'Outlander' postmortem: Caitriona Balfe says episode 3 might be most 'heartbreaking' yet

Photo: Starz

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “All Debts Paid” episode of Outlander. 

Much like Claire and Frank, Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies had concerns about their characters’ marital arrangement.

“We didn’t want it to be a black–and-white situation where Frank loved Claire and Claire loved Jamie and was never going to get over losing him, the end — because it is more complicated than that,” Balfe says. “That would have been boring and it would not have represented their history. He was the center of her world before Jamie. Frank has been a good husband to her. He was a great father to Brianna. There is love and respect there. Also who wants to just sit in misery all the time? [There’s always a] desire to live a happy life. Tobias and I fought to have that in there, and we worked very hard to get the complexity of a compromised marriage right.”

But just because it was the right way to go doesn’t mean it was easy to watch. “No, it’s absolutely tragic, heartbreaking. Especially when you see them in separate beds. You’re just like, ‘Ugh. How awful,’” Balfe laments. “The saddest part is that they both at different times make overtures, but the timing’s never right. They both just keep missing each other. And by the time Claire feels like maybe she could be ready, when she suggests they go to the movies and he admits he has already seen them or when she realizes it hurts her that he was [missing] her graduation dinner to be with his girlfriend, it’s too late. Fundamentally, they just give each other what the other needs. There’s no romance, no fire anymore. They are just doing what they think is the right thing in staying together until Brianna is grown up. I think that happens to people a lot in real life, and it is so sad.”

Photo: Starz

In this episode, the audience learned that after a few years of trying and failing to rekindle the romantic fire they once had, Claire and Frank came to an understanding that he could date as long as he kept things discreet, and they would continue to live as a couple and co-parent Brianna. Executive producer Maril Davis admits the compromise might sound a little progressive for the ‘60s, but all involved agreed that Claire and Frank would have had their reasons for agreeing to the new conditions.

“I think Claire’s whole intention in doing it this way was [because] it’s important to her child to have a mother and father, and Frank’s a good father. She wants Brianna to have a stable home unlike her own upbringing, so Claire can stick in this for her daughter,” Davis explains. “After all, she’s the only reason Claire came back through the stones. If you look at it that way, you kind of understand why she did what she did even though it is sad.”

Without love to live for, Claire throws herself into medical school. Balfe says, “This is somebody who found a way to make their life a success. She’s become a surgeon. She’s very accomplished and Brianna is a very smart, well-raised girl.” Still, the “lack of intimacy” took a toll on Claire. “To live that long without your needs being tended to has to have a huge effect on somebody. Claire hasn’t had sex in probably 17 years, and that was such an essential part of who she is,” she continues. “We’ve known her as sexually liberated and so full of passion. She had such a passionate life with Jamie, and Frank before that, and now she has shelved a huge side of herself. Once you shut a part of yourself like that down, a sort of rigidity happens.”

Balfe did tease that this repression has repercussions when — Spoiler alert if you have not read the novels! — Claire eventually tries to make her way back to Jamie. “I wanted to give her that quality and hopefully then when she finally does have that reunion with Jamie, there has to be a breaking down of walls and peeling away the layers that she’s gained over the years away from him. It’s even represented in her costume. When she first goes back, she’s like a schoolmarm; very buttoned-up. As she spends more time with Jamie and falls back into her old life and feels like her old self again, you see those layers being peeled away and there’s a freedom to her again. A looseness comes back into her physicality and her emotions.”

Balfe did worry that her actions and the compromise could be perceived as selfish. “In many ways, Claire comes out of it as the most unsympathetic character. Especially during the last fight when he says he wants to go back to England, get a divorce, marry his new girlfriend, and take Brianna. Sometimes it seems like she wants Frank to be as miserable as her, but I think that is not intentional. She’s going through the worst grief you can imagine and in a way she makes the deal so that Frank can still find some happiness. He starts having the affairs after Claire has already rejected him so many times. But there were several times where, in defense of my character, I would say to the writers, ‘Are you sure you’re not turning Claire into the b**** here?’”

Davis agrees that wasn’t ever Claire’s intention. “It would be easy to see Claire as the bad guy in this relationship, but if not wanting the family unit to break up was selfish, I don’t think it was intentional. It was not her master plan to prevent Frank from having a full life. She was more trying to do right by her daughter.”

Photo: Starz

And ultimately the build-up and the risk of blame was worth it. When the situation came to a head in the last big fight and Frank wondered if she could have forgotten her Scottish soulmate in time, it resulted in Davis’ favorite line of the series so far. “When she says that amount of time doesn’t exist, that’s actually my favorite line. Starz was going to tease that line for a while, and I was like, ‘You cannot tease that. Let people see that in the moment. It is so powerful and beautiful. We don’t want to ruin it.’ That line summarizes just how amazing Jamie and Claire’s love is and why she couldn’t just go back to Frank and pick up where they left off. The fact that this much time has passed and she still feels the same as the day they parted says a lot about their love story.”

Balfe agrees that the line was the dialogue equivalent of a gut punch. “In some ways, it’s so cruel. But also, it’s honest and it comes from such a place of hurt, loss, and devastation. But, oh, what a thing to say! You just feel for everybody involved — Jamie, Frank, and Claire. None of them have had a happy go of it.”

The heartbreak continued on set as they shot the scene in the morgue, after Frank’s fatal car accident. “I liked that Claire got to tell Frank one last time that she did love him, that he got her first love,” Balfe says. “I think she was genuinely sad. She did not wish him dead at all. It was a very sad moment for her.”

For Balfe, it was all too easy to get into character that day as it meant she also had a goodbye to deal with. With the premiere’s death of Black Jack and Frank’s car crash, Menzies’ time on the show was over. “Tobias is such a brilliant actor as fans know, because he played two very different parts on our show. He always pushed to get things right and to go deeper. He will be missed,” Balfe says. “It was not difficult to act sad that day.”

Davis hopes that in death, maybe fans will cut Frank a little bit of the break he deserves. “I understand we are all rooting for Jamie and Claire to be together, but I have never understood why people give Frank such a hard time, especially the Frank of the series, not the books,” she explains. “Frank is one of the tragic characters of Outlander. He lost his wife not once, but twice. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Frank especially after Brianna is born and there’s the moment in the hospital where you think maybe they’re going to make it and be happy — and then that cue about the red hair drops and you realize he’s never going to rid of Jamie either. But still he takes in a woman who cheated, albeit in the past, and he sticks in this very one-sided marriage, even though it’s obvious she loves another man. He decides to raise her baby even though she isn’t his and yet loves the child like she is. I think that says a lot about his character.”

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

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