Q&A: ‘Outlander’ showrunner Ron Moore discusses ‘unflinching’ rape scene and Season 2 reset
“Outlander” made its triumphant return to television Saturday night in a Season 2 premiere that followed Jamie and Claire as they fled from Scotland to France in an effort to stop the Jacobite rebellion and alter the course of history.
But that was only half of it. The episode actually opened in 1948 Scotland, where in a flash-forward scene, Claire is reunited with her husband, Frank, after a two-year (or is it two-century?) absence and faces the uncomfortable task of explaining how she traveled back in time, fell in love with someone else and is now carrying his child. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)
We spoke to showrunner Ron Moore about Season 2’s big resets, Season 1’s brutal finale and the challenges of writing a series that’s constantly reinventing itself.
You’ve got a very different story and setting in Season 2. Does that feel exciting or daunting?
It’s a little bit of both. With this show and this story, it keeps changing and evolving, so it’s a fresh creative challenge. That’s really fun and it gets everybody’s spirits up.
But it’s also a huge production challenge for that same reason. We had to create new sets, new costumes, new location. There’s literally not a single set we could use again for this season. Even “Game of Thrones” has King’s Landing.
In terms of shooting and production, you really rely on standing sets to save you a lot of time and money and energy. With this show, everything is new all the time. It just takes a tremendous amount of thought.
How does it affect you as a storyteller?
It just means that there’s no comfortable rhythm that you get into. If you’re doing “Friends,” you’re in the apartment again. Then we’re going to do a couple days down in the coffee shop.
With “Outlander,” you just don’t have a template to start from. There’s really no typical episode. There’s no cliche version of what our show is. Every one is like a little movie.
Again, it’s a blessing and a curse. Again, you’re constantly being challenged, and there’s an excitement to that. But it’s tiring because, man, sometimes you just want to do the same episode.
The show also tonally shifts a lot, from moments of escapism and fantasy to being very intense and brutal and realistic.
The show has a lot of different colors to it. That has to do a lot with the source material.
Diana [Gabaldon]’s books are very hard to categorize. She could tell you stories how she struggled for years and years; she was always fighting booksellers not to stock the books in the romance section. It’s really more of an adventure series. The show is reflective of that.
There are a lot of different colors to it. There are a lot of different moods and styles of storytelling. The adventures themselves don’t easily fit into oh, this is a bodice-ripper. You’re going on a journey that’s not just the typical journey.
If you were going to say it’s a romance story about this woman and the strapping Highlander she falls in love with, that just doesn’t really define the story.
Right. A prime example of that would be Black Jack Randall raping Jamie at the end of Season 2. It’s sort of the antithesis of what you’d expect from a “romance.”
It’s not where you take your male lead character, generally, regardless of the genre. It was just a very shocking, transgressive thing to do.
When I read the book for the first time, I had no idea that that’s where it was heading, and I was like, “Wow, this is really something.”
I realized, boy, if we did this on TV, people just wouldn’t know what to say. We decided we’re going to go there too on the show. We decided let’s be unflinching about it. Let’s not make it gratuitous, but let’s not flinch away from it either.
There’s been a lot of conversation recently about portrayals of rape on TV. Can you talk about how you approached it?
We always knew this is where we were going, so the conversation started early. We knew it would probably be the last two episodes.
We wanted to get inside Jack a little bit more and make sure that he was fully fleshed-out. It was important to me that we understand him as a man and a human being, that he wasn’t just a monster, he wasn’t just an easily dismissed creature of fantasy. In some ways, it would make it more horrible if he was a real person.
We had a lot of conversations about what the power struggle was about, what would it mean to break Jamie as a person, what complete surrender would mean in those circumstances. It was long conversations with the director and then with the cast. We set aside days for them to rehearse these scenes. We’d watch them in rehearsals and have more conversations.
Everyone just approached it in a very professional way and we said, “Let’s deal with this as honestly as we’ve dealt with everything in the show. It’s not something we’re not going to glorify, but we want to face it. We want to not flinch away from it.”
Then the final step was in the editing room; that was really the most crucial decision point. In editing, you can stay on an image, and the longer you’re on it, the more uncomfortable it gets. There were times where I felt like I didn’t want to watch anymore. I wanted to move the audience emotionally. I wanted to shock them. But I didn’t want them to turn away from the show. The only guide I had for that was my gut. If I couldn’t watch it, that was too far.
So the effect of those scenes didn’t wear off after watching them many times in the editing room?
No, it was always very disturbing and very powerful. No matter how many times I watched it, it retained its power.
Were there things you were actively trying not to do? Things you really wanted to avoid in your depiction of the rape?
There are certain tropes I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want false heroism on the part of Jamie. I didn’t want mustache-twirling or overplaying glee on the part of Jack. You don’t want to ennoble the victim and raise him up spiritually where they’re rising above it by saying some clever line like, “You may have me, but you’ll never really have me.”
Is it safe to say that Jamie will still be working through the trauma in Season 2?
There are reverberations of [the rape] throughout the second season. We meet Jamie a few days after the events in Wentworth Prison, so it’s definitely still on his mind. You’ll see that it affects the relationship between him and Claire as they move forward to disrupt the Jacobites.
That’s unusual too — the idea that it’s something that lingers. So often, rape is just used as a plot device.
That’s kind of TV in general. Traumatic, horrible things happen all the time, and people forget about it next week. It’s sometimes tough to be true to how people really react. You are trying to tell a story, and you don’t want it to always be about that one incident, but at the same time it would affect them psychologically and emotionally.
How did adapating the second novel in the series, “Dragonfly in Amber,” compare to adapting the first, “Outlander”?
Season 2 and Book 2 are much more complex. There’s more time travel involved. The whole Parisian storyline is very complicated: There’s lots of political machinations, and the Jacobites and the French court, new characters showing up. Year Two is just a much tougher nut to crack.
You departed from the book by opening in 1948 instead of 1968. Why?
When I was looking at it, I thought it worked well on the page to start in 1968. It’s the beginning of a book. It’s a surprising opening, but I just thought for the TV audience, it was too big of a step.
I like the idea of starting in the 20th century ... but to also advance the story 20 years ... was just so much. I just thought, let’s start a bit more chronologically, see her in 1948, invest in that whole tale of her and Frank and the reconciliation. Then let’s flash back and see how it all happened.
I just thought it was a smaller bite for the audience to take, and it would get us to the same point and we will get to the 1968 story eventually.
The series looks different this season, but is the storytelling different too?
Now it’s much more interior. Now you’re in Paris, dealing with the aristocracy, the court of Louis XIV and trying to get inside of the nascent Jacobite rebellion. It’s a lot of who do you trust and how can you lie to these people and who is the real enemy and who’s out to get Claire?
There’s a lot more politics involved. It’s a very different show creatively.
The first season was an outdoor adventure, and you’re on horseback a lot and there are a lot of physical threats to people. That’s one style of storytelling.
Season 2 is really like the Paris salons and the courts. It’s much more about dialogue and subtlety and conspiracy.
There’s not a lot of continuity, but are there any lessons from Season 1 you’re applying to Season 2?
We learned we can really lean on our cast. We just scored big time with [Caitriona Balfe] and Sam [Heughan] and Tobias [Menzies]. As complicated as Season 2 is, there was really nothing we couldn’t throw at them.
Gabaldon has published eight books now. That’s a lot of material. What’s your plan moving forward?
The basic plan is to keep doing a book a season. We’ll keep doing them as long as there’s an audience that wants to watch them. Diana’s working on a ninth. We’re not running out of books like “Game of Thrones” is.
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