Playing a series lead on an hour-long cable drama is demanding business. Being a series lead in a period drama where you appear in almost every scene of every episode, often shoot outside in the bitter cold of the Scottish Highlands, and are expected to ride horses and shoot guns all while wearing a cinched corset is seriously hardcore. Just ask Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire Randall on Outlander (2014). The Irish actress, a first-time Golden Globe nominee for her work on Outlander, not only has to contend with all these physical and emotional demands of the historical drama. She is also the object of scrutiny for millions of fans of Claire from the novels by Diana Gabaldon that are the basis for the show. Both the world's creator and its fandom are opinionated and protective when it comes to the world of Claire and Jamie Fraser.
The role is a tall order for Balfe, who left drama school for a career in modeling and only recently returned to acting. It would be a mistake to expect that Balfe would be the stereotypical "model who acts" -- think Christy Brinkley in Vacation (1983). Balfe is more an example of an "actress who modeled" and does both with ferocity and grace. Claire is a woman displaced, struggling with two husbands and two lives. Balfe has the chops to carry the show's weight, legacy, and complicated character.
The series itself is also nominated for a Golden Globe, and industry odds-makers have it as a favorite to win. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore, known for his dark, gritty reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004), has led his production team to create an extremely faithful adaptation of the Outlander novels. The look of the show is stunning, and the production team is operating at a higher level than most other shows. Bear McCreary’s score has the lilt and sadness of a tragic Highland fling, and Terry Dresbach’s breathtaking costumes transform the actors. (Dresbach estimates she and her team made over 5,000 items for the first season of the show.)
The romance of “The Wedding” and the graphic and disturbing violence of “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” get a lot of the attention, but there is an argument to be made for some of the quieter more thoughtful episodes in Outlander. Need a refresher on the politics at play in the Highlands in 1743? Like a good road trip with a band of bawdy brothers-in-arms? Looking for a lesson in wool dyeing or gender roles from the 18th Century? Then watch (or re-watch) Season 1, Episode 5: “Rent.”
One of Dougal MacKenzie’s responsibilities as War Chieftain of the Clan MacKenzie is to collect the rents from the tenants on the Laird’s lands. “Rent” follows Dougal and his men from village to village, while Claire accompanies the men on their trip. Balfe is in every scene -- almost every shot. She is warm and open with the women, hotheaded and confrontational with the clansmen. We witness touching scenes between her and her 1743 husband, Jamie (Sam Heughan), as well as scenes between her and her 1945 husband, Frank (fellow nominee Tobias Menzies). Balfe handles it all with intense authenticity. She draws us into her worlds while seeming to be a woman out of time and out of place, in both her present and her past.
“Rent” gets the viewer out of the palace intrigue of Castle Leoch and into the MacKenzie lands, and the visuals would make a persuasive ad for Visit Scotland! The script, written by Toni Graphia, is given the difficult chore of educating viewers on the Jacobite rebellion. “Rent” handles this responsibility admirably -- only the scene featuring Frank and Claire on Culloden Moor feels too heavy-handed with exposition. Moore's choice not to subtitle Dougal’s pub speeches, delivered all in Gaelic, puts the viewer in the same seat as Claire, piecing together the details.
After seeing the brutality of the redcoats firsthand and witnessing Dougal’s impassioned plea for the cause, Claire says to Ned Gowan, who questions her ability to translate, "I’ve picked up enough to understand what ‘Long Live the Stuart!’ sounds like."
His response? "You might have picked up more than you should." Knowing too much but not enough is precisely the point for Claire and Outlander.