Highlander Season 4 Retrospective

Highlander fans are divided as to which of the seasons is best, but most either champion Season Three or Season Four. But does it live up to the hype?

The Story:

We actually start this one off in Scotland. It’s the first time (barring flashbacks) that any part of this show happens in Scotland. Duncan finds an antique bracelet in Paris which he specifically buried with one of his many old flames, so he returns home to Glenfinnan to find it. It seems the showrunners did their due diligence, as Glenfinnan is a real village where Bonnie Prince Charlie (who Duncan fought alongside in show) resided. They even managed to get the proper tartan of the Clan MacLeod (well, the MacLeod hunting, or MacLeod of Harris tartan, though apparently the more common MacLeod tartan is yellow). While in Glenfinnan, Duncan settled an old score using his father’s sword. The worst part about this episode (something that comes up later in the season) is a strange somewhat incestuous vibe between Duncan and the lovely Rachel MacLeod. Granted, Duncan isn’t a blood relative of hers, since all Immortals are foundlings, and even if he were a true MacLeod he’d be a distant cousin, but there’s still an element of grossness to their flirtation and eventual relationship.

Brothers In Arms is the first episode that hits us over the head with how Canadian the show is, or at least to me it does. Prominently displayed are the logos for Canadian companies CP Rail and Pacific Coastal (or at least the old logo for PC). Also, it’s a pivotal moment in the relationship between Duncan MacLeod and Joe Dawson: Joe’s Immortal friend Andrew Cord kills Charlie De Salvo (who it turns out became a freedom fighter rather than an aid worker) and Duncan kills Cord. Joe feels betrayed since Cord was an old war buddy who saved Joe’s life, Duncan is hurt over the loss of his friend and Joe’s seeming lack of empathy, and the men end their friendship. At least for a while.

The next several episodes are villain-of-the-week types episodes, as is the pattern of this series, though there is an element of continuity present. There was an “Of Mice And Men” homage, a sitcom-esque episode where Duncan had to keep his friend away from Amanda (who hates the friend and didn’t know he was in town) the return of Kenny and the tying up of Anne’s plot thread. Then, we finally get an answer to what happens to an Immortal who gets a life sentence AND the resolution to Joe and Duncan’s spat in the same episode: In The Colonel, Colonel Killian locks Duncan up only to be found and released by Joe, after Amanda talks some sense into Mr. Dawson. This, of course has consequences later in the season. But before that, we have what may be the most controversial two part story of the series.

In Something Wicked, Coltec, the first known native American Immortal (aside from Duncan, who was adopted into the Sioux nation) calls Duncan up. However, he’s turned Chaotic Stupid and Stupid Evil at the same time due to a Dark Quickening and decides to stop a robbery in order to rob the store himself. No, I’m not making that up. Anyway, Duncan takes his Quickening to rid the world of the evil he’s become, partly because he thinks the Dark Quickening is a myth. It forces him to go to Paris to defeat the evil in his soul, which he does in the next episode, the aptly titled Deliverance. Duncan does a crazy cleansing ritual, reconnects with Methos and Rachel MacLeod, and takes his own dark side’s Quickening. Yeah. Thankfully, the creepy Rachel and Duncan boning thing ends the next episode, when she decides to go home to Glenfinnan.

The next several episodes are also villain-of-the-week stuff that, again, has a sense of continuity. We see the tying up of a plot thread started in the Season 2 episode Legacy (with the Methuselah stone in Methuselah’s Gift) and flashback cameos from two of my favourite sadly-dead characters, Xavier St. Cloud (Double Jeopardy) and Hugh Fitzcairn (Till Death). In the Paris half of the season, we get answers to the question of how Immortal married life must be, and how Immortal celebrities manage to survive with their heightened profile. Then, we finally get the backlash for Joe Dawson’s flagrant breaking of the Watcher’s code in the final two episodes Judgment Day and One Minute To Midnight. It actually leads to a war between Immortals and Watchers (or at least the beginnings of a war) that only the combined efforts of our heroes can end. And end it they do.

Oh, also, Methos falls in love with a dying woman and shows her the wonders of the world. We are told about this, but not really shown it. The plot thread lasts about half the season, and seems like a way to keep Methos away from the main action as he travels the world, and conveniently develop his character off screen. You can probably tell I wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

Characters:

Aside from the returning characters of Hugh Fitzcairn and Xavier St. Cloud, played by real life celebrities Roger Daltrey and Roland Gift, we had no recognizable celebrities. However, Rae Dawn Chong, daughter of stoner/comedian Tommy Chong plays pre-Immortal Claudia Jardine in Timeless, so that’s something. We did have other returning characters aside from the main cast. This season includes the final appearance of Charlie De Salvo when he is killed in Brothers In Arms. It also includes the last appearance of Anne Lindsay, when it’s revealed the house Duncan bought and repaired throughout the season is a gift to her and her daughter. Both of these characters get excellent sendoffs, with all plot threads tied off neatly. I also felt the development of Joe and Duncan’s relationship was natural and interesting, and the payoff at the end of the season was satisfying. Amanda, who always sort of did her own thing, pops in once in a while, and again, it feels right. Richie’s development has essentially ended by this point in the series, but he remains engaging.

The one major character who I felt wasn’t handled properly was Methos. He fell in love with a woman who he’d only just met, named Alexa, who was dying of an incurable illness. Up until that point, Methos was aloof, free of conscience, easily a True Neutral character. Here, he immediately falls in love with someone he knows will die long before he does, even if she wasn’t ill, drops everything and, at his own expense, takes her on a tour of the world. What’s worse is she goes with him! No matter how handsome and charming someone is, almost no one will agree to a world tour with them without knowing them longer than a week. The whole thing makes no sense, and as I said prior, the development Methos undergoes happens off screen. It’s a waste of a good idea. Yes, it is expanded upon in the Highlander: The Series Expanded Universe (yes, it exists and it’s officially sanctioned and in canon), but in the actual show it’s a distraction from the good stuff.

The only recurring character introduced here is Rachel MacLeod. She’s in about three or four episodes before she goes home. My opinion of her is mixed. On the one hand, she’s likable enough on her own. On the other hand, I couldn’t get over the mildly incestuous vibe her being with Duncan had.

MacLeod’s Morality

Speaking of the vibe I get from Duncan, the strange morality that he exhibits could suggest that he doesn’t have a set, consistent moral code. In fact, I realized in this season that he does, in fact, have his own sense of morality that is as rigid as it can be given the world he lives in and the life an Immortal lives. Much of the series casts Duncan in the role of moral judge, jury and executioner, to the point where the line “(you) don’t (have to) do this” is probably the most common line from him. He seems to judge every case based on three moral ideals: preserving life, upholding oaths (keeping one’s word) and defending/avenging friends and family. It seems that those three ideals seem to change based on the situation, and he does seem to have a major issue with killing mortals, at least in the present day.

The episode Promises really highlights this. In a flashback, he makes a bargain with an Immortal named Kassim to save his friend’s life, which upholds two of his main ideals. Later on, Kassim asks Duncan to honour his bargain:”a life for a life”. He wants Duncan to assassinate a bloodthirsty dictator, Hamad, to put a good man, al-Dineb, in power (or at least we’re led to believe the ruler is bloodthirsty and the rival is good). Duncan nearly does it, to uphold his oath, but he stops himself because he wants to prevent the killings that this assassination would provoke, and he doesn’t want to kill a mortal. Later on, he is convinced that al-Dineb was good, and that a peaceful uprising was possible, so he tries to protect him. He makes a bargain with Hamad: kill al-Dineb, and I will kill you. As a result of the dictator breaking this oath, Duncan straight up murders him. It’s the only person Duncan kills this episode (he beats Kassim in a duel, to protect Rachel McLeod, but spares him because he wants to keep this honourable Immortal alive). It’s then I realized that MacLeod’s flexible-yet-rigid morality is actually more believable than the morality of most fictional characters because it’s just like real, human morality. He has strong principles, and acts on them, yet does not always act in accordance with what we, or society at large, would call “moral” and sometimes does things even he regrets. He’s also more “in the moment” than most of us would imagine an Immortal would be. In other episodes, he has old friends that become vigilantes or terrorists. For example, in Eye For An Eye he spares terrorist Annie Devlin in one episode, knowing she’d probably commit many other acts of terrorism, yet in the fifth season episode Valkyrie, kills an (unarmed) old friend to prevent a terrorist act.

The Good:

This season had some of the most emotionally moving points of the series. While it’s easy to see in advance that the house is going to Anne and her daughter, when it happened, I couldn’t help but feel my spirits lifted. I nearly shed a tear at Charlie’s death (a manly tear, made of testosterone, naturally). When Duncan’s first love’s story is told in flashbacks, you realize that those behind this show had a gift for telling stories in a small space.

Otherwise, I already mentioned the most shining examples of excellence in the Characters section. This was a more character driven season, and though it did rely on past continuity in a way most shows in the 90s didn’t, the characters were what made it worth watching. Even Methos showed real development when he wasn’t pining for Alexa.

The Bad:

Let’s talk about the Dark Quickening for a minute.

See, this is generally viewed as one of the worst things in this series (aside from Ahriman and the movies). Before this re-watch, I remembered it as a pretty cool episode. I like seeing evil versions of heroes, and I also like seeing our heroes being brainwashed or enchanted to become villains. It presents a real challenge for the hero to overcome. And this definitely was a challenge for Duncan. Not only that, it’s apparent Adrian Paul had real fun playing Duncan as Chaotic Evil. But when I thought about it, I saw many severe problems with this concept, and with the story as a whole.

The main issue is the actual basis of the series. The series is predicated on a battle between good and evil. If a good Immortal like Duncan MacLeod wins the Prize, that Immortal will usher in a new golden era of humanity, and if an evil Immortal like Kalas wins, they’ll become the worst tyrants imaginable. That’s stated by Connor MacLeod in the pilot, and it’s hinted at by other characters in the series. In fact, the opening narration in this season ends with “in the end, there can be only one. May it be Duncan MacLeod, the Highlander.” However, in Something Wicked, a formerly good Immortal, Coltec, suddenly becomes a sociopath because he beheaded evil beat poet (yes, really) Bryce Korland. When Duncan MacLeod, supposedly one of the most consistently good people in this universe, takes Coltec’s head, he becomes a guy who can’t go an hour without committing some sort of horribly evil act. In other words, evil can’t lose since any good character will end up evil after enough Quickenings from evil characters. Then again, Darius became the man we knew in the series after beheading a good Immortal, and Duncan only succeeds in cleansing his soul in Deliverance because he took the head of good Immortal Sean Burns earlier that day, thus empowering his good side. Taking this into account, the entire conflict that drives the overall Game is completely pointless, since the winner will undoubtedly be quite neutral, with the evil Immortals inside him balancing out the good. If the overarching conflict is pointless, the series is pointless.

There are two smaller issues here as well. The first is that this is the least racially sensitive episode, painting Duncan as a sort of Mighty Whitey. Coltec, the only native American Immortal in Highlander lore at this point, is double Duncan’s age and a trained hyoko, someone who took evil from others and destroyed it. However, he couldn’t take the evil of one beat poet. Meanwhile, Duncan was able to defeat all the evil that Coltec had absorbed, and to add insult to injury, he killed his katana wielding doppelganger with the sword of the chieftain of the Clan MacLeod. A white European weapon beating an Asian weapon. Secondly, we’ve seen other nasty characters reform in this series without the elaborate cleansing ritual Duncan goes through. Specifically, Kirin from third season episode Blind Faith becomes a charity worker after the vision of children he’d murdered forces an epiphany. It was also implied (prior to these episodes) that Darius was moved by the peace the good Immortal he beheaded had in him, not that his Quickening made him a good guy. An evil man can make a sudden change of heart after centuries of wrongdoing, yet a naturally good person needs a big old ritual where he kills his own sinful nature? That seems inconsistent, at best.

There were other issues with this season, but that’s easily the biggest one.

The Ugly:

There were plenty of excellent ideas here that were handled in the wrong way. For example, Till Death begins with an Immortal married couple Robert and Gina de Vallincourt arguing on the eve of their 300th wedding anniversary. Duncan and the husband eventually come up with a hare-brained idea to have Methos pretend to fight the husband, with the expectation that Gina will remember her love for him and try to save him. It works…but then she discovers the deception. How is it resolved? With Gina and Methos doing the same thing to Duncan and Robert and the couple happily reuniting. There is no way that sort of stunt can do anything but end a marriage when discovered, and yet they stayed together. They did delve into the issues with eternal marriage, but the payoff was not satisfactory. It should have been a classic, god damn it!

Worst Episode:

The two part episode Something Wicked and Deliverance are tied, for raping my childhood and nearly ruining the series. Those were bad episodes, and fuck you if you disagree.

Best Episodes:

5: Promises, which is the episode where I finally realized that Duncan’s moral ambiguity wasn’t ambiguity at all.

4: Homeland, largely for the aforementioned emotional impact of the flashback scenes.

3: Double Jeopardy. The villain of the episode, Morgan D’Estaign, is the typical spoilt rich asshole, which makes him a very effective villain. Also, any time Xavier St. Cloud is on screen is a good time. I’m fairly sure the real reason he never appeared with Methos was to avoid the universe shattering from the sheer awesomeness.

2: The Blitz, where Anne Lindsay shows what a hero she is by saving a woman, delivers her baby (with Duncan’s assistance) and is given a respectful sendoff and a house.

1: Brothers In Arms. The moment I finished this episode I knew it would be on this list, probably at the top. It’s just that damn good.

Best Quickening:

Kanwulf’s Quickening in Homeland may not have had the style of other Quickenings, but when you see what that bastard did to Duncan, you’d think this is a top notch Quickening too.

Final Verdict:

Most critics say this is the best season of the series. Most critics are wrong. While still good enough to earn a 7 out of 10, this is not the best season of the series. Still, there are plenty of bright spots. However, if one completely ignores Something Wicked and Deliverance, this season would probably end up with a 9/10.

You can legally watch this season on Hulu, or here on YouTube

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