Q&A: ‘Outlander’ actors and Ronald Moore talk controversial spanking scene

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe portray Jamie and Claire in Starz's "Outlander."
Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe portray Jamie and Claire in Starz’s “Outlander.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Outlander” returned to Starz on Saturday night after a seven-month drought with a midseason premiere engineered to get viewers talking. “The Reckoning” included what is easily the most controversial scene from Diana Gabaldon’s books: After highland warrior Jamie rescues his wife Claire from the clutches of the evil Black Jack Randall, he punishes her for wandering astray with a vicious spanking -- or “tawsing,” as it’s called in the book.

The incident is especially alarming for Claire, a time-traveling World War II combat nurse unaccustomed to the harsh societal norms of 1743 Scotland. It’s a scene that has divided “Outlander” fans for decades, and many wondered just how -- and indeed whether -- the series would depict it.

In town this week for a premiere screening at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater attended by hundreds of fans, show runner Ronald Moore explained the creative approach he took in “The Reckoning, “ which not coincidentally is the first episode narrated by Jamie rather than Claire.


“I needed to understand where he was coming from,” Moore said. “That’s the big question in this scene: Why is he doing this? What does this mean? ... I needed to understand his point of view more than I needed to understand her point of view. We are Claire, we are more modern people, so we get her perspective.”

So what is Jamie thinking? “This was not a scene about anger, this was not about abuse, from his perspective this was a scene about justice. That’s the most important word in the scene,” Moore said. “She had done something that endangered their lives. If she had been a man, she would have been flogged or had her ears cut off or something. She’s a woman, this is how women are punished at this time. And that’s just the world he lives in.”

Another key creative decision involved the lighthearted music on the soundtrack, which Moore chose because he “wanted to tell the audience it’s going to be OK -- mostly the audience that doesn’t know the books.”

“Outlander” leads Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan were also on hand to discuss the infamous “tawsing” scene -- as well as Jamie and Claire’s unusually impassioned, do-not-try-this-at-home makeup sex.

You had your premiere Wednesday night. How did this scene play in the room?

Balfe: I think our makeup scene has eclipsed it in perhaps what people are talking about. They seem to be fine with it and we thought it was going to be quite a water-cooler moment but so far it seems like people are like “OK,” which is quite strange. I think when you see, you really understand that you have to view it in the mind of 1743 and that in that time it was an acceptable thing. For Claire, it is so unimaginable and so horrible that it’s also, what I love about how the writers dealt with it, they allowed her a long time to forgive him and for them to make up afterwards. Handled in a different way -- the next day they make up -- that wouldn’t have done it justice at all. But I think once they realized that even if they can’t always accept the other person’s actions, if they can understand where the other person is coming from, they can build a bridge towards forgiveness.

Heughan: The fact that we see it from Jamie’s point of view, we’re beginning to understand the world she’s inhabiting. Where he’s coming from, the reason he has to do it, the duty, the responsibility that he’s got, whether he wholly believes it’s the right thing to do he knows he has to do it to protect her, to protect themselves. It’s certainly a theme that’s carried through for the rest of the season, his duty, his responsibility, trying to find some common ground. Ultimately that whole thing makes their relationship stronger, he learns something about their relationship, says ‘You know we can do things in a different way.’ She also learns about the period and what’s expected of her. So it makes them stronger.

Balfe: I think it was a really smart choice to switch the narration to Jamie. It really humanizes what he did. I think if we’d only had Claire’s opinion of it it would have framed it in a different way. We wouldn’t have understood it from his point of view. It’s a hard thing to talk about because it can sometimes seem like we’re justifying it. It’s not to justify the action, it’s just to understand where it comes from.

And the whole thing is compounded on some level by Claire’s sense of guilt, since she was kidnapped while trying to travel back to Frank?

Balfe: I think the fight that’s before [the spanking scene], that’s what that’s about. She knows that she was about to leave him. At this point she’s so confused. Yes, she’s deeply in love with Jamie but it’s not like she’s completely forgotten about her former life. It’s a real emotional and psychic wound she has to move past.

How difficult was it to film the spanking scene? You have to do a lot of intimate scenes on this show, but this is different.

Balfe: It was really tough. We found it difficult. We’d rehearsed it and blocked it out but when you’re filming it, in the beginning when she’s throwing things at him, we were laughing a little bit. But there was a shift in the energy in the room. I remember leaving that night and feeling unnerved or unsettled by the whole thing. It’s one of those things that sat with us for a bit.

It’s hard to see how someone that you love could do this to you. You put yourself in that position as an actor, in Claire’s position, it doesn’t feel right because it isn’t. But then I think that feeds their relationship going forward and it informs so much later on.

Heughan: He’s simple, in a way. Whether or not he wants to do it, he has to do it. They have that whole back and forth. When he puts his mind to something, that’s it, he does it, he’s true to his word. That’s the period, a man does what he says he’s going to do. There’s no second guessing or talking about it. It’s interesting for him to learn maybe it’s not the right way, maybe I’ve been taught wrong. It feels very modern.

Caitriona, you mentioned that the makeup scene seems to be generating more conversation. I was impressed by your coordination.

Balfe: Thank you very much. [Laughs] It’s an intense scene but again, I think you have to see how the two of them are fighting to get back to each other. For Claire, there’s a part of her that has to break through the way that she’s been brought up. She has to allow herself to let that go and trust in the heart of this man. When he pledges himself to her, she can see that he’s a good man. This is not something he’s going to do again, he has a good soul. She has to force herself to let go. We had talked and we thought this was the moment they really pledge themselves to each other, as in this is their marriage, the one that they choose. When they got married, it was under duress, I mean obviously they fell in love that night, but this is the scene where they really say to each other, right this is it, we’re going to do it, warts and all. [laughs] That’s an unfortunate term to use.

Heughan: I fear to be Jamie.

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