SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “All Debts Paid,” the Sept. 24 episode of “Outlander.”
It’s not often that an actor gets killed off a show twice in one season. But Tobias Menzies, who has played Black Jack Randall and Frank Randall since the Starz drama debuted, has wrapped his last scene on the show, at least for the foreseeable future.
As viewers saw a couple of weeks ago, at the Battle of Culloden, Black Jack was killed by his longtime enemy Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). At the end of the third episode of the season, Frank died suddenly. His wife, Claire (Caitriona Balfe), was overwhelmed with grief, even though the marriage between her and Frank had been rocky ever since she returned to the 20th century and tried to pick up the pieces of their marriage.
As Balfe, Menzies and Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser) noted in a recent interview with Variety, making “Outlander” can sometimes seem like making a series of different kinds of films — a war picture, a period piece, a love story. Balfe said the inspiration for some of the toughest Claire-Frank moments in the third season came from the film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“We wanted to have that [atmosphere], especially in episode three,” Balfe said. “The kind of resentment that’s built up over years. One thing Tobias and I talked about is that we didn’t want this relationship to be just horrible from the beginning, you know? ‘She doesn’t love him, she’s in love with someone else, and that’s it.’ There had to be love there, there had to be hope. But they’re two people who are not being satisfied or fulfilled. That disappointment just grew and grew over the years. When they have that final fight, it’s vicious. All that anger comes out. And we really wanted to play with that.”
But not long after that fight, Frank, who’d been such a crucial source of support for Claire at various moments, was gone for good.
“I guess the thing about a show with time travel is, you can go anywhere,” Menzies said. The show “could go back to both those characters if they wanted to. But as we stand, I’m out of contract, and the characters have both died.”
Balfe had nothing but praise for her castmate. “I think it would have been really easy to make Frank the patsy or the victim or whatever,” Balfe noted. “And it would have been really easy to make Jack a one-dimensional villain, just a cartoon. And so, a credit to Tobias” for not even coming close to doing that.
“It was a remarkable performance as both those men,” said Ron Moore, “Outlander’s” executive producer and showrunner. “Sometimes we were cutting between those two men in the same episode, and you never once mistake one for the other. It is the same actor and he’s two completely different men. But there’s an emotional connection between them, and there are times when Frank would let his temper out. You would see colorings of Black Jack.”
Moore added that “at the moment” there are no plans to bring either character back. But he didn’t rule out a possible flashback or glimpse of either one at some point in the future.
Menzies and Moore discussed more of what the actor’s characters meant to the show and how it will change now that Jack and Frank are both gone.
Looking back, what would you say were some key moments?
Menzies: The flogging [when Jack publicly beat Jamie]. It’s sort of the inciting incident for the whole relationship between Jamie and Jack. [In that part of the story] Jack meets, in some weird, twisted way, a fellow soul. And he just wants to discover and get to the bottom of that. It was interesting that the [producers] allowed us to do it so graphically. It was very bloody, and kind of unpleasant to watch. Still, to a certain degree, the show found itself in that moment.
You kind of went, “Wow, we’re allowed to be this dark.” There’s obviously romance [between Jamie and Claire], but we can also have this real underbelly. I think it has been really good for the show, in general, to know that that’s [possible]. You go, “Yes, this is beautiful, there’s love and all that. But it can also go really bad.” We didn’t know whether the network would allow us to do that. [Knowing that kind of moment was possible] was, I think, really important for both the story and for the show.
One of my other favorites was when we got to do our long scene in “The Garrison Commander.” As an acting challenge, it was like doing theater. We got to rehearse it. It’s unusual to have that on TV — a long scene like that where you get two characters who really explore each other intellectually and have a [verbal] chess match.
I’m also very fond of the stuff where Frank comes to terms with the time travel. It was the first time in the story where someone, kind of a lay person, has to engage with that idea. In a meta kind of way, you get a central character having to go, “You did what?” It gives it a kind of weight to it that makes that real. He has to get on board with that. We managed to turn that corner, I think. One of the possible challenges with a show like this is, how do you make that real? There’s a woman who’s falling through time. What does that mean? One of the things I really like about the show is, we’ve managed to root that [in reality].
Would you come back to the world of “Outlander” if they asked?
Menzies: Yeah, of course. This show’s a family. We’ve sort of grown up together. So yeah. I’m sure this is not the end of the story.
Ron, can you talk about what Tobias and his work have meant to “Outlander”?
Moore: He’s been a key part of our success. Those roles that he played were so important for both storylines. He had a very tricky act that we gave him: Play two characters that look exactly the same in two different centuries. And both have a relationship with the same woman, but those relationships are radically different.
When Frank is with Claire, it would have been so easy for me to hate him and be thinking, “Get your hands off her!”
Moore: Yeah. He and I talked about that early on. You had to see the humanity in both men, and you had to see that there was darkness in both men. But the emphasis was different. The first time I met Tobias, we talked about how the characters were similar as much they were different from one another. I wanted to see shadows of the other man in each character. So when we’re with Black Jack, it was critical that he not be a monster. He could not be an easy person to dismiss.
He could not be a caricature.
Moore: Right, he couldn’t be a caricature of an evil, a mustache-twirling villain, who’s just doing all these dastardly things. You had to see the humanity in this man. So that’s why we did “The Garrison Commander,” where it was just him and Claire in a room, and he talked about flogging Jamie. We had him tell us what it was like to be that man. Because, you know, if Jamie tells you the story about getting flogged, well, it really hurt. But what about the story of the man who did that? What was going through his head? What was he experiencing? I thought that was a fascinating episode. It told us a lot.
What is your show without these two characters, who were really pivots for the story in two different realms? Where does it go from here?
Moore: Well, it’s a different show. One of the strengths and one of the dangers of the show is that it keeps evolving and changing. So, you move forward and you do something new and different, and you leave behind a lot of things that have been hallmarks of the show. And there’s an excitement to that. It’s like, “Okay, now we’re going to get to do something new, and the audience won’t be expecting this.” Or, “They’ve never seen this before.” But the flip side of that is they’re tuning in, on some level, to see the same show.
There is this weird thing with the audience: They want new and different, but they kind of want it to be the same. There’s a big chunk of the audience again that does not know the books, and they’d be perfectly happy staying in Lallybroch for the entire journey. Or sticking with Castle Leoch, because that’s what they thought they were signing up for. And then the show changes underneath their feet, and you do risk losing an audience that was like, “You know, I really wanted to watch the Scottish show. That’s what I tuned in for.”
But this is our story, and the books take us in this other direction. Season Three is a big pivot for the whole series, because it leaves Scotland, it crosses the Atlantic, it ends up in the Caribbean and then it ends up in the New World. And then, from this point forward, it’s really going to be the North Carolina show that has a foot in Scotland — not the other way around.
Variety’s “Outlander” coverage and recaps can be found here.