Despite struggling a bit early on without a clear direction, season one of Highlander: The Series was popular enough to warrant a continuation. That alone was remarkable enough – the franchise hadn’t exactly shown itself to be terribly viable beyond one movie up to that point. The second season did face some major hurdles, with the lead actress leaving the show and some budget cutbacks. Despite these problems, the show hit its stride and went on to produce some of the best moments of the franchise in seasons two through four.
Between the first and second seasons of the series, some of the partners backing the show changed, resulting in a cut to the second season budget of about $4 million. Originally, year two was planned to be more action-oriented, but Adrian Paul once again helped nudge things in a more appropriate direction. He refused to continue with the series if it was going to keep along the “bad immortal of the week” syndrome, insisting that more romance and history be brought into the show. That change led to a marked improvement in the second season that would continue through most of the series. Highlander has always been more about romance, tragedy, and history than the action, and the series finally got a chance to emphasize that. This season also introduced more moral dilemmas for the honor-bound Duncan, who always tried to group actions into good and bad. Although the move led to Duncan being a fairly dull character, it made for a good exploration of immortality, and the supporting cast picked up the slack around the one-dimensional main character.
The second season also focused on a more serious and morose Duncan. In the first season, he had a life that he could enjoy. In the second season, he had lost his old friend Darius, then Tessa died early on. His relationship to Richie also changed, as Richie got killed along with Tessa only to come back as an immortal. Suddenly Duncan went from trying to rehabilitate the young punk to educating him on what it meant to be an immortal. Richie’s immortality is probably one of the finer subplots of the show, as it was hinted at repeatedly in the first season before being revealed. Again, Stan Kirsch did a great job with the character, showing his development from streetwise thief to sword-wielding immortal.
Richie’s rise to immortality does highlight one of the issues of the series, though. We get at least four “newbie” immortals, which leaves one to wonder how there can ever be only one if new immortals keep getting born. My personal fan-retcon is that the start of the Gathering marks the end of new immortals being born. So Richie and the other newbies are members of the last generation of immortals, born just before the beginning of the Gathering. It’s a theory that hasn’t been contradicted by anything in the continuity of the franchise except for Highlander: The Source, which is so bad that it should never count.
Season Two also established the Watchers, a major addition to canon that was introduced at in the last episode of Season One, when a group of mortals went onto holy ground and killed Darius. The Watchers are a group of men and women who keep a secret history of the immortals, recording them through the generations. Some of them went rogue and hunted immortals instead. Those hunters were led by a man named James Horton who served as one of the best villains of the series throughout this season. Supplemental material established that Horton was once the Kurgan’s Watcher, and became convinced that all immortals were as bad as he was, each seeking the Prize as a way to dominate humanity. The introduction of the Watchers led to the introduction of Joe Dawson, MacLeod’s Watcher and a key figure in the series. Joe was played by blues singer Jim Byrnes, who took a part originally written for Englishman Michael York and added a lot of his own style to it. His acting as Joe kept him around far beyond his scheduled guest appearance and turned him into one of the most beloved characters in the series. With Tessa gone early and Richie immortal, Joe became necessary to provide a human perspective in the story. Joe also had a badass streak in him – he had no legs, but he could still kick ass all day long.
Notable episodes from Season Two include:
- “The Watchers,” which is in my opinion one of the biggest turning points of the series. It establishes what the Watcher organization is, gives personality and background to James Horton, and introduces Joe Dawson. All great additions to the series, all in just one episode.
- “The Darkness,” which, although significant, is an episode that I absolutely loathe. This is the episode where Tessa dies and Richie becomes immortal. I don’t have a problem with Tessa dying, as Alexandra Vandernoot wanted off the show to pursue other projects. But the episode focuses around a rogue watcher who uses immortals’ loved ones as bait for his trap. He kidnaps Tessa and holds her hostage all episode long. Then, after Duncan defeats him, Tessa and Richie get gunned down in the streets by a nameless mugger in the last five minutes of the episode. With Darius, there was an excuse for a crappy death, as Werner Stocker’s real-life death forced his character to be killed off-camera. But instead of giving Tessa a decent sendoff, she gets shot by something not even tangentially related to the plot. Adrian Paul and others have defended the decision as realistic, since that kind of random crap happens to people in real life, but realism doesn’t always make a decent story. Had Tessa been killed by the rogue Watcher, I’d have no objection. Instead, we get the equivalent of Neverwinter Nights 2’s “rocks fall, everyone dies” ending.
- “Eye for an Eye.” I both love and hate this episode. I love it because it features Richie’s first immortal fight as well as an awesome training montage to Queen’s “Princes of the Universe.” On the other hand, it begins Duncan’s days as a man-whore. In an attempt to convince immortal Annie Devlin from taking on Richie and probably killing him, Duncan gets drunk and has sex with her. This comes only one episode after Tessa dies. While Duncan’s actions could be explained away as irrational loneliness, it doesn’t excuse the fact that from here on out, he had sex with just about everything female guest star that shows up in the series. The writers seemed to want to appeal to ladies by having muscular sexy Adrian Paul on the screen with as little clothing as possible, but it hurts Duncan’s character to have him sleeping around so much.
- “Unholy Alliance,” parts one and two. This two-part episode reintroduces both James Horton and Xavier St. Cloud, who have now teamed up against other immortals. Xavier has found a new way to cheat, going from using poison gas to machinegun-toting associates. And while Duncan is able to take out Xavier, Horton seems to be the real immortal, as by the end of this point he has taken a katana to the gut, a gunshot to the chest, and a swim in a frigid French river, all without dying.
- “Legacy.” This episode represents one of the few times that magic (except for the magic of the immortals) works in Highlander. Someone is killing off Amanda’s mentors and stealing crystals she gave them. The crystals turn out to be part of a special stone that is supposed to give the wielder ultimate power. In this episode, it is just a myth that never gets tested, but the crystal does return later and its properties are explored. It’s magic, but it works because it’s magic linked to the origin of the immortals, rather than aliens or time travelers that pop up out of nowhere.
- “Counterfeit,” parts one and two. Okay, while I complained earlier about Duncan being a man-slut, this episode rewinds the clock a bit and explores how much he misses Tessa. James Horton returns again with a plant to take out Duncan using the woman he loved. He has an ex-con undergo plastic surgery to look like Tessa, and uses that to lure Duncan into a trap. Everyone – even Richie, of all people – knows it’s a trap, but Duncan almost falls into it anyway because he wants to believe that he can somehow be with Tessa again. Tessa is to Duncan what Heather was to Connor in the first movie – the true love who is forever dead while the immortal goes on. Even though there is no immortal fight in these episodes, it is one of the top stories in the series that best captures the themes of the original movie.
While the second season was a marked improvement over the first, the series really got going in the third and fourth seasons. Season three season kept going with the moral dilemmas Duncan faced in the last season, with an emphasis on his old friends returning and often winding up in a swordfight with him due to twisted morals or obsessive passion. Apparently, centuries of life tend to warp the mind and make men who were once good into something else – Duncan included, possibly.
Season Three also showed off more of the recurring guest stars, including Amanda, the cunning immortal thief who had appeared a few times in the first and second seasons. With Horton gone for good in the finale of last season, the new villain to hound Duncan was Kalas, an immortal with a long-standing grudge and who was Duncan’s physical and mental equal. Kalas lasted five episodes in Season Three. As a villain, Kalas was a nice change of pace in that he was someone who could best Duncan in a swordfight and was thoroughly evil without imitating the Kurgan.
Notable episodes from Season Three include:
- “The Samurai.” Again, this is a great episode that catches everything awesome about Highlander without an evil immortal in sight. This episode details how Duncan got his katana, and it wasn’t given to him by Connor at all. (Fan retcon: Duncan didn’t fully trust Felicia Martins, which is why he lied to her about the origin of his katana. The less your opponent knows about you, the bigger an advantage you have.) We get some great flashbacks and then a sense of what Duncan’s honor and immortality mean to him when he has to fulfill an oath he took 200 years ago.
- “Line of Fire.” Both a great Duncan episode and a great Richie episode. One of Richie’s old girlfriends comes to him with the revelation that she’s had a kid, and Richie insists that it’s his even though immortals can’t have children. (“Mac, this happened before I became immortal.”) It naturally isn’t his kid, but he tries to take the responsibility anyway…until an immortal named Kern shows him that the Gathering is not the best of times to be raising a family. Kern is also the guy who slaughtered the Indian village where Duncan lived, which we saw back in the first episode of the series. Again, romance, history, and tragedy – these are the things that make Highlander great.
- “The Revolutionary.” I personally don’t care much for this episode, but it deserves mention here because it’s the sendoff for Charlie DeSalvo. It’s also the introduction of Anne Lindsey, Duncan’s new romantic interest who personally comes off to me as Tessa without the guts. Surprisingly, they give him a nice departure from the series as he heads off to help a rebuilding effort in the Balkans. Seeing what they did with Tessa, I would have expected Charlie to get murdered in a crappy and off-handed manner. Hm…what’s that ominous sound of laughter coming from Season Four?
- “The Cross of St. Antoine.” Although Joe had been a recurring character up to this point, this episode is the first one really centered on him. Unfortunately, poor Joe watches as his new girlfriend gets killed by an immortal, but we get to see why Joe is an awesome character, in that not his Watcher oath nor the fact that the killer is a centuries-old trained warrior is going to stop him from getting revenge. This episode also shows off Jim Byrnes’ amazing voice as he performs some blues music, further establishing Joe as a unique character.
- “The Lamb.” This episode really plays with the concept of immortality, presenting a unique kind of immortal. The bad immortal of the week here is Kenny, a kid who originally died when he was only 10. Using his eternal childhood to his advantage, Kenny convinces others that he is weak and innocent when in fact he is an 800 year old hardened killer. Although Kenny fails in taking Duncan’s head, he does get away so he can menace our hero again in the future.
- “Song of the Executioner,” “Star-Crossed,” and “Methos.” This three-episode storyline introduces Kalas, who turns into a great villain. He ruins Duncan’s life, “kills” him in front of Anne, and forces Duncan to flee to Paris. There, he follows Duncan and makes his mark as a right bastard by killing Fitzcairn. (I guess when it came to acting…Mr. Daltrey just couldn’t…keep his head. YEAHHH!!!) Finally, We get the introduction of my favorite character in the series. In “Methos,” Duncan learns that Kalas is seeking the edge he needs to kill him by hunting the mythical oldest immortal. Kalas learns about the Watchers and kills his way through them until he reaches Adam Pierson, a researcher who has been seeking clues about Methos’ whereabouts for years. The episode spends a lot of time building Methos up. He’s the oldest immortal, immensely wise and powerful, and, in Duncan’s mind, nothing but a myth. Then when Duncan approaches the home of Adam Pierson, he senses another immortal. Going inside, he finds not Kalas but rather some grad student sitting on his floor, drinking beer, and listening to rock music. This is Methos, in the guise of Adam Pierson, with the perfect hiding place – a member of an organization that allows him to track other immortals and avoid them. The complete reversal of expectations immediately turns Methos into a character you can do anything with – he’s introduced as an inversion of expectations, so the audience never knows what’s going on in his mind. Peter Wingfield, who played Methos, knew nothing about Highlander before coming onto the show. He was given one episode as a guest star, with the possibility of coming back in the season finale to get killed off if he did well. Instead, he became one of the most beloved characters in the series, sticking around as a recurring guest star through the end of the series. Methos was cunning, charming, and a bit of a bastard. He also filled the role of mentor to Duncan that had been empty since the death of Darius, but did so in a way that made him more than just a Darius clone. While Darius was compassionate and honorable, Methos was conniving and clever, emphasizing survival over everything else. Not even Duncan knew whether he could always trust the old man.
- “Testimony” and “Mortal Sins.” Yes, there are a lot of episodes I’m mentioning here. That’s because Season Three is really good. In “Testimony,” Duncan confesses his immortality to Anne and brings her to Paris. In “Mortal Sins,” he finds out that Anne is pregnant – apparently Duncan isn’t the only one who overcomes grief by seeking comfort in the crotch of another. Duncan is willing to give the whole fatherhood thing a shot (despite preaching to Richie about how immortals aren’t suitable parents in a previous episode), but he never gets a chance as Anne chooses to leave Duncan after witnessing him kill another immortal. Hey, a sendoff of a romantic interest that doesn’t kill her off in a miserable way and which also shows the tragic quality of immortality! Awesome!
- “Finale,” parts one and two. The two-part season finale finds Kalas on the loose again and also brings in Amanda, Methos, and Joe for a big-time storyline. Getting his hands on the Watcher records, Kalas has a moral dilemma for Duncan – give up his life or have Kalas reveal the presence of immortals to the whole world. Okay, the whole Watcher CD-ROM thing doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny, and the episode features a goofy tango on top of the Eiffel Tower between Duncan and Amanda, but it’s still good fun. Plus, we get to see a quickening fry most of Paris.
With the death of Kalas, we finished with long-term immortal villains. From here on out, the biggest immortal baddie we would see was Kronos, who doesn’t pop up until season five. However, that doesn’t stop season four from having some terrific episodes. By the fourth season, the supporting cast was also firmly in place, so there was a lot of development for Richie, Joe, Amanda, and Methos in addition to Duncan. And although it lacked a recurring villain like the previous two seasons possessed, it still had some great overarching stories, such as Methos falling for a mortal with a terminal illness and then coping as he watches her die.
Notable episodes of Season Four include:
- “Homeland.” This is in the running for one of the best Highlander episodes ever. Duncan finds a bracelet he gave to his lover when he was mortal and returns to Scotland to bury it. In the process, he runs afoul of an immortal he fought and thought he had killed before he even knew what immortality was. The episode really shows off Scotland, introduces Rachel MacLeod, a mortal “cousin” of Duncan’s, and has some nice buddy-comedy moments between Duncan and Joe, who has traveled to Scotland to find out what could bring the Highlander back to his native land after all this time.
“Brothers in Arms.” Ah, fuck. Okay, Charlie DeSalvo comes back to get killed off in a shitty manner. The killer is immortal Andrew Cord, who saved Joe’s life in Viet Nam. The episode sets up a rift between Joe and Duncan that lasts for a little while before Amanda brings them back together a few episodes later. It also explores some of Joe’s background, including how he lost his legs. But dammit, couldn’t we have done all that without killing off a very good character for no freaking reason?
- “The Innocent.” This is an Old Yeller episode. Try not to cry at the end of it. I dare you. Previously we met Kenny, an adult immortal in the body of a child. Now we meet Mikey, an adult immortal with the brain of a child. The autistic Mikey is being hunted by an evil immortal, and Duncan and Richie have to protect him. Except that they can’t watch over him forever, since more immortals will be coming for the easy kill. Even Mikey realizes this, and the result is…aw, damn, I can’t even go there. Yeah, you know Mikey’s gonna die, but the way he does…just damn. I’ve got something in my eye.
- “Reunion.” Kenny’s back, and we get to meet his mentor. Drumroll please…it’s Amanda! In a nice role reversal, we see someone who can sucker Amanda, as Kenny has her totally duped and has teamed up with an old enemy of Duncan’s to take him out. His plan fails, naturally, but he totally would have won had it not been for Amanda’s interference. The highlight of this episode is a super creepy kiss between Kenny and a restrained Amanda. It’s a great bit of acting that reminds us that the kid looks innocent, but is a bitter old man who is 800 years old but has never got a chance to really be an adult.
- “Chivalry.” Methos returns to give Duncan a lecture about how his code of honor is stupid. A crazy lady immortal is manipulating Richie, and Duncan needs to stop her…except that she’s an old lover of his and he can’t take her head in good conscience. Methos then steps up to the plate to finish the job, showing that he’s still got it even though he’s been out of the Game for a while. Of note is the super homoerotic overtones of the quickening, which in the script was described as something along the lines of, “the quickening goes through Duncan’s eye and into Methos’ mouth.”
- “Something Wicked” and “Deliverance.” Duncan takes one too many heads and undergoes a dark quickening, becoming an evil bastard and nearly killing Richie. Thankfully, Joe is there to kick some ass and save the boy wonder. Duncan continues being evil for the sake of being evil until Methos intervenes and helps cure him. We get a fun fight between good Duncan and evil Duncan as he battles for control over his mind. The concept of a dark quickening also hints that some of these really bad immortals we’ve been seeing might not be inherently evil – maybe they’ve been overly influenced by the others they’ve killed.
- “Methuselah’s Gift.” Amanda’s magic stone returns, and she’s being hunted for it. While a group of mortals keeps trying to kill her, all signs point to Methos being the perpetrator, since his mortal lover Alexa is dying and the stone supposedly has the power to make mortals immortal. Duncan can go screw himself – this episode is all about Amanda and Methos. They fight, they make up, they break into Watcher headquarters to steal the remains of the stone. Hey all you dickweeds who were involved in the making of Highlander: The Raven: this is what a spinoff show should have been like!
- “Judgement Day” and “One Minute to Midnight.” This two-parter was a cliffhanger that bridged Season Four and Season Five, but is included in the Season Four DVD set. Joe is finally brought up on charges from the Watchers for the way he’s tossed aside their oath of noninterference. Duncan and Methos both try to save him, but his execution is actually interrupted by another immortal, who witnessed his loved get killed by James Horton (way to bring Horton back in flashback, by the way). The result is an all-out war between the Watchers and immortals, and it rocks. It’s not as thought-provoking as season finales like “Counterfeit” and “Finale” were, but it is still very awesome.
Highlander: The Series would go on for two more seasons. Would those last two seasons match the quality of seasons two through four? Sadly, no. Would they at least come close? We’ll see next time.