'Outlander': Sex, rugs, and rolls in the hay
This story originally appeared on the cover of the March 4, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Claire Fraser came to Paris to stop a war, not parlez-vous pénis. For the second season of Outlander — Starz’s hit series about a World War II combat nurse who travels back in time to 18th-century Scotland — Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her kilt-wearing cutie Jamie (Sam Heughan) cross the sea in a Doc Brown-like attempt to alter the future and stave off a Highland uprising. But before they can stop the battle, Claire must embed herself in French high society, where she encounters a gaggle of women impertinently jabbering about sex. Quelle horreur!
“What do English ladies call a male member?” queries one silk-clad madame. “Well, I heard it referred to as Peter,” drones an impatient Claire. “Or there are those who prefer prick…” One of the hallmarks of Outlander (which returns April 9 at 9 p.m.) is its bold, erotic content — the sex scenes between Balfe and Heughan are so steamy that fans still doubt their denials of an off-camera love affair. “Honestly, I’m tired of that conversation,” says Balfe, sighing. “It’s an important part of the story and Claire’s character.”
But it also makes Outlander one of TV’s most hard-to-define dramas. Though the romance-for-the-ages conceit is central to the series — and to Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling books on which it is based — Outlander is just as much a historical story (Scotland’s Battle of Culloden, which Claire and Jamie are trying to preempt, actually happened in April 1746 and led to the destruction of the Highland Clan culture) as it is a psychological drama. The most talked-about scene from the first season was when English captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies) tortured and sodomized Jamie in a prison cell. “It wasn’t about rape,” explains Heughan of his character’s horrific assault. “It was about two men battling their wills to beat each other.”
The series’ mix of graphic violence, far-out storytelling, and crazy-good sex may also explain its wide-reaching appeal: Of the 5 million viewers who tuned in to season 1, roughly 40 percent were men. The genre buster has also been credited in part with boosting Starz’s subscriber base to a new high of 23.3 million, making it the second-most-popular premium network behind HBO. (It also helped Gabaldon sell nearly 5 million more copies, bringing her total book sales to 26 million worldwide.) But the fans’ rabid interest in the romance — and the network’s aversion to calling it that — has made it a tough sell come Emmy time (more on the awards Droughtlander later). “Sometimes, people can dismiss our show as this romance fantasy,” argues Balfe. “But we went to some dark places and challenged the viewers. I’m proud of what we’ve shown.”
Well, maybe not in this exact moment on set, where they’re quite literally trampling on history. On a ridiculously frigid December afternoon in central Scotland, Balfe has gathered with Heughan, Graham McTavish (Dougal MacKenzie, the war chieftain of the MacKenzie clan), and a few others outside an old church to film a scene in which they’re fleeing a party of redcoats. But in every take, they’re having to step on graves that date back to the 1400s. “I feel a bit bad about that,” frowns McTavish, who knows he doesn’t have much choice in the matter. The cemetery is basically the front yard of the church. “Working on historic Scotland properties is always challenging because of the nature of them,” admits Jon Gary Steele, the drama’s production designer.
Before we venture too deep into Scottish history, let’s recap what has brought them here in the first place. By the time the drama wrapped its first season in May, Claire had not only abandoned the idea of returning to the 20th century through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun (the series’ craggy take on a TARDIS) but had also discovered that the evil Black Jack is related to her left-in-the-future husband, Frank (also played by the terrific Menzies). The need to escape the bad blood in Scotland and flee to France — where she and Jamie plan to stop the war — was immense. And to leave fans with less agony and more ecstasy, the season 1 finale concluded with Claire, who had assumed she wasn’t able to conceive, telling Jamie that she was pregnant with their child. “I wanted to go out on a lighter note,” explains executive producer Ronald D. Moore. “I mean, an audience would go just about anywhere you ask them to go as long as you’re telling a good story. They’ll just keep suffering with characters over and over and over again. But I wanted to give some hope.”
The promise of a new Paris locale both thrilled and challenged Moore’s costume-designer wife, Terry Dresbach, who got to trade in tartans for sumptuous silks. “It’s a completely different kind of clothing,” explains Dresbach, who estimates that her staff created more than 10,000 items for season 2. “In Scotland there is not a ton of research on what they wore. It was more of a rough place. Eighteenth-century France is one of the most documented periods of fashion in the world, so you better get it right.” Or, as Heughan likes to put it, “I get to wear pants.”
The new season was equally daunting for Moore and the writers. Not only is Gabaldon’s second book, Dragonfly in Amber, far more complicated structurally, it also alternates points of view and begins in the 1960s with the introduction of Jamie and Claire’s adult daughter, Brianna, who strikes up a friendship with Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son, Roger (see sidebar). “Year 1 was a fairly straight narrative,” says Moore. “Claire goes to the past. She tries to get home. She meets Jamie. She falls in love. Jamie is taken. And she goes to rescue Jamie. That’s essentially the plot. Season 2 is much more complex. We’ve left most of the characters from season 1 back in Scotland. Now you’re dealing with politics, the secretive rebellion, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the King. They’re trying to figure out where the money’s coming from [to fund the war]. Can they stop this from happening? And now Jamie and Claire are married as opposed to a courting couple in the first season. There’s a baby on the way. So everything’s very, very different.”
Fortunately, Gabaldon didn’t blanch when Moore played loosey-goosey with the timeline. (In Dragonfly, Claire travels back through the stones to the 20th century. But the network won’t say whether the same thing happens in the show.) “I’m not the sort of author who was going, ‘Oh no, it says this here. You have to do it that way,’ that sort of thing,” says Gabaldon, who made a cameo in the first season and wrote episode 11 for the second. “I also knew the constraints they were dealing with, that they have a limited number of 55-minute blocks, and within that block each has to have its own dramatic arc… They’ve done a very good job of making it a faithful adaptation while still fitting it into the structure that they need for television.”
The worry now is Gabaldon’s passionate fans, and whether they can be trusted to keep their Twitter accounts clear of spoilers for non-book-readers. Though you won’t need a set of CliffsNotes to predict what Jamie’s going to be like this year — following his rape in season 1, Heughan says his alter ego is “no longer this kind of carefree figure” — there are details surrounding several major developments that Moore would like to keep under wraps, including whether we’ll see bovine-stomped Black Jack again (“It would be a bit of a limp way to die,” admits Menzies) and if Claire and Jamie can ultimately stop the battle. While Game of Thrones seems to toe that line well, Outlander actors still worry about loose lips sinking their proverbial ship. “It’s something that I try and discourage fans from doing,” says McTavish. “There are some massive things that happen in this season in terms of characters. All sorts of things go on. It’s unfair for people who are just enjoying the show.”
They better get used to it: With eight books (and Gabaldon busy working on a ninth), Outlander could last on Starz until 2024 — or beyond. “We knew all along that it was intended to be one season per book until perhaps [the third book] Voyager, which is a much longer book,” says Gabaldon. “People were saying to Ron, ‘Well, what are you gonna do when we get to Voyager?’ And he said, ‘I should have such problems.'” However the novels are sliced and diced for the small screen, Balfe is on board for the long haul. “I don’t forget examples of people dying to get off shows that make them successful, and you never see them again. Opportunities like this don’t come along often.”
Something else that doesn’t come along often? Accolades. While the show has two consecutive People’s Choice awards for Favorite Cable Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV Show — and swept Entertainment Weekly’s own fan-voted EWwys last year—the Emmys largely overlooked the series, as did the Golden Globes earlier this year, despite earning three nominations. It’s not as if the Emmys are averse to fantasy — Game of Thrones has received a best-drama nomination every year it’s been on HBO, finally winning the top prize in September. So that makes the snub even more disappointing, albeit maddeningly familiar to Moore. “I was frustrated by it for many years on Battlestar Galactica,” he admits. “Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell never got nominations, which I thought was criminal. It’s always kind of a throw of the dice. It would be great to get more recognition for all these people that work really hard, from our cast to the set design to costume design. But what can you do?”
Give fans more of what they want, for starters. To wit: Look for a new level of intimacy in season 2. “We’ve had to get very close, so we trust each other very implicitly,” Heughan says. “We’re very lucky, and it comes across on screen.” So if you liked the way that Claire and Jamie romped in Scotland, you’re going to love how they get busy in France by episode 2 and the way she, uh, soaks up the local customs practiced by French gals in an effort to arouse their men.
“I thought you’d be intrigued,” Claire coos as she slips between the sheets with her smoking Scot. “Something different.” Mais oui.