By Lynette Rice
February 23, 2020 at 09:00 PM EST
Credit: Aimee Spinks/Starz

What in tarnation was that?

In the second episode of season 5 of Outlander, an unexpected form of torture is displayed and two women are seen grappling for entertainment. Fun? Here, Executive Producer Matthew B. Roberts explains why the tar and feathering scene was necessary for the story, and why they decided to use a gal-on-gal fight scene to help re-introduce a pretty loathsome character.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The tar and feathering scene was intense. What kind of research did you do on that?
MATTHEW B. ROBERTS: We pulled up the more contemporary photos of people in the early 1900s and late 1800s, old photographs of people who were tarred and feathered. It was horrific when we were going through these. Once again, one of the things we usually start with is how to make it as real as possible. What can we do? Will it look right? What will the audience reaction be? Do you really want to look at something like that? We questioned all these things and we don’t want to be gratuitous, but it also has to play. And what’s happening on screen has to affect the characters, not the audience. So if the characters need to see it and feel it, then we feel like we should play it. It’s not just a gratuitous moment to cause shock and awe for the audience. So we needed this tar and feathering to happen for the sake of Murtagh. The horror is there for the residents of Hillsborough. So later in the story when Jamie sees it for the first time, he’s affected by it, like, ‘wow’ in the sense that Jamie has seen a lot, but… this isn’t a war in the sense of a man being shot with a musket. This is someone being tortured. Jamie knows that firsthand. It has an effect on him because I don’t think Jamie would do that to another man, so there’s an internal conflict for Jamie.

Was tar and feathering a real practice by the Scots?
To tell you the truth, we can’t tell. We know that it happened in the colonies. We have record of it happening. I don’t know if they did that in Scotland. We didn’t do it. We’ve never done it on a show other than this season.

I love the scenes when you have Bree and Claire talking about the creation of penicillin and playing God. It’s obviously a topic that needs to be addressed because she is altering time. Will we hear more of that?
Yeah, that’s something that we explore this season and the effects of time travel on the present day. That conversation is kind of the spark. What have we already done? And what I like about that conversation is that Claire points out to Bree, ‘you wouldn’t even be here if time travel didn’t exist’. Bree has to really think about that for a second. Are you playing God? Are you messing with time and space? I’ve already done it because you’re standing in front of me. Sometimes you don’t think it all the way through, and that’s what I liked about Bree. She’s like, ‘hold on, we’re bringing modern stuff into this to this time.’ But there are two modern people standing there having the discussion. That’s the irony of the scene.

Credit: Aimee Spinks/Starz

I was really thrown off by the women fighting, the women’s boxing match. I’m assuming that was a trend, as well?
Yes, we looked into it and they had all kinds of different fights for entertainment at the time. Not only did they fight dogs, they had cockfighting and dogs and bear-baiting. They also had bare knuckle boxing and fighting. Women would do it as well. What we read about was that a lot of times prostitutes would fight over territories. In our stories, one of them took the other’s customer and they were fighting to see who got the customer. There was talk early in the draft where it was going to be two men fighting, and then cockfighting. Somebody found this little tidbit about women fighting and we thought, you know what? Let’s go down that road. Let’s see what that looks like. Once we saw it, it just kind of jumps off of the screen. They were fantastic. Even in today’s age, you have the popularity of the MMA fighting between the female fighters and it’s entertainment. I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t want to get in the ring with any of them. I mean, they’ll knock you right out of the ring. And so you think, that’s happening now in contemporary life and we found out it did happen in the past. We’re not just putting it in there. So we felt like visually it would really do something for the show in that kind of Outlander way. So it was like, hey … let’s push the envelope.

Obviously Stephen Bonnet is the new villain. Would you go as far to say is that he’s even meaner than Black Jack?
I never wanted them to be the same and they’re not the same in the book. You don’t want to have a carbon copy of Black Jack. I think Black Jack had different sensibilities. He believed in duty, honor, loyalty to the crown, and responsibility to being a good soldier. He was not just a sadist. He was obsessed with Jamie loving him. That’s what made that dynamic. Bonnet, to me, is a person that was affected by his upbringing. He was orphaned and treated badly and lived off the streets and was never loved. He was a product of that, whereas we can’t say that about Black Jack. One of the questions I’ve always asked about Bonnet, and I’ve talked to Ed Speleers about this, is if Bonnet was raised in a happy family, raised by the Frasers, what would he become? Who would he have been? That’s the struggle for Bonnet. He was a product of his environment and he had to become this chameleon. We’ve talked about Ted Bundy like that. People were super shocked that it was Ted Bundy who was the serial killer because he was charismatic, he was articulate, he was fun … and then all of a sudden you go, ‘holy crap, he’s a psychotic killer.’ That’s the thing that about Bonnet. Roger hangs out with them during a journey across the sea. They have moments where it feels like if he wasn’t a killer, they would be friends. And it’s up until Bree gets raped where you really go, okay, this guy’s just evil. But in his mind, he was just doing a transaction with a prostitute because there was an unescorted female in a tavern asking to make a deal over a ring. I’m not saying it was right, what he certainly did was absolutely wrong, but in Bonnet’s head, he’s right. And that’s the thing about Bonnet. Everything he does, he feels like he’s doing for a good reason. And that’s what makes him so scary, is that he justifies it to himself.

Outlander airs Sundays on Starz.

Episode Recaps


Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending time travel novels come to life in the Starz series.

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