'Outlander' postmortem: Nell Hudson on being the other Mrs. Fraser

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Nell Hudson as Laoghaire in Season 1 of Outlander. (Photo: Ed Miller/Starz/courtesy Everett Collection)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “First Wife” episode of Outlander.

Jamie Fraser has made a number of questionable decisions over the course of Outlander’s three seasons, but proposing marriage to Laoghaire MacKenzie would easily rank toward the top of his personal “Worst Life Choices” list. Never mind that, 20 years ago, the jealous maiden conspired to have Jamie’s beloved Sassenach arrested and tried as a witch. After all, Claire had it out with Laoghaire about that massive error in judgment in Season 2. What makes it such a terrible choice is that Jamie doesn’t actually love the twice-married mother of two daughters when he weds her: He’s primarily seeking to fill an emotional void within himself. And Jamie realizes his mistake almost as soon as he makes it, moving away from his new family to live and work in Edinburgh as a printer. As soon as Claire reenters his life, it’s goodbye Laoghaire … although he can’t bring himself to tell his first wife about his second wife. She has to break that particular news bulletin herself.

In other words, Jamie doesn’t come off looking too good in “First Wife.” Even catching an accidental bullet fired by Laoghaire doesn’t immediately restore one’s sympathy for him. Instead, it’s his two wives that we feel for: Claire because she’s been kept in the dark about Jamie’s other wife, and Laoghaire because Jamie’s spurned her once again.

Told that this particular viewer is on Laoghaire’s side for once, actress Nell Hudson lets out a laugh. “I think you might be the only one,” she jokes, before adding that she feels for her alter ego as well. “I do sympathize with her situation: she’s a single mother, trying to raise her children and get by in 18th century Scotland.” She also agrees that while Jamie shoulders much of the blame for the way he handles things, he ultimately deserves to be forgiven for this particular bad choice: “You do see Jamie’s faults, and he’s held accountable. When you tell a story that shows the imperfections of your hero, in the end it ultimately makes him more human — and more lovable.”

Caitriona Balfe looks utterly heartbroken in that moment when Laoghaire bursts in on Claire and Jamie. Did you have to go over and comfort her afterwards?
It was tough, because it was a very emotionally heightened scene. Cait and Sam are so lovely, and between takes it’s normally very relaxed and we get a chance to catch up. But we kept a boundary during that sequence; we didn’t laugh and chat [between takes] in order to sustain the story of the scene. After that scene finished, I was like, “Oh God, sorry — are you OK?” It’s a heated moment and it digs deep. It’s a bit horrid, really, because Cait and I get along really well off camera.

Laoghaire’s children, Marsali and Joan, appear quite well-mannered. Whatever her other failings, in your mind, is Laoghaire a good mother?
Yeah, I think she must be. I thought the same thing. I was like, “Wow, they turned out well, didn’t they?” [Laughs] They’re also very gorgeous actresses; I was very flattered by the casting match. I was like, “Oh good, you think these people could play my children!” They’re both really great. Marsali is so intelligent and spirited, and Joan is so sweet. And that was by herself, because her marrying Jamie happened later, obviously. I think that’s a really key thing to understanding Laoghaire and giving her some credit: she’s managed to raise two pretty awesome girls. And she has a physical legacy in the form of Marsali, who is in many more of the books. She’s a really awesome character, and I like to see her as the product of Laoghaire. You can never forget where Marsali came from.

We never really get to hear Laoghaire vocalize her own feelings about her marriage to Jamie — we only get a picture of it through what he tells Claire. Do you think she’d tell a different version? Is she pretending that it’s working when it’s really not?
For the sake of the children, she holds it together. But she’s not stupid; she’s many things, but I don’t think she’s dumb. I think she knows it’s not working, and that’s probably quite painful for her. She’s so close to having what she always wanted, but it’s not how she thought it would be. It’s really a bastardized version of her dream life, but it’s close enough that she’s settling for the next best thing. She knows that he doesn’t really love her, but she’s holding it together.

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in Outlander. (Photo: Starz)

Claire has been holding onto an idealized version of Jamie since she left him two decades ago and is now confronting the real man. Was Laoghaire in a similar situation? Holding on to her past vision of him, and trying to reconcile that with the person he is now?
I suppose there has to be a bit of that, doesn’t there? By the very nature of loving someone who’s not in love with you, there’s already an element of fantasy there. Because, you know, healthy love is when two people love each other and it’s an equal relationship. In my backstory of Laoghaire, her love for Jamie is an unhealthy love. I’m fully on her side about it, but it’s not healthy, which would suggest clinging to that one time he was nice to her [20 years ago]. For her story to make sense, she’s always had to have held a torch for him.

Were you hoping to have a scene where we could see what their home life was like apart from Claire?
Definitely, I would have been really excited for that sort of scene. I did have a chat with Sam about how he saw their relationship, and the realistic ins and outs of how that works. I think the horrid truth was that they didn’t really have a home life.

I’m trying to imagine them sitting down to a family dinner, and what that would look like. What would they even talk about?
I imagine it would be a fairly long, private conversation with Laoghaire mostly talking at him. [Laughs] I mean, Jamie at that point in the story is a bit of a ghost himself, isn’t he? He’s not the old Jamie he used to be. He’s quite listless, I think it’s fair to say. So a family dinner would have been Laoghaire talking at him, and the girls gabbing. We three would have been quite animated.

The scene where Laoghaire shoots Jamie is staged in a way that makes it appear accidental. In the book, she deliberately fires at him. Was that change scripted, or was it a decision made on set?
It wasn’t written in the script that it would be a mistake. That was on the day in staging it with the director [Jennifer Getzinger]. I’m trying to remember whose idea it was. It may have happened accidentally in one of the takes; the prop gun went off and I literally jumped. The director liked it, because Laoghaire hasn’t fired a gun before. I think she went to Lallybroch with the intention of doing it, but when it actually happens, it takes her by surprise. It was fun playing the idea of “Did she mean to shoot him? Or maybe she meant to shoot Claire?” But I’m glad it reads as shock that it happened, because it makes her look a little less evil, don’t you think? [Laughs]

You’ve been one of the villains on the show going back to the first season. What has the fan response been like?
I’m not someone who scrolls through Twitter to see what people are saying, because that way lies madness! But the people I’ve spoken to at conventions have always been really lovely and can separate the character from myself. So it’s all good! And I relish playing the baddie. She’s not boring, is she?

Do you think she carries any guilt for almost getting Claire burned as a witch?
No. I think she previously did. It was clever of the writers to give her that moment in the second season where she did feel guilty and tried to live a clean life. But then Claire comes back and ruins the thing she’s worked so hard for over the years. So if she did feel guilty, she doesn’t anymore!

Had Claire not returned, do you think Laoghaire and Jamie would have stayed married? Or was a breakup inevitable?
My modern Nell Hudson brain is going, “Come on, they would have broken up.” If I was their relationship counselor, I’d be like, “Guys, you need to separate. This isn’t working, and you’re driving each other insane.” [Laughs] But obviously the Nell who plays Laoghaire wants to believe it might work out. He’s not wearing a ring, though, is he? So he’s like, “Not for me.”

Outlander airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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