Highlander (Season 1, Ep 3): The Road Not Taken

There’s a path you take and a path not taken, the choice is up to y… oops, sorry, wrong show.


PLOT SUMMARY:

We start this episode inside a diamond store. A wealthy but slightly sinister looking Chu Lin – played by Dustin Nguyen – is standing in line next to a very fit guy who inexplicably goes berserk. (Have you ever had to spell berserk? Have I been saying this work incorrectly my whole life? There’s no z? It’s not Biz-erk? Or Bis-erk? Huh?) Chu Lin just coolly watches the guy lose his mind while keeping an eye on his watch.

The berrrsserrrk guy tears off the protective glass separating the jeweler from the people in line, takes a hostage, is eventually chased outside by security where a lot of police officers have arrived, and just as you think they’re about to rain some led into him… he lets go of his hostage, screams, grabs his head, collapses, and presumably dies. Chu Lin looks at his watch again and strolls off.

In the next scene we see Duncan and Tessa having a very weird good-bye scene. She’s apparently leaving for an art show in Paris. Duncan starts joking about him taking the opportunity of her departure to dust off his “little black book.” (For anyone under 30 who might be reading, “little black book” is an archaic term used in the landline telephone era to describe a man’s booty call directory of hopefully promiscuous women – including therein their names and phone numbers because one used to be forced to write that type of information down in a book.) Tessa jokes about Duncan’s little black book being 300 years old. He jokes about dusting it off and updating it. The whole interaction is just a little strange. Why is MacLeod acting that way? Is Duncan giving the viewers some clues that he is not entirely happy in his relationship with Tessa? Or is this just an alpha being an alpha? Despite that, they’re being very believably affectionate with each other throughout.

Right after Tessa leaves, Duncan runs into Richie and we find out that the berserk guy from the opening scene was Richie’s friend, Gary. Richie and Duncan go to the hospital to check on him. While the two of them are at the desk trying to find out about Richie’s friend, a police detective walks up and starts giving Richie a bunch of grief about his criminal past. You might remember this officer from the pilot episode. He tried to get Duncan to press charges against Richie for attempted theft… because Richie was almost 18 and he was definitely going to be prison raped soon if he did not start learning some life lessons. Duncan intervenes with the police detective and tells him that Richie just received news that his friend was in the hospital. The officer correctly guesses that Richie is looking for our berserk guy (we’re not calling him Gary) and informs them that he died five minutes ago.

Despite Duncan and Richie not being relatives, the detective escorts them back to see the body. Maybe this is normal in the hellscape that is Seacouver. The officer tells Richie that his friend was on drugs and went totally crazy right before he died. Richie says his friend did not use drugs. Duncan notices some bruising at the guy’s temples and does a *classic* 200 year long stare into the past.

We flashback to China in the 1780s. Duncan MacLeod, dressed in fine Chinese garb for the period, speaking with a slightly modified English accent, meets with his friend Kiem Sun. Is this Kiem Sun’s home? Some kind of temple? I’m not sure to be honest. I’d guess temple for Holy Ground purposes. It’s fancy. Other people are there. They’re also fancy. We learn here that the two have been friends for a hundred years by this time. At this point, the show introduces Kiem Sun’s interest in the Quanla (sp?) root. During their 1780s meeting, we find that Kiem Sun and MacLeod met an herbalist 100 years earlier who gave him almost all of the components of an herb formula that would better humanity. By 1780, Kiem Sun (can I call him KS? I’m gonna do that) had been working on perfecting the formula for 100 years. He demonstrates his progress to Duncan when the two see each other.

On KS’s command, two non-immortals standing a short distance away begin a duel with what I believe are practice swords. During this duel KS tells us that the two men would obey him completely and disregard all pain. He wants to control mortals to give them a better world. MacLeod is outraged. Just as one of the two fighters is on the cusp of delivering a killing blow, KS ends the duel. While MacLeod is lecturing KS on free will, both of the men who had been fighting scream, grab their heads, collapse to the floor, presumably die, and MacLeod is further outraged. KS basically says something equivalent to “to make an omelette you’ve gotta break a few eggs” and Duncan tells him that he needs to stop because he’s on the wrong path.

Flashforward again to the present and Duncan tells Richie he thinks an immortal might be behind what happened to his friend. He warns Richie to stay out of it. So naturally when Duncan sets out looking for KS, Richie sets out looking for his own answers.

Seacouver – the fictional city where this show takes place – is basically the white people version of “The Wire.” Other than the antique store where Duncan and Tessa live, this whole place looks like it’s been through some kind of economic apocalypse. People live in buildings that look abandoned. Graffiti everywhere. So baby-face Richie – wearing a stars and stripes dew rag bandanna – goes into the rough part of town aggressively asking huge bikers questions. He quickly gets beaten up and robbed. And it’s at this point that we meet Angie.

Angie is Richie’s friend from wherever it is he grew up – only she never left. Richie is 18 so I’m not sure if he’s remembering a girl he knew when they were both 14? The two of them act like it’s been a long time. When you’re 18, maybe a couple of weeks feels like forever? Or are we supposed to forget Richie is 18 and think of him as 25 or something? Anyway. She’s also friends with the guy who died. He follows her back to the homeless shelter where she works. The shelter feeds two hundred people per day with plans to double that number in a couple months? WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS CITY?! The two then go together to ask questions at a biker bar. Richie is once again on the ragged edge of being beaten up when the more streetwise Angie walks in, offers the bartender $50 for information, and the two are told where to find Chu Lin.

Meanwhile MacLeod meets with an older KS. He finds out that KS has been hiding out on Holy Ground for the better part of the last 200 years. KS tells him about Chu Lin – a mortal protege who stole his Quanla root. KS implies that he has been on HOly Ground for so long that he can no longer defend himself well. Nevertheless, whatever bond these two guys forged in the 1600s is still strong. So Duncan offers to protect the badly-out-of-fighting-practice KS if they get into a fight. Then the two of them set out to find Chu Lin.

Richie and Angie find Chu Lin first. He’s in a warehouse with a bunch of tough guys he’s trying to convince to drink tea (presumably to fill them with the Quanla root.) Richie’s arrival messes that up. Inexplicably, Richie abruptly tries to fight Chu Lin and is in the process of getting himself beaten up when KS shows up.

When it appears that Chu Lin and KS are about to have a fight, MacLeod steps in to do the fighting for KS. MacLeod realizes that KS has trained this guy well, and that maybe KS was not entirely honest about not being able to defend himself. Just as you can see this dawning on MacLeod, KS creeps up behind him and draws his sword. As he’s about to strike at Duncan, our Highlander moves, and the sword hits Chu Lin instead. KS plays it off as though that was intentional. KS and Duncan have a duel. When KS is wounded, Duncan dumps out the rest of the Quanla root. KS is furious. MacLeod and KS talk and our hero concludes that KS was planning to use the root to build himself an army of soldiers to take on other Immortals during “the Gathering.” As you can imagine, Duncan does not approve. He then informs KS that he will take KS’s head if they confront each other again. It’s a bummer when a 300 year old friendship goes through a rough patch like that.

The show ends with Richie giving Angie a tour around Duncan and Tessa’s place. She’s impressed that he has moved up in the world but is suspicious that he is trying to pull some kind of con on his new friends. When the tour takes Richie and Angie to Duncan and Tessa’s bedroom, the two young people kiss… and then Duncan and Tessa walk in and catch them.

Richie and Angie sheepishly leave. Duncan and Tessa start pawing at each other. Roll credits.

Reaction:

Sword fights in slacks!

I did not think this was a particularly strong story. But I enjoyed it anyway. The introduction of a secret blend of herbs and spices… or herbs at least, just feels like an unnecessary introduction of magic to a show that needs to cling to as much reality as it can.

That said, if you can get behind the magic of the herbs, it makes a lot of logical sense that an Immortal would try to build an army to protect himself. Apparently the one-on-one rule does not extend to mortal humans. It also makes a lot of sense that staying on Holy Ground for too long could prove dangerous for an Immortal. In this instance, we see that KS was feigning weakness to some extent. But I am sure this could be a real problem for other Immortals in-universe. Once you’ve been out of the game for too long, there’s no safe way back in. Out of practice could easily mean headless.

I enjoyed that this episode poked some fun at “tough orphan kid from the streets” Richie. That might be his backstory but we do not have to suspend our disbelief so much as to think he fits into the rougher side of town. He clearly does not.

There’s an extremely dated and still awesome montage scene about halfway through the episode. It’s just MacLeod driving around town in his T-Bird while “Into the Fire” by Bryan Adams plays. We need to bring these montage scenes back to modern audiences. The scene of course ends with Duncan finding KS.

I do not know yet how I feel about the introduction of Angie. But it makes sense that Richie would have a love interest. Neither she nor Richie really *look* the part of teenagers who have lived a terribly rough life… but maybe some of that is just that they’re both still very young. I guess you can still be fresh faced on the wrong side of the tracks, too. In Seacouver, both sides of the tracks are the wrong side of the tracks.

Beyond the plot, I do not know how to feel about the way Kiem Sun was portrayed. It felt caricature-ish. But only occasionally. He would shift from blank face, to a bizarre burst of laughter, to wild eyed, to somber and sincere. He came across (to me) as a psychopath. It was hard to understand Duncan’s friendship with him. I guess I would have liked a glimpse of why Duncan was so loyal to him.

QUOTES:

“Nature is like a woman, MacLeod. If she is wise, she does not give up her mysteries quickly. If Galileo or da Vinci had been of our kind, what wonders they could have coaxed from her.”

“Men achieve greatness when they have freedom!”

“It is always a rough path that leads to great achievements.”

“Then he meets up with this sleezeoid Chu Lin…”
“He was Chinese?”
“No, he was from the Irish Chu Lins.”

“I have been expecting you. Your conscience has been pricking me like a thorn in my side across the centuries.”

“Never let your opponent see all your skills.”

Cast Notes:

Dustin Nguyen (Chu Lin): This eternally young seeming Vietnamese actor has been playing Asian martial artist tough-guy characters for decades. He had a recurring role on the original “21 Jump Street.” You might also remember him from “Three Ninjas Kick Back,” “V.I.P.” or a recent guest starring role on “This is Us” as Bao. I suspect for most people over 35, your reaction to seeing him on Highlander would be immediate familiarity.

Soon-Tek Oh (Kiem Sun): This Japanese actor passed away in 2018 at the age of 85. Prior to his passing, he had a LONG list of acting credits to his name going back all the way to the 1960s, where he broke into the business with a role on “I Spy.” He might be most well remembered for several guest starring roles on Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., M.A.S.H., among many, many other. He also did voice work on “Mulan” as Fa Zhou.

Christianne Hirt (Angie): You might know her from her role in “The Accused” where she played Angela. You might also know her from Lonesome Dove: the Series, where she played Hannah Peale Call.

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