"Outlander" stars on spanking, TV sex and the female gaze: "Women have been starved for quite a while"

Sam Heughan (Jamie) and Caitriona Balfe (Claire) talk last night's premiere and the sexual politics of time travel

Published April 5, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in "Outlander"      (Sony Pictures Television Inc.)
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in "Outlander" (Sony Pictures Television Inc.)

“Outlander” returned from a long hiatus last night to continue the adventures of Claire Randall—now Claire Fraser—a former combat nurse from 1945 who has fallen through time to 1743, where she quickly falls in with redheaded Scot Jamie Fraser and ends up marrying him out of expediency and, let’s be real, explosive sexual tension. The Starz series is based on a set of historical romance novels by Diana Gabaldon that have long been bestsellers, and that popularity has translated to the show. “Outlander” has become one of Starz’s most successful shows, both with viewers drawn to the sumptuous historical details and the character-driven, soapy romance and with critics who appreciate “Outlander’s" ultra-rare, ultra-precious female gaze.

It helps that the show is just practically very well done—it’s gorgeous, beautifully scored, and deliciously plotty, which one would expect from the showrunner who created the fantastic “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, Ronald. D. Moore. It also helps that the show’s two stars, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, have sizzling on-screen chemistry. Their performances anchor the fantastical elements of the plot—and there are plenty, ranging from time-travel to the fact that this improbably hot guy happens to be a virgin—and make “Outlander” an enormously enjoyable show to watch.

But as readers of the book know already, Jamie and Claire are about to hit a big, problematic snag. In the last episode before the hiatus, Claire broke away from the camp to search for the standing stones that precipitated her time-traveling. She gets kidnapped as a result, and Jamie manages to barge into the British barracks just as sadistic Capt. Jack Randall is about to rape Claire. Jaime saves her in the first few minutes of Saturday night’s episode, “The Reckoning,” but the ordeal isn’t over: Scottish patriarchal custom demands that Jamie punish his wife for “disobeying orders,” i.e., whip her with a strap.

The book reads:

“I mean to do it, Claire! Now, if you cooperate wi’ me, we’ll call the account square with a dozen strokes.”

“And if not?” I quavered. He picked up the strap and slapped it against his leg with a nasty thwapping sound.

“Then I shall put a knee in your back and beat you ‘til my arm tires, and I warn ye, you’ll tire of it long before I do.”

Claire accuses him of being a sadist, to which he replies:

“I said I would have to punish you. I did not say I wasna going to enjoy it.”

And the next morning, Claire describes the punishment thusly:

It had been a most unpleasant night. My reluctant acquiescence had lasted precisely as far as the first searing crack of leather on flesh. This was followed by a short, violent struggle, which left Jamie with a bloody nose, three lovely gouges down one cheek, and a deeply bitten wrist. Not surprisingly, it left me half smothered in the greasy quilts with a knee in my back, being beaten within an inch of my life.

Which is not, you know, particularly sexy. And as Bryn Donovan writes at Persephone Magazine, the way that Claire’s frostiness toward Jamie is resolved in the book doesn’t really dispel the upsetting weirdness of the scene—if anything, Claire comes to “grudgingly accept” that Jamie was in the right, and then impetuously declares that she loves him; Jamie reaffirms how much he enjoyed it, and tells her, too, that she’s lucky he didn’t try to have sex with her after he beat her (because that’s how much he enjoyed it, presumably).

Naturally, as I watched “The Reckoning,” I felt some foreboding—especially because the episode is narrated, for the first time, from Jamie’s perspective, not Claire’s. But the show takes several creative liberties with the shape of this scene—and to my surprise, carries them off. The scene is not “beating within an inch of [her] life,” it’s spanking with a folded belt. And Claire doesn’t forgive Jamie until he goes out of his way to make amends to her. The intimacy of the punishment in the first half of the episode is balanced out by the intimacy of mutual enjoyment and coming to terms with each other in the back half—and each has its own share of power struggles. Most important—in the book, the episode seems like a weird sideshow designed to bring Claire down a peg. In the series, it’s a crucial relationship-building conflict, central to the narrative of the episode and to the series as a whole.

“Outlander” has gotten criticism for centering violence against women so much in its narrative—from perceived husbandly duties to the seemingly ever-present threat of rape and/or sexual assault for Claire in 1743. But what I’m finding valuable about the series is the conversation it’s opening up about pervasive violence against women, in that culture or in ours. “Outlander” is not a happy fantasy—it’s a horror story, too, to be banished from the relatively modern era to a nearly medieval society. I spoke to the stars about filming that spanking scene, how they’re interpreting it for their characters, and in general, the challenges of inhabiting this sexually charged, violent world.

Caitriona, what is it like playing a character who goes from a world that has very specific sexual mores to one that has very different ones? Such as, for example, on one of Claire’s first nights in the castle, the laird’s brother Dougal (Graham McTavish) tries to rape your character in a side passageway.

Caitriona Balfe: That to Dougal is just flirting, by the way. (Laughs.)

Exactly. There’s something weirdly casual about it in that context—but obviously she’s like, no, I do not want this, and has to be very violent.

CB: When we began the show, it’s quite shocking when you first read all the attempted rapes. And as a modern woman, your first instinct is that that would be such a traumatic event that it would be something that I don’t think you would ever get over. And yet, sexual violence against women in that time is used so casually and is such a weapon. But it’s not even the most treacherous one, in a sense.

It was hard for me. I remember saying to the writers, “Doesn’t she still feel affected by this? Surely there would be a greater… overhang.” We’re in such an analytical society now, and we take all of these things—rightly so, I believe—with such seriousness that it’s hard to see how someone could just pick themselves up and move on. But one of the pieces of research I was doing was reading books on the nurses who had served on the front lines in the Second World War. Their stories, some of them, are so horrific, but some of the things that jumped off the pages to me were that in that immediacy of life, in that time when life and death are sitting — people just get on with things. You don’t have the luxury or the time to wallow or have any sort of self-pity. The survival instinct really kicks in. And that’s what Claire is, she’s a survivor. I really tried to approach it from that point of view. It’s not that these things don’t affect her—they do—but she’s a survivor, and she doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing in these moments.

For Jamie, so much of his origin story in the books is this terrible flogging that he endured because his sister was being threatened by, again, this pervasive threat of rape. Sexual assault as a plot device is a much-discussed issue in our society, right now, especially.

Sam Heughan: Absolutely—and also maybe how more accepting we are now of it. We were talking earlier about this spanking scene [in Saturday’s episode, “The Reckoning”] and how there was a cheer, and that was just interesting for us. Perhaps it was more about the fans were waiting to see these events happen and how they played out. But it is interesting, isn’t it? Definitely a recurring theme in the story.

CB: But I think it’s important. Nowadays, obviously there’s so much in the media about what happens in India or in a lot of war-torn countries. Unfortunately, it still exists—no matter how much we think we’ve moved forward as having equality for men and women, unfortunately sexual attacks still happen. We also deal with it in terms of between two men in our show, towards the end of the season. That also exists. In England in the last year, that whole [Operation] Yewtree situation where you have these pedophile rings. So I think in our culture we have to examine why this never goes away. It’s constantly there. I don’t have any answers but I think it’s interesting to look at it and examine it and maybe keep people thinking about it and spark conversation. I think that’s what entertainment should do. As much as it should be entertaining, it should evoke a feeling, and evoke some kind of conversation out of people, so they examine who we are and why we do things.

What was this about the cheer during the spanking scene?

CB: Apparently last night at the theater [for the “Outlander” premiere] the whole audience cheered or something.

SH: Which I don’t know—we didn’t get to witness it. Another reporter told us about it. I think it was probably about the fact that it’s a much-anticipated scene and how it would be addressed, so I imagine the cheer had more to do with that, with finally getting to see that. There’s been moments like that before in other premieres we’ve had, where at a certain moment or certain lines that have come up and it’s like, “That’s that moment!” This is a very important moment, and certainly for Jamie and Claire, it’s a huge moment in their relationship. It creates a lot of conflict but ultimately makes them closer together. They go through the whole thing and they find a way that they can interact with each other and the basis of their relationship.

It’s a very controversial scene in the book. The way that you guys translated it, it loses the tone of anger and fear that you feel more in the book. Instead it’s almost funny.

CB: I don’t think we wanted it to be funny, but I think that what we wanted it to show was that it’s a battle of wills. The writers very cleverly chose to tell it from Jamie’s perspective, because if we’d gotten Claire’s perspective we would have demonized Jamie a lot more.

Just stream-of-consciousness cursing.

CB: (Laughs.) Yes, exactly. I think it has to be viewed in the context of 1743. Coming to it from a modern mind, it is just unacceptable and that’s it. But from the perspective of 1743, he was performing his duty.

SH: And completely in the right. (Laughs.)

CB: This was a typical justice that was meted out in that time and we wanted to give it the respect that it deserved—but I felt very strongly that Claire had to fight back as much as she could, because there was no way in hell she was going to go down quietly.

SH: And she doesn’t. But you’re right, there’s absolutely no malice, there’s no anger. There’s initially not really any joy to it, apart from the fact that he knows it’s his duty and he’s dreading it. He knows what she’s capable of. (Laughs.) But ultimately it’s like the theme of the second half of the season, especially for Jamie, is that there’s choices to be made, there’s things that he has to do, there’s a duty to perform as a husband and then as a laird and all these other things. If there is any sort of enjoyment, it’s out of the fact that he likes this battle of wills—that she is a feisty, strong woman who knows her will and he wants to assert his over her. He wants to own her… and she damn well won’t let it happen.

CB: She can’t be owned, sorry. (Both laugh.)

SH: But that’s the way he’s been brought up and the way his mind is set. He is a forward-thinking man and quite modern, in the sense that he does learn from that episode. They find a new level of trust and bond and friendship.

Why do you think they get closer together through this? I think there’s a few different interpretations.

CB: First of all, when she sees that he’s willing to grow from it, he’s willing to change, that shows her that here is someone who’s willing to put aside everything that he’s been taught and learned and learns—for her. You can see that he’s got the emotional intelligence that she has always thought that he had and is one of the reasons she fell in love with him. And, just going through any catastrophic thing as a couple and being able to get past it and figure out a way to move forward and forgive and understand each other, I think that always strengthens it.

SH: He’s a very stubborn man, as is she, but he’s a very stubborn man. Just the experience with Colum [Mackenzie, the laird of Castle Leoch], and looking up to them and how they work, he’s learning and growing up and becoming a man. It’s a really important life lesson, I think.

Was it weird to have to beat a woman for a scene?

SH: Well, I mean—(Pauses.) Not really, no. Because as I said, it’s not out of anger. It’s very much like he’s trying to explain, like to a child or something, and trying to get his point across, almost for his own benefit as well as hers. And, wow. Our relationship in the show is so physical anyway, it’s not the first time that they’ve virtually come to blows, if not already come to blows. It is, it’s about the passion that they’ve got and that’s always present. So, no, I wasn’t thinking about beating a woman because Jamie is doing what he thinks is right and at the time it seems quite simple. That’s what he’s got to do, it’s his duty, let’s stop talking about it and get it done, then we can move on. (In Jamie’s voice.) Bend over. (Laughs.)

So much of their sexual chemistry also comes from this antagonism, in some ways. What do you expect the fan reaction to be? What do you hope for this particular episode?

CB: It’s funny, we thought there would be a lot of noise about it. I guess we’ll see when it airs on Saturday, but so far people don’t seem that bothered by it, which is interesting. It’s very strange. I think people think that the makeup sex is more intense than the actual scene.

SH: It kind of is, in a way.

She does point a dagger at his throat.

SH: It’s more passionate, from both aspects. The spanking is from one side—you’re fighting for your life, almost. But in that makeup sex, there’s a lot more at stake. There’s a lot more that’s happened that they’re getting over and it’s interesting what comes out of that—this bond and renewing of vows, almost.

CB: We always viewed it as them—well, when they got married the first time, it was under duress. So we always sort of viewed that coming together as being their own personal joining. That they’re pledging themselves to each other.

It’s a very emotionally intense scene. One of the things that I find so characteristic about “Outlander” is that because the show is so interested in the sexual relationship, the sex scene is like, 25 minutes long.

CB: It’s a long one. I don’t know that we knew how long it was going to be. And that was a very worn, vintage carpet under us, and I think Sam and I both came away with terrible carpet burns.

SH: So much happens in that episode, and actually a lot got cut in the shooting of it. It moves so fast. And that’s the choice of the editors and producers and directors that it focuses on that scene. But I guess it’s, again, a turning point in their relationship and then from that point they move forward.

CB: It is really long.

SH: Really long.

At the risk of making it sound pornographic, I think that’s one of the main draws of the show. The show is portraying sex in a way that’s groundbreaking, and especially for women, seeing something that is directed at them in a strong way and is very inclusive of their viewpoint, that’s very exciting.

CB: It’s amazing. I think obviously women have been starved for quite a while because all of these films and shows that are coming out right now that are catering to that, you see the voracity of the audience.

The explosion of interest.

CB: Yeah, it’s great. I think if it’s some kind of mini-revolution of sexual awakening for women in the media, then that’s fantastic.

SH: You’re right—now that I’m thinking of “50 Shades [of Grey]” and all that’s out there at the moment.

CB: (To Sam.) “Scandal,” “Girls.”

SH: It definitely seems to be in the moment.

CB: I think as you see more female writers and more female directors having an avenue for their voice, you’re going to see more material like this. It’s fantastic because—I think for men as well, when you have a show or movie that has a strong female character, usually what will happen is that the other leading male characters are also fully formed. You’re not going to get the same with male-driven shows; usually it’s a central male figure and then the female characters are so secondary and so two-dimensional. What we have in our show, I think, is a really even balanced portrayal. And then you get to see proper relationships that really look like something akin to what we all experience. I think that’s probably why people are gravitating towards it so much.

Our sex lives are such a huge part of our lives that we really don’t talk about very much.

CB: We all would not be here if it wasn’t for them, and yet it’s such a taboo to talk about.

SH: There isn’t any real sort of true portrayal on TV. In film it’s very glorified. People learn everything from porn these days. But that sort of culture—music videos as well—is very male-dominated and from a male point of view.

That’s one of the great things about TV, is that you can get around the obscenity laws in this country by putting stuff on cable.

CB: Are you saying our stuff is obscene? … Because it is. (Laughs.)

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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Caitriona Balfe Diana Gabaldon Outlander Sam Heughan Sex Spanking Starz Tv