Outlander: The Most Stunning Season 3 Premiere Moment Was Entirely Improvised
Actor Tobias Menzies proves once again why he’s TV’s MVP.
This post contains frank discussion of Outlander Season 3, Episode 1, “The Battle Joined.” If you’ve not yet watched the latest episode of Starz’s time-traveling Scottish romance, now is the time to leave.
Like the other costume-friendly drama based on a series of best-selling books it is constantly compared to, Outlander took a large, ambitious swing at a battle episode in its Season 3 premiere. Because the Starz series is contending with the very real and bloody 1746 Battle of Culloden rather than ice dragons and zombies, Outlander wisely took a somewhat indirect approach at playing out the violent results that history (and the show itself) had already told us to expect. Seen largely in flashback from the perspective of a dying—but not dead yet—Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), this battle episode never forgets what makes Outlander so popular with its passionate fanbase. It’s not the big-scale clashes but, rather, the small and intimate moments that make “The Battle Joined” such a success. That’s why the death of the show’s most menacing villain plays out, surprisingly, like a tender romance. And the most heart-stopping moment of Black Jack Randall’s demise? That was entirely improvised by the show’s not-so-secret weapon: Tobias Menzies.
Before we get to Randall’s death, we should pause to admire the clever way Outlander managed to get its star-crossed and frustratingly separated lovers, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie, in the same scene. As Jamie drifts blearily in and out of consciousness in a pile of bodies on the battlefield, he has a vision of Claire in her nightgown walking across the carnage to stand by his side. It’s a fittingly romantic moment, and one that casts Claire as almost guardian angel—because surely, it can be no coincidence that Jaime is immediately rescued from certain death by Rupert MacKenzie (Grant O’Rourke), and dragged off to be healed. But Claire and Jamie barely touch in this brief dream of a reconciliation. Instead, the wounded Fraser spends the first section of the episode locked in an intimate, ghoulish embrace with his enemy, Jack Randall, whose draped, dead body saves Jamie from being speared by the enemy clean up crew.
Randall’s dead body is entwined with Jamie’s because, as the pair finally made good on two seasons worth of enmity, Outlander cleverly shot their final confrontation is an almost sexual pas de deux. Director Brendan Maher filmed their final fight—filled with exhausted lunges and slashes—at sunset, taking full advantage of the fading light to bathe Randall’s last stand in golden hues. As Menzies put it in an interview with TV Guide: “It’s this strange sort of dance. . . I liked the way it’s come out. It’s sort of a strange kind of half dance, half fight, kind of embrace. I feel like it’s a fitting end to this quasi-love affair.”
According to a behind-the-scenes interview with executive producer Matt Roberts that aired after the episode, it was Menzies himself who concocted Randall’s last, surprising act. “Tobias, he finds things in the moment, and sometimes you just never know what you’re going to get,” Roberts said, referring to the yearning reach Randall makes towards Jamie as he dies. “He surprises you with something special or extra, and that’s what makes him shine on camera.”
Surely there are plenty of Outlander fans who will reject any attempt to romanticize or sexualize the final confrontation between this pair. After all, Randall is responsible for a number of atrocities, including beating, whipping, and ultimately raping Jamie. Though it’s often a controversial trope in the romance novel genre, we wouldn’t want to romanticize a rapist here. Still, Menzies has brought countless emotional nuance to a character who could have been a boring, black and white, mustache-twirling villain.
This final embrace between Fraser and Randall (who in a broader, historical sense are the two figures vying for Claire’s heart) is one that’s largely show-invented. The details of Culloden and, specifically Jack’s death, are still a bit hazy in Diana Gabaldon’s novels—though there were some flashbacks in Book Six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. In the novel,s Jamie does wake up with Randall’s body somewhat sprawled on him, but it’s nowhere near as intimate as this scene. Still, this show-specific, emotional curtain call for Randall is entirely in keeping with the spirit of both the book and the show. Roberts points out the impressive scope of the battle (14 days, 1,100 extras)—but as producer/writer Toni Graphia observes, the true brilliance of the episode was being “able to scale it down and distill it to the emotions of the battle.” Moments like Claire’s visits and Randall’s last grasping reach, she says, are “worth a thousand horses.” She’s not wrong.