The stars and creatives behind the time-jumping series talk with THR about what to expect from the upcoming season.
[This story contains spoilers from Diana Gabaldon's fourth Outlander novel, Drums of Autumn.]
It has taken three seasons, but Outlander's Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) weathered the storm and, in the season three finale, finally made it to a place they can call home: America. By the end of the third season of Starz's time-hopping historical drama, the star-crossed couple found their way back to each other after 20 years apart (separated by both time and space). Reunited after a shipwreck off the coast of Georgia, they have a clean slate to live as husband and wife for the first time.
But this is Outlander, and Claire and Jamie have six more of author Diana Gabaldon's novels to get through before they're truly (hopefully) able to get their happily ever after. Season four of the Starz adaptation will follow book four, Drums of Autumn, and it won't be smooth sailing from here on out.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Outlander stars and producers at a recent Emmy event to discuss how closely season four will follow the source material — from new characters to new locations — and that infamous "bear killer" scene. Here are nine things to know about season four:
1. The new location means new dangers
Now that Claire and Jamie have arrived in America, that's where Outlander will be based moving forward. "If season three was a transition, season four is a year of settling down and trying to make a home, literally and figuratively," executive producer/showrunner Ron D. Moore says. "There's elements of Little House on the Prairie with elements of the frontier and wilderness. We're there at a time of tumult in the American colonies, there's slavery in the South, there are American Indians on the frontier, there's a rebellion that will blossom into the American Revolution, and they land smack-dab in the middle of all of this."
Jamie and Claire may not have to worry about their marriage, but their freedom comes with a price. Life in the colonies is more dangerous than anywhere they've lived before. Balfe enjoyed digging into Claire's complicated emotions about returning to America. "Claire knows so much about the history of America and what was going on at the time but to see it firsthand can be quite difficult, some of the aspects of that colonial time," she tells THR. "She believes that this is her home, but it's hard to watch and see some of the things that are going on at that time."
Portraying America in its infancy meant including all the parts of history, good and bad, Heughan says. "We see this melting pot of cultures that it really was," he says. "I didn't know Scottish people were a big part of that and how many Scots came to America and North Carolina because it does look like Scotland in places."
2. A new ally joins the group
Starting from scratch in a new home is hard enough. Thankfully, Jamie already has some roots in America with his Aunt Jocasta (Orphan Black's Maria Doyle Kennedy). The youngest sister of his mother and uncles, she's as strong-willed as any MacKenzie, which is sometimes good for Jamie and Claire. Moore notes that the TV character stays pretty true to the book version, and producers have made sure to keep that MacKenzie resemblance alive. As the last living reminder of his mother, Jocasta represents more than just an ally for Jamie. "She sounds and looks like his mother," Heughan says. "Jamie really is a family man so for him this is a huge moment, but she's a MacKenzie and the MacKenzies are notoriously big players in politics so that definitely comes up. This season is about family and Jamie getting all the pieces in place before it gets thrown on his head."
3. The most sinister villain has yet to come
Outlander lost its only villain when Jamie killed Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) at the Battle of Culloden. But as book readers know, that all changes with the arrival of Stephen Bonnet (Downton Abbey's Ed Speleers) in season four. Think Black Jack was bad? Just wait until you see Bonnet.
"It's hard to top Black Jack but we have with Bonnet. Ed Speleers committed to this. People are going to hate him. He's so charming, so you kind of like him, but you find out later down the line that he does some really terrible things. He's a great new villain," Heughan says. Adds executive producer Maril Davis: "He's such a nice guy in real life but this is really dark. He's such a great baddie with charm yet danger and he's adorable."
While viewers may be compelled to compare Bonnet to Black Jack, executive producer Matt B. Roberts says those efforts will be futile. "Stephen Bonnet is a pure psychopath and a narcissist whose day-to-day is, 'What's going to pleasure me?'" Roberts says. "He's also a chameleon. He can act like anybody and fit into any situation, and that's what makes him so different. You never know what you're going to get with him."
It's Bonnet's thirst for life and optimism that is going to throw viewers off. "Luck has played a big part in his life," executive producer Toni Graphia tells THR. "He's always had luck on his shoulder that enables him to go through life with this 'I'm invincible' feeling. He's a happy psychopath. It's a totally different flavor because it's with glee that he does the things he does. He doesn't torment himself because he feels like he has luck on his side and he's beyond any harm."
4. A fresh chapter in Jamie and Claire's relationship is opening
Settling down in America has its dangers, but at least Jamie and Claire finally get to see how their relationship can mature without the risk of being torn apart. "They're now with each other for the longest period of time," Moore says. "They've spent 20 years apart and they only had a short period of time together before that. They're now coming to know each other in a different way at a different point in their lives."
Because of that time apart, however, there are new things they both must relearn about the other. "It's almost like they're two new characters getting to know each other even though they've known each other for a very long time," Moore says. And for the actors, this new chapter in Jamie and Claire's relationship signaled a change they didn't know they'd been craving. "It's been a really nice change of pace," Balfe says.
Creating a home together in America allows Jamie and Claire to explore their marriage in a "calmer" way. "There's this beautiful domesticity that's happening where we see them find their home for the first time and create it in the way that they want," the actress adds. "It's still the frontier, there are still dangers, it's still Jamie and Claire, there will always be something going on, but I've liked this. You feel that they've both matured and settled into their roles."
For Jamie, the ability to stop running for the first time is a freedom he's never known. "That's what Jamie wants, to be a laird and to have a family," Heughan says. "Finally they begin to have time together to settle down and live as a married couple. That becomes the priority for Jamie. But of course, that comes with a price and they arrive in America with very little. Jamie has to make some pretty big decisions to gain land and resources."
Ultimately, the question of whether Jamie and Claire's relationship will survive has been answered. "They're strong and there is so much love there," Davis says. "We're showing their healthy relationship moving forward and hopefully we see them grow together well into their 90s."
5. The new print shop reunion is almost here
Last season centered on one specific moment: the print shop reunion. And season four has a very similar reunion that is as, if not more, anticipated. Davis says that moment is when Jamie meets his daughter Brianna (Sophie Skelton) after she travels back in time to join her mother and the father she never met. "If you know that story, you know why Brianna's gone back in time, she's there for a very specific purpose and intent. Jamie and Claire are trying to create a home and a life and a homestead and bringing other tenants up to Frasier's Ridge. They're all moving a bit in different directions when that event occurs," Moore says.
While the scene will not go down exactly as in the book, Moore made sure to keep all the major beats from that moment in the script. "Every year we make choices about what's the primary thread, what are the little pieces we can include along the way, maybe we don't do them in the same order," he says. "Sometimes we switch up even what season certain things happen in because we know fans love certain moments and iconic lines and ideas, so when we can't include them we figure out a way to get back to that notion. Nothing ever really dies on the show."
Heughan is excited to get to that material as it is has such big implications on the season as a whole. "It's imminent. It's huge," he says. "It's the primary storyline for Jamie this season. It is the catalyst to almost everything he sets up in the season and their life there gets thrown upside down by it. It's the ignition of the spark to the drama of this whole season."
Roberts and Graphia co-wrote the episode in which the reunion happens, and they made sure to prioritize the emotions first. "All the viewers who have never read the books, we want them to have the exact same feelings as those who have, which is difficult because 28 million people have 28 million different views of that scene," Roberts says. Adds Graphia: "We do like to mix things up and in the end, people are rarely disappointed with how we put the pieces back together. That episode will be a different spin here and there but ultimately satisfying."
Having Bree reunite with her parents in the past may seem like a happy moment a long time coming, but her decision to go through the stones will have major ramifications on her and the family. So while Balfe is looking forward to acting with Skelton again, she, like Claire, wishes Bree had stayed in the future. "As a mother, she's so excited to have her daughter with her again but there's a price to all of that," she says. "She wants her daughter close but at the same time she knows this time is really dangerous and Brianna would have more opportunities and a safer life if she back in the 20th century."
6. Bree and Roger's relationship takes a hit
Last season, Bree and Roger (Richard Rankin) left things on an optimistic note after Claire went back in time. While Bree lost both of her parents in the span of a year, she gained a new love in Roger and wouldn't be alone. But season four is going to put their relationship through the wringer, and they won't come out unscathed. "They're still at the very beginning of their relationship," Moore says. "You're starting this season with them not even entirely sure where this is going to go or even if it's going to go anywhere. And then it goes through all the turmoil and finding each other again under the circumstances they do and the shock of that; it's a fairly heavy, tumultuous relationship story for them this season."
7. Frank might return this season
Despite Menzies exiting Outlander last season as both of his characters died, the producers aren't ready to say farewell to the actor just yet. Frank Randall's return is still on the table in flashback form. "You might see Frank come to our shores again," Davis says. "In the books, there's often flashbacks of Claire's relationship and there are moments of Frank and Brianna's relationship that we didn't get to see. We love Tobias and I know not everyone is team Frank, but he's so much fun to play with. So yes, we might see him again."
8. Yes, the infamous bear scene is coming
There's a chapter in Drums of Autumn that involves Jamie, a bear and an event that earns the latter the nickname "Bear Killer." Moore promises that producers are bringing that scene to life on the series but it won't be exactly what readers are expecting. "We have a specific spin on that whole thing," he says. "So I'm interested to see how people react." Adds Heughan: "There's going to be some surprises there for fans of the books. But it's fun. It's a new world and there are a lot of dangers there and the bear is one of them."
9. Rollo is going to charm everyone
Another beast from the book has been a little more difficult to work with on set: Rollo, the wolf-hybrid. Moore laughs at how the puppy playing Rollo is just "too friggin' charming" for his own good. "The problem is Rollo is supposed to be the wolf-like big dog that sends terror into people's hearts," Moore says. "When he growls, people are like, 'Whoa, Rollo!' But he's the sweetest, loveliest dog and everyone loves him. He does look like a wolf so he looks like the part to a T, but it's hard getting him to be the really nasty Rollo. There's a lot of sound effects of Rollo growling when he's not really growling."
Outlander season four rolls out in the fall.