Be advised that the following article contains major spoilers about a scene in last night’s episode of Outlander.
“Have you ever seen a man scourged? It’s never pretty.” — Black Jack Randall
As viewers, we know that it was the character Jamie, not the actor Sam Heughan, being subjected to that brutal flogging during Saturday night’s episode of Outlander, but the scene still seemed disturbingly realistic. The blood flowing from Jamie’s wounds, the skin curling off his back, the grimacing and gasping at every lash to the back, the pooling of slippery blood on the platform underneath him — none of it was pretty to watch, even if the contemptible Black Jack Randall (played by Tobias Menzies) considers the relentless assault “an exquisite, bloody masterpiece.” But as painful as the scene was to sit through, we admire the artistry and technique that went into pulling off something so uncomfortably realistic, and discussed how they did it with Heughan, Menzies, and showrunner Ronald D. Moore.
First, Moore and the episode’s writer, Ira Behr, contemplated how to depict the scene so as to avoid what Moore calls “the pornography of violence.” He told Vulture, “If I’m going to shoot something like a flogging or an injury or a kill, I want it took painful, I want it to look real, but I don’t want to linger on it beyond the point where you need to. I dislike slow blood spurts and things like that.” So, even though it feels like quite a long scene, the actual flogging takes up only three minutes of the episode, and is intercut with numerous reaction shots from the crowd of about 100 extras, giving off the illusion that we saw more than we did. “You had to see some of it,” said Moore. “I wanted you to be shocked by it so you wanted to turn away. And I wanted to make enough of it so that you were sort of horrified, but not indulging in it. So the faces in the crowd speak volumes about what they’re witnessing, and you have an emotional response to their emotional response.”
The gruesome flashback took a full day of production back in February, Moore said, and was shot at an old stone fort right on the sea, which created some weird patterns in the wind and unforeseen difficulties for the crew. “It was almost like a windstorm over here in one corner, and then over in another it was completely still,” recalled Moore. The extreme weather affected one person on set more than others, of course. “I remember it being absolutely freezing,” said Heughan, who spent much of the scene shirtless. “I think my shaking because of the wind and the cold was pretty helpful for the character, because it made me feel like I’d have to get it done soon, or I’d freeze!”
The shooting environment was also complicated due to previous health and safety concerns. During a lesser whipping in episode two, Heughan actually got hit and walked away with welts on his back, even though he’d worn protective padding. To avoid any incidental contact between weapon and actor this time around, Menzies received a brief tutorial on how to use a whip so that, as the actor explains, “I don’t actually flog him, so Sam can continue to work on the show!” At times, there was an actual cat o’ nine tails in play; at other points, Menzies used a stick without a whip. With both weapons, “I hit just short of Sam,” said Menzies. “And sometimes, if the camera was on me, there was a post with rubber wrapped around it so I could really go for it [and] you’d have the sensation of the tails striking something.”
“Tobias would be whipping me but making no contact,” Heughan said, “and then someone else made the noise of it, so I could react to that.” But even though Heughan himself was spared the lash this time, the actor didn’t emerge from the scene unscathed. The sequence called for him to hang by his wrists while shackled to a post with real manacles, and the pull of his body weight caused some damage. “My wrists got all cut up, and my shoulders were quite sore,” Heughan said.
The process of getting Jamie’s back to appear as if it were actually taking a whipping involved several rounds of makeup and prosthetics, because each stage required a separate trip to the makeup trailer. It typically took two hours to apply Jamie’s scars, but to make the fresh wounds added another hour. A pump was used to make the blood flow, and Heughan had to remain aware of what was going on with his back so that he wouldn’t “just plop down on a chair,” as Moore put it, and ruin the seamless effect. Not that they took too many breaks. “It was a day where we had to stay in the zone,” said Menzies. “We didn’t really chat much, or hug it out. What is there to say to each other, really? We just had to do it.” Heughan added, “We might have had a bit of whisky.”
Menzies got into character by imagining Black Jack as being a study in sadism. “I had several meetings with Ron and Ira, and I wanted to have it so it wasn’t just anger or rage or emotional incontinence,” he said. “This is a man who is curious about boundaries, about the limitations of the human frame, and there’s something oddly scientific about his gaze.” Rather than being out of control during the flogging, they agreed that the scene needed to relate Black Jack’s own insight into his pathology, which, on some levels, makes it more disturbing. “He’s come up against someone as stubborn as he is, and there’s something exciting about meeting an immovable force,” Menzies said. “And that significance had to happen non-verbally, in the physicality of it.”
While we see the flashback, Claire only hears about it from Black Jack, but she knows how much damage he inflicted since she’d observed the scars on Jamie’s back. Adding to the visceral image, she’s put off by hearing the tale told by a man who both resembles her husband and expresses seeming remorse about the whipping. “It’s a tactic,” Menzies said. “He’s not lying [to her], but he’s using the truth as a tactic. And she’s clutching at straws. You want to think that maybe there is a heart inside of Jack.” Because he has insight and self-knowledge, she starts believing that he could be decent. It’s doubtful she’ll be making that mistake again.
“It’s a brutal scene, and I think it should be,” Menzies said. “You need that darker undertow as an antidote to some of the romantic aspects to the story.” Heughan agreed. “While seeing the whipping itself might be surprising, you learn what strength Jamie has,” he said. “You know the grim reality of what happened to him.”
“We’re very proud of it,” Moore said. “We have something that feels truthful and awful, without being gratuitous. It is what it has to be, because that’s the story.”