'Outlander' Confronts Slavery in "Do No Harm"

"It is such a huge part of the book and we couldn't have done this season without exploring this," Caitriona Balfe tells The Hollywood Reporter of the sensitive storyline.
Aimee Spinks/Starz

[Warning: this story contains spoilers from Sunday's Outlander, "Do No Harm."]

Outlander's Claire (Caitriona Balfe) learned the age-old saying "No good deed goes unpunished" holds true in an emotionally resonant episode of the Starz series

After the action-packed season four premiere last week, the time-traveling romance took a bit of a pause in "Do No Harm" as Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan) finally arrived at his Aunt Jocasta's (Maria Doyle Kennedy) plantation, River Run, in North Carolina. The blind older woman is the sister of Jamie's late mother, and while Jamie had not seen her in decades, their reunion was warm and full of love. However, it soon became clear that Jocasta was every bit as manipulative and cunning as Jamie's other MacKenzie relatives, as she threw a party to announce that she was leaving River Run to Jamie without discussing it with him first. And not only is he the heir to all the land and crops and profits of the plantation, but also he was the owner of all the slaves there.

Claire, coming from a time where slavery had long been abolished, had previously confessed to Jocasta that she didn't approve of slavery. The episode was filled with moments of Claire being forced to see slaves working for no pay, and she could barely contain her inner struggle knowing that it was wrong, but not being able to act on her feelings and future knowledge. Despite knowing how Claire felt, Jocasta forced the plantation and slaves on the Frasers anyway. Claire and Jamie were then obligated to try to figure out a humane way to free all their slaves. When it became clear they didn't have enough money to do so legally, they were at an impasse.

Their issue then escalated when one of River Run's slaves, Rufus, broke the law and was about to be killed as punishment. Claire saved the slave's life, trying her best to do some good where she could, but a mob formed, demanding that the slave be killed or else Claire and Jamie would die in his place. Not seeing any way out (and not having any support from Jocasta), Claire realized the only thing she could do to help the slave was kill him quickly and painlessly instead of allowing the mob to hang him. She fed him arsenic to kill him peacefully, and the episode ended with the mob hanging his dead body.

While Diana Gabaldon's Drums of Autumn, upon which this season of Outlander is based, does focus a lot on Claire's struggles with seeing slavery firsthand, bringing those scenes to life proved to be more difficult for Balfe than she expected.

"It is such a huge part of the book, and we couldn't have done this season without exploring this," Balfe tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And unfortunately, it still has a resonance in today's current time, which is quite awful."

Claire has dealt with death threats, attempted rapes and murders and losing both of her husbands over the past 20 years of her life. But Balfe believes seeing slavery and having to accept it as a part of the time she's in is one of Claire's biggest struggles.

"In this episode it's the first time — or maybe not the first time but the first time in a long time — that you see Claire acting truly from a place of emotion," she says. "We've seen a much more mature and rational Claire over the last two seasons, and when she's faced with this horrific firsthand view of slavery, it just unsettles her to her core."

While she essentially had no choice but to kill the slave herself, Claire is still going to be affected by her actions for a long time moving forward. "What happens with Rufus is just so awful to her that she doesn't necessarily think of the consequences to her actions," Balfe says. "She goes straight ahead and is trying to do the right thing, but in doing that has caused a greater disturbance and escalated the situation more than she intended to."

Ever since Balfe read Drums of Autumn, she knew she would have to bring this particularly heavy and sensitive storyline to life. But preparing for it and filming it are two very different things.

"It's never easy to film these scenes, and it's never easy to take on these issues in a show like ours," Balfe says. "But it's important that we look at what America was in that time and face some of the realities of that time."

What Balfe was most dedicated to showing in the episode was giving each of the characters, not just Claire, their own agency.

"It's best to tell these stories when you let each character tell their own story," she says. "It was important to let Rufus be able to tell his story as much as possible and not just tell it from, 'Oh, poor Claire, she's seeing this and it's so horrible for her.' It's a difficult line sometimes [to balance] because we are telling this story through the eyes of Claire and Jamie. But as much as we could, we did try to let Rufus and other characters be the masters of their own destinies."

Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.