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

1 Nov 2017

Tackling any character of any age can be a challenge. Each character comes with their own set of quirks that can force even the most experienced of performers to have to work outside of their comfort zone. The very art of acting, however, is meant to force performers to tackle things that aren’t always easy for them to relate to. The one thing most performers have in common with their character is a similar age range, therefore, providing similar life experiences for the performer to pull from. Then, there are those rare instances where a show has to force a rapid age increase. In some cases, that situation requires a recasting, but many times that’s just not practical. That then puts the performer in the position of having to act out life experiences for which they likely have no real life basis. Some performers can pull it off and others simply fail under the weight of the unknown scenarios. Those performers that do pull it off do their research and put everything they have into delivering realistic quality performances. It is this category where Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe falls and one of the many reasons she was more than deserving of the title of September’s Most Outstanding Actress. She has never given a performance that is anything other than stunningly perfect.

The very end of Season Two showed Balfe’s character Claire Fraser fast forwarded twenty years. She was flawless in her portrayal of her aged character, tackling the role of a mother with an adult daughter with the finesse expected from this talented actress. New viewers would have been forgiven for thinking Balfe was a mother of an adult daughter herself. She was simply so at ease with Sophie Skelton (Brianna Randall Fraser) that the two really came off appearing to be mother and daughter. So, coming into this season, fans already knew Caitriona Balfe was capable of the work. Instead of jumping her right back into the role in which she was last seen portraying, the show backtracked two decades and showed Claire’s journey to the woman fans met at the end of last season. It was remarkable to watch Balfe bring to life all these major life events that shaped who Claire would become.

The first time Claire appears in the season premiere, The Battle Joined (3x1), the story has reverted back in time to shortly after her return. She and Frank (Tobias Menzies) have just moved to Boston for a fresh start. Caitriona Balfe did a stunning job during this episode. No matter what the words were that she was speaking her eyes and body language said so much more. She portrayed the raging conflict within Claire with heartbreaking precision. Claire knew that Jamie (Sam Heughan) was gone, but she couldn’t just turn her heart off and stop loving him. On that same accord, she knew that Frank was right there with her and did care for her and her then unborn daughter. There was this constant back and forth emotional pull that Balfe perfectly nailed. This is particularly noticeable in one scene in particular, when Claire first meets Millie (Kimberley Nixon). The way Balfe chose to play the scene was melancholy, yet hopeful for her future with Frank. As Claire and Millie talked about their husbands, Claire cooked as she would have back in Jamie’s time with this longing look in her eyes as what she was saying clearly referenced Jamie. Then when she spoke of Frank there was a smile on her face, but a look of pained loss in her eyes. This could have just been a typical chat between two wives, but Balfe gave the whole scene so much depth that it was much more impactful then perhaps even the writers had intended.

Moments throughout this episode would continue to build on that. Claire could make herself sound happy and even delighted, but her eyes said so much about her true feelings. That was confirmed in almost every moment that she was alone. Balfe allowed Claire’s pain of loss to feel so palpable that a viewer would have been hard-pressed to not feel what Claire had to endure. On the opposite end of this episode, Jamie was simply just trying to survive his own wounds and heartache. There was some beautiful juxtaposition here where it almost seemed as if Claire was feeling Jamie’s pain through time and space, this was more than physical loss, but a stunning display of two united souls having to endure separation. No matter where they each are they still feel what the other is enduring. Not only was the story written to play to this, but the way Balfe brought it to life was stunning. She didn’t have the same physical injury pain to portray that Heughan did, but the pain that Claire was feeling felt every bit as real as what Jamie was going through.

Claire tried to be happy, she tried to move on from Jamie, but truly letting go of him wasn’t something she was capable of. She tried to build a life with Frank in Boston and raise Bree as their daughter, but even before the red-haired lass was born she still reminded Claire of the love she had lost. There was this stunning moment in the kitchen where Claire was talking about applying for citizenship to the United States and she referred to the unborn Bree as her and Frank’s child. It was one of the few moments where this couple felt as though they were on the same page. Balfe played the moment as one of joy for Claire as she tried to accept her new future. There was light in her eyes and a smile on her face then Frank went to touch Claire’s baby bump and the entire tone of the scene shifted in a split second. The light that Balfe had in her eyes immediately shut down and she stiffened her body to show how involuntary Claire’s reaction had been. For the sake of show, she had to accept Frank as Bree’s father, but her heart was never going to truly permit that acceptance and that moment perfectly illustrated that. Jamie was and always would be, in Claire's eyes, Bree's true father even though she knew she had to allow Frank to be a part of her child's life because to the rest of the world he would be her father. Menzies was terrific in his portrayal of Frank in these awkward moments, but Balfe just dominated.

At the end of the premiere came the much-anticipated birth of Bree. It was a tumultuous delivery with things not going according to plan leading to a much contested C-section birth. This sequence was one of the few times where Claire and Frank really felt connected. That’s because of Balfe, through her superb performance, she permitted it. She and Menzies have always had a strong on-screen connection, but for the troubled relationship to truly come across on screen she had to at times pull back from him. Menzies had to remain open to Balfe as that was what Frank was trying to do. Frank wanted to be open to Claire in hopes that she would open back up to him fully. Balfe was the one that had to play the reserved and cutoff side of things, and she did it brilliantly. That distance made it easy to sympathize with both sides of the relationship because neither character was in a good position and both were suffering in one way or another despite actually indeed caring for one another. But this scene changed that and for this brief moment in time they were united around the joyous birth of this beautiful new life. The characters were connected and the way Balfe had Claire look at Frank was very reminiscent of the first time the audience met the couple way back in the series premiere before Jamie was a factor. They didn’t have a perfect marriage even then, but there was love. For the first time in this episode, Balfe allowed a look of love back into Claire’s eyes when she looked at Frank. Even in the pain of childbirth, or perhaps because of it, she was able to tap into the love she once shared with her husband.

The joy was still there once she was holding newborn Bree in her arms with Frank lovingly by her side. Then the nurse unknowingly struck down their new happy family by asking about Bree’s red hair and in an instant, Balfe took Claire from overjoyed to heartbroken. The look of loss and heartbreak washed over her and the way Balfe played this conflicted emotional moment was truly stunning. She made Claire’s journey throughout this episode feel very dynamic and her powerful portrayal of Claire’s depressed moments made the joyous ones feel all the more powerful. She tackled a tough rollercoaster ride of emotions in the most brilliant of ways.

The trials and tribulation for Claire only grew more intense as in the following episode, Surrender (3x2). It’s clear that the writers know the talent they have in Caitriona Balfe so they picked the most emotionally diverse moments from the book to throw at her. She is a very powerful emotional actress who can dive deep into the intensity of a moment, but she also has a stunning smile that can light up a scene. One of those moments was when young Bree rolled over for the first time. Her smile is so infectious that those watching likely unwittingly had an equivalently big smile over the moment. Of course, given the nature of things going on, the moment was short-lived as she had to deal with Frank and their disconnect issues, but it was still a nice moment of levity while it lasted.

Claire was doing her best to overcome her disconnect with her husband, but that was much easier said than done. Even in their sex scenes together it was clearly obvious that while she felt Frank’s flesh it wasn’t he who was dominating her mind. Balfe’s haunting performance was impactful for its lack of connection, it was obvious that it wasn’t Frank she was with, but instead the lingering memory of Jamie. The chemistry between performers is something that is crucial in any good love story, but this part of the story isn’t about love, but about appearances. Claire’s heart was never going to recommit to Frank no matter how much he wanted it to and no matter how much she wished she could. During this episode Frank seemingly gave up hope of that for the final time. It’s very telling of talent when an actress can be looking at her co-star with locked eyes yet have her character look right through the other person as if they aren’t there. That’s exactly what Balfe did and it made for a stunningly, unexpected, character-defining moment.

That whole situation led to an epiphany for Claire about what she wanted from her new life. The realization led her to finally embrace the fact she wished to become a doctor. Despite the blowback she received from wanting to be a doctor in a then predominantly male-dominated profession, she finally seemed content. When she met Joe Abernathy (Wil Johnson) she actually seemed to genuinely connect with someone for the first time since her return. He was a kindred spirit that understood her and was a true friend. When Balfe had Claire reach out and shake his hand there was genuine warmth in the moment that had been lacking in her life. In context of the hour it wasn’t a big moment, but in the long term storyline for the character, it was an incredibly important turning point. When Balfe clasped Johnson’s hand, it was a firm shake with a glint of warmth in her eyes that gave birth to an epic friendship between their characters.

It was clear how much it meant to her that she had found a place for her in this time. She was a healer in Jamie’s time and that was something she knew she was meant to do. Training to be a doctor gave her life meaning beyond being a wife and mother, the latter of which meant the world to her. Yet, she still needed something that was hers. This wasn’t an easy storyline to bring to life because it required Claire to jump back and forth between happiness and melancholy depression. By the end of this second episode of the season, Claire had found her place as a doctor in training and she had come to an understanding with Frank. Their beds were no longer one and that change seemed to suit her. She was more content by the end of this hour then she had been at any time previous other than at Bree's birth. The way Balfe walked this tightrope of back and forth emotions without giving the audience whiplash and while still being true and honest to her character was astonishing. A lesser actress would have over or underplayed these complex scenes, but she tackled them in such a way that every moment played perfectly on screen.

The following episode, All Debts Paid (3x3), was the culmination of everything that had happened in the prior two episodes. Claire’s marriage to Frank was nothing more than a cover for both of their nearly independent lives. They raised Bree and did their best to put on appearances for her sake. They tried to appear happy for her at home, even though Claire’s eyes always stated differently. Then Bree graduated and was at an age where she could do as she wished, even running off to England with Frank and his mistress if she wished. That latter part was the final straw for Claire. There were a lot of great scenes leading up to this one, including Claire meeting the aforementioned mistress, and they all perfectly illustrated the divide between Frank and Claire but this was when everything fell apart. Bree was her and Jamie’s daughter and there was no way she was going to let anyone run off with her. The fight was ferocious and the red-hot fury in her eyes was intense. Balfe went all in on this scene and what emerged was a level of fierceness not seen since she was forced to leave Jamie behind. Bree was the last part she had left of Jamie and she wasn’t going to let Frank run off with her. The anger was primal, as was the emotion. When Frank confronted Claire about Bree being her constant reminder of Jamie the tears immediately built up in Balfe’s eyes. The way she can jockey around emotions and turn them on and off and amplify them at a seconds notice is nothing short of stunningly beautiful moving art. Watching Balfe wield emotions like a sharp dagger is a sight to be seen and once it has been seen it can’t be forgotten.

Caitriona Balfe’s September tour de force ended on a sad note for Claire. Despite her disconnect with her husband and the divorce battle looming, it still broke her heart to lose him for good. As she openly admitted she did love him despite what he thought, that’s perhaps why she was so angry over the affairs and the divorce request. She could never give him her full heart, but she was still capable of loving him and at times she did. When Claire looked at him and tenderly touched him it was the first time where it really felt like she was open and connected to him. In that moment she gave him what she couldn’t give him in life, a piece of her heart where he will always live. It was sad and poignant and heartfelt all at the same time. When Balfe leaned over so Claire could kiss Frank goodbye her tears transferred to Menzie’s nose and trickled down his face. Who knows if that was meant to happen, but somehow showing Claire’s tear trickling down his face hit hard. Balfe’s performances are always raw, but this one felt so much more.

The whole story of Outlander is a love story where many couples come and go throughout the run of the books and the television series. But the first couple that launched the books was Frank and Claire and seeing the ending of that coupling brought to life on screen felt like a very sad bookend of their journey together. Caitriona Balfe has been very blessed in the co-star department, especially in the two men she was tasked to have her character love. Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan are consummate gentlemen who are exceptionally gifted actors in their own right. Balfe has impeccable chemistry with each man allowing this odd love triangle to carry all the weight that made it so impactful. She was gifted immense talent to work opposite of and never squandered an opportunity to really dig deep into the emotional connection her character had with both men. Caitriona Balfe is a rare talent who has done proud by the source material and who always does stunning work to bring to life the words given to her in the scripts.

For all of these reasons, and so much more that no single article could ever fully capture, she is more than deserving of the title of the Most Outstanding Actress of September. As is usual for Balfe, every single scene she was in throughout September is worth recognition. And, in September, there were many, and they all didn’t get recognition in this article, so please use the comments to highlight all the other exceptional moments not covered here. She is a very deserving winner and one that simply continues to stun the audience week in and week out. Caitriona Balfe is an acting force to be reckoned with and hers is a name that audiences will be hearing for a very long time.

PLEASE READ: Please keep comments on topic and just discussing the performances of the winner.

Special thanks to Donna Cromeans, freelance editor/proofreader (@DJRiter on Twitter) for editing this article.