Outlander: The Reckoning



After a long hiatus, Outlander returns this week to wrap up the final eight episodes of its first season. “The Reckoning” is a mammoth episode, featuring the series’ most driving action, tense political conflicts and emotional revelations to date. It also includes the controversial spanking scene that has ignited debate amongst fans and critics alike. This episode presented my most daunting musical challenges since the first episode, and allowed me to introduce new musical colors that will stay with us for the rest of the season and beyond.


Showrunner Ronald D. Moore made a bold decision to shift the narrative from Claire’s perspective to Jamie’s perspective for this episode. This is made clear instantly when we hear Jamie’s voice-over narration in the opening shots. This perspective shift is crucial, because Jamie makes several important decisions in this episode, and the audience needs to understand his motivations. Claire isn’t even present for several of these scenes, so it would have been impossible to tell the story from her point of view.


How can music help the audience accept a new point of view? This was the primary question raised in a long discussion between Ron and myself as we spotted the episode, planning our musical approach. We both understood the score thus far had come to represent Claire, even the folky penny whistle, the Uilleann bagpipes and the fiddle. To use the exact same instruments once again beneath Jamie’s voice over would have been confusing, if not outright distracting.

Ron suggested I craft a more masculine sound, without betraying our essential instrumentation. I decided to lower the register of the music, in the same way a man’s voice tends to be lower than a woman’s. I expanded our orchestra and brought in more celli and basses to provide a deep foundation, and even added the rich tones of a viola da gamba to support them. This dark sound introduces the episode, playing a longing statement of the Claire and Jamie Theme:


The Claire and Jamie Theme (or perhaps I should rename it the Jamie and Claire Theme!) was featured with increasing frequency from Episode One to Episode Six. In Episode Seven, “The Wedding,” their theme came to the forefront once their relationship was consummated. This new version played in lower strings gives the melody a more baritone resonance.


Listen carefully through the episode and you will notice the vast majority of their thematic statements are in lower strings, representing Jamie. The more feminine instruments, especially the Penny Whistle that has come to represent Claire, only return in those narratively crucial shifts when she forgives Jamie and they reconcile their conflicts. This happens twice in the story, first at the resolution of their argument by the river after her rescue, and again at the end of the episode.


After the introspective, lush cue accompanying Jamie’s narration skipping stones, we cut to the present. At the end of Jamie’s confrontation with Horrocks, Willie rides up in a panic, alone. Jamie instantly knows something is wrong. Here, the strings build tension with an expanding chorale of ascending lines that refuse to resolve. Each clashing dissonance resolves as another forms, as the lines climb higher and higher, underscoring Jamie’s crushing realization that Claire has been captured. At last, the strings finally resolve as the celli and basses move down to a low D, the first consonant chord in the entire scene, one that leads directly into Raya Yarbrough’s main title vocals.


This marks only the second time in the series I’ve had the chance for score to lead into the Main Title, so I wanted to ensure the arrival on that D was immensely satisfying.  I saw a lot of comments on Twitter from fans saying it was good to hear the theme song again, and I wondered if this urgent string passage leading into the title was partially responsible for that euphoric response!

Continuing my tradition of ending each episode’s Main Title, with unique music over the final title cards, I wrote ascending layers of string lines that increase in tension, and finally crest as we reveal Fort William. This episode’s card is one of two so far that have not quoted the Skye Boat Song, an approach I reserve for the more tense episodes.


Jamie rescuing Claire from Fort William gave me the chance to push the boundaries of my action scoring using Scottish instrumentation. I used chugging acoustic guitars, scratching Scottish fiddle, bodhrán, Scottish snare drums and dulcimers to create a backdrop of ticking urgency. I then layered small Scottish bagpipes and Uilleann bagpipes for melodic motion, giving our heroes momentum as they take out unsuspecting redcoats. My hope is that these ethnic instruments were able to provide the same excitement as a bombastic orchestra might have, just in a different musical language.


Once Jamie reaches the tower and confronts Black Jack Randall, the music drops out for long stretches of the scene. Ron Moore and I wanted to let the actors’ performances drive the scene without unnecessary musical emphasis. I did, however, use music to heighten tension in a few places, most notably when Randall is about to shoot Jamie.

The rescue sequence ends with Claire and Jamie performing a daring jump into the sea from the top of the fort. Rather than selling the physical danger, I decided to highlight the epic, romantic adventure. I wrote a soaring statement of their theme, allowing rousing strings and bagpipes to dive us into those frigid waters. After teasing this theme for eight episodes, this long-overdue orgasm of thematic fanfare was a thrill to compose. Moments like this are what I live for.


Rescuing his wife only brings Jamie new problems, as his fellow Scots refuse to acknowledge her return to the social group until she has been properly punished for needlessly putting them at odds against the British. This leads us to the episode’s controversial spanking scene, in which Jamie takes a strap to Claire. It is difficult to witness a character we identify with being struck. Claire is a modern woman, who, like us, doesn’t believe in this era’s patriarchal power hierarchy. Furthermore, we know her intentions in disobeying Jamie were to fulfill her ultimate goal of returning to her own time. Still, the narrative presents a fair case for Jamie’s perspective: this must be done to preserve social order within their group. Jamie is shown to be believably hesitant before the pressure from his peers mounts.


Much has been said about this scene. I would recommend checking out the well-thought pieces at Variety (‘Outlander’ Stars Break Down Claire and Jamie’s First Fight, That Spanking Scene’), Vulture (‘Why Fans Clapped During Outlander’s Spanking Scene), The Wrap (‘Outlander Stars Talk About That Spanking Scene’), and The New York Times ArtsBeat Blog (‘Outlander Recap: The Show Takes a New Point of View’).

There has been no scene in Outlander that Ron and I have discussed more than this one. We knew that the scene could be shaded too ‘dark’ and come across as sadistic, or confused. Too ‘light’ and it becomes a farce. We tried it with no music, and was painfully awkward. Having these conversations with Ron before I wrote a note of score was essential to finding the right tone.

“I wanted to say somewhere in there, ‘You know what? It’s going to be okay,'” Ron later told Vulture.com. “This is a show that goes to dark places, but this is not one of them. [The music] tells them, ‘Relax. Enjoy it. It’s kind of fun on a weird level. Just go there.'”


I wanted to score the scene as a cat-and-mouse battle of wits. This is a problem Jamie will use his charm, intellect and, when those fail, his brute strength to solve. The score supports him, adding momentum and tension, without dread. I didn’t write music that was ‘funny,’ just genuinely exciting. If you were to isolate the music here, you would notice it bears a striking similarity to the chugging, percussive stealth music during Jamie’s attack on Fort William. It’s a tension cue! There’s actually nothing inherently comedic in the music at all. It’s all about the narrative context. In Fort William, this musical groove felt tense, and in this scene, it allows the audience to react however they react.

Ron and I always knew the trickiest part of the scene was the beginning. How does music set the tone and at what point does it start? Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t answer this question on my own, so I wrote several versions. Some started earlier, others later. At the final mix playback, Ron was able to get a sense of reactions from a large group of producers, network executives and audio team members, a group fairly evenly divided between men and women. “They had very different feelings, perspectives about it,” he told Vulture.com. “If you brought [music] in early, it took the teeth out of the scene. It took the tension out. And if you brought it in too late, it started to get uncomfortable.” (This marks the only time I can recall a showrunner discussing the particulars of music spotting in an interview with a major news outlet!)


Of course, this scene was bound to polarize. In fact, my music has been brought into several of these discussions. Salon labeled my work “comedic ho-down music.” Ouch! (As an apparent expert, it’s spelled ‘hoedown,’ guys. Yee-haw!)

The New York Times cited my score as the second greatest problem with the scene, stating: “Throughout it all, there is a jangly tune playing on the score, as Jamie chases his wife around the bedroom to, for lack of a better word, beat her.” Honestly, I respect these authors’ well-constructed criticisms, and their pieces make coherent points. However, I can’t help but wonder if their fundamental issue with this scene are what we all feel when watching it: an inherent contradiction between our modern sensibilities, our knowledge of historical reality and our escapist fantasies. There is no music that can resolve those conflicts.

Whether you loved or hated the scene, whether you loved or hated my music within, our goal was to make you react, not to dictate precisely how you should react. I want to send a big thank you out to all the lovers and haters, who prove our audience is as engaged with the show as those of us who make it!

Ok. I never thought I would spend so much time talking about a spanking scene. Moving on…


Halfway through the episode, we return to Castle Leoch for the first time since Episode Four. Here, new conflicts and story arcs arise. At the otherwise upbeat celebration, Colum MacKenzie is visibly upset, and he shuns Jamie publicly by not congratulating him. Colum has much to be angry about. Jamie’s actions have potentially endangered his community. Making matters worse, he now knows Dougal and Ned have stolen money from the rents for the Jacobite revolution, a cause he has yet to support.


These conflicts come to a head when Colum confronts Jamie, Ned and Dougal in his chamber. For this scene, and its follow-up later in the episode, I brought back the Colum MacKenzie Theme I first introduced in Episode Two.


The Colum Theme is performed on a viola da gamba. Initially, these stacked fourths gave Colum a sense of command. Despite his diminutive physical stature, these upward leaps imply he towers over others. Here, I rearranged his music to leave him more vulnerable and empathetic. I feel sorry for him in this scene, because he feels betrayed. Later in the episode, I bring the theme back in a warmer variation when Jamie convinces him to return the gold to Dougal.


During the confrontation, Dougal steps forward to make his case, confessing to stealing the money and proclaiming his intentions to restore the true Scottish king. I could have continued tense variations of the Colum Theme, underscoring Colum’s rage. Instead, I switched to Dougal’s perspective, featuring a fiddle playing The Skye Boat Song.

The last time I quoted this melody in the score was in Episode Five, when Claire realized Dougal is a Jacobite. This scene ties directly to that story arc, because Dougal confesses his Jacobite connections to his brother, so an uplifting version of the Skye Boat Song felt appropriate. I rarely allow this theme to appear in the score, reserving it for special moments. In fact, there will only be one more usage in the entire first season. If you know the book, you can probably guess where it is!


With the conflict between the MacKenzie brothers resolved, Jamie has but one problem left: his rift with Claire. Lost in thought at his childhood hiding place at the river, he is approached by Laoghaire, who offers herself. I was careful not to over-score this. So, I wrote for the smaller string ensemble I reserve for intimate dialog scenes. I strove to communicate Laoghaire’s genuine vulnerability, which I hope in turn, underscores Jamie’s temptation.


Jamie honors his vow, rejects her advances and returns to his wife. He pledges to never raise his hand to her again, and they forgive and make love. In a series known for its sex scenes, this one might make the top ten one day. And because of that, it was difficult to score. As a general rule, I avoid orchestral strings during love scenes, for fear of sounding melodramatic. However, as another general rule, I use orchestral strings to underscore major conflict resolutions between important characters. This scene put my two rules at odds: our two protagonists resolve their conflict, but do so while having steamy sex at the same time! Damn it!

I decided to use the score to follow the character arcs and score the scene as if it were just an emotional dialog scene. I wrote an emotional version of the Jamie and Claire Theme, easily my most romantic arrangement since “The Wedding.” The music begins with low strings, representing Jamie, and concludes by adding the penny whistle, representing Claire. The score represents their emotional reunion by combining the two musical colors that have come to represent them individually. In the midst of the emotion, I did carve out a brief moment of suspense for when Claire puts the knife to Jamie’s throat. Not “OMG She’s Going to Kill Him!” suspense. Just “OMG What’s She Going To Do?” suspense.


“The Reckoning” is just the beginning of a season that will push the boundaries of what I have seen accomplished on screen. There is more great drama and music to come, and I firmly believe you have yet to hear the best music I’ve written for this series.

OUT_CD1If you haven’t heard, there is now an official Outlander soundtrack album! The record, from Madison Gate Records and Sparks & Shadows, features cues from the first eight episodes, and is available on Amazon, iTunes or pretty much anywhere you get your music. On July 10th, it will become my first score album available on vinyl! This album marks the first time in my career I have released a television soundtrack while still in progress scoring that season. (Doing this reminded me of that classic scene in Spaceballs when they release the VHS before the movie is done filming!) Though I’d never released an album mid-season before, I realized I had already accumulated more than enough music to merit the release, and I figured you guys would rather have something right away than wait another year.

Fans have already asked if there will be a subsequent album with music from these new episodes. It’s still a bit early to know for sure, but if I know Outlander fans, they know how to be vocal about what they want. Speaking of which, if you hear music in “The Reckoning” or future episodes you want to hear on an album, leave a comment here on my blog. You know… just in case. 😉