This week’s episode of Outlander, “Common Ground,” featured a moment readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn have been waiting for: Jamie going toe-to-toe with a bear. But the writers of the Starz drama—who like to give fans what they want but not necessarily how they expect it—added their own twist. In the episode, the bear is actually a man who, after being shunned by his Cherokee tribe for sexual assault, assumed the persona (and skin and claws) of a bear to steal food and terrorize Fraser’s Ridge. Jamie drives a stake through the intruder, then lugs the body back to his Cherokee neighbors, who give Jamie the name Bear Killer and introduce Claire to their healer, Adawehi (Dances With Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal).
While we await the meaning of Adawehi’s cryptic message for Claire (Caitriona Balfe)—“Death is sent from the gods, it will not be your fault”—Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, talked with Vulture about the battle, life in the backcountry, and whether we’ll ever see Jamie knit.
How did you find out about the writers’ plan to have the bear be a man, and what was your reaction?
We didn’t really know until we actually first read the script. We were obviously thinking at first, you know, it’s going to be a lot like The Revenant and the DiCaprio [bear] fight. To read it’s actually a man, I think it’s a really nice twist. We have a few of those this season—moments that I think fans of the books are gonna be surprised by—and I think it really adds to it. It’s fun to keep them on the front of their seats. And it’s also the beginning of the sort of understanding and mutual respect that Jamie has with the Native Americans. This moment, really in their eyes certainly, gives them some respect for who he is and vice versa.
What do you remember about filming that fight? It’s dark, you’re battling a man in a bear costume with claws. What was that experience like?
I mean, we always talk about the weather, but it was -7 degrees Celsius at night, and it was so cold, because you know Jamie, he’s just in his shirt. But it was fun. It’s hard to light that kind of stuff in a forest, but it’s a pretty intense fight, and he’s a big guy and certainly Jamie is; it just shows how dangerous this land is. Jamie and Claire really are having to forge their way in the wilderness and build their home and their new settlement, and there are so many dangers there.
The Cherokee are doing some kind of ritual at the same time as the fight. How did you interpret that?
That’s actually in the edit—I didn’t know that was gonna be cut in. It certainly gives it this spiritual, otherworldly feel to it, and that’s definitely a theme that runs through the season, especially when dealing with the Native Americans. They’re this ancient civilization that were there before all these settlers and immigrants. I know our writers did a lot of research and went to meet a lot of the Cherokee elders. It’s what makes the season so interesting—we have this completely new world and a new people that we’re introducing.
You’ve said before that the similarities between the Highlanders and the Native Americans fascinate both Jamie and you. What were you looking forward to exploring this season?
When we were reading the scripts and started shooting, I was very much into showing that [fascination], even if it’s unwritten. Jamie, at first, is very wary and knows nothing of the Native Americans. I think even at the beginning he calls them “savages” and is very distrustful, and quite quickly you see there’s this unwritten understanding that develops and actually an interaction—and it’s because they’re both very similar in that they’re warring nations, they have the same history. The same thing is happening to the Native Americans as has happened to the Scots: their land was taken by the British. It’s a very similar scenario. There’s a great respect, and certainly by the end of the season, without giving away spoilers, Jamie actually entrusts the Native Americans with one of his family. He really has a great understanding and respect for them.
It’s safe to say that relationship, like all relationships in Outlander, will have complications along the way. What can you tease about the layers we’ll see?
It’s much like Scotland and the clans in Scotland: there are many different tribes, and some are friendly and some are not. The end of the season, the climax and finale, is based around them, and I think it’s probably our strongest finale yet. We really loved shooting all that, and it really is a completely different look to the show to see these Native American settlements and their houses. I think people are gonna really… I wouldn’t say learn about that culture—you know, we’re not some big history lesson—but we’re certainly featuring them a lot, and I think we were very fortunate to have over 100 [First Nation Canadians], mostly Cree, come over [to act in the show]. And they brought with them this great culture and taught us a lot. They were really fun as well and brought a great humor to set and also their music. There were times when we were between takes, they would just start singing some pow wow [songs] or playing drums by the fire, and it was just quite magical.
Looking ahead to the next episode, we get our first look at Jamie and Claire’s finished cabin. What is your favorite part of it?
Obviously [production designer] Jon Gary Steele every season makes the show so incredible to look at and work on. He’s done it again. The cabin is something that Jamie has built, and throughout the whole season, you see the settlement grow: it goes from being a basic lean-to to being a full-fledged settlement with various houses, all the allotments, and the garden that Claire grows. Early settlers really are building everything for the first time, and so it feels fresh and new. That’s what is surprising about this season: we got to see America in its infancy really growing from the ground up.
Caitriona told us she found it odd that Jamie and Claire don’t have a separate bedroom in their cabin.
[Laughs] No, why would you? Why would you need a separate bedroom? Jamie’s practical, very practical. And it means it’s closer to get to the table and the food and the kitchen. Maybe next time he can do an extension.
Jamie will be looking for settlers to live at Fraser’s Ridge in the next episode. How does that go?
There was a statistic, and I think it was around 40 percent of settlers at that time were Scottish, and that’s very much the line he goes down. Jamie wants to surround himself with fellow Scots that will be loyal to him and understand his way of working. They go to the towns and try to encourage settlers to live on his land. Very much in a similar way to what they do in Scotland with the clan system—they all pay a rent but he’ll look after them —and it’s something that he’s always wanted. He’s wanted to be the laird and to be almost the clan leader, and this is it really—this is him beginning to build his legacy and heritage.
Did that change your approach to playing Jamie this season?
Yeah, I mean, [he and Claire] have finally found each other and they’re together, and for three seasons that’s what they’ve been fighting to do. And they’ve grown up, they’ve experienced a lot together and also apart, and now he’s more mature, he’s less impulsive, and he does think a bit more before he acts. Of course, he is Jamie Fraser, so there are a couple times where he doesn’t and that does get him in trouble, but he’s actually happy. For the first time he’s able to relax and to lay down some roots, and I think we’ve seen them for the first few episodes definitely relishing and falling in love with the land. Then, of course, the second half of the season it’s all shaken up again.
Last question: Will we see Jamie knit at some point this season? Claire and the audience just learned from Young Ian that Jamie knows how. The mention feels like Chekhov’s Gun.
I think Jamie’s far too busy to do any knitting. But I think there was a scene, actually, that they wrote that Jamie is, but I don’t think it quite made it. But to be honest, Jamie can do a lot things, and it’s funny: when they first get [to the backcountry], they really have nothing, and over the course of the season you’ll see that more pieces of clothing appear and more knitted wear. So in the evenings they’re definitely busy and making stuff. They have to survive, and it’s also very, very cold in North Carolina over the winters, so you’ll definitely see it through the costuming.