Can you act simply by lying in one place and breathing? Sam Heughan proved the answer is a gut-wrenching yes in Outlander Season 3’s episode 1.
Outlander fans expecting the full-on screams and gun shots of battle after the last strains of the “Skye Boat Song” died away instead were met in the opening episode of Season 3 with silence. Utter, breathtaking, heart-wrenching silence. As the camera scrolled past the body parts and dead men piled up like so many rag dolls in an abandoned heap, the only sound—and a faint one at that—was that of the wind. It was so eerily quiet, in fact, that when a Redcoat soldier carelessly tossed a flag on a cart, it pierced like cannon shot, its contrast to the void was that startling.
Our journey in silence continued as the camera panned the scene. A minute or so into the episode, we heard some Redcoats in the background as they walked about the battlefield looking for the living so they could either finish them off (if they were Scottish) or get them help if they were English. The camera panned slowly until it rested on the face of Jamie Fraser where the only hint that he was, indeed, not dead, was his first ragged breath. And as Jamie’s eyes slowly fluttered open, we watched with him as he realized with full horror that he was, in fact, still alive.
Jamie takes one ragged breath…and then…slowly….reluctantly another. His eyes flutter and we join him in flashbacks as he relives the battle of Culloden—his brief encounter with Murtagh, his pleading with the Bonnie Prince, his sweet moment smelling Claire’s cloak after she’s gone through the stones and, yes, the final epic battle with his nemesis, Black Jack Randall. We are there with him each ragged breath after another.
While telling a war story in such a quiet way might seem counterintuitive, showrunner and episode writer Ron D. Moore’s ultimate choice to go inward, to focus on the small rather than the battle writ large, was brilliant. Breath is literally our life force. It is the first thing that tells everyone we are alive. Anxious parents and medical staff alike wait to hear that first full breath and wail that proclaim of, yes, this child is here! And it is the last thing we literally hear—that final rasping breath, the death rattle—until we hear no more.
By choosing to create an almost silent world, Moore brings us in to “The Battle Joined“ with a bomb far louder than any battle melee. He brings us in to the sound of devastation, and with that silence he unites the audience and Jamie. We hear what Jamie is hearing. We are—quite literally—in the nothingness. We are hearing what Jamie hopes is death. And we are there with him.
Of course, others in the cast use their breath as an acting tool in general, and in this episode, in particular. Claire stops short to watch the small bird outside her window, and in those few moments before her ability to use her breath as a focus of power is—literally—taken away from her, Claire uses her breath as a source of power and strength.
But it is Sam Heughan, who doesn’t even speak the first of only a few lines in the whole episode—“Leave me be”—until a good 15 minutes into the episode, who absolutely stars in his use of breath here. His breath hitches. He gasps. He rattles. He barely breathes. And through it all, we do it with him. Because it is the rare person who hasn’t experienced at least one moment in their lives when they breathed like that, a moment when they wished they would, perhaps, not breathe again.
It is in choosing to use breath this way that Moore brings home the other overarching message of this episode and, to some extent, Outlander in general. We may think we can control what happens but, like our breath—and our heart and our brain—our control is fleeting and superficial.
That’s because our breath, like our heart and brain, is part of the autonomous nervous system. That’s the part of our nervous system that can’t be controlled by our will. We can impact them to some extent through outer influences such as what we eat (or don’t) or even hurting ourselves with implements, but we can’t make ourselves stop breathing by holding our breath.
When you think of it, that physiology is a brilliant move by God/Mother Nature/Whatever Universal Life Force You Choose. Because most of us have had moments when we thought—sometimes correctly, sometimes not—that we couldn’t go on, that there was no point in continuing to try. They are moments when our grief or pain was so deep that anything seemed better than taking another step.
And yet we did, because we had to. Because our hearts kept beating and our next breath came after the last one, and while our body kept going, we somehow dug deep to figure out where to go next and how to get there.
Understanding that ultimate lack of control is the underlying final message in this episode. Just as Jamie and Claire tried time and time again in Season 2 to stop the tide of time, to thwart history’s course, ultimately they could—like the breath you can hold while swimming or if something hurts—only do it for a short limited time, in a narrow small way.
And so Jamie and Claire must learn how to go on. It is the journey of Voyager—that learning how to go on, to craft a life when you think you couldn’t possibly. And, thanks to Moore, we are right there walking with them, breath by desperate breath.
What did you think of the quiet way Ron D. Moore handled “The Battle Joined”? Can you think of other examples of breathing being used to convey desperation in Outlander so far?
Loved your analogy of using breath. Now that I read this it made me think that it would have been nice to tie in Brianna’s first breath as a continuation of life.
Interesting idea about tying in Brianna. That could have been cool. Unfortunately, that whole birth experience was a distant one for Claire as the medical team literally told her how much she would breathe and what she would breathe so they could control the experience. So sad
I thought the script, staging and filming of S3E1 was simply stunning and hauntly beautiful. Words were not needed to convey the tragedy that occurred that fateful day. The ending of this episode spoke to me of the heartbreak for Claire, Jamie and even Frank will endure, but life does goes on. Sam, Cait and Tobias were spot on.
If this episode is any indication of what season 3 holds for us the viewers I think we are in for quite a Voyage.
Janet great perspective of this episode.
Donna I agree. This opening episode has me thinking we are going to go way beyond Season 2 for overall quality and storytelling. Thank you for your kind words on my writing.
When Claire is in labor and Frank says “Just breath”….
Yes another breath reference! As a mother myself, it was so frustrating to see how patronizing the whole medical team was toward her. I’m so glad I was able to have my children at a time when people thought differently.
True, that works with the premise of “breath” in the episode. However, no one tied breathing to the intense pain of child birth in the 40’s. It works with the storyline, but in the real world it was ahead of its time. Still the episode was amazing, different, intense, and Sam’s portrayal of a man who wished to die was outstanding. I am late to the Fandom of this series, but I believe if this episode is any indication, Voyager will change episodic TV forever.
Well put. When Jamie sees Claire walking towards him in the moonlight the little groan as his face softens with love and he drinks her in with his eyes, left me breathless and choked.
Maggie I know! So gut-wrenching! His eyes! It’s the first time they look alive even a little bit
For all the complaints in the past about Ron Moore’s handling of the adaptation of Dr. Gabsldon’s books, you have to admit that he has many moments of brilliance. His handling of Episode 301, the bsttle scenes, and Jamie’s quiet despair were very moving. Let’s also give Sam Heughan his due for the ability to make us suffer with Jamie.
Yes I really think Sam Heughan has grown so much as an actor during this series. And this opening episode is the proof!
Sam Heghan already entered the show with his screen-owning presence in every Jamie’s scene.
He is a rare diamond but E1S3 made us see that the clarity of this diamond is flawless.
I so agree. I’ve loved watching him grow as an actor each season.
Janet, you know I’m your biggest fan (unless someone else has made the claim,) but this one surpasses the rest. Your writing is so beautiful, it took me back to the episode taking us with it! I forgot smelling Claire’s cloak, ohhh.
Another moment: when Jamie was looking at his bloody hand, with breath and not a word, Sam might as well have been reading me the first page of the book when Jamie is feeling his body parts to see if he got to keep them in purgatory.
I just gasped.
Thank you Diane! I so appreciate your thoughts on my writing! And, yes, that moment when Jamie is looking at his hand. It was all so well done.
This is exactly how I felt through the whole episode. While there is breath there is life and even when we don’t want it, while there is life there is Hope!
Yes, Jean, it was a wonderful underlying message in the midst of such grief and tragedy. It’s part of Diana’s brilliant universal appeal I think.
Thoughtful, articulate commentary of an extraordinary episode.
Thank you, Janet Reynolds.
thank you so much Jacque!
Love the use of breath, it was brilliant. Another scene where breath was used was in the fight in The Reckoning. Both breathing heavily with anger and using their breath to bring themselves under control, then almost sharing breath when they said sorry.
Sue–great point about The Reckoning, my pick for best episode for season one. Now I have another excuse to go back and rewatch just for this observation 🙂
The analogy of breath really mesmerized me; wish I had the foresight to think that deeply. I thank you from those of us who live and ‘breathe’ Jamie and Claire.
Thank you so much Lynne. I appreciate your kind words.
Yes, agreed. The idea of letting silence “talk” gave a profound intensity to the harsh reality of that inequal battle. It gives texture and voice to the sadness and despair of Jamie.
Anne I’ve now watched this three times and I remain as touched each and every time. Sound, or lack of it, is so powerful in the ways it touches us.
Yes, Janet, you have articulated so well what I noticed but had not yet understood until I read your analysis – this is an episode that closes in on that core of what brings us to life. The first time I watched, I watched Sam’s eyes which were so full of emotion and at times so dead. The second time I watched, I watched his mouth as he needed no words to express his misery – there was a quiver, a struggle to swallow, the parched lips with the dribble left as someone tries to help him drink. I’ve never seen such skilled acting, and as a physician, I’ve seen many dying people.
This is a series of books, and now so viscerally visual in the TV series, about the holiness of God’s plan and purpose for each one of us, God’s breath breathed into us at the beginning and His moment of bringing us back to Him at the end of this existence on earth. In between, so beautifully portrayed here there is the holiness of the persistent and loyal love of these two married people, both when together and when centuries apart. Thank you for your insights. You have helped me appreciate this remarkable story and these unforgettable characters even more.
Emily–thank you so much for your kind words. Each time I’ve watched this episode, another layer of meaning has peeled back. It’s true when I re-read the books too and is part of why this series enthralls me so much.
Speaking of “breath”…when BJR punched Claire in the stomach and knocked the breath out of her-I was not able to breathe myself. My body cringed and cramped watching her pain. Great job of realism in that scene.
Denise–yes that was an awful scene. I kept gasping myself as if I had been punched. So authentically portrayed by Caitriona Balfe
What can I add that hasn’t been said already about the (searching for correct adjective) premier episode of Season 3? It is my opinion that the already high bar of the series has been raised higher by the outstanding work of the actors who magically take us into that world and allow us to feel their joy and pain.
As mentioned above the quality of acting has grown, too. You mentioned Jamie doesn’t speak words until 15 minutes into the episode, but the realization that he suffered was beautifully portrayed without words. Claire tries to deal with her own pain of loss of Jamie, but she tries desperately to move on with her life as promised to him.
If this episode is any indication of what is in store for us this season I’m already breathless.
I totally agree Muriel. I’m already more excited about Season 3 than I was for most of Season 2, which I personally did not like as much as Season 1….Voyager is easier to adapt of course but I feel as if the opening episode suggests Ron et al are back on course!
I totally agree. With each episode of the first half of Season 2 I literally held my breath and was willing myself to enjoy it but it just felt flat. That’s the only word I can find to describe it. Within just a few moments of the first episode of Season 3 I could breathe again and felt that Outlander was back. Ron is back in my good graces. The episode was simply stunning.
I think that Ron D Moore is a genius! I also think that Sam deserves an Emmy for this performance this year and it is only the first of 13 for this season! He is NOT just another pretty face and a great body but consummate actor, stage trained and knows his craft well! Sam did not need words to convey what his character was feeling! He spoke with his eyes, his breath and his facial expressions! The heartbreak, the loss, the sorrow, the agonizing realization that he lived were all there! This is Sam’s time to shine! His work is simply amazing!
Outlander has been basically ignored by those powers that be where awards are concerned! The show should have won an Emmy and so should Cait, Tobias, Terry D, Maril, Jon, Bear, etc. Amost everyone connected to this show have done stellar work! It is a shame that it is not getting the recognition it so richly deserves! But, the fans know a good thing when they see one! Outlander shines with their fans! So, everyone at Outlander, know that we, the fans, would give you every award out there if we had the power to do so!
A wonderful beginning to a new season! Also, the end to the Highland culture, our beloved Highlanders and Scotland as it was! We will miss so many connected to Scotland and are so sorry to see them go! Maybe in flashbacks we will see you again!
Part of the lack of Emmys has to do with when Outlander aired. Holly wrote a post about it if you’re interested in how the Emmys work
That said, this year Outlander has the right timing so hopefully Sam and others will finally get their due!
The writing, direction and acting in the first episode of season three were brilliant. I think Sam proved his amazing acting skills when Jamie was brutalized by BJR and the aftermath in season one and into season two. But this time, Sam stands out as everyone above has pointed out he conveys every emotion with his eyes and his breathing. Well done Janet. Amazing work Cait, Sam, and Tobias! Thank you, Ron.
Yes, Shirley, Sam was amazing in those brutal scenes with BJR too….I think we are in for a very good season! Thanks for reading
I’m a huge Outlander fan , books and TV series. This is not the first time Sam H has amazed me with silence. In the opening scenes of “To Ransom A Man’s Soul” his face says it all.
You know my favorite scene from ” The Battle Joined” was Jenny’s voice “Jamie are you alive”… it was like coming out of anesthesia … you are completely unaware of your surroundings and a voice brings you back to the living .
Congrats to all involved!
Liz–love both these observations. Yes his eyes in Ransom were positively haunting–they were so different I was left wondering how he created the look…..and your idea about Jenny and anesthesia–love it!
Hi all. Yes Sam has beautiful eyes. I loved them in the Reckoning during their fight at the river. The idea of showing the battle in flashback from his perspective was brilliant. I think we also have to see how doing so creates a visceral effect from Jamie’s mind. He is not retelling this sequence his mind is sending it through bc it is processing the trauma. With that said, the fight with Jamie and BJR was also very visceral. I think we were seeing it merged with what occurred between them in the prison from Jamie’s mind. Jamie’s moment when he felt pleasure mixed with extreme fear and guilt is very typical of rape victims and why they tear themselves apart after with guilt. It was his body reacting not his feelings. So his mind was still processing this and with the battle it merged. We were not seeing the actual battle. Why bring this up here? Well, I saw an erotic piece to their fight and realized this is why. It makes us uncomfortable but explains what I was confused about for me.
Interesting points here. I thought their last falling together and Frank reaching out Jamie was simultaneously disturbing and perfect….just like this episode
Janet, great review of Episode 302. It puts the simple action of breathing in perspective. You are right. Sam does a lot with seemingly a little. He makes us choke with the effort of taking the next breath. Something so simple, and yet so hard for him. Not only that, but something he doesn’t want to do, but he can’t control.
Reluctantly, both characters realize they have to go on without each other, and they do.
Excellent choice of Ron Moore to show the battle in almost silence; to let us see the fight of a man for survival when he doesn’t want it.
Thanks, I really liked your article!!
Thank you for reading!
Janet, thank you for this brilliant article – and for expressing so eloquently what I (and, I’m sure, many others) feel about this episode and this show. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath with Claire as she lit up watching that little bird – until it flew away, Frank spoke and the light in her eyes went out…and when Jamie breathed Claire’s name on his way to Lallybroch, then we saw Claire breathing through labor pains…my breath caught, with my heart, in my throat. In E215, Wentworth Prison, McQuarrie fights literally to his last, agonizing breath on the gallows at Wentworth Prison.
Bonita—I found myself holding my breath too, which I think was part of what Ron was going for in how he handled this episode and why it was so effective. I think your point about the eyes is a good one too. So many little details used by these two outstanding actors to create magnificent performances!
Sam has been who he needed to be at every moment of Jamie’s journey. I do not believe he has “grown as an actor”, I think he has played each moment with exquisite attention to detail, authenticity, and a comprehensive understanding of who Jamie is as he lives, since the very beginning The material has come alive via his full body acting physicality. He has truly embodied his character, as is so beautifully exhibited here by his use of breath. Sam needs to be recognized for the gifted actor he is and has been.
I love Ron’s vision…..it’s so spot on. He uses Sam’s facial expressions perfectly that you are left in no doubt as to what is going on in Jamie’s mind. This article embodies the episode so well. The cast, extras, crew, producers and anyone else involved with Outlander should be so proud of the work that is produced. One of the very best shows on TV. I hardly watch anything else it is so well done.