then I wanted to see the moment that Mother Hildegarde had to break the news to her that the baby died, which I think will shock a lot of people who aren’t book readers because I think on network TV, they would save that baby if it would have been on a network. And I called on my Catholic school upbringing for how Mother Hildegarde would say it, and she says, “She’s joined the angels.”
I thought, I don’t want to see it in real time when Claire’s saying, “Bring me the baby. Bring me the baby.” I want to show that she’s closed down and she’s angry at Jamie to the point of hatred of him and she won’t forgive him, and then when he comes back and she is forgiving him, I wanted it to remind the viewers and go, “This is why she’s been so angry,” because even finding out the reason that he did it — which is that Black Jack had attacked Fergus — when she’s telling Jamie the story of what happened, I knew I wanted to flash back to that moment. And I knew I wanted to give that moment to Louise, because she’d been such a frivolous character, a gossipy Paris woman, but she’s really Claire’s only friend there besides Master Raymond, her only woman friend; and because Claire had helped her — when Louise had the dilemma and was pregnant and wondering about her baby, Claire was there for her and said, “I’ll do either one. I’ll help you rid yourself of this baby if that’s what you really want, but if you want to keep it I’ll help you do that, too.”
And so I wanted the friendship of the women, just like the witch trial had with Claire and Geillis; I was very interested in portraying women’s friendships and this is already a love story, we already have plenty of Jamie and Claire, and strong men in Scotland and Dougal and Angus and Rupert. I always want to have more women characters and I wanted this to be a moment with her and Louise. So instead of Louise bringing her to Fontainbleau, I gave that moment to Louise where she’s the one that comes and takes the baby from Claire. I always knew that from the beginning that I wanted that to be the scene.
Caitriona, how did you prepare for those scenes in the aftermath of Claire losing the baby?
Balfe: The thing with all of these type of scenes… because it’s so self-generating, it’s not the same as if you’re in a fight: when Sam and I do a big fight scene, you know that you’re going to be provoked and react off what the other person’s doing. With this stuff, first of all, I turned to, obviously, Diana’s source material, but then I also re-read quite a lot of Joan Didion for some reason this season for the first episode and again for [this]. I read “A Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” because I think both of those were such beautiful accounts of grief, and obviously “Blue Nights,” it’s the loss of a daughter at a much later age, but there’s just something about that, her descriptiveness about that loss that I found really beneficial and helpful.
And then I think most women, most people, know someone in their lives who have gone through this experience, and it’s not that I called up anyone, because I think that would be really disrespectful, but I’ve been aware of how painful that is in friends of mine’s lives, and… in a way, that inspires you to want to treat it in a very respectful way. It’s hard, because you never really know what’s going to come up in the moment of the acting, so for me, it was just a lot of meditating on it and listening to music.
We shot in Glasgow Cathedral, which was such a wonderful place to film these scenes, because between takes, I would go up and I would sit at a little chapel, because the hospital was all on the ground floor. And I just remember being very struck in the first day of how this place must have been a place that thousands of women must have come to over the centuries, looking for solace or looking for comfort for very similar types of things. I believe that buildings and places hold energy, and there was such an energy in that place that … it felt like I just tapped into that collective grief that sat in the bones of this place. We had a wonderful director, Metin Hüseyin, who’s just such an artistic, emotional creature, and he’s so wonderful to be able to do these kind of scenes with, because he has such a sensitive soul. It was really just playing each moment and seeing what came up.
We stuck very much to the script, and very much to what was on the page. The writing was so beautiful for this … Even the little thing about the song when she sings to the baby — when you read it in the script first, it seems like such a jarring song to use in that moment. But actually, the more work I did on it, I just thought it was even more heartbreaking, because here was something that I felt that Claire probably heard from her mother. You know, it’s this lineage of tragedy that surrounds Claire, in a way, having lost her parents so young, and everything that’s happened to her, it all just felt very powerful.
Toni, how did you come up with the idea to include the song?
Graphia: For that scene I remembered that Claire herself lost her mother when she was five years old and she probably doesn’t have very many memories of her, but I thought every kid probably remembers either being read a story or sung a song by their mom when they were little, and so I thought if she can only hold that baby for that one day, those few hours, what would she want to pass along or give that baby? And I thought, “Oh, she should sing to the baby.” It’s just instinctual, it’s a primitive thing that a mother would do.
And then at first, I thought maybe it would be a sad song and then I realized no, no, it should be something whimsical and sweet and happy and that would actually make it even sadder. And I Googled songs of the era from England, what would be a song in the UK that they would sing I think maybe during the era of Claire’s mom, and I found this song, this silly little song. And I was a little nervous about it and I remember asking Metin, the director, “Do you think it’s too silly?” and he said, “No, I think it’s perfect because it’s so silly,” and then we had her sing this song. I can’t even watch that scene, it killed me. Cait is amazing.
When I wrote it I said to her, “This one’s for you,” and I knew that she would knock it out of the park. I knew that she would elevate it even better than what it was. And the original draft had a ton of voiceover because we try to use voiceover sparingly but she was alone in so much of this script that we needed to use the voiceover to portray what she was thinking, but then once we saw it shot, Ron [Moore] was in the editing room, like every five seconds he’d be like, “Take out that voiceover. Okay. Cut that voiceover,” because everything played on her face. You knew what she was thinking, you didn’t need to hear her voice. She did a phenomenal job and I really hope that she is rewarded for that, because there is no actress that can touch her, just no contest. Like the scene where she wakes up, I purposely didn’t put any dialogue because I knew that she’s a nurse and when she wakes up and feels her own belly and realizes the baby’s not there, “where is it?” I wanted just to play that moment and give that to her with no dialogue. She’s amazing.
Rape is obviously a very overused plot device on television, and it’s a subject that can be triggering for a lot of people, but dealing with the assault of a child is a particularly sensitive issue. Does that add pressure to the writing process?
Graphia: I don’t think we feel the pressure, because it’s not like we’re trying to do it in any certain way. What it is, is really the freedom to do it the way that it really should be done; our hats are really off to Starz for that because they allow us. A lot of people look at that book and go, “They’re never going to let them put this on TV.” And it wouldn’t be on network TV and I’ve worked in network TV for a long time before cable, and I loved it when I did it and it was great, but in cable you do have this freedom.
And so it’s not like we have to really think about it, it’s more like someone just took the leash off and said, “Go for it.” So then we’re just doing what you would normally do; we’re not manufacturing and it’s coming from just the reality of that [moment]. We couldn’t show this [on network], maybe we couldn’t show a dead baby or the rapes, but we trust the audience. People can handle this. I thought people would totally freak out over the rape scenes, and friends of mine, they would just call and say like, “Well, I white-knuckled it through that one.” And I think that struck me as a good way to put it because I think people can handle it.
And I think even in this episode … there was one reviewer last week who was like, “I commend ‘Outlander’ that they had the grace not to show what happened to Fergus, that they just showed the red coat and they cut away, and that’s all we need to see.” And I was like, “Oh, no. Oh, man. They’re going to freak out next week,” because we do show it. But I felt it was important to show it and believe me, we didn’t want to show a child getting attacked. We were all very sensitive about that, but we need to see why Jamie would have betrayed Claire and broke his promise. If we didn’t see what happened, we can imagine it in the book, that’s what the book’s for, but on TV you’ve got to see it, and we didn’t show anything gratuitous but it was like when you see that, your blood boils. When you watch it and your anger goes up, you think, “This is what Jamie felt.” This was the something that was important enough to break his vow to Claire and tear apart this marriage and lose their baby over, because he was not going to allow this injustice to happen to this kid that he loved. And that’s why we love Jamie and that’s why he’s the King of Men. So we can’t have people being like, “You can’t show this on TV,” because this happens today, in today’s world and people should be aware of it. We did the emotion of it, not the logistics of it, and that’s why we filmed it kind of impressionistically.
In this episode, we also see a flash forward to Claire in Boston in 1954, and the recurring symbolism of the blue heron. How did that scene come about?
Graphia: It was Ron’s idea, because he wrote the premiere and you see Claire coming back, so he had this idea that at various points of the season we touch on her life in Boston and what became of her coming back to America. And we thought this was a good place for it, because if you see her with that daughter, it would make it more heartbreaking because you see exactly what she’s losing when she loses that baby. And again, a lot of reviewers gave us flack, like, “They’ve got a mismatch, when they showed her coming back through the stones she’s barely pregnant and she’s obviously so pregnant now. They really screwed up!” and I was just like, “Just be patient and wait. You’ll see.” [Laughs.]
And then we realize that she did eventually have another daughter, but it doesn’t take away from the daughter that she lost, and you see “my God, that girl would have grown to be that.” I think it’s going to freak people out a little when they see this opening — that’s why we put a chyron on it that says the year, because a lot of people when they read it in the script they thought Claire was imagining it, that she was just imaging the life that she would have had, and I think it may take people even a minute to realize, that they might have to rewind and look back … But we really wanted to show that.
And the blue heron is something that I came up with because in the book, in the Master Raymond scene which we all love very much, his hands glow blue and the room is blue, and blue is the color of healing and all this blue motif happens, but I needed something for television to depict that. And I came up with the idea of a blue heron being something Claire had seen once and it’s such a tranquil bird when it’s flying that she imagines it, and just like rape victims that dissociate from their body, when she’s losing the baby she dissociates and in her mind she just goes into the air with the heron.
The original opening was just her in the ER and flashing to the heron, and we added the little girl scene. After the first draft was written we went back and added the scene with the girl, but then we tied the heron in by … it was one of those aha moments where it was like “we want to show her with the kid, what could they be doing? Could they be on a swing, could they be riding a pony?” and then we went, “Oh, they should be in the library looking at the book,” and the blue heron can take her back to, “Have you ever seen one of these?” “Yes, in Scotland years ago,” and take her back to it. And then she, of course, sees the heron with Master Raymond later, and we just chose to have that as kind of the symbol that takes us through the show of the blue being healing for Claire.
Caitriona, the scene between Claire and Fergus when she realizes why Jamie broke his vow is particularly poignant — how much of a turning point is that for her?
Balfe: She has so much anger, and I think she just doesn’t even know where to put it, because to be honest, most of the anger is at herself. And I think channeling some of that and placing it on Jamie is giving herself some relief from the self-hatred that she’s feeling. And when she finds out what Fergus had been through, it’s just crushing to her, because she’s been sitting there, wallowing in her own grief and her own pain, and this poor little boy has just gone through the most horrific ordeal, and she’s essentially abandoned him in spirit, you know? And so, when she hears what happened and she hears Jamie’s reasons, I think it’s a real awakening for her that she needs to fight to live, because up until this point, it’s just going through the motions of life and sitting in her anger. I think for Fergus and for Jamie, that’s the point where she decides to sort of fight back in a certain way, and then goes to the king to plead for Jamie’s release.
That leads to the scene in King Louis’ Star Chamber, where she’s trying to save both Raymond and St. Germain, despite what he’s done to her. What’s going through her mind in those moments?
Balfe: It’s got so many layers of tension, and Claire, when she arrives in, has to think so quickly on her feet, and figure out how she’s going to placate the king while saving herself and also saving Master Raymond and Comte St. Germain, because she doesn’t want to have his blood on her hands. There has been this animosity between them, and he has tried to kill her, so in many respects, there’s no love lost there at all, but Claire, her primary calling in life is as a healer. She doesn’t want to kill anyone or condemn anyone to death. That’s not part of her make-up. And obviously, when she realizes that Master Raymond has put poison in the chalice, I think she hesitates, and rightly so, you know? But she realizes that she can’t save him at this point without then condemning Master Raymond and perhaps even condemning herself, so it’s a very difficult situation that she’s in.
What was the experience of filming those final scenes between Claire and Jamie, when she finally has to acknowledge that loss and share that grief with him?
Balfe: That’s a really tough scene, because you want your character to have the time to process everything, and I think sometimes it isn’t easy for her to let down her guard. She’s been through so much, and it’s so complicated, what she’s feeling, because she’s ashamed, she’s angry, she’s heartbroken. So when Jamie first arrives, that distance, it was a conscious decision for them not to touch in that scene, and that the first time for them to touch would be at the grave, because we didn’t want it to be easy, because it’s not — what they’ve both gone through, that pain and that loss that both of them are feeling — you have to let them have time to be able to shed those barriers.
And I feel very much that Claire, after what happened, she built a brick wall around her heart, and that’s not easy to break down. But when Jamie says to her that the loss of what they’ve experienced is too much for each of them to bear alone, that they will only be able to carry it together, I think that that’s the moment that you see the crack in her, and you see that she begins to let go. And when he forgives her then, it’s the beginning of her being able to perhaps forgive herself. Because really, that’s the crux of it: she blames herself, and that’s the hardest thing to forgive, I think.
This episode also closes the chapter on France, as Claire and Jamie decide to go home to Scotland. How do they move on from here?
Balfe: I think that Scotland is a very healing place for both Claire and Jamie, and in many ways, it’s a return to their true selves, but I think that this has changed Claire forever. I don’t think she’ll ever really get over this, and in some ways, it’s hardened her and made her tougher, but in some ways it’s also made her more fragile and brittle. So we’ll see that play out. It takes time, and this whole season, there’s such peaks and valleys of hope and despair, and it’s such a great journey that these two characters have gone on. Jamie really becomes the man that he was always meant to be in the later episodes, and I think Claire is right there alongside him, and you see their bond really deepen and strengthen.
“Outlander” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.