When audience members cheer during a screening, it’s generally viewed by the show’s creators as a victory. But when this happened during the "spanking scene" at the Outlander premiere in New York last week, it gave executive producer Ron D. Moore pause. "It was like, 'I'm not sure that's the reaction I really want them to have. What does that mean?!" he told Vulture afterward. "It's like on Talk Soup, when Joel McHale says, 'Think about what you're clapping for.'"
Those in the audience who have read the books knew this was coming. Adapted from book one of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Starz show centers on a World War II nurse who accidentally travels back in time to Scotland in 1743. Where we pick up in the mid-season-one premiere, our heroine, Claire, has disobeyed an order from her husband in 1743 (as opposed to her husband in 1945), Jamie, putting his and other lives in jeopardy. The expected code of conduct at the time was for him to punish her, physically. Claire is a modern woman, and she fights back, but is ultimately overpowered and hit with a belt on her bare bottom about a dozen times. "For years and years, that scene has been a source of controversy," Gabaldon told Vulture, "because it's told from Claire's point of view, and she certainly thinks it's a big deal. Some readers — particularly some female readers — often share her sense of indignation and outrage and start hopping up and down about, how dare Jamie? How dare I?"
All of which made the fan reaction puzzling. Were they cheering, as actor Sam Heughan joked with Vulture afterward, because we got to see Claire's backside? ("How can you not enjoy seeing that fine derrière?" he laughed.) Were they cheering because show-Claire got to get in a few more defensive moves than book-Claire did, most notably kicking Jamie in the jaw? ("I think I probably actually hurt Sam!" actress Caitriona Balfe confessed. "You got me on the kick," Heughan confirmed.) Or was the audience cheering because here we had a highly anticipated moment, and the show managed to pull it off?
"You kind of felt it in the room, a 'here we go' kind of thing," Moore said. "And then they kind of laughed when the music came in, because they got the lightness of it. And at the end, they applauded. I think it was relief. I think this was a group of people who were hoping that this would be done well, and then were relieved. 'Oh, you did it.'"
Balfe, Heughan, and Moore argue the scene works because the whole episode is played from Jamie's point of view. “You understand the perspective of someone from 1743," Balfe said. "And in that way, even though it's not an acceptable act, you can understand the reasons, where Jamie's coming from. It's not that he wants to do this. It's that this is his code of honor. This is his duty."
"There is a side to him that enjoys it," Heughan said, "but he's not doing it out of anger or hate. There is no malice."
"In Jamie's mind it's about justice. It's about righting the scales of justice, in that time and place,” Moore added. “If you were a man [who put other lives in jeopardy], you'd be punished, and if you were a woman, this is how you'd be punished.”
The jaunty music that starts playing as the fight begins is meant to comfort the audience. "I wanted to say somewhere in there, 'You know what? It's going to be okay,'" Moore said. "This is a show that goes to dark places, but this is not one of them. This tells them, 'Relax. Enjoy it. It's kind of fun on a weird level. Just go there.'"
During the final sound mix of the show, Moore polled a group of ten women on the crew on the appropriate moment to bring the music in. "They had very different feelings, perspectives about it," he said. "If you brought it in early, it took the teeth out of the scene. It took the tension out. And if you brought it in too late, it started to get uncomfortable."
The result emphasizes the battle of wills between the two characters, without becoming "too slapstick," Heughan says. "Each person is completely convinced of the rightness of their actions, and both of them are right," Gabaldon said. "But when push comes to shove, so to speak, he outweighs her by 80 or 90 pounds, and he's going to win. Temporarily."
Gabaldon said she was impressed by all of the dailies shot from the two-day shoot, which demonstrated "the perfect balance between menace and comedy, anger and patience, and absolute balletic action. Riveting." That, rather than the beating itself, must be why fans are cheering.