As we race toward the finish line of the longest Droughtlander on record, my favorite author and mentor, Diana Gabaldon shares her insights on Outlander Season 6, which she describes as “excellent” from start to finish.
“I think Season 6 is maybe the strongest since Season 1.”
My eyes popped when I first read this extremely high praise from Outlander series bestselling author, Diana Gabaldon, known for her “straight-talk” style. Her words have sparked intense excitement from her book fans for the truncated but powerful sixth season of Outlander, returning on March 6 with an extended premiere episode on Starz.
Diana Gabaldon verra graciously gave me the rare gift of her time for a wide-ranging conversation about Outlander Season 6 as well as her new Outlander series installment, Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone. In Part One of our conversation, we discussed her thoughts on the long-awaited Outlander Season 6 – including its challenges, adaptation, stellar new cast, her favorite episodes, and more. (*In the upcoming Part Two of this conversation, we will break down all the buzz about her ninth Outlander series novel, released three months ago on Nov. 23.)
Consider The Source…
Gabaldon’s unhindered acclaim for the upcoming sixth season has thrilled the show’s book fans and infused them with hope that Season 6 will be a close adaptation of one of the most award-winning, treasured books of the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes (ABOSAA). In 2006, this well-loved, sixth main series novel won the International Corine Book Award as well as a Quill Award. It also earned Recorded Books narrator, Davina Porter, an Audie Award in 2006 for Best Female Narrator by the Audio Publishers Association. So, the producers and writers for Outlander had superb source material to work with this season.
In December, Gabaldon told Town and Country, “The first episode is absolutely spectacular. It’s wonderful. They’re all good. As a matter of fact, this is the first season where I have not had a single episode that I found less likable. They always do a good job; it’s just which direction they’ve chosen to head in. Anyway, the season is extremely good throughout.”
I don’t recall Gabaldon EVER giving a season such an encompassing and enthusiastic review. She will always offer her honest opinion rather than simply repeat the top down talking points. If she isn’t fond of a show choice or episode’s adaptation, she will usually respond with a respectful but honest answer when questioned. As I told her directly, I treasure her candor immensely because when she DOES give this level of praise… it carries tremendous weight, especially with her fans. I #TrustDiana always, and her comment about this season’s strength from beginning to end intrigued me most. No less likable episodes? There’s always a weaker episode each season – that one episode that causes the show’s book fans to shake their collective heads and say, “What the hell did I just watch?”
Before each season, Gabaldon’s fans usually know her favorite and least favorite episodes. Not this time. No weak episodes. No episodes she found less likeable. So, I started our conversation there.
A Special Season
You’ve given some effusive praise for Season 6. I’ve seen you use words like…”absolutely spectacular”…”wonderful”…”fantastic” and my personal favorite… “As a matter of fact, this is the first season where I have not had a single episode that I found less likeable… this season is extremely good throughout.” So, tell me, which aspects of this season make it feel stronger to you than the last four? What did you love about it, and what makes it stand out to you?
“Well, it’s very close to the book. Naturally, events are switched around and condensed, but they use a great deal of original dialogue from the books rather than making things up, so to speak, for the characters to say. We have some writers who are very good at dialogue and others who are kind of workman-like, and (in both cases) if they use the original book dialogue, it works better.”
(Verra, verra true…)
“If not, sometimes you get a disjuncture between the scriptwriter’s dialogue and the book dialogue, and suddenly, you just feel slightly off kilter, and there was none of that here that I noticed. The characters are so well understood. They are not doing anything that’s out of character. They’re not pushing to have ‘strong women’ all over the place, and then have Claire (stomp) on people. She’s allowed to be vulnerable and upset…”
(Ahhhh…. Now THIS is music to a fan’s ears…)
In a promotional video from Starz, Caitriona Balfe seems to second this description of Claire’s character this season.
“Caitriona is just fabulous in this,” Gabaldon continued. “I heard a brief snippet from an interview with her a few days ago. She said (at) the end of the season she was running around screaming, and sobbing, and firing weapons, and she was thinking, “My baby must be wondering what kind of nut is my mother? What kind of world am I about to be born into,” Gabaldon said with a laugh.
I laughed as well, but how dedicated is Caitriona Balfe? She has my utmost admiration and respect (as well as Gabaldon’s) for all she endured to create these eight episodes. As I told Diana, I can’t imagine going through the physical ordeal of this season… long and exhausting filming days (and with some physically demanding material), over a brutal Scottish winter with many outdoor scenes, during the Covid crisis AND pregnant for the first time at 41 years old.
Let’s take another look the trailer. It couldn’t have been easy for her…
The vibe I get from the promos and my interactions with the cast so far is that this season seems to be a bit more intimate. When I say intimate, I mean it gives more attention to developing characters and relationships. Is that true, and how would you describe the overall tone?
“Intimate is right, though it’s more thematic than other (seasons). And I think perhaps it’s an advantage that this season only has eight episodes, in fact about 2/3 of a season, because they essentially used the choice parts instead of…”
They didn’t have the room to make up a lot of stuff, either. (I said this with a conspiratorial smile.)
“Yeah,” Gabaldon replied with a small laugh. “Well, you know, they put up what they call the “tent poles”, the big important dramatic scenes…. Sometimes that means that they will create transitions – totally reasonable – but sometimes most of the transitions fall in one episode. That episode, therefore, seems less exciting than the others, just because there isn’t all that much happening. There’s a lot of talk, and it always has good moments, but …sometimes it’s just not quite as “all there” as it as it could be. In this season, they all are good, just right there, very intense. Also, this season is aided by having just terrific actors in addition to the main cast.”
She is predominantly speaking of the cast members playing the new Fraser’s Ridge residents this season, the Christie family (pictured above, left to right), Jessica Reynolds, Mark Lewis Jones and Alex Vlahos. Strap yourselves in for a verra strange ride with this wee clan. Don’t they look like a friendly bunch? More on them in a bit.
During the Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone book launch event, Gabaldon was asked to describe Season 6 in three words. Her answer was, “‘Best one yet.’ Aside from the first one, since that was special.”
She praises every episode of the season… Still, she must have her favorites, right?
You know your book fans better than anyone. Which episodes do you expect they will love the most and why?
“Goodness, it will probably be the two final episodes, 607 and 608. Though, they will also love 601 and 603. The other ones are all very good too, those are just my four favorites.”
(So, keep your radar up on the episodes titled: Echoes, Temperance, Sticks and Stones, and the finale I Am Not Alone)
And why do you think? They’re closest to the book, or they’re the most exciting?
“Well, a lot of those things. It’s close to the book, and what happens in the parts of the books that they have chosen are very exciting and very ‘dramatically complete’ things — where the story is actually following from one thing to another, and not just trying to get somewhere else, so something else can happen,” Gabaldon explains.
I asked Gabaldon if she had to pick one that was her personal favorite, which would she say. After a pause, she chose the finale, episode 608, I Am Not Alone.
Consider me intrigued! With the shorter season, many book fans wonder where in fact this season will actually conclude. There are several intense, dramatic “finale worthy” events in the back third of this book, so “the powers that be” certainly had options.
Whatever they chose, Gabaldon says, “Believe me, (it) is a really exciting place to stop it,” and that it is “dramatic and satisfying.” Wherever it ends, the finale is Gabaldon’s favorite, so it must shine in a season she loves from start to finish.
Filming Challenges, Choices and Cuts
Matt Roberts (Outlander Showrunner, Producer and Writer) frequently says that they enter each season thinking this one will be the most challenging, and the rest will be smoother sailing. Then, the next season’s planning begins and presents a new set of obstacles, claiming the “Most Challenging” title.
Season 6 proved no different, and it delivered a perfect storm of difficult conditions including Covid precautions and protocols, onsite daily testing, a severe reduction of crowd scenes and extras, travel restrictions, rebuilding sets larger for social distancing and more outdoor scenes during a brutal Scottish winter. Outlander had to navigate these obstacles without sacrificing the scope and richness that has defined the show since its inception.
Then, the show’s lead actress, Caitriona Balfe, became pregnant with her first child early in filming. Talk about a challenge! While Balfe commendably continued to work the long, difficult, exhausting days through nearly seven months of pregnancy, the powers that be knew she would not be available to film all 12 episodes. So, plans shifted to an eight-episode season with the other four moved to create a 16-episode Season 7.
Unknown to fans at that time, Gabaldon had written an episode for Season 6, Episode 609, which unfortunately became a casualty of the truncated, eight-episode season. She said that they will likely recycle a few bits of her episode into Season 7, but it won’t simply carry over as it wasn’t designed as a season premiere.
“What they are doing with those other (four) episodes I don’t know,” Gabaldon said. “They will need to be reshaped, of course, because now they will be the beginning of the next season.”
I found all of this fascinating. Creating a complete, narratively cohesive, thematic season requires so much detail and planning, long before writers get their beat sheets or filming begins. Don’t forget, even most of the pre-production work became a bigger challenge by having to meet and plan the season virtually during lockdown. The Writers’ Room became the Writers’ Zoom. Add to that the additional work and expense to create film sets that meet Covid protocols for 12 episodes.
I wondered how they made this change to eight episodes work mid-production with all the episodes written and some filming already complete? Outlander develops a season’s narrative with strategic story notes for each episode, all building toward a satisfying finale. How did the early episodes still fit with the last third of their planned arc now eliminated mid-production? Did they end the season much earlier in the narrative, or did they cut a lot of scenes over all the episodes to end in the same approximate place over fewer episodes?
In this short clip from our interview, Gabaldon and I discuss some of the immense challenges that production faced this season.
If Season 6 proves to be as fantastic as Gabaldon indicates (and I DO #TrustDiana), fans should be extremely grateful for the Herculean efforts made by producers, writers, directors, cast and crew. They all deserve a standing ovation for their hard work and dedication to excellence amid many obstacles.
While Gabaldon’s original Episode 609 will likely be diced and disseminated to some extent… Dinna Fash! Gabaldon said she’s contracted to write at least one completely new episode for Season 7!
Last season dipped quite a bit into the sixth book in its content including Bree’s kidnapping, Bonnet’s capture and death, Claire’s abduction and rescue, and the death of Lionel Brown just to name a few. Will we see that as well this season? Did they include any content from the seventh book, An Echo In the Bone in Season 6?
“Well, they probably did, but I don’t distinguish that much between the books. For me, it’s all one enormous story even though I’m dealing with and shaping the books individually as I write them,” Gabaldon explained. “Looking back, I would have to read them all recently in order to say, ‘Well this is from book six, and that’s from book seven,’ because some things carry over from book to book. So, frankly, I couldn’t tell you which pieces came from where, but they all fit.”
Next, we took a look at the different character’s or couple’s narrative arcs in Season 6. From my knowledge of the book, all of the main characters have incredible storylines. It should be noted, as the saga enters books five and beyond, the deeper arcs increasingly encompass more and more of the ensemble of core characters. It’s not just Jamie and Claire’s narrative anymore (although they are still central of course). What did Gabaldon think of each arc? Inquiring minds want to know…
Each character has an intriguing storyline this season …all of the six mains I’ll say… (counting Marsali and Fergus). Which character’s arc (of the six) did you most enjoy watching play out this season?
“Well… all of those six do in fact have very strong stories coming through this season. Hmm, let’s see. They’re all excellent. I mean really excellent. I’d have to say Claire though.”
Oh, wait! I should have said seven. I forgot to include Young Ian!
“Yes! Ian has a very big arc in this particular season. He’s extremely good, and it deals somewhat with his relations with the Mohawk.”
“Young Ian is becoming Jamie’s right-hand man. Any work that needs to be done, Young Ian can do it. And that’s due to his lived experiences and his ability as a diplomat as well, between the different cultures. Young Ian is the resident expert on all things Mohawk and Cherokee, but that came with a lot of pain and heartbreak. And we get to explore that in a really deep way this season, so Young Ian gets broken down, but he builds himself back up into quite the man,” – John Bell, The Complete Guide to Outlander
Bell speaks more to his character this season in the video below.
Speaking of Ian, I told Gabaldon that I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were able to include both Ian’s Mohawk backstory and Jamie’s Indian* agent story component. I thought possibly the Covid travel restrictions might hamper bringing many First Nations actors in to play all the Native American storylines. I asked Diana how she felt about the importance of those two storylines, and how they played out on screen.
“Oh, it’s definitely an important part of the plot, (and) it does play very well.”
While not vital to the plot, many book fans (myself included) hope to see a fan favorite funny scene in this storyline which involves a gift from the chief. And I think, based on a shot and line in one of the promos, that we might just get it! (I’m cracking up just imagining that scene with our cast – Fingers crossed.)
So, adding Ian to the mix, you would still say you most enjoyed watching Claire’s arc play out? Is it because she’s dealing with the most trauma?
“Well, I enjoyed watching all of them, but you know, just in objective terms, her work through this is the most multi-dimensional. She is doing a lot of different things which all demand deep emotion. Jamie’s arc is… I guess you would say more… predictable? It doesn’t have shocking spikes here and there, whereas Claire’s does.”
While Claire’s arc will definitely have more emotionally shocking spikes, I am not quite sure I would ever call Jamie’s arc “predictable” in any of her books. Haha. (Few things in Outlander are. However, I understand what she meant – She is speaking in relative terms). But, don’t worry, there will be zingers for everyone. Here’s a brief look at the season for each key character.
The Macs Are Back… Now what?
The MacKenzies, now realizing that the Ridge is their home, they become grounded, solid, and strong this season. During the Outlandish Vancouver Conference in Seattle last month, Richard Rankin (who plays Roger) said that while they were a better couple in Season 5 than Season 4, Season 6 will show a Bree and Roger in the best place they’ve ever been. (*Happy dance* I desperately want the show audience to see the Roger that book fans love. We got a taste in Season 5, but we need much more.)
In a recent panel for SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), Sophie Skelton said that Brianna and Roger are the “rocks” for the Ridge residents this season. They are the ones that everyone comes to for help with their problems.
Last season, after Roger and Bree’s “fake out” trip through the stones, Matt Roberts said that the reason for that choice (a departure from the books) would be clear in Season 6. I THINK he meant that now they can be at peace to move forward and find their purpose and contentment here. I still question this choice, and I asked Gabaldon if this season justifies the time it cost and the potential future issues that may occur because of it.
Does that choice last season make more sense now in light of this season, and can you share your thoughts on that?
“Yeah, well my best guess – and I add that I was not discussing this with them or vice versa – but my best guess is that they did it that way last season because they wanted Jamie and Claire to be essentially alone. Having Roger and Brianna (and Ian) would have diluted the dramatic impact of the Browns attack. You notice that Fergus is off stage at that point, and they slugged Marsali first off, so she’s completely out. So, in fact, all of the difficult stuff is concerned purely with Jamie and Claire. Fergus shows up for the rough stuff at the end when they rescue Claire, but he is not terribly in evidence, nor is Marsali being out cold for most of it. … That’s my best guess, just to get people off the stage, so you can concentrate on your main characters.”
Now that the Macs have determined that Fraser’s Ridge is their home, they will spend the season finding their place and purpose in the 18th century. Roger discovers a way to serve the community, and Bree infuses it with a few modern ideas and innovations.
Fersali Takes a Dramatic Turn
Until now, Fergus and Marsali have flown under the radar of heavy drama (relatively speaking). They’ve primarily been the sidekick, fun-loving, supportive couple with a splash of comic relief. That may undergo a wee change this season. Lauren Lyle and Cesar Domboy have seized every opportunity to shine. They hoped the writers and producers would recognize their talent, range, and chemistry, and expand their material. This season, their turn at bat arrived and offered them much darker and dense drama for their characters, relationship, and immediate family. It sounds like they hit it out of the park.
It’s been a while, so let’s recall where we left them last season. The Brown gang knocked out a very pregnant Marsali and abducted Claire while Fergus and Jamie dealt with an exploded whisky still (a diversion set by the Browns to draw the men of the Ridge away). Fergus then participated in the mission to rescue Claire. Although the men return a wounded Lionel Brown to the Ridge for questioning, he taunts and threatens Marsali as she treats him in the surgery. Bad Move. Marsali steeps some deadly water hemlock, draws it into a syringe, and stabs him in the neck with it. Jamie finds her on the floor, traumatized, holding the empty syringe, and she asks him if she will be haunted or go to hell. Jamie reassures her, and then delivers the body to Richard Brown assuming the responsibility. Brown sees Jamie off with these ominous words, “Lionel… he reaped what he sowed. And you did what you must…. As will I, when the time comes.” (Cue the ominous music, Bear McCreary).
Here is how Lauren Lyle describes Marsali in Season 6:
I spoke to Domboy at the recent Outlandish Vancouver conference in Seattle. He savored the opportunities he and Lauren had this season, and he overflowed with pleasure at the telling. He said that he knew from the start that this season held a crucial arc for his character. When he auditioned for this role before S3, they gave him an intense, critical and very moving scene with Claire from this season! At the time, Starz had not even contracted the show past Season 4, but the producers knew the depth that the actor playing Fergus would need to reach, so they pulled a scene from the sixth book for the audition.
“If you are a Fersali fan, you are going to love our story this season,” Domboy said. “I am so excited for you to see what we did. And if you are a book fan, you won’t be disappointed. It’s all there. So, a shaky-ass season for Fergus and Marsali. Very intense scenes, we had so much fun shooting,” Domboy said.
Domboy and Lyle also have their first intimacy scene. “We nailed it,” Domboy said with a grin.
His enthusiasm sparked my own excitement for their story this season, and I wondered what Gabaldon thought.
I’ve spoken quite a bit recently to Cesar (Domboy), and he is so excited about this season, and the work that he and Lauren got to explore together. Until now they have been in more of a supportive role, but this season, they can really sink their teeth into something and have a dramatic arc of their own.
“Yeah, they were fabulous together,” Gabaldon says with a big smile. “They have a really nice arc and delivered really beautiful, intense work,” she added.
I know it’s an excellent storyline, and it does have some adaptive challenges I imagine. Can you share your impressions of the adaptation of their story as well as Cesar and Lauren’s performance this season?
“Well, they chose to take a specific tack with Fergus’ character that is not present in the books. It’s something different. It’s very effective the way that it works, and it provides an excellent dynamic between (Fergus) and Marsali,” Gabaldon said still smiling.
I loved hearing these accolades from Herself! In the video below, Domboy discusses Fergus’ arc.
“I think we can be a bit worried for Fergus.” – Cesar Domboy
Here Comes Trouble
In the Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone virtual release event , Gabaldon shared a hint to the trouble ahead in Season 6 with a few words.
“As for Season 6, I leave you with three words: Christie, amoeba and Brown,” she teased.
Season 6 finds the Fraser family facing trouble on multiple fronts, both external and internal. Externally, we have the Revolutionary War rushing closer as tensions boil over between the colonies and England. “It’s coming,” Claire says when Major MacDonald brings news of the Boston Tea Party. Additionally, the space between fires narrows to a thin line as Jamie reluctantly becomes an Indian* agent for the Crown.
Another external bit of trouble strikes the Ridge when its residents begin to succumb to illness and infection from an unknown amoeba. It never ceases to amaze me how eerily close to life Outlander seems to strike. Those who only watch the show may think the Covid crisis during filming inspired this storyline. However, that would be incorrect. This storyline comes straight from the book –written 15 years before. An ironic twist of fate turns yet again.
Bad, Bad, Richard Brown…
Richard Brown presents another external conflict for the Fraser clan. Brown simmers with vengeance on his mind toward the Fraser clan who killed quite a few Browns when they rescued Claire in the Season 5 finale. Then, Jamie hand delivered his brother Lionel’s dead body, dropping it at Brown’s feet. If anyone thought that would be the end of this clan war, think again.
Gabaldon couldn’t be happier with Chris Larkin’s (son of Dame Maggie Smith) villainous portrayal of Richard Brown, as you will see in the last video of this post. “Oooo …There’s a wrong’un if you ever saw one,” she says laughing. “He’s an excellent villain.”
A fairly big chunk of Richard Brown’s scenes from ABOSAA played out on screen last season. While an ever-present threat, his actual remaining sections on page are few but very significant. However, Gabaldon confirmed that the show expanded both Chris Larkin’s and Alex Vlahos’ (who plays Allan Christie) roles to give them more screen time this season. The trailer indicates this expansion with a clip showing Allan Christie thrown on his knees in front of Brown – something very new to book fans. We never see those two characters cross paths on the page. However, Gabaldon assures me that the expanded elements all reiterate and define (rather than change) the written characters. I love the writers’ choice to create more opportunities to highlight the superb talent these two brilliant actors bring to the show.
The Christies Bring Internal Division and Fracture
Along with the external threats, an internal threat settles on Fraser’s Ridge in the form of the Christie family. Tom Christie spent years in Ardsmuir prison with Jamie. However, unlike Jamie’s other Ardsmuir settlers, Tom doesn’t see Jamie as Mac Dubh, his chief. They had a power struggle in prison, and Tom continues to wrestle with Jamie’s authority on the Ridge. (Good luck with that.) In the clip below, Gabaldon praises the brilliant casting and performance of the Christie family.
In Tom Christie, we don’t see a villain like we see in Brown. He is not an inherently “bad” guy, and Jamie knows that. There’s quite a bit under the surface that gives him a multidimensional nature. He’s a fantastic character that presents a very complex adversary for Jamie. Yet in some ways, they each still feel a grudging degree of respect for each other. It’s another fine line Jamie must walk as Tom holds influence with the other new tenants that have settled on the Ridge. Tom craves the power, respect, and influence that Jamie holds, and there’s quite a bit of mental chess between them. Below, Mark Lewis Jones discusses his character this season.
In a newly released interview with The Gate, Sam Heughan discusses the push and pull relationship with Tom Christie:
“Religion (plays a role) in some sense because they both have different beliefs, but actually it’s more about someone using power over others, and Tom Christie uses fear or his religion to control others and Jamie’s on the other side of that… I think there’s a real standoff between the two, and a power play between the two of them. We begin the season by looking at their relationship, and we jump back in time to a flashback to how they first met. It really does come into play because Tom is not only controlling the people that follow him, but also his family members as well and manipulating them. So, he’s a great adversary and a very difficult one for Jamie as well, and I think it’s kind of interesting to see Jamie use all of his skills to try to manipulate and control Tom… Mark (Lewis Jones) was just incredible. He’s a brilliant actor and really brings a great energy to that character. So, to play opposite him was awesome.” – Sam Heughan, The Gate
And what about Tom Christie’s children, Allan and Malva? You would be wise to keep your eyes on these two characters this season. They are far from “log-carriers” that simply come as a package with their father. Oh no, my friends. The ENTIRE Christie family will try to divide Fraser’s Ridge in different ways.
Let’s take a quick look at those Christie kids as Alex Vlahos and Jessica Reynolds speak briefly on their characters this season.
First up – Alex Vlahos on Allan Christie
Ooooooo… so intriguing. After watching Vlahos in Versailles, I can’t wait to see what he brings to this role!
And what about that “sweet as pie” younger sister, Malva? She may not be what she seems.
Here’s Jessica Reynolds on the enigmatic Malva Christie:
Doesn’t she sound like a sweetheart? I mean all she wants is a purpose, right? Don’t we all?
Character Rapid Fire
As Diana Gabaldon and I wrapped the show section of our conversation, I asked her to play a bit of rapid fire about the characters by giving me a simple description of each this season. They all sound perfect!
So, it’s almost here… the end of a verra long Droughtlander!