A Kind of Magic: Highlander The Series, seasons five and six

One thing I forgot to mention last rant was that Adrian Paul took over as the director for a couple of episodes in season four (“Homeland” and “Methuselah’s Gift”), and he also got behind the camera for two episodes in the fifth season (“Revelation 6:8” and “The Modern Prometheus”). Probably not coincidentally, three of the four episodes he directed are among the best in the series. Again, Adrian Paul’s contributions made Highlander: The Series the success it was. Unfortunately, as he lost interest in the series, the show also went downhill.

Season Five’s Wide Range of Quality

The show hit a stumbling block in its fifth season, and probably shouldn’t have come back for a sixth one. The fifth season was only 18 episodes (or 19, if you count “One Minute to Midnight”), and the sixth season was a mere 13 episodes. Considering the declining quality of these seasons, I wish is retrospect that Season Five had been shortened to only 13 episodes or so and given a nice sendoff. As it is, the show kind of fizzled down the stretch, which is a shame after seeing how strong the second, third, and fourth seasons were.

That said, Season Five was not a total disappointment. There were a lot of bad or mediocre episodes, but the episodes that were good were absolutely great. The big win in this season was the introduction of Kronos and the Four Horsemen, which serves as my two favorite episodes in the entire series and is easily on par with the original movie and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance in terms of quality and pathos. As far as fifth season episodes go, the show was in great form when it took things seriously, but had a lot of misses when the writers used gimmicks like sorcery or when they focused on making a joke episode. One or two gag episodes is fine, but the sheer number of joke episodes in the fifth season made the show seem almost like a bad sitcom.

Notable episodes of Season Five include:

Prophecy. The kickoff episode to this season had a lot going against it. Here we get introduced to a pair of immortals, Cassandra the good witch and Roland Kantos the evil warlock. (How do you know he’s evil? He’s got a K in his name. The Highlander writers hate the letter K.) Both of these characters have the gift of magic…not the vague, “It’s a kind of magic” that makes the immortals what they are, but actual magic, where they can hypnotize people with their voices and control minds. The idea of magic was played with a bit previously to good effect with the Methuselah Stone, where the magic was somehow linked to the immortals. But mixing magic unrelated to immortals doesn’t jive well with the show, as Season Three’s episode “Shadow” demonstrated when they introduced a psychic immortal. But I guess the writers were desperate to try to find a way to make someone a legitimate threat to Duncan, since by this time he was pretty well built up to be an invincible swordsman.

Magic aside, though, what really bugs me about “Prophecy” is the relationship between Cassandra and a young Duncan. We get a flashback to when Duncan was a kid, when Kantos was hunting him because Duncan is some sort of chosen one who will fulfill a prophecy (another problem, because you don’t really need a chosen one in a series where the tagline is “There can be only one”). The local with Cassandra saves Duncan by luring him into her cave. She then appears to him naked, makes him talk about dreams in which he has sex with her, and kisses him on the mouth. Making matters worse, we get a sex scene between them (thankfully as adults) to close out the episode. The sex scene comes out of nowhere and is really creepy because you know that this fortune-telling, mind-controlling witch has been planning it since she saw Duncan as a boy almost 400 years ago.

Cassandra, the 2,600-year old mind-controlling witch, puts the moves on a 14-year old Duncan MacLeod. NO ONE POINTS OUT HOW CREEPY THIS IS.

The End of Innocence. Thankfully, “The End of Innocence” brings us back to the Highlander we are familiar with. This episode is a direct callback to when Duncan tried to kill Richie under the influence of his dark quickening. We learn that Richie took the attempt on his life hard and really took the whole, “There can be only one” thing to heart. He spent a last year traveling the world, kicking ass and taking heads. Unfortunately, one of the immortals he killed was a friend of a very powerful immortal who is now after Richie for revenge. Meanwhile, Joe decides to stop being a hypocrite and resign from the Watchers so he can be friends with Duncan without violating his oath. Richie naturally gets saved by Duncan and Joe goes back to the Watchers in the end, but the whole episode is a really good look at the supporting cast, which is what made the series so great.

Haunted. A lot of people dislike this episode, but it’s another interesting exploration of what a quickening does to an immortal. One of Duncan’s immortal friends, Alec, has been killed, so Duncan goes after the evil bad guy that obviously seems to have done it. But the evil immortal gets killed by Duncan less than halfway through the episode. So what are they going to do with the rest of the show? Surprise! Richie is the one who killed Alec while he was on his ass-kicking trek! Moreover, he’s now macking on Alec’s widow and has picked up skills possessed by the deceased Alec. Basically, the quickening has changed Richie quite a bit. And when Alec’s widow discovers who really killed her husband, hilarity ensues! (Note: said hilarity is not so much hilarious as it is dramatic and suspenseful as she proceeds to try to cut Richie’s head off.)

Little Tin God. This episode is an example of something that teases a very interesting development but never capitalizes on it. “Little Tin God” deals with an immortal who has set himself up as a modern day deity and really hints that Duncan is going to have to fight him on holy ground. Unfortunately, that never comes to pass, and the potentially interesting concept is discarded by the time the final fight rolls around. Joe does give an explanation of what happened the one time that there was a battle on holy ground: the quickening caused the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destroyed the city of Pompeii. Take note, Endgame and The Source: there are supposed to be really big consequences for killing on holy ground! That’s why even the big bad immortals don’t do it!

Comes a Horseman and Revelation 6:8. This two-part story is pure awesome. We get a great big bad immortal in Kronos. We learn about Methos’ past, and it is not pretty. Turns out that Methos, along with Kronos and the other ancient immortals Caspian and Silas are actually the Four Horsemen: raiders from the Bronze Age that terrified the world so much that they were immortalized in the biblical tale about the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Also, it turns out that Cassandra has an excuse for her sexual dalliances with teenage Duncan: her own sex life wasn’t too pretty when she first became immortal, and it left her plenty fucked up as a result. You see, Methos captured her and repeatedly killed and raped her into compliance. Yes, Methos, that charming magnificent bastard that everyone had come to know and love, was a bigger monster than Kalas, Xavier St. Cloud, and the Kurgan. And what’s great about it is that Peter Wingfield plays him so well that we still like him and are rooting for him even after we discover what a horrible monster he used to be. As the story proceeds, it seems that Methos is back to his old ways when he helps Kronos gather together the Horsemen again and then gets hold of a virus worse than Ebola that can help the raiders become globally feared again. It’s a great look at how immortals work, too. Kronos and the Horsemen are guys who are basically stuck in a Bronze Age mentality, when the best way to survive was to be feared and the only way to get ahead was to kill and plunder. They’re carrying this philosophy into a modern era where such behavior is unquestionably evil, which is what makes them so dangerous. Methos, meanwhile, remains a devious bastard all the way through, leaving the viewer to wonder if he’s helping the Horsemen or engineering their destruction. We’ve got an actually believable and well-executed world-threatening plot, an exploration of immortal ethics, a ton of emotion, and a double quickening at the end, making these two episodes the absolute best the series has to offer.

The Stone of Scone. While Season Five has too many comedy episodes (about 1/4 of the season is comic relief), this one has a special place in my heart. Set entirely in the past, it details the misadventures of Duncan, Amanda, and Fitzcairn as they steal the Stone of Scone, which represents rulership of Scotland. Hilarity ensures. (Note: this time, hilarity actually does ensue…no angry widows or attempted beheadings.) Roger Daltrey was so well-liked on the set that the creators were sad when they killed his character off in the third season. However, he returned in flashback in the fourth season, and gets a whole episode here and in the sixth season to show off his charm. This is the way to bring back beloved guest stars in Highlander; if their character is dead, put them into flashbacks. Duncan doesn’t bring Fitzcairn back by yelling his name during a quickening; we just go into the past and explore their friendship from another angle. Angry glance at Highlander II.

Archangel. And…there goes the series. Except for a couple shining moments next season, it’s all downhill from here. This is the episode where Duncan has to fight the Devil. No, not a metaphorical devil. Duncan actually fights Satan. Okay, they call him Ahriman in this, but let’s not bother splitting hairs. Ahriman takes many forms, including Horton and Kronos, because everyone loved those two actors and wanted them brought them back as often as possible, and Richie, because the writers needed a crappy way to kill Richie. Yes, Richie dies in this episode. It is not a dream, not an imaginary story. This episode ties back to Duncan being the chosen one as prophesized by Cassandra. Turns out the prophecy was not about the Gathering, which would have actually related to the series in some way, but about Duncan taking on the Devil, which comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with anything in any part of the franchise. We get a bunch of crap in flashback where Duncan meets another seer after he’s become immortal but before he met Connor and fully learned what he was. Ahriman drives Duncan nuts and Richie comes across him fighting a hallucinatory battle. Despite the fact that Duncan has already gone crazy and tried to kill Richie multiple times, Richie walks up like a doofus and gets his head chopped off. Thus we see the end of one of the best-developed, funniest, and most interesting characters on the show. The series had a habit of killing off good supporting characters in bad ways before, but this just takes the cake. And no, a montage and admittedly excellent song by Jim Byrnes remembering Richie does not excuse the shitty, shitty death. Wanna kill Richie? Go right ahead; it makes sense that a swordsman with more experience would whack him eventually. But not this way! Unfortunately, the season ends on a cliffhanger. Richie dies, Duncan walks off crying, and we sign off until next season, meaning that Ahriman continues to drag the show down for several more episodes.

Ending the Series with a Whimper

It’s hard to tell whether Season Six was so underwhelming because Adrian Paul had one eye on the door or whether he was planning his exit because he saw the show losing steam. Season Six was the shortest season of all, and Duncan barely appeared in the episodes. During this time, the creative team had decided that they were going to do a spinoff series about a badass female immortal. But, for some reason, they didn’t go right for Amanda, the badass female immortal guest star who fans loved. Instead, we got a parade of new badass femmies as the creators tried to figure out who fans would latch onto. The final answer was none of them. In the end, we got a lot of time-wasting episodes before they went with what should have been the obvious choice and cast Amanda as the lead of her own series. Highlander: The Raven had its own issues, but we’ll get to that later. First, we have to find out how Duncan managed to beat the Devil.

Notable (using the word charitably here) episodes of Season Six include:

Avatar and Armageddon. These two episodes wrap up the Duncan versus Ahriman plot. After Richie’s death, Duncan goes off and hides on holy ground for a year. You’d think this would be a perfect chance for the Devil to start the whole Armageddon thing he’s supposedly going to bring about, but he’s a real sport about it. Instead of doing wicked things, he sits around and does nothing until Duncan gets his head together and faces him. There is a shining spot in these episodes in a scene where Ahriman offers Joe a chance to have his legs back, which is a legitimately touching moment, especially considering that Jim Byrnes really is missing his legs. But the ultimate resolution is a waste. Instead of anything close to a climactic battle, Duncan manages to defeat Ahriman by doing nothing. In a wonderfully comedic scene, he stands around and does katas while the Devil dies. Because of the experience, Duncan chooses to set aside his sword and become a pacifist. The idea of an immortal who doesn’t fight with a sword but also doesn’t hide away on holy ground could have been a cool thing to explore this season.

Even Duncan looks like he’s sleepwalking through this one.

Unusual Suspects. I’m skipping over the “let’s introduce a lady immortal every week and see if fans like her” trend of the next few episodes because they’re pointless. They aren’t good stories, they don’t add anything to the franchise or its mythology, and the characters that get introduced are never mentioned again. “Unusual Suspects” stands out because it went back to telling stories about Duncan…or rather, Duncan and Fitzcairn. In another all-flashback episode similar to “The Stone of Scone,” someone poisons Fitzcairn, resulting in him dying before he has a chance to get his assets in order and find a new life. The resulting episode is basically like the movie Clue but with immortals.

Indiscretions. This is the shining gem of this season. In an episode where Duncan doesn’t appear at all, an evil immortal kidnaps Joe’s illegitimate daughter in an attempt to flush out Methos (who the immortal knows as “Dr. Benjamin Adams,” a guy who slept with one of his slaves in the Civil War era). Being the survivalist he is, Methos has no interest in fighting another immortal, but he also has to help Joe. The chemistry between Peter Wingfield and Jim Byrnes is great, and this is a funny and touching episode all in one. Plus, Peter Wingfield gets to show off some badassery at the end; the quickening in this was the last quickening of the series, so the crew put all the remaining pyrotechnics into it. It had to be done in one take, but the burst of flame burned Peter Wingfield’s face. Like a pro, he stuck it through and made for a good scene. It’s a shame that the creators were so hell-bent on casting a female immortal as a star in the spinoff series, because a Methos and Joe show would have been awesome. Heck, even a Methos, Amanda, and Joe show would have been better than what we got.

To Be and Not to Be. This is the series finale…a chance to encapsulate the entire series. So what does the show end on? A plot directly stolen from It’s a Wonderful Life. Amanda and Joe get kidnapped by an evil immortal who offers Duncan the chance to give up his life to save theirs. Unlike in previous days, when Duncan would outwit the bad guy to win the day, the Duncan of this season has turned into a wuss and complies, offering the bad guy his head. Methos intervenes in a blaze of gunfire, and then we go into pure sappy mode. Roger Daltrey returns for one more go as Fitzcairn, this time as an angel who shows Duncan what the world would be like without him. Admittedly, some of the alternate versions are pretty decent. And they did bring back Tessa and Richie for this finale. But the whole thing is just so cheesy. In the grand sendoff to the series, ripping of a 50-year-old film was not a great way to end things.

The Post Script

Before we leave Highlander: The Series behind, there is one more thing to mention. In 2008, Peter Wingfield, Elizabeth Gracen, and Jim Byrnes got together and filmed “Highlander: Reunion,” a 17-minute, zero budget production that was filmed entirely in Peter Wingfield’s apartment. And you know what? It’s pretty good. It took place 10 years after the series and was basically Methos, Amanda, and Joe sitting around talking about love, life, and immortality. The actors are obviously older, but if you can get by the fact that, unlike their characters, the actors are not immortal, you can see that they’ve still got the charm and wit that made their characters so popular in the first place. The only swordfight occurs off-camera, but the short film itself is a sign that, in the right hands, Highlander can still be good. And that’s really the perpetual tease of the franchise, isn’t it? We as fans can see how much potential the series has, but it keeps getting mismanaged and butchered by people who just don’t give a damn.

It also shows the secret to working around the bad Highlander sequels: just don’t mention them.

If there’s any downside to “Reunion,” it’s the painful reminder of how badly Highlander fans have been screwed. This came out after The RavenEndgame, and The Source tanked the franchise. Except for the anime, it had been 10 years since fans had seen something good related to Highlander. And now the actors are too old to believably portray their characters, so the franchise essentially wasted a decade and a number of terrific actors so we could see Endgame and The Source. Moreover, those movies killed the franchise, so now we Highlander fans have to hold our breath and hope that the reboot of the original movie won’t suck. And really, with all the crappy movies they’ve made with the Highlander name on them, what are the odds that the remake of the only good live-action film in the series will actually be any decent?

Don’t let the negativity of this rant imply that I didn’t like Highlander: The Series, though. Despite the way it fell apart at the end, and despite the horrible decisions that were made with the franchise after it, it had a good run. After a slow start, it had three great years, and the fifth season was still pretty good despite a handful of bad episodes. More importantly, the series washed away the bad taste that Highlander II left in our mouths and reminded us that the franchise still had potential.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective on Highlander: The Series, because next time I’m going to begin going through the remainder of the movies that were made due to the fact that the series saved this floundering franchise. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Images: Davis/Panzer Productions

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