CW for discussion of sexual assault and PTSD. Interview contains thematic spoilers for Outlander Season 6.
When we last left Outlander at the end of Season 5, the men of Fraser’s Ridge had freed Claire from her abductors and rapists and Marsali had poisoned one of the men behind the attack, while Bree and Roger failed to travel back to the late 1960’s. Season 6 picks up the thread of increased political and social tensions in the colony of North Carolina as the story is now very close to the start of the American Revolution. Jamie has to appear loyal to the Crown because he was granted Fraiser’s Ridge but he knows from Claire, Brianna and Roger that the colonists will eventually rebel and win.
As the men of Frasiers’ Ridge become entangled with political and social conflicts or try to avoid them over the course of the season, it’s more important than ever that the women of the Ridge stick together. “You don’t always see it on screen, women supporting one another out without it being about men,” Lauren Lyle says. “And they really do come together as a family.” The same is true from Claire’s point of view. “Her [Claire’s] relationship with Marsali grows deeper and deeper by the day, which is lovely,” Caitriona Balfe says.
Interpersonal conflict is inevitable in a family unit, but it is clear Outlander is intentionally avoiding the “mother-in law from hell” or related tropes in translating the novel series to the screen. “Caitriona Balfe, Sophie Skelton, and myself have all come together before it to talk about making sure that the women all do support each other and it doesn’t become women hating one another, and sisters hating each other, and any sort of rivalry being the daughters of Claire,” Lyle says. “We spoke to the writers about that, and fought for that to be the case.”
Season 5 was a rough one for many of the characters after the attack on Frasier’s Ridge. Season 6 has not forgotten that Claire and Marsali are living with the trauma. “We see Claire unravel in a way that we’ve never seen her before,” Balfe says. “Claire is such a resilient character and it’s not easy for her to ask for help. I think that that’s one of things that probably is why she’s struggling so much, because really when you’re experiencing the darkest of times, you should be sharing. Her inability to sort of share in that way was hard for her as she’s usually the ear for people.”
While Marsali did not experience sexual assault, she still faced the threat of death or bodily harm. “[Marsali] is in a much darker place than we’ve seen her before,” Lyle says. “She’s not coping in a way that she’s always been able to cope before. Marsali has always come from such a place of strength. She’s such a formidable young woman, and that’s the tagline for her. Marsali is normally quite spritely, excited, and can be quite funny sometimes. You don’t see as much of that this time.” On top of this, Marsali is pregnant during Season 6. “I did loads of research into giving birth at the time, and what that meant, and what it would be like to have four children and be so young,” Lyle says. “The costume department made corsets with little wooden windows that you could open to breastfeed and then shut again. I really knew what I was talking about when it came to her and her experience at the time.”
Outlander Season 6 was filmed during circumstances neither Balfe or Lyle faced in previous seasons. “COVID was definitely a challenge,” Balfe says. “On a personal level, I was pregnant for the entirety of the season, so that was quite challenging just in terms of the energy that’s needed to film Outlander and how difficult it is sometimes to film.” Lyle says: “It was a mad time to film. I went on a lot of walks, ate a lot of great pasta, and we watched a lot of great [episodes of] The Office US.”
Shifting tone in characterization was also not easy. “It was a challenge to take on a lot more of a sort of intense, deeply saddened energy,” Lyle says. “It’s also really enjoyable to get to do something different, but sometimes you just sort of take it with you. It can make a day on set slightly more intense because you’ve got to sort of stick with that feeling. That could be hard at times, but at the same time, also a real blessing to get to have a chance to do that.” The same is true for Claire’s journey this season. “I was so conscious of trying to really land the right voice, her internal voice, and really find the right path for her in terms of her PTSD,” Balfe says. “What form that took, how it manifested within her, and to always make it as truthful and as plausible as possible, even within these grand circumstances.”
Fans often wonder how much actors get to weigh in on various Outlander plotlines. Both reveal they had some influence in shaping Claire and Marsali’s trajectory. “The hardest thing for all of us to try and lock down is what would be someone’s internal monologue,” Balfe says. “Everyone has a different idea of what somebody’s hopes and fears are. I had a strong point of view of what I felt Claire’s fears would be. What would she blame herself for? What would she, in her darkest moments, take responsibility for, even if it’s not really her responsibility?”
The answers to these questions were generated collectively. “It’s more like an interesting puzzle that you get to go on with the writers,” Balfe says. “It’s a lot of back and forth and it’s like, well, what about this, or what about this? They’re proposing a lot of things and I’m proposing a lot of things, and it’s about finding a common ground and finding the thing that sounds the most plausible and the most truthful to all of us. We had a great collaboration with the writers, and I think that we made sure that it was improved on each draft,” Balfe says. “‘Let’s really hone in on what it is that she [Claire] would do, her internal monologue, what that would be if she’s really experiencing the darkest parts of the recesses of her mind.’ I think we found that.” Lyle says: “They [the writers] were sort of in agreement as well, to be fair, but I’ve always fought for her [Marsali] to have just something to say, that’s with being a woman of the time, that there’s something more to it than that.”
Claire and Marsali are not facing their trauma alone. “Claire’s the one that notices Marsali’s not okay and really pushes to find out what’s going on,” Lyle says. “Bree becomes a great support as well, you see them really forge a sisterly bond.” “You see these great moments with [Claire and] Brianna, who of course, not only is she her daughter, but she’s someone who’s also experienced trauma like this,” Balfe says. “You see…how she [Claire] ends up leaning on that.”
Malva Christie (Jessica Reynolds) just moved to the Ridge. Fans who read the book already know who she is but what can show-only fans expect from her interactions with Claire and Marsali? “Malva is this very curious, intense character and Claire is in some ways really taken by her,” Balfe says. “ Claire can see that hunger, desire and eagerness to expand her mind and expand her knowledge. She knows that she’s under a very oppressive father and a very oppressive brother. Claire really feels for her and wants to take her under her wing, which of course may or may not cause her some pain further down the line.” “Malva comes in and there’s a little bit of rivalry between Marsali and Malva over working in the surgery,” Lyle reveals. “I loved doing that – giving a bit of space back and a bit of the leeriness in her, a bit of bite back. That was always fun to play, but yeah, it’s all love.” Fans will have to wait to find out exactly what kind of tension Malva is going to bring into the Ridge.
Speaking of the surgery, there’s quite a few new tasks for Claire and Marsali to tackle in Season 6, and both actresses had to learn how to do them. “I’ve learned loads being Marsali. I can ride two horses, as in on a horse and cart,” Lyle says. “I was the getaway driver. I can butcher a few goats or a pig. Once I had to butcher a 70 kg [154.3 lb] pig and then stitch it up like a surgeon again. I can sew, and use a sewing wheel. If we were stuck in the forest together and you got injured, I could stitch you back off again, probably quite successfully, and get you home.” This is quite the impressive list of survival and home economics skills!
Claire has new patients to treat in Season 6. “The operation on Tom Christie’s [Malva’s father] hand was quite fun, just purely because Mark Lewis Jones is such a great actor,” Balfe says. “We had a lot of laughs doing that.” History repeats itself and one particular upcoming storyline is a perfect example. “We have, it’s not quite a pandemic, but we have an illness that comes to the Ridge,” Balfe says. “Nobody really knows what the source of it is. They know it’s contagious. They know it’s passing from one person to another. When we were filming that, we were all of us wearing our masks, and it was right deep in the middle of COVID. It’s interesting how sometimes these coincidences or these parallels end up playing out. We have this incredible medical advisor whose name is literally Dr. Claire, and it’s great. I use her hugely as a resource in terms of, well, what would she do or how would she approach this? This season was the same. We just leaned very heavily on our real Dr. Claire,” Balfe says.
Although this interview contains just a fraction of what’s to come for Claire and Marsali, fans can be assured that they will be rewarded for their patience over this pandemic Droughtlander. The women of Frasier’s Ridge will endure the road towards the American Revolution Outlander Season 6 charts together.
Outlander Season 6 will arrive on March 6 on Starz.