You may be noticing a change of title in naming Sam Heughan as “TV Performer of (a Previous) Week.” Basically, I deeply regretted missing the opportunity to praise Heughan specifically for his turn in the Outlander Season 1 finale, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” which he very much deserves. So this week, I am rectifying that!
Starz’s action-fantasy series Outlander had an interesting first season overall, and a second half that didn’t quite match the magic and wonder of its first. The last two episodes of the season were also dominated by torture, which is not something that leaves fans upbeat. On the other hand, that horror also brought us some of the best acting of the year not only from Heughan, but from Tobias Menzies.
What tipped the scales to Heughan over Menzies though is mostly due to what happened after Jamie’s torture at the hands of Black Jack Randall. The opening shot of “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” was of a dead-eyed Jamie resting like a corpse next to Black Jack, who had so destroyed him that he was able to sleep next to him without fear of repercussion. Randall systematically broke Jamie down over the course of two episodes, and yes, Menzies’ portrayal of that sadistic torture (and his own twisted nature) was also bold in how he was completely overtaken by it.
But it was Heughan who had to show how even such a strong man could be decimated like that and in that way, and not just in a response to the rape and violence. One of the things that made Randall’s torture so horrifying was how he encouraged Jamie to think of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) during it, causing him to actually orgasm while Randall was inside of him, and then shaming him over that fact. Jamie was not just beaten and bruised — his hand smashed, his chest branded, and his body violated by Randall in several different ways — he was also mentally and spiritually crushed by Randall’s sinister acts.
“To Ransom a Man’s Soul” didn’t give Jamie a lot of time to recover before he reconciled things with Claire and the two took off to France, but even still, Heughan’s performance sold the transformation well enough to believe that though Jamie wasn’t ok, he one day might be. His suicidal desires while at the monastery were devastating, but nothing was more heartbreaking (or triumphant) than when he and Claire hashed it all out together, with Jamie explaining fully the horror he had experienced.
Though Outlander so far has largely been about Claire coming to terms with what had happened to her after time traveling back to 1700s Scotland, making a life for herself out of what she was forced into and what she chose, Jamie also grew immensely throughout the season. He was forced to grow up and mature through his marriage to Claire, but also in him becoming the Laird of Lollybroch. Jamie had also suffered grievous bodily harm in the past thanks to Randall’s lashings, but nothing could have prepared him (or viewers) for what was to befall him at Wentworth Prison. It changed him fundamentally, and while we won’t know until Season 2 what that truly means for his character, Heughan was still able to signal and embody a transformation.
The events of “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” led to some of the bravest acting I have possibly ever seen, from both Menzies and Heughan. Heughan started the series off as just a strapping, Scottish lad who loved his horses — the stuff (fittingly) of fantasy. He had a good heart, but he was still in the process of learning about himself and his place in the world. His work in “To Random a Man’s Soul,” though, was completely raw. It took Jamie, and viewers, to a place we could never have feared or expected, a place that’s hard to move past. It should be hard to move past something that excruciating, though, and I do lament that Outlander didn’t have time for another episode before Claire and Jamie took their leave of Scotland, just to give Heughan as Jamie some more time to explore, and begin to recover, from his ordeal.
The bottom line, though, is that Heughan gave an absolutely incredible performance to end Outlander’s season, committing himself fully to his character’s torment, and bringing viewers into the darkness with him. It was bold, captivating, and difficult, and though I may have missed out on bestowing him a timely TV Performer of the Week distinction, his was truly one of the best performances of the year.