chat room

Caitriona Balfe on Outlander’s Brutal Slave Lynching Episode

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Outlander.
Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Outlander. Photo: Aimee Spinks/Starz

This week’s episode of Outlander, “Do No Harm,” is the show’s most harrowing hour since season one’s Wentworth Prison-set finale. After Claire, Jamie, and Young Ian arrive penniless at River Run, the North Carolina plantation owned by Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Jocasta reveals that she’s a true, manipulative MacKenzie by publicly declaring Jamie the new master of River Run before discussing it with him. Claire rebukes the idea immediately — she won’t own people as property — but Jamie wants to at least explore the possibility of working toward freeing River Run’s 152 slaves and paying those men and women wages.

The episode takes its most horrifying turn when Jamie and Claire discover a slave named Rufus (Jerome Holder) hanging by a hook through his torso. After receiving a lashing, Rufus had drawn the blood of his white overseer — a “crime” for which Rufus was to be executed. Claire insisted on saving Rufus, and ultimately performed surgery on Jocasta’s dining room table before having him moved to her and Jamie’s bed to recover. But the neighboring plantation owners demanded “justice” anyway: If Jamie didn’t hand Rufus over by midnight to the mob at Jocasta’s door, they threatened to punish the other slaves and burn River Run to the ground.

Seeing no other option, Jamie suggests Claire aid Rufus the way she had his uncle Colum, with an assisted suicide: “If your oath is to do no harm, then isn’t it better to save his soul than to have those men tear it from his body?” Claire feeds Rufus a fatal cup of tea, holds his hand, and asks him to tell her about the sister he dreamed of seeing again. Once Rufus took his last breath, Jamie says a prayer for him, then carries his body outside — where the white mob drags him to a tree and hangs him.

Ahead of Sunday’s episode, Caitriona Balfe talked with Vulture about shooting those gut-wrenching scenes, why the visit to River Run brings the Frasers even closer, and the one thing she’d change about the home we’ll see the couple build in the backcountry.

What was the most challenging moment to film in “Do No Harm”?
There were quite a few things that were very difficult. First of all, just being on that plantation setting and having our actors and our extras be in that position of playing slaves — it’s a horrible thing to even watch and be a part of as make believe, because unfortunately, it’s all too real in history. When Claire and Jamie give Rufus the tea, that was really tough. There was a lot of talk about those scenes, whether it should be this way or that way.

What were the conversations surrounding that tea scene, specifically?
Part of what is so tough about playing Claire is how she, a lot of the times, is so rational, but in this episode, she lets her emotions run riot and dictate. And the fact that in trying to help this one boy, she’s put his fellow slaves and his fellow workers in jeopardy. It’s watching Claire be so run by her emotions that she’s not able to think clearly.

Those scenes with Rufus … for Claire, it was just to try to get him some kind of peace, and to, in some way, give him an escape from what is going to be ultimately his fate with the mob. We were wondering whether or not it’s the right thing to do to have somebody take that decision into their hands. Even though Claire is a doctor, is it better to give him this peaceful exit? We all struggle when we get scenes like that, finding the right way to do it.

How do you steel yourself for those moments when you know the character has to stand there and witness Rufus’s fate? Or that Claire must hold it together while telling Rufus he’ll see his sister again?
Because the visuals of it are so horrific — it was definitely very visceral — feeling horrified and disgusted and emotional is actually a very natural response, so you use all of those things. And Jerome [Holder] was so incredible. When you have an actor come on to the show, and they bring such an incredible performance, and you get to be real partners in those scenes, that really helps get you through it.

We saw Young Ian step up and help Claire during Rufus’s surgery. Without spoiling too much, it’s not the last time we’ll see him assist her. What do you enjoy about that relationship this season?
We’ve developed this relationship that, on the one hand, they get along very well, but on the other hand, he’s like the third wheel a lot of the time. We give John Bell a little bit of grief and that bleeds into Young Ian, which is really fun. But John Bell’s wonderful — you can just see that he enjoys every single second of being on set, so he’s a real joy to have around.

In addition to grounding the show in the colonial South, this episode obviously sets up why Claire and Jamie won’t take the “easy route” of inheriting the plantation as their home. How does their experience at River Run affect their relationship moving forward?
First of all, it speaks so much to Jamie’s willingness to go outside the box of what is expected of a man of his time. I think that just deepens Claire’s respect and love for him: She can appeal to his emotional intelligence and explain to him why this is so wrong, and he can see it beyond color, and tradition, and the expectations of society of that moment. It was so important for both of them — but especially for Jamie if he’s not going back to Scotland — that they create a life that they can both really live by. They’ve been through so much horror and they’ve been through so much pain. Even though it was a risky choice and not the easy choice, this opportunity to start a community from the ground up in the way that they want to live makes their bond so much stronger.

In next week’s episode, Claire and Jamie set out to find their own land, Fraser’s Ridge. Promos show them staring out over the mountains, embracing each other as their cabin is being built. Even though there is so much uncertainty ahead, Claire seems to have a sense of calm and confidence this season. Did your approach to playing her change with the New World?
It’s a continuation of the work I was trying to do last season, of finding that maturity within her and that confidence with age. Claire has had the opportunity to invest in her role as a mother. She’s had the opportunity to invest in her role as a professional and as a doctor. And here, finally, in a happy, fulfilled way, she has the chance to invest in her role as a wife and as a homemaker. Last season I felt, especially for the first half of the season, that I was playing a woman who was very compromised — she’s had to give up on a part of herself. Whereas this season, I feel she’s a very content and satisfied whole person.

Looking ahead, there are many similarities between Highlanders and Native Americans, which explains why Jamie relates to the Cherokee people who share a border with Fraser’s Ridge. How does Claire?
Claire is somebody that sees people for people, and that’s something that I love about her. She’s a compassionate and empathetic woman. She doesn’t judge people, and she doesn’t feel that she is superior to anybody just because she’s white or whatever. She doesn’t feel like anyone else is superior to her, either. Obviously we are still playing people who are settling land that ultimately belongs to another people, so even though they have this connection to the Cherokee and they see the similarities to the Highlanders, they still settled the land — so it’s a strange one in many ways. But I do love that they very quickly form a bond with their Cherokee neighbors and there’s a mutual respect there. I think that goes back to Jamie and Claire building their community as they want from the ground up, which is one of respect and one of equality.

What is your favorite part of Fraser’s Ridge? Did you ask for anything to be put in the cabin on Claire’s behalf?
Well, I did ask why the hell Jamie didn’t build a separate bedroom, but that fell on deaf ears. We were like, “What? You built this huge cabin and there’s no bedroom? What?” [Laughs.] Obviously for Claire, her little corner where she has all of her bottles and her medicine chest is just so amazing. I’m blown away by the art department and how all of those little details are so specific to this character. We always have a really fun few days in the beginning of going in and rummaging around and seeing exactly what’s there. But you know, when we were outside, we had this fantastic animal handler who owned the goats and the pig and all of that. I come from the countryside. We had a small farm growing up, and it was just really nice to be around that. It brought me back to being a very young child.

Caitriona Balfe on Outlander’s Brutal Slave Lynching Episode