Sound the pipes and drums, you saucy sassenachs! Starz’s Outlander is back after an extended two-year hiatus that had fans of the epic time-travel romance reduced to tweeting about how sad they were about the #droughtlander.
Season 3, which begins Sept. 10, ends the drought, but it won’t stop fans’ yearning, at least not straightaway: Season 2, you’ll recall, ended with a pregnant Claire (Caitriona Balfe) hightailing it to the future as her hunky highlander, Jamie (Sam Heughan), headed grimly toward the Battle of Culloden. Which means that the question hanging over Season 3 is this: When will #Clamie (you can have that one) be reunited?
“It’s one of the big, pivotal moments of the new season,” says Balfe, speaking on set in Cumbernauld, Scotland. “But you’re just going to have to wait — I’m not allowed to say when this season she goes back.”
If that sounds like a spoiler — you mean Balfe is confirming that Claire and Jamie will be together once more? — it’s not. It’s when, not if, because Outlander has always cleaved close to Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling source novels, and fans of the books will know from the third installment, “Voyager,” that a tryst in a certain print shop is coming. (More’s the point, there’s only so long that a hit show can park the bodice-busting romance that made it a hit in the first place.)
But writer and co-exec producer Matt Roberts says that when to bring the nurse from the 1940s and her lover from the 18th century back together caused the Outlander writers’ room problems — and that was one reason, in fact, for the droughtlander. “We went round and round deciding what to do,” he says. “Because we always want to surprise our audience, whether you read the books or you didn’t. Having Claire be separated from Jamie was the biggest struggle — do you get them back together right away and then show what it was like? Or do you keep them apart? How long do you keep them apart? We decided to show their lives separate for a while.”
And so the new season begins with Claire back in the 20th century with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in Boston. It’s 1949; Frank’s taken a job at Harvard and Claire is heavily pregnant with Jamie’s child. “It’s quite a difficult time for both of them,” says Balfe, laughing at the understatement. “They’ve made this promise to each other that they’re going to try and forge a new life together — but obviously it’s not as easy as that.”
Menzies describes the next phase of their marriage as “all a bit Revolutionary Road.”
“It’s not an entirely happy return,” he continues. “Definitely we find them struggling to make a new life together, to rebuild things, despite the commitment they made to each other. I think that’s temporarily relieved by the arrival of Brianna. But yeah, it’s a series of false dawns really. And ultimately the painful truth beneath it all is that Claire does not love Frank like she used to. There’s no getting away from that. Hopefully, if we’ve got it right, you’ll see a relationship heavy with regret and sadness, two well-intentioned people failing to reach each other.”
If Claire and Frank have the blues, that’s nothing compared with Jamie, whose world and purpose has more or less collapsed into a slough of despond. “We join Jamie almost directly after having lost Claire,” says Heughan. “He’s got one mission, one purpose now, and that’s pretty much to go and see fate through to the end — which is to go to battle and die with his men. He’s come to terms with that, as we saw at the end of Season 2, because at least Claire is safe, as is his unborn child. But when he survives the battle, that’s when everything that he believes and everything that he’s planned for is thrown into the air.”
A tour of the Outlander set reveals a dank cave mocked up out of polystyrene, with a few empty bottles and a stained straw mattress. The set — representing the cave that Jamie hides in after escaping death at the Battle of Culloden — looks pretty much like the kind of hole that the peeved Highlander might take himself off to now that his life has fallen apart. “I think it’s fair to say we see a more dark Jamie this season,” says Heughan. “He definitely loses his identity. He’s trying not to be himself. Then he takes time rediscovering what he’s living for and why he’s surviving. And also coming to terms with the fact that Claire is gone. It’s a long journey, and it takes some time for him to recover.”
We know from the timeline that it will be a 20-year wait before the lovers get back together. It’s fair to say that those 20 years won’t be filled with sweetness and light. In Claire’s case, they’re filled with … “research,” says Balfe with a laugh. “Once she finds out that Jamie is still alive in the correlatory time in the past, that he survived Culloden, there’s a while where they’re trying to investigate how far past Culloden did he live and where would he be if he was still alive. I think that gives her enough confidence to realize that she could probably go back and find him. And we all know that she does.”
Jamie, meanwhile, moping in his man cave, will “struggle to become whole again — or at least fill the void that Claire and his unborn child left,” according to Matt Roberts. No female fan who’s seen Sam Heughan in a torn shirt and a kilt will be surprised that there might be other women. “Some surprise characters come back” is all Roberts will say. “And we will show Jamie’s plight.”
And even once they do reunite, says Balfe, it won’t all be smooth sailing (with the “Skye Boat Song” on endless repeat.) “Try and imagine all of the expectations that one would have after 20 years apart. Here’s somebody that she’s had on a pedestal for so long. What’s going to be really interesting is how do these two people who’ve revered each other for so long in a dreamlike sense, how do they get to know each other in reality? How do they fall in love again with the new people that they are? Especially as he won’t have had a bath for 20 years…”
In Season 3, expect more bouncing back and forth between timelines than ever. Balfe says that she enjoys the time-traveling element of her work, playing her character both young and old, one scene in a corset, the next sporting a beehive. “It’s a great acting challenge. It’s another interesting thing to try out — it’s not often you get to have these experiences in your job. Usually you get one character and you get to play that character as it is, but with Claire I get to play her at very different points in her life and time periods. All of that keeps it fresh for me — and I’m not scared about age.”
But like the fans, she is looking forward to going back to the 18th century — because whereas “Boston” is a combination of a soundstage and a backstreet in Glasgow, the highland scenes are the real thing, filmed on location. “There was a day last season filming some pre-battle stuff,” she says, “and we were out on this fabulous hillside. They had all of these tents in these fields, and Sam and I were on our horses, and there were probably 300 extras trailing behind us. The Scottish landscape is so majestic anyway, but that day the sun was out and we were just blown away. You do feel part of something really epic at times like that.”
Season 3 of Outlander premieres Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. on Starz.
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