Droughtlander has finally drawn to a close. The hit time-travelling series Outlander returns for season 6 on 6th March – and excitingly, the first episode is feature-length. That’s a little gift to fans “for being so patient and waiting so long for the series to come back” Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire Fraser, tells RadioTimes.com.
Due to production delays imposed by COVID, as well as Balfe’s pregnancy, season 6 has been reduced from 12 to eight episodes. But fans won’t be hard done by “because so much happens,” promises Jamie Fraser star Sam Heughan.
The season begins with a flashback to Jamie’s time at Ardsmuir Prison, which we last saw in season 3. It’s a clever way of introducing a major new character, Jamie’s fellow inmate and staunch Protestant Tom Christie (Mark Lewis Jones) who, in the present time, brings his family to live on Fraser’s Ridge in North Carolina.
Those Ardsmuir scenes, shot in Glen Coe in Scotland, are “really epic”, says Heughan. “You can see the Buachaille Etive Mòr, the big mountain, in the background.”
The flashback also offers a fresh angle on a past storyline. “I really enjoy that about Outlander,” enthuses Heughan. “And I think we might get more of that. We’re really starting to pull upon other books, storylines, narratives. That’s what is so great about our show – we can draw upon our past.
“For Jamie, the way I played it the first time, he’s just been through the Battle of Culloden, he thought he was going to die; he’s shut off, he’s living in the memory of Claire. And then to revisit that [in season 6], but slightly adapt it, he’s suddenly forced into being receptive and being a leader of men again.
“It’s not something when I first played that time period that I even knew had happened. I love that. I think it’s really cool for the viewers.”
The Christie family – Tom and his young-adult children Malva (Jessica Reynolds) and Allan (Alexander Vlahos) – bring “such a different vibe” to Fraser’s Ridge.
She’s full of praise for “incredible” newcomer Reynolds. “Claire sees a lot of herself in Malva and they form a really strong bond,” explains Balfe. “But things aren’t always what they seem, and it gets very complicated.”
Likewise, Jamie – who practises his Catholic faith in a very different way – is grappling with the intractable Tom. “Jamie has to use his whole toolbox of manipulation and putting him down or threatening him,” says Heughan. “He can see that Tom is a danger: he uses fear to control men, and that’s not what Jamie believes in. It begins to unravel the Frasers’ popularity on the Ridge.”
But “there’s more layers to Tom Christie,” teases Balfe, adding: “On the surface [Tom] seems to be this tiresome, Bible-bashing, fire-and-brimstone man. But as the season progresses we learn a lot more about him.”
But it’s not just the Christies causing problems for Jamie. For now, he’s on the side of the crown and, in season 6, becomes an Indian agent, approaching Native Americans to ask them to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War. However, that means potentially aiding a future enemy given that Jamie is planning to switch sides. “The ground really is very uneven right now for Jamie,” sums up Heughan.
Another major storyline is the aftermath of Claire’s horrific abduction and gang-rape in season 5. “Even before we filmed it, we had already started the conversations about how important it was to see the recovery and the fallout,” recalls Balfe. “I’m so grateful that our writers were prepared to give a lot of air time to that.”
“I also think it’s important that we see a character like Claire, who often gets this moniker of being a ‘strong female’, that whether you appear to be strong on the outside, something like this will really shake you to your core. For Claire, who’s always been able to compartmentalise and move on from traumas before, we see her experience PTSD and make some missteps along her journey of recovery.”
Those missteps include self-medicating – something which is prevalent in a lot of survivors’ stories, observed Balfe. “Claire is really good at giving help, but very bad at asking for help – so it felt true to her.”
Balfe “really, really loved” this departure from the source material, which is still, she stresses, woven into key elements of the book. “I think it’s a clever way of telling the story and I’m excited to see what the fans think of it.”
However, there has been criticism that Diana Gabaldon’s books, and now the series, feature too much sexual assault. Balfe acknowledges that “things have changed” since the novels were first published. “Of course we have to re-evaluate, and especially when you’re showing something [on TV] as opposed to reading it, there’s a different digestion of it.
“It’s very important to handle these things sensitively. If we can, we try to make it part of a conversation that will hopefully help people. That’s why we show different aspects of recovery. What Brianna went through is different to what Claire went through, which is different to what Jamie went through.”
In season 6, Jamie gives Claire space to deal with her trauma, explains Heughan. “But he’s keeping an eye on her. He knows that she’ll come to him should she need it.” He went on to say that it’s “unprecedented [territory] for both of them. It really does come to a head, because she keeps this secret [her self-medicating] from him. Normally, they deal with everything together.”
Watching the Frasers’ marriage evolve is one of the great pleasures of Outlander, thinks Heughan, and unusual for TV: “You never get to see the domestic daily life of a couple who actually make things work.” There’s plenty of that in season 6, despite fewer episodes. “We do somehow spend more time with them. There are some lovely moments where you see Jamie and Claire just being in each other’s company.”
But while Balfe enjoys showing “the inner workings and dynamics of their marriage”, she confesses that she’s not hugely fond of filming the more intimate moments between them: “I can’t say that I love all of the sex scenes. They’re never the most fun to film. I think at this point we know that they have a healthy sex life!” But she accepts that “it’s a really core part of their relationship: they’re as in love with each other now as they were from the get-go.”
It’s a good season for the wider Fraser clan as well, says Heughan, with strong storylines for Young Ian (John Bell), recently returned from Mohawk – “We get to find out what happened to him” – as well as Fergus (César Domboy) and Marsali (Lauren Lyle), and Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and Roger (Richard Rankin). “It feels like Fraser’s Ridge is really flourishing, but this is just the time where it starts to decay.”
There’s further grappling with the ethics of time-travel knowledge, too. “Jamie and Claire tried to change history and that didn’t work out,” says Heughan. “Now they’re trying to be on the right side of history. Jamie is a man of honour and very loyal, but now he’s trying to do right by his family and the people who depend on him.”
He particularly loved shooting the Native American storyline: “We re-created a Cherokee village and it brings another texture, another civilisation. The actors who came over, most of them from Canada, they brought their own culture. It shows the scale of what was going on with the Native Americans at that time.”
As for Claire, she’s back in 18th-century doctor mode. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Balfe. “We have our own Dr Claire on set, our medical advisor. It’s a great puzzle when we bring her in and go, ‘OK, how do we do this in a way that’ll look realistic, but with what Claire has available to her?’ We got to do an operation on Tom Christie and the only difficulty was getting through a take without us cracking up, with Mark shouting and moaning in pain!”
What about fellow time-traveller Wendigo Donner (Brennan Martin), who we met in season 5? “He might pop his ugly head back up again,” teases Balfe. And we’ll definitely get more of breakout star Adso the cat. “Claire couldn’t have a surgery without him these days,” she confirms. “He’s the most chilled, docile cat I’ve ever come across – speaking as a cat owner for many years.”
Though the shortened season 6 wasn’t planned, Balfe thinks there’s a natural break in the storytelling. And the good news for fans is that we’re getting a bumper season 7 with 16 episodes. “It brings us back to season 1, where we had a 16-episode order as well,” recalls Balfe. “I think we’re steeling ourselves to have the stamina for a 12, 13-month shoot, but it’ll be worth it.” Balfe will also be going back to set “as a new mum, which will be an interesting learning curve”.
Some stories from season 6 will continue into the next year, she explains, but then the series has already shifted several plots around rather than just mapping one book directly onto a season. “That’s the beauty of a long-running show like this, we get to play around and take the best bits.”
Heughan points out that Gabaldon has written Outlander novellas and short stories, too, like one featuring a young Jamie and Ian fighting in France. “A couple of times we’ve tried to incorporate them or written stuff but it’s never really made it in. But who knows! She’s also mentioned writing a prequel. And I think she’s written an episode this season as well.”
Neither Balfe nor Heughan has read the latest Outlander book, as they prefer to focus on their current season. What do they think about Gabaldon’s professed plan to finish Jamie and Claire’s story in her 10th book – so potentially their 10th season? “That would do it, wouldn’t it?” says Heughan.
“It would be amazing if we get the season orders,” agrees Balfe. At this point, she notes, only season 7 has been ordered. “And maybe by that time Sam and I will have actually reached Claire and Jamie’s real age. We’ll save a fortune on make-up.”
But for now, they’re thrilled to bring this new season to the eager fans – one which Heughan believes really rewards their long-term investment in the characters: “It’s the payoff that I’ve been waiting for.”