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Performers Of The Month - July Winner: Outstanding Actress - Caitriona Balfe

Period pieces present unique challenges for performers. A period piece that spans centuries, involves time travel, and has extreme time jumps presents a challenge like nothing ever before tackled on television. Sure, time travel has started to become fairly commonplace, but Outlander’s take on it is completely unique. The show’s performers are asked to recreate actual historical events with fictional moments interlaced within. In the case of a very select few, they also have to portray their characters in a completely different century. All of this presents an incredible number of challenging scenarios for the production team and the cast. Just to keep things interesting, they also had to age one of their performers twenty years in a single episode while maintaining the same actress. Outlander is incredibly lucky to have Caitriona Balfe at their disposal for the role of Claire Randall Fraser, the grand time traveler in question, because she handles all of these extreme changes as if it’s just another typical acting task. I’m sure it’s stressful to have to tackle all of this, but you would never know by watching her perform. She is the consummate professional who brings her best to every second she’s on screen. Most performers only have one primary scene partner with some secondary characters to fill out the world the characters inhabit. Balfe has that in regular scene partner Sam Heughan (April and July’s POTM winner), but she also shares a fair number of scenes with others and somehow manages to have the same flawless chemistry with them that she has with Heughan. When she is on the screen, people pay attention because the way she presents herself demands undivided attention. She is a motivating force for all those sharing scenes with her and she instantly enthralls the audience. Because of these reasons, and many more that we’ll only be able to skim through in this article, it came as no surprise that she was voted as the most outstanding actress of July for her powerful performance in the season finale of Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber.

Powerful is the only way to describe the performance she delivered in Dragonfly in Amber, and even that doesn’t seem like an appropriate description. She had to cover every emotion, from happiness to great sorrow and everything in between. One of the most poignant scenes of the season finale was the emotional goodbye between Claire and Jamie at the stones. While Heughan had to hold Jamie firm and stoic, Balfe had to show Claire’s heart breaking. Claire absolutely doesn’t want to leave him and Balfe makes her pain and fear palpable. Tears boiled up in her eyes but, in a show of Claire’s strength, she managed to keep them from falling. They glisten in her eyes throughout the poignant scene but never seem to fall. Claire was struggling to not completely fall apart and Balfe couldn’t have portrayed the emotional anguish any more elegantly. She showed incredible strength and vulnerability as her eyes glistened and her voice shook. It is hard to watch that scene and not feel the emotion radiating off of her. This scene could have easily crossed the line into over dramatic, but she used Heughan’s calm performance to anchor her own. She rode the emotional line as Claire wanted to completely fall apart but couldn’t. They have a way of symbiotically linking their performances to create these emotionally perfect scenes, feeding off of one another’s energy allowing them to use each other to hold their performances at a perfectly uniform emotional level, even when their characters are dealing with opposing emotions.

One of the greatest examples of this was when Jamie was trying to drag Claire off of the Moor to take her to the stones. Claire was fighting Jamie in her bid to stay with him. In that moment, Balfe turned up the emotional dial to a solid ten while Heughan was holding on a neutral level. As soon as Jamie revealed that he knew Claire was pregnant, she immediately dropped her performance to match Heughan’s. Claire was in shock that he knew and in shock that he had been keeping track of her cycles. These two gifted performers work so closely and portray one of the strongest loves on television that it would be so easy for them to lose their performances to their scene partner. Instead, they work in this perfect harmony that makes their every interaction vividly come to life.

While Heughan is her regular scene partner, the season finale introduced Sophie Skelton as Brianna Randall Fraser, Jamie and Claire’s daughter, and Balfe managed to perfectly create the tense relationship Claire has with her daughter despite the episode being the first time these actresses had worked together. There is an immense amount of love between these characters, but they struggle to relate. Claire essentially gave up her entire life to give Brianna a chance at a better life in her time. While Claire holds no ill-will towards her daughter, she can’t help but be constantly reminded of what she lost when she looks at Brianna. These actresses are destined to be regular scene partners as the series goes on. They have a lot of emotionally tense moments ahead, and it was critical that these two actresses set the stage for this relationship in this single episode. Everything else will build from this point forward. Balfe made some genius acting choices as she guided Claire through this tumultuous relationship. At times, she would look at Skelton with sad remembrance and, through her eyes, you could see Claire looking through her daughter to see Jamie. Brianne is Claire’s conduit to Jamie and, through her, she has been able to hold onto some small part of him, and Balfe perfectly captured that every single time she looked at Skelton.

A big part of setting up this relationship was to convey the years of tension that has been brewing between mother and daughter. Brianna has her father’s strong will and her mother’s practicality. Inheriting all of that setup Brianna to be a strong-willed, practical, stubborn Scot and every time Claire was with her daughter, Balfe allowed the audience to see Claire deducing the similarities between father and daughter. But Brianna definitely has the Fraser temper that is so evident in Jamie and Jenny, and she’s not one to back down from a fight. When Brianna and Claire started to fight over Claire’s story about Jamie, there was no backing down for either of them. Balfe took Claire from nervous to tell her daughter the truth and was able to build on that as she ramped up from nerves to frustration to full on rabid anger. When Brianna accused her mother of just sleeping around, there was this near instantaneous shift and, in an instant, Balfe’s eyes grew wide and her jaw set firm. As she pushed in on Skelton, both had fire burning in their eyes and while both actresses are close in height, in that moment, Balfe seemed to tower over Skelton. Her voice trembled with anger and her eyes were wild and almost as instantaneously as she turned that on, she turned it off. As Claire realized she had just verbally attacked her daughter, her heart sunk and Balfe’s eyes went soft to portray Claire’s deep regret. Claire hadn’t meant to lose her cool with her daughter, but it happened and, through Balfe’s performance, you could see that she immediately regretted it. Brianna is just so much like her father that, for a moment, Claire lost herself and was arguing with her daughter as she had once argued with her husband. The rapid emotional shifts were expertly executed.

Skelton was a new scene partner for Balfe, but she perfectly picked up the emotional queues her younger co-star was throwing at her. They volleyed lines off of each other as though they had been working together for years. While Skelton and Heughan are extremely gifted performers in their own right, a lot of that instant magical chemistry is orchestrated by Balfe. She keeps her individual style while being able to easily adapt to the style of her scene partner. It is that marriage of style that allows every scene she is in to just ooze with intense energy. She is able to build on whatever her scene partner is giving her and amplify it to unbridled levels.

Even in scenes where Balfe isn’t the center of the moment, she still stands out. In this episode, the scene that best displayed that was the death of Dougal (Graham McTavish). The focal points of that scene were Heughan and McTavish, but she managed to make a big impact regardless. As Jamie and Dougal dueled, Claire stood back trying to let her husband handle the fight. Then it came down to the moment where Jamie had to drive his blade into his uncle. Claire knew what this execution was going to do to Jamie’s soul. It may have been Jamie’s hands that pushed the blade into Dougal, but it was Claire’s assistance that made it go in. It didn’t totally absolve him of the act, but it took some of the weight of responsibility from him. She spent most of the scene being pushed around and protected by Jamie, but when she took an active part in the scene, it was a poignant act. Claire was no friend of Dougal’s, and the kill could have easily been played as vengeful, but Balfe brilliantly chose to play the scene with remorseful solace. Claire knew it needed to be done, but took no pleasure in it. That allowed the scene to play perfectly to the way it was written. It was a drastic change from the original book content, but her performance made the change flow organically for the character she has worked so hard to forge.

While she has proven that she can volley lines with whomever she is paired with and stand out even in scenes not focusing on her, sometimes Balfe’s most powerful work comes when she’s in a scene alone, as was the case when Claire visited Culloden Moor to reconnect with Jamie’s spirit and tell him about his daughter. The entire scene was one long monologue that Balfe executed with the precision of an archer nailing a bull’s-eye. No one would have faulted her for being unable to nail every word of that long monologue, but every single word was perfectly executed. She couldn’t have delivered a performance any better than she did, from the softness in her voice as she spoke to Jamie of their daughter, to the longing when she spoke to him of her anger over him forcing her to leave. Her voice was level in tone but full of so much emotion that it is nearly impossible to watch that scene without smiling. This was Claire’s chance to make peace with the twenty years she lost with her true love, and Balfe did justice to the moment.

It wasn’t Claire’s only moment of quiet reflection in the episode. Balfe brought as much levity to those moments as she did every high octane moment throughout. As Claire watched Brianna sleep and softly reminisced about how she looked like her father, it was a heartwarming moment. She struggled to connect with her daughter during the waking hours but, in this moment, Balfe was able to show how much unconditional love Claire carries in her heart for her daughter.

An even quieter moment in this episode was when Claire returned to Lallybroch. From the moment Claire drove up, Balfe played the scene full of shock. For Claire, seeing Lallybroch in such a state of decay was like she was being sucker punched. When she stepped out of the car, she played it just like that. She made it appear that the wind had been knocked right out of Claire. That was a place she called home that was full of fond memories of a family long since gone. As Claire remembered everything she had lost, Balfe’s face kept falling. Her eyes grew glassy with emotion and her chin trembled until the shock of it all became too much and she collapsed to the stairs to allow the audience to understand the true depths of Claire's immense loss. When she visualized Jamie, her lips quirked slightly as she remembered his touch, and then Balfe chose to accent the moment by gently raising her fingers to her lips to show that Claire could almost feel Jamie’s lips on hers. She said so much without speaking a single word. I think moments like this are where performers can really shine. Their performance becomes internalized and, instead of focusing on dialogue, they can focus entirely on using their bodies to portray the moment. She did just that and made the angelic moment of Jamie’s brief appearance in the twentieth-century shine. When a performer is as talented and gifted as she is, words aren’t really necessary because she knows how to use her body as a beautiful canvas to convey whatever the moment calls for.

As the episode neared its end, everything came together and fell apart for Claire. She finally made peace with her daughter and had garnered her acceptance. They were finally able to embrace as each came to an understanding about the other. Brianna finally believed her mom and Claire was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. The damage created by twenty years of secrets was on the path to healing. When Balfe embraced Skelton, you could see her truly relax for the first time in the twentieth-century part of the episode as she allowed Claire to soak in the moment. She just wanted to hold onto her daughter and relish the moment. Claire got to enjoy a brief respite as she and Brianna sat around, no doubt talking about Jamie. When Claire found out that Jamie had indeed survived, her world shattered as she realized that she had unnecessarily left behind the man she loved. The calm look on her face was rapidly replaced by one of shock and uncertainty. Claire desperately wanted to go and find Jamie, but at the same time, she didn’t want to leave Brianna behind. The conflict of that revelation was written all over Balfe’s face as she guided Claire through trying to process the shock of everything that had just transpired.

Balfe had an immense number of scenes in Dragonfly in Amber and delivered every single moment perfectly. This was an intense episode that covered different centuries and aged her twenty years. She had to go from playing a wartime nurse and eighteenth-century wife to a twentieth-century doctor and mother. Those are some extreme differences and she handled every part of this episode with incredible acting prowess. This episode gave her such extraordinary material to work with that it was impossible to cover every brilliant moment of acting gold she delivered, so please feel free to use the comments section to discuss all the other great moments from this episode that I couldn’t cover in this article.

Caitriona Balfe was your fan pick as the most Outstanding Actress of July 2016. Hit the comments below to tell others why you think she earned this title and what you most enjoyed about her July performances.

PLEASE READ: This is an article to recognize Caitriona's work and to honor her performance in July on Outlander. Shipper-related bashing will not be tolerated in the comments, even from Caitriona's fans. Honor the performer and her performance. Have fun and be kind to one another.

Note: This is a generic warning to avoid any issues in the comments section and to help keep this a fun and safe place to gush about the winners.

Special thanks to Bradley Adams for helping to edit this article!

About the Author - Aimee Hicks
Aimee works for a newspaper in North Carolina and has a BA in Broadcasting and Cinema. She has been a TV lover since before she really understood what TV was. She has a long list of shows that she loves to watch and can be found on twitter (@ahicks83) live tweeting about each new episode whenever she can. If the show is sci-fi, fantasy, comic book based, drama, or action the odds are good she watches it or has at least watched a few episodes of it. She also has a love for comedies 2 Broke Girls and Mom. She was the original creator and co-founder of LOST Video Island ( which is still operating under the management of the very capable and skilled group she turned it over to.
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