Through the first season of Starz’s beloved historical epic Outlander, the word “sassenach” (a traditionally derogatory term for English people) becomes a sweet, even erotic pet name for Scotsman Jamie Fraser’s time-traveling English wife, Claire. It’s often uttered with a dashing smile in the middle of swashbuckling Highlander hijinks, or teasingly low and soft in the bedroom, just before another romp through the sheets.
In Season 2—which premiered Saturday—as Jamie and Claire leave the Scottish Highlands for France in a bid to stop the doomed Jacobite rebellion, “sassenach” takes on an even more intimate meaning. The word becomes one of few constants for the now-duplicitous, scheming couple, a callback to their earliest days, before the sumptuousness, fancy dress, and political maneuvering of the French court—and before a deep, unaddressed trauma came between them.
When we pick up with Jamie and Claire as they disembark in France, Claire is determined to use her knowledge of the future to sabotage Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s efforts to restore his Catholic father to the English throne—an effort that, as history tells, led to the disastrous failure of the Jacobite uprising and the near-extinction of Highlander culture.
Though she’s limited by her lady’s role in the French court, Claire schemes with Jamie and his gruff fellow clansman Murtagh to find ways into the prince’s inner circle. Jamie takes on the role of double agent, meeting with the prince and his cohorts to glean information and, hopefully, use it against them.
But while Jamie cozies up to the Bonnie Prince Charlie in an array of seedy Parisian brothels, Claire (now pregnant) often finds herself unhappy. They’ve stopped having sex—once a vital part of their relationship—and worse, stopped communicating as openly as they used to.
The shadow of Black Jack Randall, the sadistic English soldier who raped Jamie at the end of last season, still hangs over them.
“When people have experienced trauma, or when they’re going through PTSD, it doesn’t just affect that person, it affects their relationships and the people around them,” explains Caitriona Balfe, the actress who brings Claire to life. “You see Claire really struggle because she understands what he’s gone through and has so much sympathy. She’s given him this mission to try and keep him busy and occupy his mind in the hopes that it will help, but as everyone knows, sitting on problems and just busying yourself never heals it. And it’s at the cost of her own happiness and her own mental health and well-being too.
“At what should be this most joyous time of her life, being pregnant, she’s not getting to experience that or share that with anyone,” Balfe continues. “It’s a very lonely time for Claire.”
Claire’s sadness and Jamie’s alienation are one way in which Outlander addresses the long, ugly repercussions of rape. (As many will surely point out, this stands in stark contrast to shows like Game of Thrones, which loves to depict the act onscreen yet remains reluctant to work through the consequences.)
That the rift between the couple comes so soon after the sweeping romance epic that was Season 1 also illustrates Outlander’s willingness to treat Jamie and Claire like real people in a real relationship, despite their fantastical circumstances.
“That’s what happens with couples,” Balfe says. “That’s what’s really interesting about this: it feels like a mature marriage now. We saw them fall in love and all that and now it’s a different type of relationship.”
Balfe, a now-Golden Globe-nominated Irish ex-model, sits across from me in a basement room of New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, exuding an impossible amount of both chicness and comfort in a pajama-like black suit, delicately embroidered with tiny white bulls.
It’s a far cry from the wildly opulent period costumes Claire finds herself strapped into over the course of Season 2, most notably a show-stopping, blood-red number (shown in the photo above) that would make Marie Antoinette herself jealous. Claire’s shift from the coarse Scottish fabrics of last season marks one of the most striking visual departures—and one of the biggest headaches on set for Balfe, despite her professed admiration for costume designer Terry Dresbach’s masterful work.
“Normally, you would just get ready in your trailer and come to set, but these [dresses] all had to have their own rooms—like, it wasn’t my dressing room, it was the costume’s room,” Balfe laughs. “And I’m such a tomboy, I started to feel kind of isolated ’cause all the boys would be hanging out after blocking or rehearsal and I’d be like, ‘Nope, gotta go to my costumes’ room.’”
The transition in shooting locations from Scotland to France, she says, was easier to navigate with Sam Heughan (who plays Jamie) by her side, in much the way that Jamie and Claire relied on each other in their journey across the sea to Paris.
“The characters were the same people, but everything else was so new, it was almost like as they were trying to fit in and figure out their ways, so were Sam and I,” she says.
Balfe’s on-set partnership with Heughan also emboldens the pair when they approach the show’s writers with concerns for Jaime and Claire. And thank god it does: one of the most affecting, well-earned scenes of the new season—a sex scene, no less—comes at exactly the right time, courtesy of the actors’ input.
“Obviously, the writers always have the final word and sometimes actors don’t have the best ideas,” Balfe says, “but sometimes, [as actors] you know the characters so well because you’ve been living with them for so long that you feel very protective over certain things.”
“One thing Sam and I fought for at the beginning of this new season,” she continues, “is the writers had them being more intimate earlier on. And we felt like it was important to wait and to push that for as long as we could…It can’t be easy for them. You can’t just forget about [Jaime’s rape]. Black Jack is still very much present in their relationship. To have the payoff of the brutality and the violence of last season, you have to understand how deeply to the core of Jamie’s psyche he was able to poison. That’s something we thought was very important.”
The “payoff” comes in a stunningly beautiful sex scene that heals wounds from the most heated fight Jamie and Claire have ever had. It’s all the more extraordinary for the fact that Claire is pregnant when it happens—a natural state of being Hollywood is often loath to associate with sexuality.
“That was also something that we felt was really important,” Balfe says. “I think most of our writers were completely on board but some people were a little like, ‘Oh, mmm [hesitant sounds] pregnancy.’ And you know, you’re so sexual when you’re pregnant. You feel very sexy… and this is the one part of their relationship that is pure and that bonds them and brings them together. You have to show that.”
The scene speaks to a larger tenet Outlander creator Ron D. Moore (who also created Battlestar Galactica) has worked to uphold throughout the show: All sex scenes must serve a purpose, for the story’s sake, not titillation.
“If you’re gonna show sex, it has to tell something about the relationship,” Balfe says. “Ron has always been so adamant about that, that we were not gonna do sex for sex’s sake, that it was always gonna be for a reason, and I love him for that. I love that he kept [his word] and I think it’s so important. Because otherwise it’s just titillation and that’s boring. Enough people do that.”
Outlander’s style of storytelling—exciting, emotional, yet purposeful for all its characters, including women—is part of what has earned the show its feminist reputation. As Claire, Balfe brings a wise yet defiant energy, making this modern woman thrust 200 years back in the past both aspirational and, as Balfe points out, relatable.
“She’s such a smart, strong woman, but she’s deeply flawed as well,” Balfe says. “I think that’s what’s beautiful. She’s a very fully formed character. She has this huge passion for life and passion—she fights fiercely, she loves fiercely, she makes love fiercely. And when we put her back in these sort of patriarchal societies, she fights for what she believes in and doesn’t kowtow to anyone. And I think that’s something that really inspires people. I think everyone would like to believe that they have that in them. And it’s been great playing that because it’s definitely inspired me and made me stronger as a woman as well.”