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August 22, 2017

All Eyes on Outlander

With season three nearing for the Starz phenom, fan interest is matched only by the size of the production.

Benji Wilson
  • Tobias Menzies, as Black Jack Randall, battles Sam Heughan as Jamie

    Aimee Spinks

When Starz announced it was ordering a third and fourth season of its breakout hit, Outlander — but that there would be more than a year between the end of the second season and the start of the third — the hashtag “droughtlander” quickly became common currency.

At last, that drought is ending. Season three debuts September 10 — not a moment too soon for the show’s vocal, international fan base, which makes its presence known in ratings and online.

For those who’ve somehow stayed out of the fray, Outlander — based on a bestselling series of novels by Diana Gabaldon — stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire, a World War II–era British nurse who finds herself transported back through time to 18th-century Scotland. There she falls in love with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a highlander caught up in the last Jacobite uprising.

From its production base at Scotland’s Cumbernauld Studios, Outlander has — over 29 episodes so far — gone back and forth over 250 years, crossing several different timeframes and locales, including Scotland, France, England and, coming up, Boston and Jamaica.

The show has so many costumes, all bespoke, that the wardrobe department has developed a barcoding system and its own computer database just to find them. In the hair and makeup department, more than 300 wigs (costing around $5,000 each) line the walls.

The effort involved in making Outlander, combined with the avid interest of its fans, means expectations for the new season are massive, too.

“We went round and round deciding what to do,” writer-producer Matthew B. Roberts says. “We always want to surprise our audience, whether you read the books or you didn’t, but it’s a question of how much do we show and when.”

Season three picks up right after Claire travels through the standing stones that serve as the series’ time portal, returning to her life in 1948. There she gives birth to Brianna, her daughter with Jamie, and revives her marriage to first husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies). Back in the 18th century, Jamie has to deal with the fallout from his doomed last stand at the Battle of Culloden, as well as the loss of Claire.

“The main struggle in the writers’ room,” says Roberts, referring to the reunion all viewers will be waiting to see, “was having Claire separated from Jamie: how long do we keep them apart? We decided to show their lives separate for a while. You’ll see Claire working through the struggles of not being with Jamie.

"As for Jamie, well, he’s going off to die — he’s decided that it’s better to be dead than to live without his wife and his child. But, fortunately for us — as writers and viewers — he lives.”

Each book in Gabaldon’s series is very different, which Roberts says is great from a writer’s standpoint. “Unlike almost any other television show, we get to do almost a different genre every week. One week it’s a buddy pic, the next week you’re doing a battle, the next it’s Pride and Prejudice.”

The upshot of all that genre-busting and time travel is an astonishingly complex production. A walk around the warehouses at Cumbernauld reveals everything from the trappings of a 1960s Boston apartment to a table covered with stuffed dead pigeons.

Just around the corner from the standing stones (replacements for the originals, which snapped in half  last year during a windstorm on location) is a pile of latex bodies over which  “dead” supporting actors have to drape themselves during battle scenes. Next  to that is a selection of street signs from 1968 and a row of whisky barrels. (“You just can’t have enough whisky barrels,” Roberts quips.)

It’s a production on which almost anything can happen. Today, word  comes in that a carpenter is required: actor Steven Cree, who plays the one-legged Ian Murray, Jamie’s best friend, has managed to snap his wooden leg while filming a Hogmanay dance.

Balfe, meanwhile, is musing on life in the 18th century as she prepares to do yet another costume change for Claire.

“We’re doing this very romantic, epic show, but you do think about  that time and think — they all must have stunk. Can you imagine? No toothbrushes, no toothpaste. I mean, this is a love story — but in truth you wouldn’t have wanted to kiss anyone.”

The person Claire spends most of her time kissing, of course, is Jamie — but in season three, that may not happen for a while.

“We see a darker Jamie this season,” Heughan says of his character. “He loses his identity, he’s trying not to be himself. Then he has to discover what  he’s living for. And also come to terms with the fact that Claire is gone. It does take some time for him to recover.”

If Jamie is down in the dumps, though, Outlander is on the crest of a wave.  “There’s no doubt that, in terms of people’s awareness, the show has grown,” Heughan says, “and it’s grown internationally. That’s great, but it creates new challenges. Outlander is different [from] other TV shows because it’s always changing.”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017

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