If you’ve never seen Highlander, the TV series inspired by the movie, you should. Even if you spent the bulk of the 1990s watching first-run episodes and repeats on cable, you should watch it again. It’s addictive. Queen’s theme song, “Princes of the Universe,” will get stuck in your head in such bad way that you might start fist-pumping in a quiet room. You may also feel compelled to take up fencing. Highlander has the power to do that.
While Highlander, the show, is derived from Highlander, the movie starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, they aren’t really the same thing. The concept is the same. There are Immortals who battle each other. When one Immortal beheads another, a Quickening takes place. That’s a lightning bolt/fireworks show of power that overcomes the battle’s winner. There’s also the understanding that, ultimately, “there can be only one” of the Immortals remaining. The show, though, exists in its own world. You’re following a different character, Duncan MacCleod (Adrian Paul), on a different path with a different result. You might as well think of them as two separate entities with a shared title.
There are six seasons and over 100 episodes of Highlander to watch, but if time is limited, here are a few selections to get you started.
14. “The Gathering”
|Catch Duncan and Connor McCleod together in the first episode of Highlander.|
“The Gathering” opens with a kid breaking into a store in the middle of the night. At the same time, in a residence in the same building, a couple are in the throes of a moment so passionate that it seems a little risqu? for television at the time. At least, it seemed risqu? for U.S. television. (Highlander was actually an international production.) The couple puts a quick stop to the love-making when the man hears a noise. He walks into the storefront like the shirtless, swashbuckling cover model of a grocery store romance novel. His introduction to the would-be thief is, “I am Duncan MacCleod, of the Clan MacCleod…and you are dead.” The young robber is thoroughly confused and that gets worse when two Immortals land in the room and a battle ensues.
Christopher Lambert, who starred as Connor MacCleod in the films, reprises the role in this episode, mainly to tie the show to the movies. The focus, though, is on Duncan and the episode sets up a drama. Duncan is living with his girlfriend Tessa, a mortal who is troubled by the fact that she’s growing older and Duncan never will. The couple takes Richie, the kid who tried to rob the shop, under their wing. Richie and Tessa are the only mortals who know Duncan’s secret. Meanwhile, Duncan will encounter various Immortals who are on a quest for the Highlander’s head.
13. “The Hunters”
|Roger Daltrey is one of a number of musicians to guest star on Highlander.|
One of the things I love about Highlander is the amount of musicians who turned up as guest stars. The most famous is Roger Daltrey of The Who. Daltrey plays Hugh Fitzcairn, an Immortal who is pals with Duncan, and appears in multiple episodes of the series. This is his initial appearance.
The first season of Highlander is hit or miss. You have some good episodes. You also have a lot of regurgitated damsel in distress plots that don’t add much to the overall story outside the death of another Immortal. “The Hunters” is a solid episode that helps further the mythology of Duncan and his kind.
Immortals keep their identities a secret for a good reason. Mortals often don’t take kindly to them once they find out the truth. The Hunters are an anti-Immortal hate group. Their goal is to kill Immortals, and they do. After a dear friend falls victim to the group, Duncan and Hugh become targets as well. The Hunters may be no match for the Highlander, but they affect future story lines.
12. “The Darkness”
|Everything changes with “The Darkness.”|
My favorite aspect of Highlander is that is has all the angst of immortality without the bloodsucking and bats from vampire stories. If you’ve ever spent an insomniac’s night wondering how long is eternity, then maybe you also thought that living forever might really suck. Heck, Queen wrote a song about that. It’s called “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and pops up in Highlander every now and again.
Unless they lose their heads in battle, the Immortals will see everyone close to them die. They will witness history repeat itself in brutal fashion. They will spend centuries, even millennia, watching people age and countries change and yet they will always remain physically the same. From the beginning, this is the major theme of the show. You see it in the way some Immortals treat mortals. They may be detached or act as if people are disposable. You see it in the grief-stricken flashbacks from Duncan’s 400+ years of life. The reality of Duncan’s world often plays out in stories of a distant past or what-if conversations between characters. It doesn’t hit close to home until “The Darkness.”
This episode appears early in the second season and it changes the path of the show. The first season revolves around Duncan and Tessa as a passionate couple who work together to help the people around them, all the while knowing that Duncan might live forever and Tessa won’t. Richie, at this point, is a young guy with a troubled past who is trying to make a better life for himself, with the couple’s help. That changes in this episode.
11. “Eye for an Eye”
|Duncan teaches Richie how to deal with immortality.|
[There are spoilers in here.]
Duncan has been Immortal for centuries. Richie, though, has only been an Immortal since the end of the last episode, when he was shot and didn’t quite die. “You better start learning the Game and I mean now,” says Duncan. Richie not only has to learn how to fight for his everlasting life, but must learn to respect the lives of others.
Duncan and a chili dog-wielding Richie walk into an assassination attempt. They’re pretty good at fighting off gun-toting villains with their hands, but, in the midst of a struggle with a firearm, Richie kills the husband of a notorious terrorist who also happens to be an Immortal and Duncan’s former flame.
An “Eye for an Eye” is a product of its time, where the point of reference for terrorist characters is the IRA. It also poses a question that has persisted for some Immortals through centuries of societal changes. How do you save yourself when part of your survival is based on killing others?
|Kalas is out for revenge on Duncan and he wants Methos’ power to do it.|
Immortals are old. Methos is ancient. Literally. He’s around 5,000 years old. He has seen the world change in ways that only unfold in history books. Over the millennia, he’s picked up a significant amount of knowledge and power. Hence, Methos is a wanted Immortal.
There’s a character called Kalas, who, despite being pretty damn old, isn’t on the same level as Methos. Kalas is one of the major villains for a while. He has it out for Duncan, primarily for an incident that happened decades earlier. Let’s just say that, in one of his not-so-nice moments, Duncan effectively ended Kalas’ career as an opera singer. Granted, the two were in the midst of battle. Still, it was kind of brutal.
Back to Methos. Kalas wants his head too. Methos has been living underground, going by the all-too-perfect alias Adam and working with the Watchers. That’s a group of mortals who “observe” Immortals, but don’t get involved in their lives. It’s a really good strategy for an Immortal who doesn’t feel like getting beheaded. Of course, it only takes so long before the cover is exposed.
Methos becomes a fairly significant character in the series and this is the introduction to him.
9. “Mortal Sins”
|Duncan MacLeod when he was part of the French Resistance.|
In Paris, Duncan runs into an old friend. The two fought together as part of the French Resistance. The friend is now an aging priest, Father Bernard. The only physical things that have changed about Duncan are his hair and clothes.
Father Bernard is convinced that the Nazi they once fought, Ernst Daimler, is still alive and, like Duncan, still the same age. If you thought that an Immortal Nazi might change his ways after the war, you’re wrong. This fool has only managed to update his white power assholery for the 1990s. Even then, at least one hero of the story deals with the guilt of the brutal actions taken against Daimler.
“Mortal Sins” is an episode heavy on flashbacks. The scenes taking us back to World War II are stunning. It’s also a compelling story about the choices people need to make for survival and the ramification of those choices.
8. “Finale” (Pts. 1 & 2)
|Kalas is back, but he’s not the only one in for a Quickening.|
Throughout the early seasons, a lot of new characters and elements enter Highlander that really improve the quality the show. There are the Watchers. There’s Amanda, an Immortal who has had an on-again/off-again relationship with Duncan for centuries. There are more Immortals, some of whom are extremely powerful, who don’t simply die or disappear at the end of an episode. All of these things come together in the grand, two-part finale of the third season.
Amanda breaks Kalas out of jail with the intent of killing him. That doesn’t happen quite as planned. Now, Kalas is on the loose. What’s worse, though, is that someone is about to let the whole world in on the identity of the Immortals. There’s a lot going on in this two-part episode that affects both the Immortals and the Watchers. It also features some of the most mind-blowing Quickening scenes in the whole series, one of which was mentioned in a previous Topless Robot list. These are Quickenings with fireworks and power outages and Immortals caught between ecstasy and pain. It’s serious stuff.
7. “Methuselah’s Gift”
|Amanda snooping back in the 800s.|
Amanda is my favorite recurring character on the show. She’s over 1,000 years old. She has a penchant for thievery. She’s not a perfect person, but she’s not evil either. “Methuselah’s Gift” is an Amanda-centric episode and gives some good insight into her character.
There’s a crystal called Methuselah’s Stone which is purported to give the gift of immortality. Years ago, the stone was broken into smaller fragments. Amanda has one of the pieces. It was a gift from Rebecca, Amanda’s mentor and seemingly the first person to show her any kindness or encouragement. Now someone is after the shard in Amanda’s possession.
It’s an episode that takes a lot of different twists and turns. It’s a story about friendship and betrayal with hints of a crime caper and a lot of action. It’s fantastic.
6. “The Immortal Cimoli”
|Becoming Immortal could make this magician famous.|
The really cool thing about being an Immortal is that you can pull off death-defying stunts without actually risking death. That’s what happens with magician Danny Cimoli finds out that he is one of the Immortals.
There’s another part of being Immortal that poses a big problem. Once your mortal life ends and your Immortal one begins, you’re alone. You don’t know what this gift that you have is all about and you don’t know how to use it. You just think that you can’t die. New Immortals can have teachers. Danny doesn’t, so he’s living out in the open as an Immortal, gradually becoming more famous for doing tricks on stage that would let Immortals know that he’s one of them. When Duncan and Amanda see his show, Duncan steps in to teach Danny the Game. However, Danny is stubborn. This is a good episode to get an idea of what it takes to survive an Immortal’s life.
5. “One Minute to Midnight”
|It’s Immortals vs. Watchers in “One Minute to Midnight”|
The Watchers and the Immortals typically don’t have contact. In many cases, the Immortals don’t know of the existence of Watchers, mortals who keep track of their moves throughout history. There are exceptions. Duncan is friends with his Watcher, Joe. Methos lived undercover as a Watcher named Adam. Amanda had run-ins with Watchers as well. Now that the Watchers and Immortals lives have intertwined, there are big problems. An Immortal is killing Watchers. The Watchers are fighting back.
“One Minute to Midnight” delves into the fear of Immortals. What happens when people learn their secret? What kind of bigotry falls upon them? Because Immortals come from all different backgrounds and have lived through many periods of history, they have an acute awareness of the kind of prejudice that has existed and continues to exist in the world. Some have experienced this for reasons other than their Immortality. Stories of persecution and revenge and friendships that cross imagined enemy lines all find their way into this episode.
4. “Revelations 6:8”
|A Four Horsemen reunion is not something you want to see.|
Methos may be wise, but he has a streak of cowardice running through him that’s as long as he is old. If that weren’t already obvious to Highlander viewers, it will be after this episode. Methos was one of the Four Horseman, who inflicted their apocalyptic brand of misery upon people living during the Bronze Age. He was responsible for the gruesome treatment of people, possibly because of his own spinelessness more than anything else. A couple thousand years later, Methos still can’t stand up to his “friends,” the three brutes who make up the rest of the group.
Maybe this episode is so good because it’s so aggravating. It’s hard not to yell at the screen, “Methos, you jerk! Stop acting like a baby! Take his head already.” Even after 5,000 years on earth, some people fear death more than they care about their friends.
3. “The Modern Prometheus”
|Lord Byron, rock star.|
Of course, an Immortal Lord Byron would live out the late 20th century as a rock star. I imagined Byron as more of a 1970s David Bowie or Lou Reed type, but I guess generic rock dude in a poet’s shirt works.
When Byron catches up with his old friend Methos, he’s even more of a degenerate than he was while the two were hanging out with Mary Shelley. He’s a talent ravaged by drugs, drink and the kind of over confidence that comes with knowing you are Immortal. Duncan is not impressed with Byron’s antics. Methos makes excuses, arguing that great artists are usually a mess. Duncan counters with “normal” great artists like Da Vinci. It’s a good question, do you have to be self-destructive to make amazing art?
|A demon is about to ruin the lives of Duncan and his friends.|
Grab a box of tissue for this one. “Archangel” is one of those episodes. A demon appears in the forms of people that Duncan has killed and someone for whom he cares. That pushes Duncan into a devastating battle.
This would have been a decent conclusion to show, not because of the demon, but because of the spoiler that I’m trying not to reveal even though this episode is more than 15 years old. There is another season and, if you watch “Archangel,” you will need to dip your toes into season six just to find out how the story arc ends.
|Duncan is a skilled sword fighter and a talented hair stylist.|
After the events of the season five finale, Duncan tries to tell Joe that the demon used him to commit murder. Joe isn’t buying this. He says that it’s ridiculous that a Zoroastrian demon would arise once a millennium. This skepticism is coming from someone whose work is to watch people who could, theoretically, live forever. He knows that Immortals, some of whom are over 1,000 years old, will get into battles that end with fireworks and lightning, that the winner will fall to their knees as they consume the opponent’s power. A demon isn’t ridiculous. What is ridiculous is that Duncan gave himself such a sweet new haircut with a knife.
A lot of people have commented that season six is where the show goes downhill. The final season isn’t abysmal, but you don’t need to worry too much if you can’t find time to invest in all the episodes. The first few, like “Avatar,” tie up the loose ends from the fifth season, so make sure you watch them.
Previously by Liz Ohanesian