Spoilers below for the season finale of Outlander.
Throughout Outlander’s fourth season, fans have seen Young Ian’s growing fascination with the Native American cultures in North Carolina — from his boyish curiosity about women, to his immersive joint hunting trips that provided language lessons and opportunities to trade. It’s the latter, of course, that enabled the dark turn that found Ian (John Bell) selling Roger (Richard Rankin) to the Mohawk after Jamie (Sam Heughan) beat him to a pulp, falsely believing he was the man who’d raped Brianna (Sophie Skelton). The Frasers’ mission to trade for Roger’s return in Sunday’s season finale appeared to be going well until Chief Tehwahsehkwe (Tom Jackson) got spooked by Claire (Caitriona Balfe) wearing vengeful time-traveler Otter-Tooth’s stone around her neck and sent them away. A handful of Mohawk were willing to help them free Roger in exchange for the stone, but that rescue attempt also failed. In the end, desperate Jamie told Ian to negotiate a new deal: Jamie would stay with the Mohawk, if Roger could leave and return to Brianna. Instead, Ian offered himself.
Bell spoke with Vulture about filming the teary Fraser family farewell, running the gauntlet so Ian could join the Mohawk as a member of the tribe as opposed to a captive, and why Ian’s story is really just beginning.
The final shot of Ian after completing the gauntlet, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a bigger grin on this show. It’s so crucial that viewers see that happiness on Ian’s face. What kind of conversations did you have with the producers and director about that moment?
Young Ian, from the minute he landed in the New World, there’s always been that part of his head that is like, This is a destiny for me. It’s only when he is confronted with that decision, face-to-face, that he knows the choice that he has to make. But that doesn’t mean that when he makes that choice that he’s out of the woods yet. So when it comes to running that gauntlet scene, and the determination and the fire that you see within Ian to make it to the end — there’s that sense of relief, you know? Relief that I have proven myself, that I am a man of worth, to quote the episode title. It’s truly a special moment for Ian. We were all in unanimous agreement that Ian would be overjoyed at seeing himself being accepted into this culture that he has admired from afar.
How much of that gauntlet run did you do yourself?
I love stunt work. I love dancing. Scenes like that are the marriage of the two, so the minute that they announced that this is what was gonna go down, I was like, “I am doing this. I want to do the whole thing. I want to run the whole thing every take.” And so, the stunt guys basically just left to just chill and have a coffee and stand by and watch. I handled it. I like to think of myself as a springy, jumpy, athletic kind of guy, so to be able to do that was just the best. I had to remind myself that I shouldn’t be enjoying this, that I should be shitting bricks a little bit, because a couple of the times I’m running through ducking and diving going, “This is fucking great fun! Let’s go again!”
What was the process like learning the choreography?
We did two days of rehearsals in the studios beforehand, with about 50 [First Nation] Canadians that had come over, and the stunt team as well. When we got onto set, they had given us two days to do it. There was a huge amount of stamina required for it, but you get that rush of adrenaline when you’re about to do a stunt because you know that camera is right in front of you. That rush of, “Oh shit, here we go!” kept my fire burning.
Were there any injuries from the intensity of the scene?
There wasn’t anything serious. I did get a war club in the face at one point. Just ducked too late and the war club came swinging. Luckily it was made of rubber, so that’s all good. And when I was wrestling with one of the Native Americans, I cut my hand open on one of his silver badges. But in that moment I was like, What would Leonardo DiCaprio do? He would just continue on, like he did in Django Unchained, so they know that I’ve put sweat, blood, and tears into this. But I was all good. The nurse came and saw me. She was great. Spray-on plasters are an amazing thing.
Comparing the way Ian went through the gauntlet versus Roger, it made me wonder if it was never explained to Roger, or had it been explained to Roger and he was just too broken emotionally and physically.
You know, I don’t know if they even would have explained it to Ian. There was this instinct of, “I can see the chief at the end of the line, and there’s 50 warriors in my way. I’m pretty sure I’ve got to get to the end of this.” But you’ve also got to remember that Ian had also been resting. He hasn’t been made to walk 700 miles and then get thrown into that gauntlet, you know? He’s had more time to prepare himself for that moment. Roger was doomed from the beginning because they didn’t even give him a bed for the night and say, “Right, rest up, challenge tomorrow.” They were like, “You’re here now, prove your worth.”
I know that Native American consultants advised the show — and executive producer Matthew B. Roberts told me they requested that certain rituals be performed differently out of respect. Did you speak with those consultants yourself? What did you find was most important to them?
Absolutely. We got to speak to a couple of Mohawk elders that came over to watch the filming from Canada. They were the people that I went and worked on the language with, because that was, to me, one of the most important [things] — that the language was done with respect, and as accurately as possible. Ian being a Highlander from Scotland who speaks English and Gaelic, I didn’t want him to come across like he was suddenly the greatest linguist of the 18th century, but I also didn’t want for him to sound ignorant. So I was immediately all ears when it came to working with the elders who still speak the language fluently. Working with them, we would have a laugh. They’d say, “Oh, you know you’re sounding like you’re a 70-year-old drinker now. This is great!” I’m like “Really? Okay.” [Laughs.]
Part of that, as well, was the Mohawk preservation society for language, which was really helpful in getting online material. I was very much just enthralled by getting to do all this research — and continue this research because Ian’s real journey now is actually just beginning, you know? He’s made that choice. Now, the consequences, we will wait and see.
Viewers who haven’t read the books will be happy to hear that good-bye isn’t the last we’ll see of Ian. The tears in your eyes as Ian parts with Jamie are beautifully heartbreaking. How did you and Sam approach that scene?
My heart was broken that day absolutely, because that was us coming to the end of the filming and really saying good-bye to each other at that moment. It was really important for me that it echoed the first episode [of season four] — when Jaime is comforting Ian when he has his attack of PTSD and we get that beautiful moment where two men open up together and talk about their past abuse — because the coin has been flipped. It’s now Ian comforting Jamie and telling him that he’s gonna be alright. There’s a change of perception: Jamie suddenly sees Ian as no longer the young Ian that he’s looked after, he sees him as a man. And Ian finally sees in Jamie that he has the strength to let him go, and so there’s a beautiful respect there that’s given through tears.
What do you want to explore in Ian’s next chapter?
I’m most interested in seeing how Ian really deals with his identity — what parts of he will lose, what parts he will keep. There’s a part of him that will always be that Scottish Highlander, so I’m really excited to see how he copes with having to completely change his identity and remember where he came from. Those final words from Jaime — “Remember” — are super important, because it’s his anchor back to that life. But it’s not all bad news. He’s got Rollo, so it’s okay. [Laughs.]
When we see all the canoes coming to launch Roger’s night rescue, Rollo is in one. How was filming that? He looked calm.
I loved that! You just see us all stealthily coming along the black lake and then Rollo’s little head pops. It’s brilliant. Getting Rollo into that boat that day was a challenge, but yeah, he was very calm and collected. Totally. He’s far more professional than any of us.
He was on a leash when Ian was running the gauntlet. Was there a reason why?
I think if Rollo had been off the leash, he’d be jumping into that gauntlet straight away and trying to help his master out. His instinct is always to protect. When we were doing that scene with Sam back in that first episode, we had to take Rollo off set because he was howling at not being able to get near me, to get close to me, to try and comfort me. He’s an incredibly emotional creature, and it’s so great to see that he is still there with Ian as his support.
You trained with the two dogs being considered for the role, right?
Yeah. From the minute they were ready to start getting trained — because of course they were cast as puppies — I was there with them, going to puppy training classes together so that when we got on set, he could look to me for commands. He could look to me for confidence. It was super important that bond was made.
One of my favorite days with Dui [pronounced Dewey] was when we climbed Beinn Narnain, which is one of the mountains near Loch Lomond. We got to the top and I got to take beautiful photos together with him. That was the first time he had been off the leash running around in the wild as well. Here I am running around pretending I’m a Mohawk warrior with him, you know? It was great.
What have you enjoyed studying most about the Mohawk culture?
We had people from many tribes come over to film Outlander. I really enjoyed finding the comparisons between the Scottish Highlander warrior clan way of life and the Native American tribes. Often in history, the Scottish Highlanders were depicted very similarly to Native American warriors. They were often seen as unruly and a danger, but really, they actually had a lot of respect and a lot of customs that compared to the colonizers were much more modern. I did enjoy dipping my toe into the water, but the research is not finished yet. I also wanted to make sure it didn’t come across like [Ian] suddenly knew every single thing that he could about Native Americans, because that just wouldn’t be the case. Only now will he finally really discover what it takes to be a member of the Mohawk tribe.