The Story Behind Outlander’s Disturbing Season One Finale

By
L-R: Black Jack, Claire, and Jamie in Saturday night's finale. Photo: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures

Spoilers ahead for the season one finale of Outlander.

When we first see Jamie and Jack in the season finale of Outlander, the two men are naked, in bed together as morning breaks — though from the look on Jamie's face, he probably didn't get any sleep at all. After a long night with his nemesis, he appears devastated, ruined, lost. "I didn't want to do this kind of nudity until it had a great effect," actor Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, told us. "Hopefully it's a shock, rather than something pleasant to watch. It's like, 'Oh my God — what's happened to this person?"

"It's so sad to watch!" agreed actress Caitriona Balfe.

The opening scene is designed to shock the portion of the audience who, after episode 15's ominous ending, might have hoped someone would come in and save Jamie before he suffered any further. "A chunk of them were going, 'Oh, that's not going to happen,'" showrunner Ron D. Moore said. "'Angus is going to come in, flying on a rope or something, and it's all going to be okay.'"

And why shouldn't we think that? Didn't that happen for Claire, when Black Jack was about to rape her during the season-break cliff-hanger? Hasn't every rape attempt on the show been averted so far, at the last moment? Yet all along, Moore has been trying to warn the non-book-reading portion of the audience that the season would be darker and more brutal, to prepare them for this moment. "We're not playing around here," Moore said. "This is the story. There's a book that we're following, and this is part of the story that is absolutely necessary to that book. There's really no way not to do it. This is a horrific situation, so it should be horrific."

Male rape is so rarely featured on television, to have not one but two extended incidents that haunt the lead character and require an intervention-style recovery is pretty groundbreaking. "This is not a place you take your lead male character," Moore said. "I kind of knew, as soon as I read the book, I had never seen this story on film or TV. It felt like we had a unique challenge, a unique story, and it didn't feel like there was much out there to help us along the way, so it was like, 'How are we going to figure this out?'"

Challenge No. 1 was adapting the scenes from Diana Gabaldon's book. Moore had planned episodes 15 and 16 as a two-parter, and originally divvied up the episodes between himself and Ira Behr to script. (Behr got 15, Moore got 16). But as Moore tried to write his episode, he struggled with the emotional focal points. Dialogue and conversation between Black Jack and Jamie wasn't hard — "you can write pages of them just bantering back and forth" — but he couldn't figure out a rhythm between the violence, fear, agony, and quieter moments of reflection. "I would get stuck in the banter, and then I would just throw in violence, and it wouldn't feel connected," he said. "And I didn't want to fuck around with it." So he called in Behr for help. The two hadn't collaborated on a script since working together on Star Trek, but "it all kind of coalesced."

Together, they figured out a structure, departing from the sequence of events in Gabaldon's book. Instead of having the characters leave Scotland and go to France, where Jamie's recovery would then take place over the course of several weeks, they decided to keep the characters in Scotland, "so you still have a sense of danger hanging over them. They haven't made it home free." Placing the abbey in Scotland collapsed the timeline and made everything that happened to Jamie more recent. "It gave it a much deeper sense of urgency," Moore said.

Another key change was to tell part of the story from Jamie's point of view, a practice that started in episode nine. This made Jamie's story less of a flashback, and more of a memory, "pulling him back into things that he literally just left," especially whenever he sees Claire's face. "Jamie can take punishment, we've seen that time and time again," Heughan said, "but it doesn't matter as long as he's got Claire. That's his fortitude, and Black Jack breaks that for him. He recomputes, recalibrates Jamie so that he's messing with his mind, and makes Jamie associate him with Claire in those moments. So now when he sees Claire, Black Jack is there, and he's completely lost."

Part of this happens because Black Jack's method isn't just to rape an unwilling subject. Black Jack insists that Jamie participate. Compared to Black Jack's previous attempted rapes of Claire and Jenny, this one, for Jack, is a seduction. "He knows what he's doing," actor Tobias Menzies (Black Jack) said. "And a part of him is expressing his sexuality, as twisted as that is. Back then, 'bisexual' wasn't a thing. Sexuality was far less defined. He just desires what he desires. And he doesn't appear to have any hang-ups or issues or insecurities about it. He doesn't think there's anything odd about it. You could make an argument that there is something tender about Jack's feelings for Jamie, that he may even want to be loved by Jamie. The manifestation of it is ugly, but the source is a more simple, human drive."

That tenderness, after all that pain, leads Jamie to experience a moment of, shall we say, release. This, perhaps more than the rape, contributes to Jamie blaming himself, and his subsequent sense of self-loathing. "The shock that you enjoyed it, what does that say about you?" Moore said. "It's a tremendous amount of psychological pressure — what he thinks about himself, what he thinks about himself as a man, how does he think it's impacted his relationship with Claire. What are you supposed to do in this circumstances?"

To give the actors the time and space to approach these psychological depths, Moore granted separate rehearsal time ("which we don't normally have in the schedule"), and it paid off. While brainstorming, Heughan and Menzies choreographed a moment together that wasn't in the script, where Jack picks up Jamie, opens up his arms, and Jamie lies back in his lap. "It's very reminiscent of the famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Christ in her lap, [Michelangelo's Pietà]," Moore said. "And they wanted to add a line where Jack says something like, 'So that's your plan? To submit like Christ on the cross?' And we were like, 'Wow, that's really powerful and disturbing. Let's do it.'"

The production also made the prison cell sound stage a closed set — not that they had any trouble keeping the cast and crew away. "You literally did not like being in that space, in that cell," Moore said. "It was dark. It was not a happy place to be, whether the actors were in there or not." The darkness wasn't just the subject matter, but also the lack of light. The idea of even having a window in that cell was vetoed, because it needed to be claustrophobic: "You're trapped with nowhere to go, you're trapped with this guy," Moore said.

Shooting the Wentworth Prison scenes chronologically took ten days, and at the end of each day, everyone felt drained, particularly the actors. So imagine how Heughan felt on the final day of the shoot, when he was asked to do it again, one more time. "They said, 'We'd love one more wide shot of it, the whole thing,'" Heughan recalled. "And I was like, [groans] 'Oh God.' I thought I'd gotten it all out of the way. And they said, 'We'll only do it up to a certain point, just before it happens.' And then it got up to that point, and they didn't call cut, so we had to carry on. I remember feeling so scared, and actually feeling slightly like my trust had been broken a bit, because it was horrific. Great to play, but horrific. But that's what it was for Jamie — he's beaten and tortured and broken down, completely!" Smiling, Heughan joked, "I think they did it to me on purpose, just to go there."

Afterward, Heughan recovered from the shoot (and re-shoot) with the aid of some whisky and the Scottish highlands. "At the end of it, I just got very drunk and went hill-walking for a couple of days," he laughed. Jamie's recovery might take a bit longer, even though he was able to smile by the end of the finale. "He's completely changed," Heughan said. "He's got this past now, and that's the tragedy. Never again will we see the wedding-night-style new love. There's a sort of resolve that comes out of it, when he finds out Claire's pregnant, so there's hope, but he's in a weird place. And hopefully that will echo into season two."