Interview: ‘Outlander’ showrunner Ronald D. Moore on the end of The Droughtlander

The Droughtlander is nearly over.

After more than six months away, “Outlander” is finally returning to Starz on Saturday, April 4. Fans have been champing at the bit since September 27 to get the resolution of the cliffhanger involving Claire, Black Jack and the just-in-time arrival of Jamie.

Almost immediately upon the return, fans will notice something different. The premiere features Jamie's voiceover, a big deviation from Diana Gabaldon's book. The change in POV makes a large difference when it comes to The Important Thing That Happens in the premiere, an event that fans of the book have been waiting for all season.

Back in January at the TCA press tour, I sat down with “Outlander” showrunner Ronald D. Moore to discuss the impact of the POV swap, as well as the expanded role of Frank and how changes from the book have shaped the first season. [In the PaleyFest video above, Moore tells me a bit about Gabaldon's involvement in the series.]

We also talked about the well-regarded “The Wedding” episode and why it was important to have that episode written and directed by women (Anna Foerster and Anne Kenney, respectively) and whether or not it has been difficult to keep Claire from becoming too steadily a damsel-in-distress.

Check out the full Q&A below, as well as my PaleyFest interviews with stars Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies.

Note that there are some spoilers here if you haven't read the book. Not huge, but some.

HitFix: I want to start with Episode 9 and the first thing that immediately of course jumps out, which is it's a Jamie voiceover episode. And you're working from a book that is entirely not in that point of view, what was the thought process on deciding to give Jamie that POV for that episode?

Ronald D. Moore: It was a couple of things. As we got into the season we knew that eight was going to be the cliffhanger obviously because that was the perfect cliffhanger for the show. And then as we started talking about developing 109, we said, “Alright this is also restarting; people have been away from the show for a while; let's restart the episode, let's not just pick up in real time where we left off. How do we sort of start again?” And then we started talking about the fact that a lot of the story was going to be about Jamie and the things he was going to do, so maybe it was an opportunity to shift point of view for an episode and try something new. And it would also aid us as we got into the series overall, because ultimately all the books and then the show will be about Claire and Jamie so it was a way to sort of then broaden the point of view to include him, it's now about the two of them. So in subsequent episodes, I can start cutting to Jamie and see what's happening in his life, even though Claire wasn't technically in those scenes. So it was like a nice way to pivot and open up the show going forward, in addition to sort of just giving us an interesting way to just kick off the second half.

HitFix: So this opens the door going forward for more of that?

Ronald D. Moore: Mmm-hmm.

HitFix: Okay. And how much of it had to do with the specific big event that happens in the last two-thirds of the episode and sort of giving a different perspective, I guess on, that then, which you don't to get in the book??

Ronald D. Moore: Yeah. He's the one doing it so I thought it was important, “Let's get his perspective. Let's understand why this is happening.” And I felt like this is a scene about justice, this is a scene about balancing scales. It's not a scene about domestic abuse; it's not a scene about anger, it's about the mores of the time, doing what he felt was the right thing in the context of the situation. And it just felt there was something right about then, “Well let's go be with him. Let's understand why this has happening and why he's doing this and who he is.”

HitFix: Well, I'm not going to lie, reading the book it reads an entirely different way to me. And so I was wondering if you had a calculated sense that there were certain things you needed to not correct, but put your perspective on it I guess?

Ronald D. Moore: No. Not so much. It's how you translate that. It is the different reading it in the book than seeing it on screen so you know right away it's going to affect you as a viewer in a different way than it affects you as a reader. So already it's a different sort of challenge. It's not just about lifting the dialogue or not, it's also how you portray it and what you're asking the audience to emotionally understand. And being in his perspective was easier to understand why he's doing this and where he's coming from. If you stuck with her perspective then this guy just walks in the door and you're sort of trying to understand why that other person outside of you is doing these things. And this was an easier way to tell the scene and tell what I think is the truth of the scene because it's really, it's his moment really, it's not really hers.

HitFix: And do you talk with Diana in advance when you do something like that?

Ronald D. Moore: I don't remember if we talked with her, talked with her. She saw the story outlines and the scripts and the early cuts so she knew along the way what we were doing, yeah.

HitFix: What are her reactions to things like that?

Ronald D. Moore: She liked it. I mean she thought it was in keeping with what she had established and what the story was and she liked it.

HitFix: I'm just curious about the process from your point of view, the de-damselizing and de-stress Claire, because she is fairly frequently either being captured by someone, the threat of rape is used on multiple occasions against her, but you obviously don't want her to just be the woman tied up to the railway track. So what is the thought process from your point of you of not going to the well too many times for dramatic purpose?

Ronald D. Moore: It's usually just balancing those moments of jeopardy with moments of action and how often she also saves of the story. In the second half of the book or, actually the latter part of the book, Jamie is captured and taken and then she is going to rescue him. So when you look at the season overall there were ups and downs, there are places were each of them was in jeopardy and each of them actually got rescued by the other over time, so I wasn't too concerned about it being a one note — She's always in danger, she's always the damsel — because I knew there were plenty of other opportunities that we could play where you were seeing a different aspect of her.

HitFix: Sure. Now a couple of people on Twitter since they knew that this was happening today have been referring to something called “The Droughtlander,” which I had not heard of before about an hour ago. Looked back on doing this eight-and-eight thing, how would you say it benefited you or the storytelling and how did it maybe not? And what you would do differently next season?

Ronald D. Moore: The only way it really affected the storytelling was that I knew that I had to come up with a good cliffhanger for the eighth episode and then, like we talked about, how do you restart into the ninth episode. Beyond that it didn't really affect anything else because, again, we had the book so we knew what the story was. And whether you ran them consecutively or took a two week break or took a month long break it was still going to be basically the same story.

HitFix: But in this case it's…

Ronald D. Moore: In this case there is a significant break.

HitFix: Yeah, a rather long break. How does that change your perspective for next season then?

Ronald D. Moore: Well, next season we have a different episode order. It's 13 instead of 16 so I think it's going to run probably in a different way.

HitFix: So you're anticipating not needing to do this again?

Ronald D. Moore: That's what I'm anticipating. Yeah.

HitFix: It's a strange process also because the first half of the book is sort of the emotional establishing and then a bunch of stuff happens in the second half so you've got a disproportionate…

Ronald D. Moore: Yeah they are two different halves. They really are. So there was a natural break point anyway.

HitFix: Still, what were the challenges of arcing out of those first eight episodes where less happens than in the last eight where a good deal more from an “event” a point of view happens?

Ronald D. Moore: It was interesting in that it gave us time. You had time to sort out sink into the world, which is the journey that she takes you on in the book as well. You get to know the character more; you get to know the period more; you get to sort of understand the dynamics of all the different relationships more. It's not so concerned with, “Oh my God, boom, boom, boom” hitting the next plot point. And so you have this nice journey and then you can kind of pivot and suddenly thing start moving like this. And it was great just narratively to lay it out like that because, again, you're sort of giving the audience something that they're not used to seeing, which is always kind of cool.

HitFix: Well, how quickly do the Starz people understand that is a distinction? Because everyone wants more bang for their buck and they want it up front because they have to hook an audience in the first week or two.

Ronald D. Moore: I got to tell you, What Starz would say to us pretty consistently was, “Slow down; you don't have to go so fast.” I was, “Really? Who says that? I don't get that note.” You don't get to that note. In first drafts in the first couple episodes they were like, “At's alright. Take your time. You can go slower than this. We're not worried we trust of the story.” They were fans of the book. They read the book, which I gave them enormous credit for, before they bought it. And they all became sort of fans and they were like, “No, no, no that's alright. We're not worried. You don't have to do cliffhangers at the end of every episode; these smaller ones are fines and we'll just trust that it's going to work.” So it gave us a lot of freedom that we could spend more time, we could do an entire episode that's like a two-man play with Claire and Jack in that room and just have them just talking through that whole show. We could do a whole episode for The Wedding. And so it gave us a lot of freedom because they weren't concerned about, “Got to go, got to go, got to go.”

HitFix: In contrast, was it hard to find room to breathe in the last eight episodes?

Ronald D. Moore: Not so much. It really was easy. I mean the whole process of breaking book one was fairly easy. I mean it just kind of broke down into its 16 components relatively simply. You kind saw how each hour would kind of be carved out and they laid out on the board pretty easily and it didn't feel like there was so much going on in the latter half of the season that we weren't going to work it in, it felt like it was going to give it a certain amount of pace. There was still going to be places we could stop. Like we'd stop. We go to Lallybroch. We'll be there for a couple episodes, so that gives gave us some breathing room between the hectic stuff of the first half of the second batch and then the finale there's a nice little interlude where you can kind of take your time a little bit more, get to know his family, what Lallybroch is like, you know, can you go home again and play those sort of lower dramatic kind of chords and then really take off into the end.

HitFix: Let's talk a bit about that wedding episode. How important, looking back on that episode, was it that you had a woman writing the episode and a woman directing the episode.

Ronald D. Moore: I thought it was important at the get-go. I just thought, “Let's do this. I think this is an important thing” and I just wanted to do it so we just decided to do it early on. And from everyone's reaction I think it brought another perspective to how we played those scenes, the character scenes and the sexual scenes and all that kind of stuff and it just sort of allowed it more texture and feeling in a way.

HitFix: For you personally, you said you hear from people that it gave it a different feeling, but when you actually looked at how those episodes came out that Anna directed, what was your reaction? Was there anything where you said okay I would not have necessarily thought of that? This feels like a different writer or whatever?

Ronald D. Moore: Not particularly. No. After the initial decision I just sort of conceptually wanted a woman director and a woman to write that, it didn't feel like as I was watching it like, “Oh this is completely new. Who would've thought of such things?” I just felt like we were so into it and we had such long discussions about what the intention was of those scenes. I had long discussions with Anna and then the cast about the sex scenes, about making them true and trying to make it about how people actually have sex as opposed to TV sex, which I find kind of boring and uninteresting and not erotic and all and not trying to sell the eroticism in a sexuality and just play, you know, really how these things would happen. And I was very pleased that we were able to capture the sort of sense of authenticity, that it really felt real and that was what was the most important aspect of it to me.

HitFix: From the perspective of what I do, it feels almost like a subversion of everything that Starz has done over the years, because Starz is a network that has, you know, occasionally had a raunchy sex scene or two and sometimes they feel exploitative. And in that particular case it didn't, again I think that had a lot to do with it probably. I was just wondering how conscious you were of avoiding exploitation I guess?

Ronald D. Moore: Yeah. It was important for me not to do that and it felt like given the style and the mood of the show that we had established, if we had gone for something like that, it would've felt really out of character for the show, it would've pulled you out of the series because it would of felt like, “Wow where is this all this coming from?” So to keep going in the same tone that we had set up in the first six episodes, it kind of had to play out like this. You had to take the time, you had to feel the awkwardness between these two people who had never been naked in front of each other, now they're married and have their first sexual encounter be not-so-satisfying. Then go to a more conversation and intimacy and go to a deeper place and then finally get to love by the end of it. That was a nice one-two-three aspect of this show that we just kind of held to all the way through, that that was the arc the episode. And none of that lended itself to sort of being particularly exploitive. You would have blown it. It just wouldn't have worked if you would have overplayed any of that stuff, if you had really tried to make it super-sexualized or what have you. It was more about staying in the mood, staying in the moment. There's no jeopardy in that show and there's no danger. The redcoats don't kick in the door, it really lives and dies on just what happens between these two characters in this one room. So it had to have a certain feeling, it had to have a certain sort of momentum internally in order for it to work.

HitFix: It's obviously a long book. The instinct naturally is to make trims. As you were going through the first season where were you finding you had maybe more interest than Diana had where you were actually adding things to flesh out consequences?

Ronald D. Moore: I think we added, you know, we played much more of Frank. The flashbacks are not in the book. I liked warming up to him a little bit more, having a little bit more empathy for his situation. I really liked cutting to him in Episode 8 and seeing that he has been searching for her and I really liked the crosscutting between the past and the present in that episode, which wasn't in the book. The Jack Randall/Claire episode where they're just in that room together is just a couple of pages in the book but it was such a memorable moment in reading it that we were always surprised when you go back to it and realize how short it was; it was very impactful. And I like the opportunity to just really expand that and really get inside Jack's head and understand what he's about and what was his perspective on Jamie's flogging and to really get under his skin a little bit. And so that was a really great opportunity for us.

HitFix: How much is Tobias an inspiration? Because among those things you mentioned, pretty much all of them are putting him more in this show. So how much was it sort of seeing what he did at the beginning and wanting to find a way to make him more of a regular part of this?

Ronald D. Moore: You just saw the opportunity. You saw it right in the pilot, he was able to draw these two different men very differently and without radically different voices or eye patches or anything to distinguish them. He was just different. And we knew that, “Wow he could go a lot of places with this. We can keep playing this.” And so we had more confidence and we got into that Jack and Claire episode that we could really go somewhere with him and then we could revisit him with Frank and that that would be a lot of fun because we just knew he could handle it.

HitFix: Now you said the voice over in the ninth episode allows for more of Jamie voiceover, did the going back to the 1940s in the eighth episode, does it allow for more of that going forward or was that kind of a one off?

Ronald D. Moore: We just do that one time in the first season.

HitFix: Okay. And will it be something more going forward?

Ronald D. Moore: We won't see Frank again this season. We will see Frank again in the second season.

HitFix: Well, how hard is it to keep him as a concept? Because she has to have a reason to want to go home, or to consider wanting to go home, and if he's not there and if all we're seeing is Black Jack, who's obviously a repellent…

Ronald D. Moore: Well, the story, I mean we have a story. So that's good. In the first season she's made a choice in Episode 10, 11, I can't keep the numbers straight, she makes a decision to stay. So at that point she's not flashing back to Frank anymore and so he's not in the rest of season one. Not in the second book, the second book suddenly we're back in the 20th Century for a big chunk of the story and Frank is an important part of what happened there so then we get to revisit Frank again.

“Outlander” returns on Saturday, April 4 to Starz.