SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Do No Harm,” the second episode of “Outlander” Season 4.
In the second episode of “Outlander’s” fourth season, the show’s writers were tasked with condensing Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) time at River Run into one hour-long episode. Obviously, they shortened the three-month stay from the book, “Drums of Autumn,” but they also took a relatively small incident with a slave named Rufus (Jerome Holder) assaulting a white man at the sawmill and turned it into the focal point for establishing Jocasta’s (Maria Doyle Kennedy) place in the world and why Jamie and Claire could not occupy that same space.
In the show, Claire tried to save Rufus’ life after the white, male authority figures strung him up by a meat hook. She was momentarily successful, able to take him back to the house and treat some of his wounds, but ultimately realized that she could not truly save Rufus — not in this time and place. All that she could do was provide some comfort to him by way of a peaceful death before handing his bodies over to the angry mob that had gathered outside Jocasta’s home.
“I think she was trying to do the best that she could in a really horrific situation and that in saving Rufus in the moment and bringing him to the house, she actually caused a bigger issue and a bigger problem,” Balfe tells Variety. “So when faced with this mob, she was left with a horrible decision to make — do you give this young boy up to this mob so they can do whatever they want with his body or do you try and give him some kind of a dignified end?”
Balfe admits that these types of scenes are “always very difficult,” but feels the production team did their best to handle such a sensitive subject matter with great care.
“We had a lot of discussions. We didn’t always agree on how it should have been filmed, but I think we managed to get to a point where everyone felt that it was done in a respectful way,” she says.
She also acknowledges that a situation like this can be tricky to portray on-screen because it is somewhat being filtered through the lens of the “white savior.” Claire was so determined to “do no harm” that she “acted in quite a reckless manner because of that,” Balfe says. But she was also happy to see Rufus get some agency over the story, as well.
“He got to tell his story. We told a lot of the story from his perspective, which I think is important — to give voice to these characters,” Balfe points out.
In order to tell the story accurately, executive producer Matthew B. Roberts says the production team “consulted multiple historians and historical accounts.” But, the fact that Claire and the audience are experiencing the events with the perspective of more than 200 years in the future, the “violent atrocities and the very institution of slavery even more difficult to accept.”
“At her core, Claire is a surgeon and a mother, and her first and natural instinct is always to help any person in need, and to that end, she feels a responsibility to save those she can when faced with the realities of this appalling practice,” Roberts explains.
Roberts also says they went “round and round” in the writers’ room about how long to keep Jamie and Claire at River Run, ultimately deciding they needed to make it a short but “very personal” visit so they could move the story along.
“The decision is, ‘Can we ever live here, could we ever make this place our home with this around us? With slavery around us?'” Roberts says. “And Claire sets the line right off the bat — I could never own another person. And Jamie is right on board with that.”
Since that was so clear and definitive, Roberts didn’t feel like they needed more time spent at River Run. Instead he wanted to move on to see them start creating their home in Fraser’s Ridge.
“We tried to play it three months, but that just didn’t work for us in the storytelling for television. So we decided let’s make it very personal for them, make it very clear and essentially get out of here,” he says.
“Outlander” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.