Spoilers ahead through the end of Season 2. Proceed accordingly.
For the second installment of Highlander: the Series, the show went in several new directions.
- Duncan’s beautiful French sculptor girlfriend, Tessa Noel, was murdered early in the season. I initially wanted to say that she was unceremoniously murdered but that is not really the case. Does that make the murder ceremonious? That feels wrong, too.
- In the same episode wherein Tessa was murdered, it is revealed through Richie’s murder that he is – like Duncan – also Immortal. Duncan somehow sensed this in him and it is the reason Duncan has taken such an interest in him since the pilot. Duncan the teacher and mentor comes to the fore in Season 2 via the Richie relationship.
- Duncan spends most of this season grieving Tessa by sleeping with a large number of women.
- The “big bad” of Season 2 is not an Immortal but rather the mortal Watcher we met at the end of Season 1 – James Horton. This mythology focus on the secret society of Watchers was a significant turn from both Season 1 (other than the finale) and also from the movie franchise that preceded the show.
As I wrote about in my Season 1 review, and throughout many of my Season 1 recaps, the Duncan and Tessa relationship, though in some ways lovely, was consistently strained. They were together a long time before he told her of his Immortality (more on that farther down.) They were also together for quite a while between the time that he told her he was Immortal and when he is forced by Connor in the pilot to tell her about The Game, The Gathering, and his regular sword duels to the death. The strain of this deceit on their relationship was an undercurrent throughout Season 1.
The other thing that comes about due to Duncan’s Immortality is that said Immortality proves to be a danger to those around him. Tessa learned that throughout Season 1 and she learned it during her short stay in Season 2. In the episode where Tessa dies, The Darkness, she is kidnapped by a deranged Watcher and used as a pawn by him in an effort to kill Duncan. The audience and Duncan do not get to see the potential fallout of that experience on the Tessa-Duncan relationship because shortly after Duncan successfully rescues Tessa, she and Richie are murdered by a mugger on their way to the car. Richie gets up from that experience newly Immortal. Tessa is… gone.
[For anyone out there who believes that Game of Thrones invented television story-telling wherein no one is actually safe, I recommend a re-watch of the almost thirty years old Highlander: the Series.]
I look at the decision to kill the Tessa character both from an in-story perspective and from the perspective of the writers. Within the story, the show treated the character with posthumous respect. Duncan did not get over his girlfriend of more than a decade overnight. She is mentioned in dialogue through the remainder of the season and is a plot focus regularly. In Eye for an Eye, the episode after Tessa dies, Duncan and Immortal Annie Devlin (Sheena Easton) are both grieving recent deaths of mortal love interests. They take that shared grief to Annie Devlin’s bed.
This is where I return focus to why the writers wanted to kill Tessa. They wanted to have Duncan sweeping women off of their feet and sleeping with someone new seemingly every week. Apparently a Duncan MacLeod that charms and sleeps with a new woman every week is more interesting than one who sleeps with the same French artist every week. If he always has a new interest, then the show never has to talk about the day-to-day difficulties of sharing a life with him (constant danger, lack of children, other women throwing themselves at him, ex-girlfriends who don’t age and are hundreds of years old, getting old while he does not, etc.)
For your benefit, I have tallied up Duncan’s Season 2 ladies of the week / sexual escapades after Tessa dies.
- Annie Devlin (Sheena Easton)
- Asia (Sandra P. Grant) *Nothing actually happens but there is some tension
- Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen)
- Renee Delaney (Stacey Travis)
- Beth Vaughn (Angeline Ball)
- Nefertiri (Nia Peeples)
- Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen) *again
- Lisa (Alexandra Vandernoot)
That’s just his love interests in the present. Duncan’s French barge neighbor Maurice (Michel Modo), after seeing so many different beautiful women coming and going from his barge, asks Duncan how he does it.
How are the writers able to treat Tessa’s death respectfully while transitioning the viewers to a paradigm where Duncan has a lady-of-the-week? During Season 2, Duncan’s libido is motivated in part by grief. That explanation is actually… reasonable. He deals with his pain by sleeping around quite a bit. The writers drive the point home to some degree in the finale, Counterfeit Part 2, when Duncan meets Lisa – a Tessa doppelganger created through the magic of plastic surgery and sociopathy. Despite knowing what Lisa likely is, Duncan is still grieved enough over the loss of Tessa that he sleeps with the doppelganger anyway. He simply tells himself that he does not have to believe what his gut is telling him about this woman.
The Finale also gives us one final reason to not like the original Duncan and Tessa relationship and it gives us that reason by finally showing us the insane way that Duncan tells Tessa about his Immortality. Instead of telling her about himself and his Immortality first, or demonstrating his ability to heal super-quickly to even bad injuries, Duncan tells Tessa that he needs to tell her something important, obliquely warns her not to call for help, and then commits suicide by shooting himself right in front of her. She obviously freaks out. He wakes up from death in time to hang up her call with emergency response before she can tell them the situation. His justification for doing this to her is that she had to see it to believe it.
I mean, alright. Fine. She needed to see a resurrection. But he did not warn her first! His failure not to do so was cruel. When he tells her about Immortality, he gets her to say she will stay with him before he tells her the various downsides – he cannot have children, other Immortals will be trying to chop his head off, staying with him will almost assuredly put her in danger, etc. As a result of this horrifying moment, which was intended to be romantic in a macabre sense, I can now look back on Season 1 and see a Tessa who loves Duncan but also feels trapped by him. As much as I think Tessa is good for Duncan, it is hard to see how Duncan is good for Tessa.
This season was not only about Duncan’s love life, though. It was also to some extent about his mentorship of Richie. He trains the 19 year old how to fight. Richie picks it up quickly. In fact, Richie picks up fighting so quickly that he is able in Under Color of Authority, to beat a hundreds-of-years-old Immortal named Mako. Mako
is was a very rough around the edges lawman. Despite his rough edges, he was essentially a good guy. Duncan did not like him but ultimately respected him. Richie became infuriated with Mako over his zealous pursuit of a mortal woman named Laura who was on the run and facing murder charges. His fury boils over when Laura, fleeing the Immortal on foot, falls backward into the street Mako is chasing her on, whereupon she is accidentally killed by Mako’s pursuing pick-up truck. Despite both Duncan and Mako trying to talk Richie out of challenging Mako, Richie insists upon fighting and through sheer luck wins the duel. Duncan – both because of anger over Richie’s decision and because his pupil has proven himself capable – kicks Richie out of the nest to go figure out life on his own. Richie remains in the credits but is not on screen for almost the rest of the season.
Richie returns in Prodigal Son when he seeks out Duncan’s help with an Immortal who is taunting him by framing him for murders. He learns that the taunting Immortal was merely trying to trick Richie into leading him toward his mentor – namely Duncan. Duncan manages to get Richie exonerated from murder charges while also killing Hyde, the Immortal who pursues him. Richie learns very little from this encounter and immediately begins distrusting Duncan’s decision-making again in the following episode, Counterfeit Part 1. Despite rebounding and getting smarter in Part 2, Richie clearly still has a long way to go in his development as an Immortal and also as a person.
Season 2 introduces Charlie DeSalvo. He runs the dojo that Duncan buys after Tessa’s death. Charlie’s primary role on the show is to be someone who serves as a sidekick and goes with Duncan on adventures to fight crime in Seacover. Seacover is basically a hellscape so crime is everywhere. Charlie is ex-military (Navy SEAL) and he knows that Duncan is much more than he seems. He knows this by how easily Duncan beats him when they spar and he knows this by observing how Duncan handles dangerous situations of all types. He never learns what Duncan’s secret is, though. In Unholy Alliance, Charlie nearly dies at the hands of James Horton and Xavier St. Cloud. It appears that Duncan may be prepared to let Charlie know his secret when he appears to be on the verge of death in a hospital bed. However, when Charlie pulls through, Duncan decides not to tell him.
The bad guy focus of Season 2 are the bad-guy Watchers. Our first encounter with bad Watchers is the season finale of Season 1. Season 2’s premiere, The Watchers, picks up where that left off. Duncan tracks down Joe Dawson and then Dawson inadvertently leads him to James Horton – both a bad guy Watcher and Joe’s brother-in-law. The Season 2 premiere ends with Joe shooting Horton. Both Dawson and Duncan appear to believe that Horton is dead and the bad Watcher threat is over. However, we learn before the episode even ends that Horton survived. Bad Watchers crop up again as plot elements in The Darkness, The Zone, The Return of Amanda, Run For Your Life, Unholy Alliance Part 1 and Part 2, and in Counterfeit Part 1 and Part 2.
It was a bit too much. The conceit of The Watchers as an organization is that they are a secret society that has managed to remain hidden for thousands of years. Season 2 presents a picture of an organization that pays little heed to its “observe but do not interfere” creed. We meet a bunch of bad Watchers all season long. I think perhaps we should assume that all of these men were Horton’s men. If so, though, then we have to ask how it is possible that Joe Dawson (who seems to be the head of the entire Watchers organization) missed all of this? The Watchers are among other things a group of spymasters. As their leader, Joe should be the best spymaster of them all. However, he seems pretty oblivious to things happening around him.
I went looking for an explanation for why Horton is so zealously anti-Immortal and I found a very good one. According to a Highlander fandom Wiki site, Horton was a Watcher for The Kurgan – a particularly brutal Immortal who is featured in the first Highlander movie. The experience of watching someone so evil perhaps warped Horton’s point of view and led him to create a faction of bad guy Watchers with the probably good motivation of not wanting to risk the world to an evil Immortal.
I WISH THIS HAD BEEN PART OF THE SHOW!!
Horton was a great bad guy but he lacked adequate motivation for his zealousness. His personal biography would have served as an excellent explanation and it would have created a lot of interesting philosophical self-examination from Duncan and others. Duncan would probably sympathize with Horton while also wanting to stop him. He would point out that Horton’s failure to target evil Immortals first proves his motivations are not pure. That depth would have added to his falling out with Joe, too. Alas. Missed opportunity.
The focus on Horton and the bad Watchers probably distracted some from some from the Immortal bad guys. Unholy Alliance saw a return of Xavier St. Cloud – arguably the most charismatic bad guy on the show thus far. He was played by one of the many guest stars on this show with music background – Roland Gift. The Xavier character is fantastic. It was sad to see him finally killed even if he did have an excellent multi-episode run.
Prodigal Son also gave us Martin Hyde – one of the only Immortals Duncan has seemed genuinely nervous to face (alongside Grayson from Season 1.) He was played in an enjoyably bombastic way by Michael Siberry. Hyde is more or less a big game hunter – but his big game is “well seasoned” Immortals. In an almost noble fashion, he will not kill young Immortals. It’s not really noble though because he is primarily motivated to not kill them because it is too easy and therefore would not be fun. This was a fun Immortal to see Duncan face because he presented a genuine and serious threat. As opponents go, someone who is much older and makes a living of killing old Immortals is a tough opponent to say the least. Duncan’s win in the duel thus felt all the more satisfying because of the threat Hyde presents.
Worst Episodes of Season 2:
- Pharaoh’s Daughter. This was a high concept episode that fell apart due to its details. Duncan saves an Immortal who has been trapped – by her own design – in an Egyptian tomb for two thousand years. Somehow he is able to speak with her in English from the moment he unwraps her from her rags. Most of the episode is a somewhat comedic fish out of water episode of her learning about life in a modern world while still seeing traces of the world she left on occasion. Duncan sleeps with her. There is nudity. Then abruptly the Nefertiri character becomes murderous and Duncan has to kill her.
- Run For Your Life. Duncan runs into an Immortal former slave named Carl Robinson. When last Duncan saw him, he was playing baseball with aspirations to run for office. Now he is engaged in a life of crime. Highlander does not often invoke feelings of cringe but the paternalistic White Savior way that Duncan interacts with Carl is definitely cringe-worthy. Duncan and Carl even have an elaborate handshake in this episode.
- Counterfeit Part 1. Richie was out of character to suit the plot. Horton’s plan was laughably elaborate – and also full of huge holes. This episode needed to get me invested for the Season 2 finale but all that it really accomplished was getting me ready to get through this stupid story so that I can move on to hopefully better things in Season 3.
Best Episodes in Season 2:
- The Darkness. This is the best of the rouge Watcher episodes. The tension was high throughout. The bad guy’s plan actually makes sense – both in the sense of how he can win and also how he can kill Immortals without their deaths being noticed. After building tension throughout the entire episode, and just as it seems Tessa is safe to live another day, she is murdered at random as the episode ends. The randomness of the murder… works. The show has let us know since the pilot that something like this can happen in Seacouver. Duncan’s reasoning for sending Tessa and Richie outside makes sense. Adrian Paul plays Duncan’s reaction to her death brilliantly. The Dust in the Wind montage scene at the end of the episode hits hard and right in the feels.
- The Return of Amanda. This show gives us a Duncan with two significant love interests during his 400 years of life. The first of those that we meet is Tessa. She is his long-term love interest that we spend the most time with. He tells her that she is his great love.. In their best moments, she brought out Duncan’s best self (noble, selfless, caring, encouraging, a lover of art, philosophical, peace-loving.) The other love interest of Duncan is Amanda. She predates Tessa by centuries and she brings out Duncan’s *real* self (emotionally vulnerable, sarcastic, playful, comfortable, fighter.) Both women represent completely different and true things for him. This episode really demonstrates the difference and it’s almost jarring how smooth the transition from grieving Tessa to accepting Amanda feels because this is just two episodes after Tessa dies. What we learn from this episode, though, is that the story-telling with Amanda is more interesting. As a result, we can see and accept why the writers made the choice that they made in The Darkness. [As a side note, the plot of this episode is typical Amanda fun – she puts together a heist, it goes sideways, she goes to Duncan for help probably more because she wants his help than that she really needs it, and then they tackle the problem together successfully. Usually in an Amanda episode success means that Duncan saves her life and returns the stolen item.]
This was a season with some good moments and some good episodes, but the show still has not yet hit its stride. In my opinion, its best episodes and moments were when the show focused on Duncan’s interactions with other Immortals. It suffered when it got overly focused on crime-fighting and lover-interests-of-the-week.
Let’s see if the writers move things in a more Immortals-focused direction for Season 3.