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'Outlander' Producer on Brutal Death Scene, Claire and Dougal's "Conflicted" Rapport

Writer Matt Roberts talks to THR about spotlighting author Diana Gabaldon's "sassiness"

Outlander Still E4 S1 - H 2014
Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television
"Outlander"

[WARNING: Spoilers from Saturday's episode of Outlander, "The Gathering."]

Claire's plan to escape Castle Leoch is on hold indefinitely.

The latest Outlander episode showed Claire, now a fixture in the town, actively planning her attempt to return to the stones at Craigh na Dun. But through a chance encounter with Jamie in the stables on the night of The Gathering — a momentous event where the clansmen pledge their oath to the laird — her plan was thwarted. Instead, she found herself taking part in a traditional boar hunt, witnessing the brutal death of one of the clansmen, Geordie, and being forced to journey forth with Dougal and the clan for places unknown.

Saturday's episode, "The Gathering," marked a significant turn for Claire and Dougal's complex relationship following their drunken encounter in a darkened corridor. As writer-producer Matt Roberts tells The Hollywood Reporter, "That relationship is one of our most complex in the series," and it's easy to see why. Here, Roberts — who was a fan of the Outlander series years ago — talks about scripting Ron Moore and Diana Gabaldon's cameos, Claire and Dougal's "conflicted" relationship and the added pressures of getting Claire and Jamie's courtship right.

This was a special episode in that you had Diana Gabaldon and showrunner Ron Moore making cameos. How did that all come about?

Ron on his own decided this would be a good episode to make the mysterious cameo. We knew that we were having The Gathering, a massive event within the Great Hall. There were going to be so many extras that we knew we could put Ron in there and have him disguised but also stand out in a nice way. As for Diana, the idea was going to be the same thing, to make her one of the Gathering guests, but I thought, since we have her, it might be a nice idea to give her a character and maybe a few lines. So I emailed and asked if she was comfortable with that and she said absolutely. I came up with a character and I asked her if she would like to pick the name, so she picked her own name.

I wanted to put her up against Annette Badland, who plays Mrs. Fitzgibbons. I thought they would make a good match, and create backstory for their characters. We don’t actually say what happens, but you can tell that they have a rivalry that we could tell at another time if we wanted to. There's a sassiness to Diana and I wanted to give that to her character, and I knew she could easily play that — and she did. She did a wonderful job; we gave her a little more to do with the scene of her shushing Murtagh during the speech just to bring her into it a little more.

Ron's cameo was one of those blink and you'll miss it scenes.

That was the thing about that particular moment, is that if you blink or if you get up for popcorn, you’re not going to see it. But we made sure you’re going to see Diana because I think that was the most important thing.

When you sat down to arc out this episode, what was your biggest obstacle?

This was a bigger episode in scale in the amount of extras and the events that happen with getting to the escape, which, oddly enough, happens in the middle of the episode. We had a scene that ended up in last week’s episode — the train scene was actually the flashback in episode four. When Claire is with Geillis in the apothecary, that was supposed to be the train flashback. But in telling the story, you’ve got to keep the tension going from episode three when she has that realization, “Hey I can make it out of here,” and keeping that drive going was difficult. But Diana mapped it out nicely in those chapters.

What was the most difficult scene for you to write knowing how many plot points you had to reach?

I wouldn’t use the word difficult, but in in the sense of challenging, it was the Geordie death scene. It’s in the book in a way that you know that Geordie dies and you know they have a moment, but what they say to each other isn’t. I wanted to make sure that all the sentiment that the book had portrayed made you feel that that was where Claire and Dougal bonded.

That scene was crucial for Claire and Dougal's relationship. How many different versions of the dialogue did you go through before landing on the one that made it to screen?

I’d read these books a long time ago, and I’d always envisioned that scene in my head many times. My first draft to what they ended up shooting is pretty close. I’d always imagined that the scene isn’t about Dougal and Geordie, it’s really about Dougal and Claire, and her seeing him let his guard down and Dougal seeing that she’s hiding the fact that she’s seen much more death than she’s let on. They have a moment when Dougal realizes Claire is doing a good thing for Geordie in putting his mind at peace. They bond over it, but only briefly, because he turns the tables on her in the last scene.

That brief moment of understanding comes after Dougal drunkenly attacks Claire in a dark hallway, which brings even more significance to that Geordie scene.

It’s almost letting that go in a way. They acknowledge to not acknowledge it in a weird way — him attacking her and she smashing him. They both know it happened obviously, but the unspoken word is “We’ll never bring it up again.” He thanks her for what she did with Geordie but he never actually apologizes for what he did. That relationship is one of our most complex in the series, and it will continue to be even after episode six. There are scenes coming up with Claire and Dougal that will really surprise the fans, where we stay true to the book but take it a step farther. Those two have a very conflicted relationship and it’s convoluted; Caitriona [Balfe] and Graham [McTavish] are great actors and when they meet in scenes as Dougal and Claire, they have a great dynamic together.

How would you describe their relationship, or whatever you want to label it right now?

Like Jamie, Dougal has never seen a woman like Claire before in his life. He’s physically attracted to her and he's also intellectually attracted to her. This could be the woman who could put him on the path to being the ultimate power next to the king in Scotland if the whole Jacobite rising would work. He sees that in Claire — if he could only convince her of it. I wouldn’t say he loves her, but he definitely has an attraction for her that he’s never had for another woman. As for Claire, Dougal keeps throwing her off-balance. He won’t allow her to figure him out. You’ll see in episode five, he doesn’t treat her very well on the road. There’s a scene where he looks over Jamie’s back and he throws her a rag and says, “Mend this shirt,” and she’s like, “I’m not doing that,” and he’s like, “I don’t care.” Instead of her as the intellectual healer that she is, he belittles her in that moment. He always keeps her on her toes.

This was also the first time we saw Claire really loosening up and finding her place in this new world. Was there a particular freedom in writing her with less rigidity?

That's a good observation. We needed to show time passing without time passing in the standard way. From episode three to four, we wanted to show that maybe three weeks or a month have passed. To do that, we had to show that she was comfortable in her surroundings, that the people there were more comfortable with her — in the opening scene when she’s playing with the children and they talk about how they played the day before and the day before, and where Angus and Rupert are much more easygoing with her, where they're asking her if they can go somewhere rather than ordering her. Hopefully other people will see that too.

Chart Claire's progress with Jamie here. There was one key moment where he weighs the pros and cons of escaping the castle in the stables.

If you notice we keep Jamie out of the first half of the episode because the idea is it’s Gathering time and he’s laying low. Jamie has always got a sound head, sound reasoning and he’s always logical. That’s one thing you can always count on Jamie, and Claire is an emotional person and reacts to things emotionally. As the season progresses, she does act more spontaneously than Jamie ever would, and this is his first lesson to her in a way — “Hey, you have to watch yourself, this is not what you’re used to from wherever you’re from.” He still believes she’s from Oxfordshire, but, he tells her basically, "You would be caught and severely punished if you went down this path. You’re lucky that you just tripped over me.”

Jamie pledging his loyalty to the Mackenzie clan at the Gathering was a significant move for the character. Was that particularly challenging for you to write?

When Colum gives the speech that’s in Gaelic, which isn't in the book, we had Murtagh say the oath so she knew exactly what these clansmen would be giving. When Jamie ultimately is forced to walk in to the Great Hall, we have set the scene. If he gives the oath like Dougal did, then Dougal would want him dead because that would make him part of Clan Mackenzie. So we wanted to keep that tension up. That’s why we bring Claire and Murtagh in to navigate the audience with what’s going to happen. Then, if Jamie doesn’t give the oath then the clan themselves would want to attack him for being disloyal. Jamie navigates it in a way where he gives half an oath. He says, “I’ll be loyal to you, but only while I’m standing on your land.” Jamie's a very clever man and he navigated this in such a way where his uncle couldn’t do anything about it.

Dougal telling Claire that she's going to be joining them on the road for a prolonged period of time sets her plan to leave Castle Leoch back a significant amount. Where does this road trip put Claire?

After Jamie gives his oath, we find out that he’s leaving the protection of Colum. The fans that don’t know the book could believe anything could happen on the road. What’s Dougal going to do out there? It does tee up the tension of what happens in episode five where Dougal ends up using Jamie’s back to raise money for the Jacobites, and we don’t know how far he’s going to take that. We don’t know if he’s going to end up killing Jamie on the road. That’s what the end of the episode here leaves off. The show resets in a weird way because we’re on the road for four episodes before we get back to Leoch.

There is always a sense of danger on Outlander.

We know Jamie’s safe at Leoch because he’s hiding from the British. By going on the road, the threat from the British is there as well. Not only does he have to worry about his uncle, but he has to worry about being captured by the British. You’ll see over the course of the next few episodes, we address that issue when the British do show up and Jamie mysteriously disappears.

You mentioned that you had previously read the books, so you were aware of the fans' pull toward the Claire and Jamie romance. Did you feel any added pressure in making sure their scenes were calibrated correctly early on in their courtship?

Yes and no. I put the pressure on myself because a long time ago I read these books before I got the job. I’ve been a fan for so long that I knew what the fans would kind of want. So when I start writing my scripts, I already have a good idea of the scenes that I know that the fans want to see, the “nuggets." I also wrote episodes nine and 14. When you see nine or 14, you’ll see that it was written by not only a writer but a true fan.

Outlander airs 9 p.m. Saturdays on Starz.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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