Spoilers for Outlander season 5 episode 10, “Mercy Shall Follow Me,” below.
The mark of a good villain is feeling the slightest twinge of regret when they finally get what they deserve. Though Outlander‘s Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) committed unspeakable crimes against our beloved Frasers, from robbing Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jaime (Sam Heughann) after they saved his life to raping Brianna (Sophie Skelton), I will miss the manic energy and coarse swagger Speleers brought to the role.
This doesn’t supersede the satisfaction I derived from watching Brianna put a bullet in his skull, however. The latest episode of Outlander concludes the tale of the deranged pirate Stephen Bonnet, but not before putting Bree through hell. Let’s back up a bit: After Bonnet raped her last season, Brianna visited him in jail to inform him of her pregnancy. She’s unsure whether the baby is his or her husband Roger’s (Richard Rankin), but she wanted to show Bonnet “one little bit of goodness” before he died, Skelton explained to ELLE.com. Bree’s plan backfires, however—Bonnet survives and wants to claim her son (specifically, his inheritance) as his own. In the latest episode, the pirate kidnaps Brianna, perversely believing he can convince her to make a family with him. She plays along but can’t fake passion in a kiss, and he explodes, having sex with a prostitute in front of her to “show her what she’s missing.”
“[He’s thinking], I need to find the upper hand again,” Speleers explains of Bonnet’s appalling reaction. “Yet again, he’s being told, you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy, you’re not up to step, you don’t deserve. Of course, that’s not what Brianna’s saying, but in his head, that’s what he’s thinking.” He then tries to sell Brianna into sex slavery, but now, his plan backfires. The Frasers rescue Brianna, Roger delivers a sucker punch to Bonnet, and Bree demands justice through the courts. Once Bonnet’s sentenced to death by drowning, Brianna takes her shot and finishes him for good.
Below, Speleers breaks down Bonnet’s motivations, delving into the character’s psychology, and what he treasures most about his Outlander experience.
Can you confirm exactly how many times you stepped on Sophie’s toes during filming?
[Laughs] It’s not really funny. I’ve definitely broken some of her toes. I don’t think I did it as much this series, I tried to be more cautious, but I definitely fractured her metatarsals last year.
What’s driving Bonnet in this episode? Is it delusion?
He has this twisted idea of what the truth is. He does believe that due to fate and luck, which he’s built his whole life on, that his connection with Brianna is real—that there’s something deeper going on and there’s a reason they keep crossing paths. He doesn’t believe his heinous acts are crimes. And this is all orchestrated by him, of course. It’s not just her coming to him in his prison cell. He seeks her out.
So there’s this very twisted, completely misunderstood, sordid notion in his head that they should be together. But this idea of family and the boy Jemmy—he doesn’t have a clear grasp of what family is because of his own existence. Him having a son and living life as a family, I think he puts that out as an idea because he learned that this is what people do in this situation. It might not be what he wants or needs. And although we see him mention this idea of being a father and it’s repeated throughout the series, the bigger thing in his head is that legacy of leaving a son behind. An heir. It’s more narcissistic, and it’s sad. It’s him feeling like he’s leaving something behind that is him.
Why does the kiss with Brianna set him off? Is it rejection or something else?
It was a test that obviously backfired. He wholeheartedly believed in this whole scenario, the whole wining and dining. Of course, let’s not forget he kidnapped her to get to this point. It always sounds so bizarre talking about him like he was charming and romanticizing her. But in his head, that’s all he could do. The way he’s gone about it is completely twisted and demonic.
[With the kiss], it was like, well it’s been good up to this point, so let’s see. She tests the water by saying, “The only way I’m going to be able to do this is if I go get Jemmy.” And Bonnet is flawed but there’s intelligence there. He’s like, you’re not gonna pull the wool over my eyes. Let’s test this. Let’s see how committed you are. And that rejection is a rejection of the moment but also the rejection of that whole idea he’s built up, this fantasy he’s created of a family. That is shattered in an instant.
Now that your Outlander journey has come to an end, can you identify any redeeming qualities in Bonnet?
He’s a pretty rounded individual. With the writing in this episode, you see that he’s a human being. I watched a lot of interviews with severe criminals when putting this character together, and when you’re listening to Ted Bundy, it’s not about being charmed by them, but you can hear snippets that there’s a human in there. It does not mean I empathize with him in any way, but there’s someone in there, and for whatever reason, they’ve ended up being abhorrent.
This final hurrah is a time for him to open up. He wasn’t looking for people to excuse his behavior. That’s never been how he behaves or he operates. However, he allowed a bit of truth to come out, and with a character like that, you don’t always know where the truth is coming from. Someone who’s so sociopathic can bend any situation to suit his needs. You never know when he’s turning on the charm, whether it’s genuine, or if it’s coming from an honest place.
What interested you most about Bonnet psychologically?
Trying to understand what drove him. Why was he behaving a certain way? He has a huge amount of luck, and he has this ability to win over people, to charm, and to get ahead. I tried to understand how he responds to a situation and what he uses to get out of it. A lot of it came down to his point of view of the world. I felt like he had a chip on his shoulder from when he was orphaned as a child. After that he tries to make his own journey and he’s taken advantage of as a teenager and buried alive. Lots of significant moments in his life have led him to a point where he feels he’s got to prove to people that it is him against the world.
How did you find his physicality?
I was fortunate enough to have the wonderful book that Diana Gabaldon wrote. It’s not every day you get not only great detail in the script you’re working on, but also such a visceral, rich description of a character in a book. His first description is he looks like a fighter and stands all the way up on the balls of his feet with his fists almost clenched. If someone is described as physically looking like they’re ready for a fight, that highlights a lot about their character. He was also described as very barrel-chested, and the lead time from me getting the role to doing the role was not enough to physically change so quickly, so I had to lean on other things. I spent a lot of time working on it with an acting coach, trying to find a way to lift away from my own physicality, because I wanted to embody somebody else. I wanted to move differently from myself.
When you look back on your Outlander experience, is there a moment that colors it for you?
I’ve been really, really lucky at this gig. I’ve been allowed the room and time to [create the performance]. I’ve been guided, and of course I’ve been directed, but I genuinely feel I was allowed to do what I wanted creatively. It’s a very liberating, rewarding thing.
And considering the size of the show and how successful it’s been, particularly in the States, it’s genuinely one of the best atmospheres I’ve worked under. A lot of that comes down to the tenacity of the crew and the people right at the top: Sam and Cait and Richard and Sophie. Everybody was welcoming from the get go. And I’ve been blown away by the fan community. So many of these people have been fans of the books since 1991—that’s years of loving these books. They know these characters in and out. I’ve met some fans who’ve read the whole lot two or three times. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book twice, and I like reading! Power to them. And they are welcoming. There’s a lot of love in the Outlander world.