Spoilers for Outlander Season 5 Episode 7, "The Ballad of Roger Mac," below.
“Murtagh, ugh!” In the midst of a pandemic, Sam Heughan is trying to remain positive—the actor has just completed a social isolation baking challenge with his Outlander cast mates when we hop on the phone to discuss the latest episode—but I've just accused him of emotional manipulation, and I'm well within my rights. Tonight's Outlander offers several tragic beats that would be crushing on their own: Jamie Fraser donning a British red coat to fight against the Regulators; the death of his beloved godfather, Murtagh Fitzgibbons (Duncan Lacroix), in the skirmish history will remember as the Battle of Alamance; and the gruesome discovery of his son-in-law Roger (Richard Rankin) hanging from a tree after crossing paths with the enemy camp.
Heughan loved every minute. "It was my favorite episode," he tells ELLE.com of "The Ballad of Roger Mac." "This was a tough season to break from the book and I think it’s going to be one of our best because of that storyline." Murtagh's death is a controversial storytelling choice; in the Outlander books, the character died years earlier under less dramatic circumstances. But on the show, Jamie and Murtagh are pitted against each other—Murtagh as a Regulator, part of an early group of rebels plotting against British rule in the late 1760s, and Jamie is conscripted to fight alongside the British lest he lose Fraser's Ridge, the land he and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) have built into a bustling settlement in the backwoods of North Carolina. In fact, Jamie's superior has ordered him to find and kill Murtagh, a task Jamie managed to avoid until battle, when another soldier completes the deed with a shot to Murtagh's chest. The Scot dies in Jamie's arms, his last words : "Dinna be afraid, a bhalaich. It doesn’t hurt a bit to die." It's a heartbreak neither Jamie nor book fans saw coming, and one compounded by the strain of losing Roger. "It's a very dense episode," Heughan accedes. "The repercussions are huge for everyone."
Below, Heughan breaks down the process of shooting this episode, what's to come, and how his My Peak Challenge fitness charity is encouraging self-care during coronavirus self-isolation.
Jamie has experienced a lot of grief in the last few seasons. What makes Murtagh’s death different?
It felt [like] the most grief. He's not only losing his godfather—basically a stepfather—but he’s losing the last real contact with Scotland, the last member of his blood apart from his aunt and daughter. It’s very raw—losing that part of his life, the old world and ways of doing things. For Jamie, losing him is like losing his rock, like losing one of his points of safety. There was always this great love between Jamie and Murtagh and it was never spoken of. You just knew Murtagh was always there for Jamie, and likewise.
Jamie’s unwillingness to accept reality is surprising. Everyone can see that Murtagh is dead, but he drags his godfather’s body to Claire and demands she heal him.
I mean, he knows. Of course he knows, but he would do anything to save his godfather, and Claire is the one person who if anyone could do anything, it would be her. He's in all the stages of grief, and then reality dawns on him. It's funny because we shot that as a pickup scene, [so] it’s interesting when it [comes] together. We had to shoot [Murtagh's death] a couple of times because of problems with continuity, so it was challenging to shoot.
You’ve been planning to put Jamie in the red coat for a while—how much of what we see onscreen is what you envisioned when you first pitched it?
It's pretty similar. Before we finished last season I knew Jamie was on the side of the British, and I went to Matt [Roberts, executive producer] and the costume department and said, "Could we put Jamie in a red coat?" Then I went back early to do a fitting for the coat. I wanted Jamie looking good and powerful in it. Everything it stands for is everything he’s fought against—the occupation of Scotland, the suppression of his culture, Blackjack Randall, Wentworth Prison. There’s so much psychologically in this piece of material. Historically, it’s probably not quite accurate—if he was a general in the militia, he probably wouldn't have worn a red coat, but really, it’s less about him becoming a redcoat and more about Tryon testing him.
Did you research the Battle of Alamance before shooting?
It actually wasn't much of a battle—I think the number of casualties were maybe 20 or so. Those words Governor Tryon says, "Fire upon them or fire upon me," is what [the real] Tryon said. We see that he really pushed for this battle. He wanted to be seen as a great general and he wasn't. His men wouldn't fire upon the regulators initially, because they were [basically] the same people.
This episode felt uncomfortably resonant—a federal government turning on its own people in a time of crisis.
Not much has changed, and there are torn loyalties as well. It was the same at Culloden, because you had Scots fighting for the British against [Stuart’s army]. It's [a question of], where does your loyalty lie, and who do you think is going to look after you? A lot of these people were fighting because they needed money. They needed to support their families or they thought they were doing the right thing. It's tough morally.
What was shooting those battle sequences like?
Crazy. I think we shot the main sequence with the cannon in two days. It was summer in Scotland, and we don't generally have a really hot summer, but it was pretty hot at that point. They were tough days. We shot over a number of days in the forest with a second unit, and we all loved being part of that. We haven't seen that type of battle in Outlander, with muskets and guerrilla warfare. It’s very different from the battles we had before. We can see the world is changing, with this new technology and modern warfare.
The final shot of the episode is the family finding Roger hanging. What does this mean for the rest of the season?
The whole family will be hurting. We can see everyone really struggling. The family is beginning to fracture, and that's what the season's really about—they’re torn apart by different circumstances. There's a really fantastic episode coming up, which is quite stylized. When we first read it, we weren't sure how it was going to play out, but I think it really works.
This section of the book is so dark, and now we have Murtagh’s death weighing over it.
Of course there are people that are purists, but it's really great to still surprise the viewer while in Diana Gabaldon's world. We're not changing much. We're adding and layering, and we're back to the status quo now. That character's gone, so we're back to Diana Gabaldon's book, but the Murtagh storyline has definitely added a lot to the season.
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Is Jamie hardened at the end of this episode?
I think he's lost something. There's a hole there and it'll take him time. Time is the healer in this one, for all [the characters]. But because of circumstances, he's really thrust into having to be the man of action again and put his family first. By the end of the season, everyone is unsure of the future. They're uncertain of what's going to happen. Even though they have this prior knowledge, they know this great battle is coming. The forecast of the future doesn't look very promising.
You launched My Peak Challenge years ago as a fitness program that helps members get healthy while supporting different charities. How did the social distancing challenge come to be?
We launched My Peak Challenge four years ago and we've been growing—we have ambassadors from every country and they get together and do challenges. Now they've been working out how to do things online, like Zoom challenges. We have a private group where people post about finding mobility and losing weight and gaining strength and confidence and making new friends. And we've fully financed a couple research projects for blood cancer. It’s nice to be able to do something. As an actor, sometimes you feel pretty pointless and hopeless. We're there to entertain, obviously, and to help spread the message, and we wanted to do something with [My Peak Challenge]. It took us about a week to put the videos together, but people seem to really enjoy it, and we want to post more challenges. Hopefully it's helping people stay sane. It's great that people can share it and virtually challenge their friends and family. It should be accessible as well. I noticed a lot of people are putting together these workout series, but I think we beat Hemsworth to it. [Laughs]
Julie Kosin Senior Culture Editor Julie Kosin is the senior culture editor of ELLE.com, where she oversees all things movies, TV, books, music, and art, from trawling Netflix for a worthy binge to endorsing your next book club pick.