The actress and executive producer breaks down the episode's heaviest moments and her hopes for Outlander's next season.
By Emma Dibdin and Photography by James Houston
May 10 2020, 9:00 pm EDT
Claire Fraser is no stranger to brutality. The first time we ever see our Outlander heroine, played by Caitriona Balfe, on-screen, she’s stoically tending to a soldier’s horrifically mangled leg, her face spattered with arterial blood, and her life became only marginally less grueling after World War II ended. Since tumbling back through time into 18th-century Scotland, Claire has endured a whole litany of traumas—loss, miscarriage, physical and emotional violence at the hands of countless villains—and emerged more resilient than ever.
But tonight’s Season 5 finale centers on what may be Claire’s most horrific ordeal to date, following her kidnapping at the hands of Lionel Brown and his men at the climax of last week’s episode. The disorienting opening moments of “Never My Love” find Claire in an idyllic but surreal 1960s dreamscape, immediately suggesting that this will be no ordinary episode of Outlander. It soon becomes clear that this is her brain’s desperate attempt to cope with unspeakable trauma as she is gagged, beaten, and raped by multiple men.
Outlander has always been fascinated with the dynamics of sex and power, and by extension with the ways in which sexual assault is used as a weapon. Ever since Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) was raped by Black Jack Randall at the end of Season 1, the show has drawn praise for its unusually nuanced portrayal of sexual violence and its lasting psychological impact. But more recently, particularly in the wake of the rape of Brianna Randall Fraser (Sophie Skelton) last season, there has also been criticism for what some consider an overreliance on rape as a source of conflict and drama; an overreliance that is baked into Diana Gabaldon’s novels, on which the show is based. Though Claire is promptly rescued midway through the season finale, this episode will continue a long and sometimes fraught conversation about the role of sexual violence on Outlander.
“It is a really hard line that we have to tread,” Balfe told me over the phone last week. “Obviously, we try to stick as faithfully to the books as possible, and [rape] is something that creeps up quite often in Diana’s novels. When you have eight or nine books out in the span of 20 years, it probably doesn’t feel like there’s as much, but when you’re compressing all of that down for TV, it becomes quite difficult. We can only try to do it as respectfully and as, I suppose, empoweringly as we can.”
For both Balfe and the episode’s writers Matthew B. Roberts and Toni Graphia, Claire’s kidnapping, which is taken from Gabaldon’s sixth book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, rather than book five like most of the season, was a sensitive one to approach. They considered playing the entire incident off-screen, showing only the aftermath, but Balfe balked at this option.
“I felt that if we’re going to do it at all, we have to make it have a point,” she explains, “and have it say something about the experience that can maybe add something positive to the conversation.” The scene had to stay grounded in Claire’s experience, without showing gratuitous detail or giving too much license to her attackers. This being Outlander, it’s perhaps no surprise that the solution was time travel.
For Balfe, the sequence fell into place when Roberts suggested the idea of intercutting flash-forwards to an imaginary, impossible 1960s reality, in which Claire, Jamie, and their extended family gather for Thanksgiving dinner in a picturesque and distinctly modern country home. As Claire slips in and out of consciousness during her ordeal, she takes refuge in this dissociative dream sequence where things seem idyllic, yet uneasy.
“We went through quite a few drafts, trying to get it to the right place,” recalls Balfe, who was an executive producer for the first time on Season 5 and relished her expanded role in the process. “We wanted to make sure it was very clear that this is a dissociative state, and it’s a coping mechanism that Claire uses, and that it didn’t become, ‘Oh, look how cool it is to have everybody in the ’60s!’” It’s easy to understand this concern—fans have long known that Jamie doesn’t have the ability to time-travel, which makes the opportunity to see him in a 1960s timeline irresistibly tantalizing. “In the beginning, when the writers came up with this idea, they did get a little lost in the excitement of that notion, and we definitely had to walk it back a lot.”
For instance, Balfe says, Claire originally had far more dialogue during the dream sequence, which was stripped back and honed to ensure it tracked with the reality of what was happening to her. “I felt it was really important that the only time we hear her speak is to either say ‘no,’ because this is what she would be saying in real time, or calling out for Jamie. Those are the only two times you hear Claire say anything during this whole disassociate dream state. She never participates in the conversation.” Far from the fan service moment it could have been.
The dinner sequence is designed to keep Claire one degree removed, so that “we always know that the reason we’re there is that something really terrible is happening to Claire, and she’s constructed this as a safe place to go in her mind.”
The fragile sense of peace within the sequence finally crumbles with the arrival of two uniformed officers, who tell Claire that her daughter Bree, son-in-law Roger, and their child have been killed in a car accident. It’s a jarring moment that blurs Claire’s real anxiety about the fate of the couple—who as far as she knows, have just traveled back through the stones into the future—with the demise of her first husband, Frank, in a car crash circa 1966. “It’s interesting that she does conflate those two ideas of Brianna and Frank,” Balfe muses, noting that the era has an additional significance for Claire. “There was that period after Frank died, and before she went back into the past to find Jamie, when Claire was very much her own woman. She was in control of her own life and her own destiny as a modern working woman, and in this moment of powerlessness, that’s why she went to that place.”
Despite the flickers of respite offered by the dream sequence, the 20 screen minutes Claire spends in captivity are almost unbearable to watch, heavy on close-ups of her terrified face. “Our crew could not be more protective of me,” Balfe says fondly of filming the sequence, “and Ned Dennehy, who plays Lionel, is just a sweetheart and super respectful. Those scenes are tough, but you do have to just sort of go there with the character to a certain extent and try to honor this horrific experience she’s going through.”
The attack takes on an even uglier dimension after Lionel reveals that he knows Claire is actually the mysterious Dr. Rawlings, who has in his words been “spreading dangerous ideas, telling women how to deceive their husbands, how to deny them their God-given rights.” In reality, what Claire did in her “Dr. Rawlings” newsletter was provide advice about contraception, so that women like Lionel’s wife could make decisions to avoid becoming pregnant with their abusive spouses’ children.
Like every conversation that takes place in our new pandemic reality, my phone call with Balfe began with a few minutes of bewildered small talk about lockdown, each of us sequestered in our respective homes. And as we turn to discussing the way in which Claire’s sexual assault is framed as a violent tool of the patriarchy, Balfe points out the timely resonance of the storyline in light of one sobering statistic that has emerged from lockdown. “The cases of domestic violence and sexual violence against women have skyrocketed. It’s easy to put these things on TV and talk about it in terms of plot devices and so on, but we still aren’t really having the proper conversations about why this is still so prevalent.”
Another aspect of the show that has taken on new resonance is Claire’s role as a healer, in a moment when health care workers are being rightfully hailed as heroes. “You really see that it’s a calling that people have,” Balfe says, recalling a recent BBC segment she saw that featured people who have recovered from the coronavirus. “One of them was a young doctor, and the minute he got better, he was going right back in to help again. It was just extraordinary to watch.” It’s easy to imagine Claire acting with similar fortitude in the face of a pandemic (remember when she saved Paris from a smallpox outbreak in Season 2?) “It’s more than a career, it’s a passion and a calling, and I’m really glad we got to see her fulfill that side of herself a lot more this year. I missed it last season.”
Balfe’s pride and gratitude is palpable as she talks about the show and its dedicated fan base. But a darker side of the Outlander experience came to light last month, when Sam Heughan spoke out about the “abuse” he’d experienced from online bullies who had subjected him to slurs, stalking, and death threats. I ask Balfe whether she has experienced similar treatment, though we both know the question is almost rhetorical. “Yes, very much so,” she confirms, before emphasizing that the negative voices are a very small subset of what’s primarily a lovely group of fans. “What’s strange to me is the desire to follow something so fervently, spend so much time on it, yet hate the people involved. I just don’t understand it. And as somebody who experienced bullying growing up, it’s not something that I ever thought I would have to face again in my 30s.”
Five seasons in, Balfe says, both she and Heughan have largely learned to navigate this aspect of the fandom, but there are moments—especially lately—when it has felt harder to manage. “I try to ignore it as much as I can, but I understand why Sam spoke out. People can say whatever they want about me, I don’t really care, but when people go after the people that we’re with—when they go after my husband, or the people that [Sam’s] dating—that’s when it gets really hurtful. You realize that because of the career that you’ve chosen, other people in your life are getting hurt, and they didn’t choose any of it. That’s when it crosses the line.”
Filming for Outlander’s sixth season was due to start this week, but is now in limbo along with countless other productions. Nonetheless, Balfe has a sense of where things are headed and is hopeful that this dark chapter for Claire has laid the groundwork for a rich recovery arc. Given Jamie’s own history, she’s also hopeful that Outlander can tell a story that seems relatively unprecedented on television: the experience of a husband and wife who have both survived sexual violence. “I don’t know if you can call it fortunate, but the thing that will be helpful for her is that Jamie understands and has had his own experience of this. They will be able to share it in some way. We do have an opportunity to be able to look at this in a very unique way, so hopefully, we can do something great with that.” And although Claire puts on a brittle, brave face throughout much of the finale, Balfe says unequivocally that her trauma will be played out over the course of many episodes to come.
“Claire is a character who gets called ‘a strong woman’ so much, and I think sometimes that can be a pitfall,” she suggests. “This kind of thing can happen to anyone, and it seems important to show that strength isn’t about an ability to get over something, or an ability to fight your way through every situation. I think Claire needs to feel like it’s not going to break her, but you don’t go through something like this without it changing you deeply.”