Spoilers ahead for the season-two finale of Outlander.
While all of Claire’s efforts to change history have failed, she and Jamie contemplate one last way to prevent the slaughter at Culloden — poisoning Bonnie Prince Charlie. Unfortunately, Dougal overhears this murder scheme without completely understanding or knowing their larger motivations to save lives. A heartbroken Dougal believes they’re betraying the cause he thought they were all sworn to, and tries to stop them. On one level, he succeeds, but it costs him his life. Actor Graham McTavish chatted with Vulture about making Claire complicit in his death, taking selfies, and biting off a guy’s nose in the heat of battle.
At least you got to survive a whole episode longer than your brother!
[Laughs.] Colum’s death was my last day. My death was shot two days beforehand. But the death of Colum is a very, very powerful moment, because you get to experience the loving side of Dougal. When he sincerely feels something, it’s very deep and powerful, because of his loyalty to the people he loves. That’s why he cannot understand why Colum would pass him over to give the Lairdship to Hamish. Exile was bad enough, but this? And so he wants to communicate, in that scene, his love for his brother, and how he felt when his brother was injured, and that his big brother who he always looked up to was letting him down.
What I love about the scene, the way it’s been written, is that he’s telling him all this on his deathbed, and Colum actually dies during the scene, but Dougal is unaware that he’s dead, so he’s still talking. He gets to the real heart of what he wants to tell him, and then he realizes that Colum will never hear it. Anybody who’s lost somebody can relate to those regrets. My own father, there are things I wish I’d said to him before he died. And that sense that somebody will never be with us again is so difficult for all of us to understand and deal with.
There’s a lot less talking involved when Dougal dies. How did you guys figure out how you were going to stage the fight?
The original idea was to just have the knife fight between Sam [Heughan] and myself, but in the filming of it, this vicious knife fight with the dirk, we came up with something more interesting. What we managed to persuade them on is this — I end up on my back, having been disabled by Claire. She’s bashing me over the head, I’ve got the knife, I’m pointing it at Jamie’s throat, I’m pushing it upwards, he’s in a bit of trouble, and then he turns the knife. But in order for it to be turned down into my body, basically, Claire has to join him. The two of them have to drive the knife into me. When we were in the room, with Caitriona [Balfe] standing there, we realized, Why is she doing nothing? Why is she just standing there, when I’ve tried to kill her, and I’m in the process of pretty much successfully about to murder her husband? And she’s not going to help? So we all pulled quite hard for this, because it’s an interesting complicity. It’s not just the two men fighting while the poor woman stands by, watching. She has to be involved. Given the fact that Claire’s done some pretty tough things up at that point, we didn’t think it was breaking any kind of convention to have her be involved in the death. And it’s very Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in that moment — not that Jamie and Claire are like them, but that very strong connection. They have a purpose, a goal, and they’re not going to let me get in the way of that.
But it’s very conflicted for all of them. ..
Absolutely. It’s the worst betrayal, the worst thing imagined. The thing I wanted to convey more than anything was Dougal’s utter disbelief. Even at the moment of his death, he’s looking at his nephew, and they have both conflict and love. Yes, he’s killing me, but he also loves me. And yes, I want to kill him, and I love him, too. It’s not a straightforward good guy–bad guy, where you’re rooting for one or the other. This is a terrible tragedy, and there is a reluctance. He doesn’t want to kill his nephew. He doesn’t even particularly want to kill Claire, although at this point, he sees her as a meddling witch, basically. But Dougal is ruled by his love of Scotland and his belief in Bonnie Prince Charlie, and anything that gets in the way of that, as far as he’s concerned, is an obstacle that needs to be removed. It’s not cold-blooded. We didn’t want screaming, you know what I mean? It’s calm and measured, a slow and vicious struggle, like that scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the guy gets killed by the German soldier. So the physical image of the two of them, bloody hands clasped around the hilt of a dirk, driving it into Jamie’s uncle, it’s powerful. I even took a photograph on my phone of it, with the two of them looking down at me! I wanted it to be the last thing Dougal sees, the two of them together, killing him.
Now I’m imagining Dougal there taking a selfie!
[Laughs.] “I know you’re about to kill me, but just hold on one sec! I can never work these things!” He just needs a selfie stick. Although I think Dougal might be more of a GoPro guy. He’d have run around the battle, smashing and killing everybody, capturing it all on film to watch it all again later. He wouldn’t even show it to anybody else. He’d just watch it for his own amusement.
Such as the moment where he kills the British soldier? The one it seemed like he was going to let live?
Yeah, that was another great moment. That says a lot about Dougal’s character. He was going to spare the guy’s life, as far as I was concerned. He’d already killed a lot of people. The guy recognizes him, and he doesn’t seem so bad, so he thinks, “Okay, we’ll let this guy go.” But then the guy just makes a mistake by really annoying Dougal, and saying that he will eventually lose. A man like Dougal makes a lot of his decisions in the heat of the moment, and that’s why he sometimes makes bad decisions. And at that point, it was just, “Okay, well, I’m going to have to kill you now.” When we did the killing moment, the actor being killed, I’m literally disemboweling him, and I thought that Dougal would find it really annoying that somebody would make that much noise when they’re dying, so I put in the whole shushing him thing. It’s like Dougal is saying, “Come on. Pull yourself together. Die like a man. Stop making such a fuss.”
There was a death that was cut out of that battle? You told me before about a guy whose nose you had to bite off or break off?
Yeah, they had me killing another guy, and I ended up breaking his nose off. I pushed for that. The way it was done, we were fighting each other, and we were well-matched, so we were in a bit of a stalemate. The director said, “Maybe you head butt him?” And I said, “No, no, no, Dougal would just bite his face off. He would be like a wild animal.” And that’s what we wanted to portray for the Highlanders — not just for my character, but for Jamie, for Angus, all the Highlanders. There’s nothing pretty about it. They will do anything. You do anything you can to disable or kill your enemy. Dougal’s not there to take prisoners or to be empathetic. These are enemies of his nation, as far as he’s concerned, and they all need to go. There’s no quarter given. But there was so much of that in the battle, we had to cut that one moment. It was pretty nasty, though, so maybe it’ll make the DVD! [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed.