Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger doesn't believe that there will ever be an ultimate Highlander. After all, if Connor slaying the Kurgan in one last battle isn't final, then nothing is.
Our reviews of Highlander (Blu-Ray) (published November 12th, 2010), Highlander / Highlander 2 (Blu-Ray) 25th Anniversary Collection (published January 31st, 2011), Highlander: The Series, Season One (published December 17th, 2002), Highlander: The Series, Season Two (published March 18th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Three (published March 29th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Four (published June 8th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Five (published September 22nd, 2004), and Highlander: The Series, Season Six (published February 16th, 2005) are also available.
There can be only…15?
Highlander: The Series was beheaded nine years ago, but its fans are immortal. The official site and fan base are active enough to convince the powers that be that more Highlander material is financially justifiable; in addition to this Highlander: Ultimate Collection and the Immortal Collection, the animated Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is coming in June. New material is good news for fans and a sign of the show's enduring popularity.
If you are reading this review, I assume you are familiar with the series and want to know whether this set is worth the investment. I'm not sure whether fans were clamoring for a greatest hits collection (cutely labeled "Best of the Best") or whether Anchor Bay/Panzer-Davis saw a way to cash in on Highlander sentiment, but the origin doesn't matter if the final product is good. Anchor Bay polled Highlander fans to come up with the episodes and included three hours of bonus materials. That's due diligence for this greatest hits compilation of fifteen episodes:
• "Comes A Horseman" (Season Five)
The method of selecting these episodes led to some quirks in the final list. Readers of the official site were asked to pick their favorite episode from Season One, their favorite episode from Season Two, etc. This is a great approach if deserving episodes are sprinkled equally throughout the show's run. But that is not the case. Season Six is subpar by any standard and there were a couple of creative droughts (cough Season Three cough) during the run of the series. Thus, rich seasons are underrepresented while poor seasons are given disproportional air time.
Fine, the methodology is skewed, but they're still asking the fans, right? Sort of. "The Lady And The Tiger" made the final fifteen, but the far superior episode "Band of Brothers" did not—even though it got twice as many votes and is one of the definitive Highlander episodes. Likewise for Season Two's "Pharoh's Daughter," which doubled the votes of "Legacy." (By the way, do I detect in the season two tally a witty campaign to get the execrable "The Zone" on the set?) They got Season Three right, though this is a case where the superlative "Finale (2)" should have edged out a Season Six episode.
Season Four is the show's strongest, and hard to parse fairly. Nevertheless, "Something Wicked" is far, far superior to its second part, "Timeless." Given that the other two-parters in the set are complete, "Something Wicked" is a significant exclusion. I won't give them too much flack for leaving out the Adrian Paul-directed hit "Methuselah's Gift," though it seems like room could have been made for it. And where's the love for "Wrath of Kali," the most lovingly staged episode of the series?
Season Five is pretty cut and dry; the two parter "Comes A Horseman" and "Revelation 6:8" dominate the season. Even so, Season Five has other deserving episodes, only one of which made it into the list. "Duende" is great, but so is "Little Tin God" (which I'm shocked to see got so few votes while the lackluster "Prophecy" was rated very high). As for Season Six: if ever there was a time to break up a two-parter, "Not to Be" could have been the sole Season Six entry as far as I'm concerned. I love "Indiscretions" as an oasis in the desert; but objectively, "To Be" and "Indiscretions" should have been left off to make room for the Something Wickeds and the Pharoh's Daughters of the world. Given that most Highlander sets hover around the thousand-minute mark and that the shows have already been transferred to DVD, it seems as though including three or four more definitive episodes would have been simple. Is fifteen a magic number, perhaps?
Lest you think my petty whining is done, I must also comment on the order of the episodes. "Comes A Horseman" and the redemption of Methos in "Revelation 6:8" are much more powerful once you've gotten to know the guy a little, as in, say, "Methos." Likewise, "The Return Of Amanda" makes more sense after we've met her in "The Lady And The Tiger." And hey, why not kick off the set with a Highlander-centric episode, since this show is about Duncan MacLeod? Taken out of context, many of these episodes are anticlimactic; the overall flow of watching this set is disjointed, and "Comes A Horseman" is a particularly bad opener.
Those quibbles aside, there is no shame with the episodes that made it in. In my reviews of the season boxed sets, only "Homeland" and "To Be" were granted B grades, and the latter is a victim of two partitis. The rest are A-caliber in my book and in the eyes of the fans. Cream rises to the top; this is a fine slate of Highlander action. Standalone episodes such as "Duende" and "The Samurai" give us a taste of the basic Highlander vibe, while Methos- and Amanda-centric episodes give us a feel for the long character arcs and deep friendships that colored Duncan's life.
The highlight of this set is the final disc with the extra features. (Wait, looks like there's more petty whining to do: the fantastic, episode-specific extras that distinguished the Highlander boxed sets are missing!) Let's take a look.
• "Highlander in Paris with Bill & Dennis"
• "The Cutting Edge"
• "Highlander Worldwide"
After much deliberation and despite a desire to state otherwise, I must say that Highlander: Ultimate Collection is a disappointment. It's pervasive air of melancholy, rushed editing, and low production values gives the set a vibe of desperation rather than enthusiasm. I can't help but notice that none of the cast is featured, nor the original swordmaster/directors/writers (with the exception of Panzer and Davis, of course.) Aside from "Highlander in Paris with Bill & Dennis," the extras made my fast-forward finger twitch. Instead of a celebration of Highlander's enduring popularity, the set seems like disjointed, sad backward glance.
Even so, there is plenty of new information for ravenous fans to digest. Though the extras are the real draw for this set, they are meaningless without the episodes themselves. If you're new to the series and want a "greatest hits" overview, this set will serve you well, particularly if you watch the episodes in this order:
• "The Samurai" (Season Three)
I'll wrap up this review by pulling in analysis of the "Final Fifteen" from the review in which they originally appeared:
• "Comes A Horseman" (Season Five)
This episode is so right that any possible nitpicks are nullified. The core of the episode is a simple idea that explodes with ramifications: What if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were based on an actual band of marauders? What if that alliance of four brutal Immortals proved so terrifying, invincible, and abhorrent that they became synonymous with the end of the world? What if Methos was one of them?
The nuances of that idea ripple throughout every episode future and past, coloring our perceptions of Immortals, time, and the character of Methos. Though Peter Wingfield has always been one of Highlander's most intense and charismatic actors, Methos has been paradoxically benign. Our fascination with Methos stems from a disconnect between his potential and his reality. He's been through so much, but he is so ordinary! Yet Wingfield gives Methos such poise and playfulness that we cannot help but second guess his intentions, find meaning in his offhand remarks.
In fact, Methos threatened to become stale until this happened. What did happen, precisely? In one chilling blow, the void that was Methos's past is filled. We go from complete ignorance to abject disillusionment. The tableau rosa that was Methos is suddenly etched with words so dire, so deranged, we wish they would crawl back up into the pen and vanish forever.
And Wingfield's acting chops are sufficient to handle it.
If you think about it, such a revelation is a huge risk. Wingfield has given piercing performances before, especially in the episodes concerning Alexa. But the question has always lurked: Is Wingfield using Methos's innate mystery to skate by on the occasional half-smile or shrug? Can he really handle something as heavy as this? Well, if that question every truly existed, consider it buried. Wingfield convinces us that Methos is an amoral blight on the world, one so cunning and cruel that he made his mark on The Bible.
Wingfield shoulders this new twist with grace. He delivers his key monologue with such chilling straightforwardness that it will probably be remembered as the greatest string of words spoken in six years of Highlander:
I killed, but I didn't just kill fifty, I didn't kill a hundred…I killed a thousand, I killed ten thousand! And I, was, good at it. And it wasn't for vengeance. It wasn't for greed. It was because I liked it. Cassandra…was…nothing. Her village was…nothing. Do you know who I was? I was Death. Death. Death on horse. When mothers warned their children that the monster would get them, that monster was me. I was the nightmare that kept them awake at night. Is that what you want to hear? The answer is yes. Ooh, yes.
Lest we allow Wingfield to soak up all of the acting kudos, let's not overlook stunning performances by Adrian Paul and Valentine Pelka, who plays Kronos. Pelka is a newcomer to the series, but he plays an Immortal so corrupt that even the most evil prior Immies seem decent by comparison. All Kalas threatened to do was expose every Immortal to public scrutiny and upset the balance of power forever. To Kronos, that is child's play. Kronos wants Armaggedon—not because he wants to die, but because he wants the ultimate power. Pelka is over the top, yet grounded through competency.
As for Adrian Paul…it seems as though he was subconsciously stewing over the season's course and only snapped into focus with "Comes a Horseman." Paul is invigorated, playing confusion and resolution with equal skill. The weight of the events is reflected in his performance, which shines brightly even among his best. The gravity of the plots tend to assist Paul, and there is enough gravity here to elevate The Highlander to epic status.
I hesitate to mention it, but to be fair not every performance is as compelling. As much as I disliked "Prophecy," Tracy Scoggins was a bewitching witch that gave the episode watchability. Here, she simply isn't convincing as a woman who has carried vengeance in her heart for 3,000 years. The beginning part of the episode is soap-operatic as she tearfully reveals her burden to MacLeod.
With everything falling into place so perfectly, we might be tempted to
overlook the compelling direction, darkly thrilling score, or perfect set
design. The extras for "Comes a Horseman" reflect its status, making
this the best overall package of any Highlander episode yet—an
honor that will be short lived.
• "Revelation 6:8" (Season Five)
Adrian Paul skillfully steps in to direct this follow up. It lacks the bombshell that "Comes a Horseman" delivered, but gives us something even more intriguing: an episode's worth of second guessing Methos in light of our new perspective. "Revelation 6:8" is a frantic dance for everyone involved, requiring lightning thought, faster reflexes, and a seamless poker face to survive. Possible motives and alliances shift and weave with each passing scene.
Though it gave us plenty of interpersonal fireworks, "Comes a Horseman" did not feature much action. "Revelation 6:8" surfs the wave of character-based tension while incorporating dramatic action sequences. The result is what we critics commonly refer to as "a ride." There is a deadly virus, four grim soldiers with millennia of fighting prowess, and a leader willing to use both for the destruction of the world. In one memorable scene, Duncan is confronted by two horsemen at once. Another scene features simultaneous, desperate fights that culminate in a double quickening. The spiral energy that connects Methos to Duncan is a great effect.
I'm not saying that "Revelation 6:8" bests "Comes a
Horseman," only that it lives up to stratospheric expectations and delivers
a satisfying finale. Such a feat is tricky. "Revelation 6:8" gives us
the formation and dispatch of Highlander's most deadly alliance in high
style. Duncan fought three of the Four Horsemen and killed two of them! How much
cooler can you get?
• "Homeland" (Season Four)
As Gillian Horvath points out in the interview, there is a blatant
difference between the brown footage shot in Scotland and the green footage shot
in Canada. Many technical glitches such as this plague the episode, but Adrian
got the episode made despite them. He shows promise as a director and I look
forward to more.
• "The Samurai" (Season Three)
• "Indiscretions" (Season Six)
To be honest, I had flat out given up on Season Six and started wondering whether the boxed set would make a nice doorstop. But something unexpected happened in this episode: Methos showed up and brought with him the old Highlander magic.
"Indiscretions" reminds me of why I love this show. The bickering banter between Methos and Joe is in top form. The frantic energy of the escape-scenario plot perfectly suits the spirit of the show. "Indiscretions" gives us an appropriately nasty Immortal with a plausible agenda. Flashbacks inform present-day events. We gain personal insights into Methos and Joe as both individuals and partners. Good writing, good acting, and chemistry cause all of the elements to feed off of each other, giving us an episode that is more than it objectively should be.
"Indiscretions" could have taken place in any season; it is independent of any plot cues that would link it to an overall story arc. (The same could be said for the bulk of Season Six episodes, but I mean it as a compliment in this case.) But "Indiscretions" did take place in Season Six; in fact it was the last Highlander episode filmed. Adrian Paul is not in the episode. Beyond that, he wasn't even part of the show at that point. Paul had wrapped the final episodes and left by the time "Indiscretions" was filmed.
These facts suggest a curious reinterpretation of what might have been going on in Season Six. Adrian Paul is the cornerstone of the series, and without him it flounders. However, signs suggest that Paul was somewhat brittle in the latter episodes. Perhaps his mixture of grief, involvement, and attitude damaged the creative efforts this season. I can't help but notice that as soon as Paul went away, Wingfield and Byrnes brightened up noticeably and delivered energetic performances. It is a powerful coincidence. There is no way to truly know what disappointments or creative conflicts led to these circumstances. I take from the evidence that powerful emotions plagued the team in this final season, and it must have been difficult to deliver under that pressure.
In any case, the episode works. Joe is at his most endearing, representing the human side of the formula that has brought us such rich interactions. Wingfield gets a final chance to realize the character of Methos, and he nails it. Wingfield plays up Methos' wisdom, gleaned through five millennia of life. He also takes the gloves off and dominates in the sword battle. We've been waiting a long time to see Methos unleashed, and the reward is well worth the wait.
Thank you, "Indiscretions," for affirming that my previous
admiration for Highlander was not a mirage.
• "The Gathering" (Season One)
• "Methos" (Season Three)
• "The Return Of Amanda" (Season Two)
• "Duende" (Season Five)
You may recall Anthony De Longis from Season Three's "Blackmail." A sense of missed opportunity colors that episode, because it is obvious that Anthony De Longis's potential was not fully tapped. In "Duende," he becomes a particularly nasty, though gifted, Immortal who adheres to the noble sword and dagger style of Spanish combat. As Otavio Consone, De Longis sneers, threatens, shmaltzes, and slashes his way through the episode with glee.
"Duende" follows the tradition of the most maudlin Spanish ballads, wherein the passion of lovers is thwarted through jealously and politics, begetting a blood feud that carries on for decades. The episode also heavily features flamenco dancing, particularly the moment of "duende" when your body exceeds what it has learned. Finally, as you will hear many times in the extras, "Duende" is crafted around a secretive form of complex sword fighting. These elements combine to give the episode a dramatic, exotic, and unique flavor.
Duncan becomes the hot-blooded lover for a change. This gives the romance scenes an undertone of urgency and makes Duncan's subsequent rage believable. We also see Duncan make a grave mistake, allowing his honor and pride to stand in the way of reason. Richie even points it out to him, asking why MacLeod would willingly give a sword master the advantage in a fight to the death. Currents such as this imbue "Duende" with passion.
The sets and supporting cast are convincing, both in flashback and present day. Carmen du Sautoy is completely believable as a strong-willed woman who loves dance just scarcely less than her own daughter. Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter Dolores gives a spirited performance as the doomed lover. Adrian Paul gives a little extra, displaying passion, outrage, and resolve with authority.
The showdown is a worthy Highlander confrontation, featuring an
extended, dance-like duel in a circle of death. Duncan's moment of victory is
unexpected (notable after a hundred swordfights) and creative. The resultant
quickening is one of the biggest pure spectacles yet. The emotional finale is
equally rewarding when we see Anna's relief that her lifetime of fear is finally
at end. Though different from most episodes, "Duende" is a successful
foray into the world of Highlander.
• "Timeless" (Season Four)
• "Legacy" (Season Two)
• "The Lady And The Tiger" (Season One)
The flashbacks get better and better, this time showing Amanda abusing
Duncan's good graces. Adrian Paul shows us another side of Duncan, as
hot-blooded male threatens to triumph over committed family man. The way Duncan
escapes capture is amusingly campy and clever, and the fight scene is dizzying
with an unexpected twist.
• "Deliverance" (Season Four)
• "To Be" (Season Six)
The episode opens with a tongue-in-cheek gag that reintroduces Amanda beautifully. From there we're taken into yet another "Duncan must rescue kidnapped woman" scenario. Fortunately, Methos is there to distract us with some well-timed words of wisdom for MacLeod.
The episode continues down its "classic" (read: generic, but somehow comforting) Highlander orbit, leading to the inevitable standoff. But this standoff takes a detour that no one expects. Duncan is killed, but instead of the typical two-minute dirt nap, he has an actual post-death experience. The host of his afterlife adventures is none other than Fitz. But this is not the bumbling Fitz we've grown to love. This one is poised and deadly serious.
From that moment onward, we're treated to an emotional boat ride. The cares of four hundred years noticeably weigh on Duncan. For perhaps the first time, we see his troubles laid bare. The lump in my throat may have been slightly manipulated, but at least the writers were able to find a way to heighten the emotion of this episode.
The first contestant in the alternate reality sweepstakes is Amanda. Let's be honest, her character has never inspired trust or comfort. On the other hand, she has inspired lust and mischievous antics. The dark Amanda is Amanda at her most statuesque; deadly, cold, and incorrigibly greedy. As horrible a character as dark Amanda was, I could not suppress a flutter at seeing her slink around in that skintight black dress with the impressive décolletage.
As the fever dream continues we see Joe Dawson, Horton, and Tessa Noel. Each
time we see a new character, we realize anew what vast influence Duncan MacLeod
has had—both on the characters in the show and on us as fans of the
• "Not To Be" (Season Six)
To be clear, we're not talking about "sell all of your earthly possessions and join a cloister" devastation. No, this is mild devastation, a shadow that lingered with me through the night and well into the next day. I felt a sense of loss, but also of appreciation for the creative road that the Highlander cast and crew paved for us over the years.
"Not To Be" delivers on the setup of the previous episode by continuing the dark interpersonal explorations, delivering a series of moments that we've subconsciously been longing to see. How many Highlander fans wished to see Tessa and Duncan reunited? Who wanted to see a Methos/Duncan duel? Who wanted to see Richie one last time? There are several wish-fulfilling moments scattered throughout "Not To Be" like pearls on a string.
In the end, there can be only one. Adrian Paul may not have been acting when
he let a tear stream down his face. It was a hell of a run, and I thank Bill
Panzer, David Abramowitz, the writers, directors, cast, and crew for giving us
one of television's most imaginative series.
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• "Highlander in Paris with Bill & Dennis"
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