The following story contains spoilers for the first four episodes of “Outlander” Season 6.
Set in North Carolina in 1773, Season 6 of Starz’s “Outlander,” based on Diana Gabaldon’s book “A Breath of Snow and Ashes,” continues the tale of Scottish heartthrob Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and time-traveling healer Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) as they face the American Revolutionary War as backcountry settlers.
But though Season 6 is set in a period that will be familiar, in broad strokes, to U.S. audiences, “Outlander” also introduces a number of lesser-known details from 18th century American history.
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Showrunner Matthew Roberts says it takes an average of six weeks to research and prepare for filming, and another six weeks to film. All of that preproduction work goes into learning, researching and consulting with experts about the different cultures they’re portraying in each episode.
Native Americans are a particular focus this season. Roberts explains that much of the research was into understanding mannerisms and body language. To cite one example, “We learned that the Cherokee don’t point with their fingers,” he said. “They wouldn’t ever do that, so we said [to the actors] don’t do that.”
But Fraser’s Ridge itself — about 20 miles or three nights on horseback from Wilmington, N.C., production designer Mike Gunn imagines — is fiction, though many Scottish settlers came to Salisbury and Wilmington in this period, according to Danielle Berrow, a writer and historical consultant on “Outlander.”
“There are things that are just absolute facts, and we tried to portray them that way,” said Roberts. “But we’re not making a documentary. This is 100% fiction.” Plus, he acknowledges, certain aspects of history aren’t knowable, such as the comportment of real historical figures like William Tyron, who served as governor of both North Carolina and New York, or George Washington.
“We have no idea what George Washington sounded like or acted like. It’s our fictional portrayal of him,” Roberts said.
What was Freemasonry, and was it common in the 18th century?
Though Freemasonry wasn’t a religion, per se, Berrow explains that to be a Freemason, one had to believe in “a supreme being.” One of the world’s oldest fraternal organizations, the Freemasons’ origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Freemasonry was banned by the Catholic Church in 1738.
“Some of the founding fathers have various associations, or at least are rumored to have associations, to be Freemasons,” said Berrow.
She elaborated that sometimes it’s difficult to get an idea of exactly how many people were involved in these Masonic ceremonies “because of the secrecy around it.”
The opening scene of Season 6 flashes back to 1752 to show Jamie’s involvement in the order, as he is given a leadership position while in Ardsmuir prison.
After Jamie is named a Freemason by the prison governor, tension rises between him and the devout Protestant Tom Christie, played by Mark Lewis Jones. The plot portrays Jamie’s all-too-cunning way of finding peace within the divided Catholic and Protestant prisoners in an attempt to control the narrative.
As the story transports viewers to the episode’s present-day of 1773, religious tension arises once again between Jamie and Christie, as Christie settles in Fraser’s Ridge and tries to build a church.
Jamie quickly readjusts Christie’s expectations and suggests that the church instead be a meeting house — a nod to the Old South Meeting House where participants in that year’s Boston Tea Party met to fan the flames of American revolutionary fervor.
What’s with all the glass?
Jamie and Claire’s house on Fraser’s Ridge features colorful furniture and vivid wall drawings — common aspects of living lavishly in the 1770s.
But elegant glass designs stand out this season: beakers, distilling apparatus and bewitching ornamentation on the main houses’ doors and windows.
Gunn explains that he wanted to allow himself artistic license, given that Jamie and Claire are well funded and Claire kens the future. Knowing the limited resources and technology available to Claire, however, the production tried to stay within historically accurate parameters of innovation and design. “We normally have the freedom [of] Claire’s knowledge of the future that she could bring back,” said Gunn.
Glass, a rare commodity at the time, is an indication of wealth. But windows and beakers aren’t the only elements that tease at the plot for this season.
Sand clocks, known as hourglasses, are another key motif. Even though hourglasses were invented in the 8th century, “Outlander” has never featured them in previous seasons. This season, however, Claire is seen with an hourglass on multiple occasions to measure her “ether naps.” Gunn said that hourglasses became a way to nudge the fans toward the “sense of time running out.”.
“The winter’s coming, the bad things are coming,” he said.
Wait, what’s an ‘ether nap’?
Season 6 highlights an innovative time for the Frasers.
Claire discovers ether, an inhaled anesthetic, 73 years before its official discovery in real life .
Ether, which can be dangerous if overused, is administered through a variety of methods. Gunn explains that in the 1700s, the most common way would be by applying the ether to a piece of cloth, then placing the cloth over the nose and mouth.
But because of her background as a combat nurse during World War II, Claire knows about another method: the Ferguson face mask.
The designer opted to combine Claire’s knowledge with the limited resources that were available to her. “We wanted something a little bit more sexy, a little bit more exciting than just a cloth,” said Gunn.
Because ether carries a similar consistency to alcohol, Gunn and his team also had to work out a way to show Claire’s intricate process of distilling the chemical.
“We had to work out how she would capture it, and then contain it,” he said. “And we designed props to have it dripping into the glass beaker. We worked on the physics about how it would stay there and not evaporate.”
And Claire isn’t the only innovator this season: Brianna Fraser (Sophie Skelton) invents safety matches. (In reality, safety matches were invented about 53 years later by John Walker, a British pharmacist.)
The word “matches” goes back to the early medieval period. Berrow explains that a lot of people are surprised that a more primitive version of matches existed for that long: “It was sulfur-dipped little sticks,” she said.
“These 18th century characters are used to using fire on a daily basis, and they must be lighting it somehow. But there are obviously little bits of modern convenience that our characters can maybe help within the show,” she added.
Brianna’s underrated invention, likely to be underrated by modern audiences as well, transforms an onerous chore into a simple task with the stroke of a match.
How accurate is the series’ depiction of Anglo-Indigenous relations?
For viewers wondering if Ian Murray’s acceptance into the Mohawk tribe — in which he receives face markings with a fishbone dipped in pigments — is based on real events: Yes, it is, says Berrow, who explains that such ceremonies, if not common, did take place.
“I thought that was incredibly moving, especially given the traumas that these people have historically been through, and the fact that they have been colonized and forced to convert to Christianity,” said Berrow. “It’s really interesting to hear about the sort of ceremonies of acceptance and how appearance plays a big part.”
Ian’s storyline, which culminates in the Mohawk chief telling him, “Every drop of white blood has been washed from your veins,” is adapted from one of the first settlers in the colonies, Captain James Smith. Smith, who described the experience in his diary, was adopted by the Mohawk and underwent a similar ceremony, even down to the language that was used. The message, according to Berrow, is, “You become one of us, we love you as one of our own.”
The series also accurately captures the position of the Cherokee in the American revolution through a fictionalized version of Alexander Cameron, a Scottish settler who was commissioned by the British to act as a British Indian agent.
Cameron lived among the Cherokees for almost 15 years as they switched allegiances between the British Army and the American colonists, ultimately siding with Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War. .
Berrow explained that many high school textbooks don’t teach the full complexity of the American Revolution — especially Native Americans’ strategic engagement in conflicts among European powers and settlers in order to achieve their own political ends.
“The British are the bad guys,” she said of the popular understanding of this period. “How could they [the Cherokee and Mohawks] be aligned with them?” “Outlander” tries to portray a more accurate version of the conflict in which each population is pursuing the course it believes serves its interests best, which was no less true of the Mohawk and Cherokee than it was of the British and Americans.
Season 6 has only six episodes, marking a shorter-than-usual “Outlander.” But dinna fash, Roberts confirms that the “Droughtlander” will be brief, with Season 7’s 16 episodes just around the corner.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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