'Outlander' Writer on "Uncomfortable" Jamie vs. Black Jack Scenes: "Worst I've Ever Spent on a Set"

Ira Steven Behr talks to THR about the events of the penultimate episode and previews what to expect from the season finale.
Courtesy of Starz

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Saturday's Outlander.]

In the penultimate episode of Outlander’s freshman season, darkness overtook all. After being captured by the British and sentenced to hang alongside Taran McQuarrie (Douglas Henshall), Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is granted a stay of execution — by an all-too-keen Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

It is then that the worst case scenario unfolds: Black Jack Randall has his way with Jamie, ruthlessly torturing him on both a mental and physical level, all while Claire remains helpless despite multiple attempts to save him. Finally able to take control of the man he’s long been fascinated by (and, frankly, attracted to), Black Jack promises Jamie a noble death in exchange for mental and physical control. It’s a sadomasochistic nightmare, and — apparently! — not even the worst of it, judging by Black Jack’s last line of the episode, “Shall we begin?”

The Hollywood Reporter chatted up the episode’s writer, Ira Steven Behr, to discuss Black Jack’s psychology, the episode’s effect on the cast and crew, and the season finale.

What was your plan heading into this episode? 

We had known from the beginning that I was going to write episode 15 and [series creator] Ron Moore, would do 16. At one point it wasn't clear what we were going to [put into the episode], so I really thought I was going to have my hands full.

Its interesting because the episode sets up for an even more intense finale, but it was, in and of itself, also incredibly violent and hard to watch. What was it like creating that environment?

It was much easier to write this episode than it was to be on set. I know how this is probably going to look in print, but the fact is the five or six days we shot were without a doubt the most uncomfortable and worst I’ve ever spent on a set. Most crews on TV shows and film are very matter-of-fact, tough hombres. And they do that job no matter what’s being filmed. This time, though, everyone was feeling it. The guys would walk past me and go, “When is this going to end?” I’ve never had that happen before. Same with hair and makeup and costume — I would check with them on occasion after a particularly harrowing scene and, I kid you not, there were tears. I’d never seen that before.

What do you think Black Jack was trying to accomplish with all of this? 

Black Jack is a very complicated character. He tells himself, certainly in “The Garrison Commander,” a lot of different tales about how he felt — some of it true, some of self-deception. With Jamie it’s not just a case of a man wanting another man to die; he saves Jamie [because] — and Ron and I talked it over after the show was done and one of the things that came across to us was Black Jack’s sense of honor. Don’t expect to understand it fully or be able to relate to it, but he does have one. He wanted to give Jamie a noble death — he meant that — and to him it was a bargain. It was, “I can’t save you from British justice but I can give you the death you deserve, but in exchange you must allow me to break you physically and mentally.” Now that sounds crazy, but to Black Jack that makes a certain amount of sense. It’s a state of mind I visited when I wrote it but I certainly would not want to live there. (Laughs.)

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The show has done a really good job setting up the how and why behind Black Jacks thought process and emotional state. This is a very repressed and angry guy.

To me, the line that was truest to Black Jack’s character was when he ripped open Jamie’s shirt and said with wonder, “How does it feel to be alive and wear so much dead flesh?” I give Sam so much credit because it was tough. I was there during filming and it was not easy for him. He had to stay in this dark headspace, and there would be times when a scene would end and I would want to go over to him and tell him how good he’d done, how great he was performing and sometimes I’d walk toward him and see the concentration and that sense of discomfort in his eyes and I would just veer away.

The scene where, after finally making it into the castle only to be discovered by Black Jack, Claire tells him about his death was particularly powerful and sad.

It was filmed in Carlyle at a castle in Northern England. And it was in this little larder underground that was filled — filled!— with spiders. And when they first went down spiders were falling from the ceiling, so I had to get out of there. Then they went down with torches to try and send them away. It was the most uncomfortable and dank location that you could possibly want. I was surprised when I first read the book that Claire is unsuccessful because she’s so smart and so capable that that was part of the tragedy of episode 15. She does everything she possibly can. It’s like that scene with the warden: to keep it together and try to bluff your way in to see Jamie. She tries so hard but it’s not to be, really.

How did the idea with the cows come about?

One of the things I thought would be nice, for the episode, was the idea of Murtagh being the one to come up with the cows [as a distraction]. Murtagh is one of my favorite characters, but he keeps his opinions to himself a lot unless he’s talking to Jamie, so to see him smile when you almost never do, it was really fun. 

It was a nice reprieve before what looks to be a seriously hard-to-watch finale.

I will say this — and I never say this because you have to keep your eye on what’s happening in front of you and now we’re in season two — but these two episodes have not let go of their hold on me since the writing and filming of them. They stick in my mind and I think about them often. I’m interested to see the response to them. And I’m sure there will be a response, whatever it is. I do feel a sense of satisfaction that we tackled something different and didn’t shy away from it. In that sense I’m glad I said yes to this job.

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