A look at Marsali MacKimmie Fraser, the latest post in a series we’re calling Outlander Character Journeys.
In my continuing blog series exploring the journeys of key Outlander characters, I bring you the courageous, constantly pregnant, bright, stubborn, and all around badass physician’s assistant – Marsali Fraser.
Lauren Lyle’s portrayal of the spirited Marsali Fraser literally lights up every single scene she touches. Although she plays a supporting role, many consider her the most underrated character of the Outlander television series. The writers must see it as well since they seem to keep broadening her profile. In Season 5, she delivered her best work yet with rangy material to showcase her incredible talent.
Like Young Ian in my last piece, Marsali has gone through a tremendous arc as a character since we briefly met her in one of Season 3’s more shocking moments.
She is Jamie Fraser’s stepdaughter (by his embittered second wife, Laoghaire), and she’s the dedicated wife of Jamie’s brothel-born adopted son, Fergus Fraser. Yup… typical Outlander family ties.
The show version of Marsali inhabits all of the written character’s inner core: caring, stubborn, protective, courageous, strong, helpful, fierce, loyal and tenacious. However, the show version of the character does bring a few additional elements.
She is a bit older. The book version of Marsali is only 15 when she boards the Artemis with Fergus (age 30) in Voyager. For modern sensibilities, they aged Marsali to 18 on the show. Additionally, show Marsali is a bit more of a sparkly, fun extrovert – while book Marsali is normally a little more serious. Those extra bits that Lauren adds have enhanced her character in a welcome surprise (much like Duncan LaCroix did for Murtagh), and she has quickly become a fan favorite.
While Marsali is a woman of the 18th century (unlike lead women Claire and Brianna), in many ways their influence on her own young, stubborn, courageous core helped to shape her into a complex character, a little ahead of her time. Above all though, Marsali exemplifies a determined survivor, driven by love and loyalty. And just like our time-traveling leads, her heart drove her to take brave steps over great divides… using her love for a poor, crippled, criminal with no last name as her compass. Claire reflects in the novel, Voyager, as Fergus and Marsali finally marry on a Caribbean beach by a pot-smoking priest:
“So she had done it. One fifteen-year-old girl, with nothing but stubbornness as a weapon. “I want him,” she had said. And kept saying it, through her mother’s objections and Jamie’s arguments, through Fergus’s scruples and her own fears, through three thousand miles of homesickness, hardship, ocean storm, and shipwreck.
She raised her face, shining, and found her mirror in Fergus’s eyes. I saw them look at each other, and felt the tears prickle behind my lids.” – Voyager, Diana Gabaldon
Over three seasons, we watched Marsali morph from a lively, wide-eyed teen with her little sister asking a lonely Jamie to dance during his first Hogmanay home from Helwater to a tough, competent mother of three (with another on the way), carving a life in the wilderness of Frasers Ridge, becoming an integral part of family and community. After unexpected turns, she has found a place of true family connection and purpose in the New World, and damn anyone that hurts her or those she loves. As tough as she can be, there is also a warm vulnerability and sweetness that she only reveals to those she truly trusts. She connects in a very comfortable, caring way to everyone we love… charming us all with her wit and personality.
She may have been born a MacKimmie, but she has found the home of her heart with the stubborn Frasers and the fierce, but charming Mackenzies.
Marsali and her younger sister, Joan, grew up at Balriggen house, a short distance from Broch Morda and Lallybroch in the Highlands. Their father – Laoghaire’s second husband, Simon MacKimmie – abused both Laoghaire and Marsali. He was eventually imprisoned and died, leaving Laoghaire a two-time widow with two young girls. Jenny Murray’s matchmaking on Jamie’s first Hogmanay home after Helwater led to Jamie becoming a short-lived stepfather to Marsali.
Marsali is just a teenager when she walked in on Jamie and Claire in a compromising position, exclaiming the infamous, “Daddy!” At this point, she was already secretly in love with Fergus, but the kebbie lebbie that followed put her already very slim chances that Laoghaire would allow her to marry Fergus (a crippled, criminal orphan twice her age) between nil and zero. It also created an initial great dislike of Claire by Marsali.
So, we begin our arc with Marsali being a very young, older protective sister who grew up in an abusive household during the famines and hardships that followed Culloden. She had never seen anything but her own small area of the Highlands. You get the sense she held the family together and likely shielded her sister from abuse when possible. The only real kindness she ever witnessed from a father came from Jamie. Now, in her mind, he betrayed her mother for “the English whore.”
Refusing to watch her chance at love sail away to an unknown future, the young and stubborn Marsali courageously leaps into a life completely foreign to anything or anyone she’d ever known. This speaks to Marsali’s inner core, courage, strength and loyalty. She is the first of several girls in this story to get one over on the King of Men, James Fraser. She won’t be the last.
“Marsali is so brave that she gives up her whole life. She’s from a teeny little farm, and she doesn’t have that much of an education, and yet she throws herself on this boat and goes after what she loves, and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks.” says Lauren Lyle in a Season 3 interview with Elle Magazine.
“With Jamie, we’ve got this fraught relationship with each other, because he’s not really my dad. I actually resent him a lot of the time, due to my mom. I don’t consider Jamie and Claire parents at first, because they are sort of an inconvenience to me. But then he lets Fergus and me be together! Which is a big thing, because we’re fighting for this relationship. So once Jamie grants us that, there’s a whole new respect between the four of us. We become a team,” adds Lyle.
Marsali’s biggest relationship arc over the series develops with Claire Fraser. They start their 3,000-mile ocean voyage together with intense dislike and mistrust, especially from Marsali toward Claire. Jamie, in an effort to keep Marsali chaste until a priest marries them (or until they change their minds), insists (to Marsali and Claire’s horror) that he room with Fergus on the ship and Marsali with Claire. At first, Marsali treats Claire with spite or the silent treatment. However, between Fergus’ care for Claire and her own observations of the true love Claire shares with Jamie, Marsali begins to soften toward Claire.
As she prepares for her wedding on Hispaniola by a slightly crazy priest, she asks Claire if there is a way to prevent a bairn (which will become quite ironic in light of her future constant state of pregnancy).
She confides the lack of passion her mother had with Jamie, and she believes it may have had to do with children. She wants to like sex with Fergus, like Claire does with Jamie. Claire assures her that having children isn’t the issue, but agrees to show her birth control methods.
Additionally, Marsali mends the broken feelings between Jamie and Fergus. Jamie must admit to himself that he sees the love between them, and gives them his blessing. After being shipwrecked, Marsali’s chance to seal the deal manifests in the form of the pot-smoking priest that rescued Claire, Father Fogden. In the process, Jamie gives them his last name.
Throughout her first season, Marsali is exposed to many hair-raising experiences and people for the first time, but through it all, her deep love for Fergus shines brighter. She does all she can to help their mission, from mending torn sails to working with Fergus to save Jamie. The show finds Marsali at the end of Season 3, crashed on the shores of the colony of Georgia.
Outlander Season 4
Marsali’s Season 4 American journey begins with Marsali witnessing their friend, Hayes, hung. Later, when Jamie lets the family know that he and Claire will be staying in America, they give Fergus and Marsali their share of gem profits and alimony to travel back to Scotland. However, the younger Frasers have an announcement of their own. Marsali, who only a few months ago fervently asked Claire how to avoid pregnancy, announces she is with child. She smiles at a surprised Claire and says they are very happy.
So, Fergus and Marsali will be staying in America now as well. They rent rooms in Wilmington while Jamie, Claire and Ian head to Fraser’s Ridge to get the homestead started. The younger Frasers plan to join in a year or so when things are more established on the Ridge, and their child is born. They pack a few provisions and Marsali tearfully confides in Claire that she misses her mother as she is now about to be a mother for the first time. She feels a bit alone in it with Jamie and Claire going away. Claire feels a pang seeing her own daughter in Marsali’s fears. We see a real connection, care and vulnerability beginning in this relationship.
After they have a healthy son, Germain, we pick back up with Marsali in Episode 4.08 “Wilmington” when Jamie and Claire come for a visit after being invited to attend the theater with Governor Tryon. Marsali and Fergus are making ends meet through sewing jobs for Marsali and odd jobs for Fergus. Making a living is a rough road for Fergus with a missing hand. When Claire asks how they are all coping, we get a glimpse of Marsali as an incredible and protective mother.
At the theater, Jamie discovers that Murtagh has been set up for arrest with the Regulators. Determined to save Murtagh, Jamie sends Fergus to intercept Murtagh and urge him to cancel his plan.
This is where their story went down for me in Season 4 (although Lauren Lyle shined as she does in every scene). Allow me this brief interlude to explain…
As a book reader, my least favorite adaptive choice came in the back third of Season 4. The writers chose to involve #Fersali in the Regulator business by housing Murtagh and allowing their rooms to be used for plot meetings among the key players. I guess I should be grateful that Marsali at least feels uncomfortable about it. I understand they were looking for ways to involve these two talented actors, but it felt very “off” having Fergus in any way on an opposite side of Jamie, just to change sides again in Season 5 when living on the Ridge. They even reassigned a scene that was Jenny’s in the 2nd book to Marsali in the Season 4 (the book version was very separate, involving Jamie and Ian – life-long best friends who had always fought side by side – about to face a common enemy… the English). In order to have Fergus feel more like a “whole” man, Marsali urged Murtagh to ask Fergus to join him in the fight. Murtagh is on the opposite side of Jamie in this “fight.” You are going to propose that Fergus takes a side with Murtagh against Jamie? Seriously? Just… no. It’s always a bit unnerving for me when the show writers take scenes and lines from certain characters and apply them to different characters. For me, it muddies character definition, motivation and situation to move lines and scenes around to completely different key characters – as if they are interchangeable.
Now, where were we? Ah yes…
Lastly, Murtagh enlists Fergus’ help to track down Bonnet, and Murtagh gets arrested and thrown in jail. Fergus determines to work with the Regulators to break Murtagh out of the prison. When Marsali sees his plan, she does not hesitate to help. She will stand by him and support anything he endeavors. This is Marsali… courageous and loyal.
They determine to break him out and take this opportunity to make a move to the Ridge. Lauren Lyle loved filming this scene as the getaway wagon driver maneuvering a team of horses at high speed. I think Fergus is right. Marsali is an exceptional woman!
Outlander Season 5
The overarching theme for both The Fiery Cross and Season 5 is “community,” and Marsali becomes a huge and essential part of the Frasers Ridge settlement. This 12-episode season covered a lot of ground, including battles, murder, weddings, babies, reunions, abductions, medical discoveries, biblical plagues, betrayal and revenge, but through everything Marsali’s role became a bright heroic light. Her character took a giant step forward this season and Lauren Lyle truly outshined herself, even being named the “Season 5 MVP” character by TV Line. She forges deep relationships as a second daughter and apprentice to Claire, a close friend and “sister” to Brianna and a loving cousin to Ian.
“A lot of what Marsali is about this season is protection and really having found her place and her meaning on the Ridge. She lives in a time where for women it’s not — for everyone, but especially for women — it’s not easy. It’s really rough and tough. You have to fight to stay where you are and to have your place,” Lauren Lyle said in an interview with TV Line.
Since we last saw Marsali, escaping Wilmington at high speed, she and Fergus have made a home at Fraser’s Ridge complete with arrival of their second child, Joan. In the first episode, she seems content and beaming watching the Mackenzie wedding, with the rest of the Ridge residents…
We soon find out a secret reason Marsali is glowing… yup, she is pregnant again. So much for Claire’s birth control lessons. Hey Fergus, give the poor girl’s uterus a break, aye?
We also see this fun comedic side of Marsali in the first episode, not only showing us that she can hold her own among the men, but also shows how integrated, accepted and truly happy she feels as part of the Fraser’s Ridge community and family.
“From that first script – everything from the wedding, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s pregnant again. OK, great.’ And then it just all spiraled. And from that first drinking scene, being a woman that just like booms out [like a tongue twister] on all these men … and to get the chance to sink my teeth into like every element of that world – of the 1700s – that I was able to – it’s been easily the best season that I’ve done, despite the fact that Season 3 was my favorite because I had just started and it was such a wild experience to get into the family and to join this world,” Lyle said in an interview with Collider.
“This is probably Marsali’s biggest season in terms of development as a person. She’s gone from when we first met her as a young girl that runs away for love and goes on a huge adventure, and then is face-planted into a world she didn’t expect.” Lyle tells Oprah Magazine.
In the first episode, we also discover that Claire’s medical expertise is in high demand as the back country’s healer. A line of patients wraps around the porch, waiting to see Mistress Fraser, and Jamie tells her she needs a “Lieutenant” – enter Marsali Fraser.
In Episode 502, Claire spies Marsali expertly butchering a hog and gets an idea. She already knows how efficient Marsali with a sewing needle. She’s not squeamish, and she adapts and learns easily. She believes Marsali would make the perfect apprentice.
“Women at the time would just have to do things like that,” says Lyle. “She’s also a seamstress, so she’s very skilled with her hands. She’s smart, and she’s got gumption.”
While I hated the adaptive choice of the autopsy storyline in Episode 502, Lyle herself shined brilliantly in this scene when Claire proposes an apprenticeship to Marsali. Her performance alone prevents me from fast forwarding though the scene on re-watches.
Lauren appeared on the Outcasts podcast and discussed this scene.
“Claire realizes that she needs some help in the surgery and can’t do it alone. She needs a wingman. She needs her Robin to her Batman, and is scouring the Ridge for who might be right and has noticed that Marsali is very good with things like butchering and really good at knowing the anatomy of an animal… not squeamish and has sort of, I guess, the balls and the ability to learn within the form of medical apprentice. ..
For me it felt like Marsali’s sort of kick off into Season 5 to where her future was about to unfold. And this was like the moment that her whole world expands in this new chapter of her life. So that was real exciting….We’d manage to rehearse this bit before so we kind of had an idea a bit of how to land a bit of the comedy… It’s just such high peaks and troughs. So it was just so serious and so frightening at the same time as being really quite funny, so it’s extremes of both, which was brilliant to do… It’s also quite a long scene, so it took all day and we just had a laugh the whole time.”
– Lauren Lyle on Outcasts Podcast
In the book, Marsali’s primary “job” for the Ridge community was working the whisky still since she and Fergus’ cabin is closest. However, as an adaptive choice, making Marsali Claire’s assistant instead allows her to be spatially placed more often with the other characters and gives more opportunity for relationship growth on screen. Obviously, the writers also realize they found a gem in Lauren Lyle and wanted to highlight more of her talent on screen. Caitriona Balfe and Lauren Lyle loved the choice.
When Claire begins her quest to catch penicillin spores, she trains Marsali to recognize the spores under a microscope. However, Marsali and Fergus remain the only family members that don’t know the “family secret” which makes explaining how Claire knows what she does a real challenge.
While Fergus and Marsali don’t know specifically that Claire is a time-traveler, they do know there is something “special” about Claire, as Lyle tells Oprah Magazine.
“Despite being a woman of God and of the time, Marsali has always known that Claire’s some sort of white witch. There’s something a bit…more to her.” But that doesn’t hamper Marsali’s love, admiration and complete faith in Claire. Marsali is able to blend her heritage and beliefs with her discoveries and observations to become her own woman. They trust each other completely… a total pivot from from how suspicious they were of each other at first. It’s been a true joy to watch their relationship blossom. When they finally find the elusive penicillin spores, Marsali shares Claire’s complete triumph.
Marsali forms another close relationship on the Ridge in Season 5 with her stepsister, Brianna. Both actresses fought to highlight a friendship between these two “daughters” of Jamie Fraser. For Brianna, it’s the first she has ever had a “sister” or sibling. For Marsali, always the older protective sister of Joannie, she greatly misses these female relationships and finds a close confidant in Brianna. The two couples seem to bond and form a tight bond, and their sons will be best buds as well.
“Marsali’s probably a little bit younger than Bree, but like when she thinks Jemmy’s been taken by Bonnet, and we had the conversation in the kitchen over whiskey — that is a moment where two very different times come together. Someone younger than Bree has more children and more experience in this world and is able to comfort her and convince her that things are going to be all right. You might perceive Bree as the more intelligent one because she’s educated and comes from a more developed time, but actually, [Marsali’s] teaching from something else. That’s the unpredictable thing that brings them together,” says Lyle.
“[Bree’s] relationship with Marsali, we talked about it — would it be fraught? Would they like each other or would they be at odds?” Executive Producer Maril Davis tells Variety. “And we kind of went the path of then bonding together. They’re in similar positions and those two actresses have such great chemistry on screen. I’m thrilled with what Lauren did this season, she’s been amazing, and it just gets better.”
Marsali pitches in every way possible to support the Ridge community, and bad ass as she is, usually does so in some degree of pregnancy. Nothing stops her. Butchering animals, hunting for maggots, assisting a surgery and even standing the middle of a smoking field warding off a plague of locusts… all while pregnant.
One of my favorite poignant Marsali and Claire moments occurs in the beginning of episode 509 when Claire is examining a nine-months pregnant Marsali. How far these two women have come! (By the way, perfectly in line with Marsali’s gumption… she ends up having this child, Félicité, in the forest with only Fergus by her side.)
At the end of Season 5, Marsali’s most developmental arc reaches an amazing climax when the Brown gang attacks the Ridge. First they blow up Jamie’s whisky still, and while the men are away dealing with it, the gang bursts into Claire’s surgery, killing her patient and attacking Claire and Marsali (very pregnant with baby number four)! Marsali tells Germain to hide, grabs a surgical tool and fights. We all gasped when she is knocked completely out in a dead fall as they drag Claire away.
While Claire is in a dreamscape, Marsali is vibrant and sassy in bright yellow, exactly how she might be in the early 70s time period. The dreamscape aimed to show great contrast, but still reflect the persona in some way of each character. Lauren was thrilled to be part of this scene.
“Jamie [Payne], the director, really wanted to show Marsali’s personality through her clothes because we don’t get to see that in the 1700s, so we have the bright yellow mini dress and the knee-high white boots which I was desperate to take home with me,” Lyle tells Elle Magazine. “And it’s so free! Marsali is so restricted in the 1700s, she’s got a baby bump all the time and layers of clothes — it’s a bleaker sort of time and place, so to be able to be in such brightness was brilliant. But it’s also really harrowing — a horrible contradiction we’re playing with. I think the brighter and more in-your-face we were, the darker it seems because it’s such a contrast from what’s going on.”
When a battered Claire returns home, the complete love and support of these three women shines through.
However, Marsali’s best moment was yet to come. It is my “Best Adaptive Choice,” and it is also Lauren Lyle’s favorite Marsali character moment of the season. In a recent Zoom event with Outlander Vancouver, I asked her which moment of Season 5 she loved most as a character defining moment:
“Mine was killing Lionel. That was killing a Peaky Blinder!” she laughs. “I just liked killing Lionel. I liked having a needle in my hand. I liked being the one to serve some justice. I liked that she did it pregnant because pregnant women can do anything apparently,” Lyle answered.
While I really loved most of the choices and changes made this season for Marsali, at the top of my list overall must be the switch from Mrs. Bug to Marsali to deal the death blow to Lionel. Not only the deed itself, but doing it in a way that utilizes the medical skill she acquired all season. Since they seem to have cut most of the Bugs’ storyline, this choice made complete sense. It also combined all of the elements of her character arc this season with all of her own inherent characteristics. Medical proficiency, love for Claire as her Ma, courage, loyalty and fierce protector of her home. Spectacular decision.
“We’re now at a point where Marsali knows what she’s doing in the surgery. She’s able to hold her own, and Claire can’t be in the room and can’t handle being around Lionel that she has to leave. Marsali goes on to have the man that essentially starts tearing her family apart directly threaten Marsali to her face, that he will kill her, her family, her mother, everyone. Marsali’s at a point where she has two options: Either do nothing and hope for the best, or you protect her and have the knowledge that you’re doing exactly what needs to be done. …It’s not impulsive, it’s not irrational. It’s doing what she feels responsibly needs to be done… She’s not the kind of person to go running to daddy and tell him to do it. Instead, she’s apparently capable. She butchers animals, she protects the land, and she does what needs to be done, and she’ll take the responsibility and do it herself,” says Lyle to TV Line.
The next scene, I believe, is a bit of a setup for something that will occur next season. If that is so, and the show follows a certain situation ahead for Fergus and Marsali, this scene where Jamie finds Marsali sprawled on the floor with the syringe in her hand, asking if she will be cursed or go to hell is another brilliant stroke by the writers.
Lyle spoke to TV Line about the undertones of this scene. “Then after it’s done, it’s less about, “Oh no, what have I done?” and more… an interesting sneak peek into how your mind would be in the 1700s. She believes in God, she’s a woman of God, [she believes in] ghosts, witches, all this sort of thing. It’s all about the fact of, ‘Will he haunt me? Am I going to Hell?’
What are your favorite Marsali moments?