Highlander: The Series
Sixth Season: Beating a Dead Horse

"Avatar" -- 1
"Armageddon" -- 3

Things haven't gotten any better since "Archangel," more's the pity.

The question of what a Zoroastrian demon has to do with HL still hasn't been answered yet (though "Avatar" has a scene that attempts to tie it in to other religions' interpretations of a creature of pure evil), nor why Duncan MacLeod, of all people, is supposed to be the champion of good. More to the point, we never get much of a sense of what the big deal about this demon is. Okay, we're talking about the living embodiment of evil come for its once-per-millennium bash -- so what are the consequences? Ahriman does go after people specifically related to Duncan in some form or other, but otherwise, it doesn't seem to be much. The thing, having already sat around for six months and done nothing waiting for Landry to find Duncan in "Archangel," now sticks its thumbs in its ears while Duncan grunts in a monastery for a year. Where are the rivers of blood? The coming of the apocalypse? Dogs and cats sleeping together? I mean, we're talking millennial evil here, and the most horrendous thing we get are bleeding roses that change color periodically.

Conveniently, Joe Dawson is still in Paris (can't imagine why he hung around for a year, and his only response when Duncan says, "I'm glad you stayed in Paris" was the cryptic, "Somebody had to"). Inconveniently, Methos isn't, and we get no explanation for that. (My own take is that Methos -- figuring that a Duncan MacLeod who could kill Richie Ryan could also kill Methos himself -- got the hell outta Dodge, but it would've been nice to have some mention of that, especially now that the actor who plays him is in the opening credits.)

We are introduced to two new characters -- Sophie Baines and Father Beaufort -- who serve absolutely no purpose except to show what a rotter Ahriman is. Unfortunately, given nothing to work with, Rachel Shelley is reduced to whining for an hour as Sophie before she jumps into the Seine a second time, and Dudley Sutton (so delightful as Tinker on Lovejoy) overacts for an hour as Beaufort. Ahriman continues to take on the form of James Horton for all of "Avatar" and most of "Armageddon," substituting the Bronze Age Kronos (still no explanation of why it takes on a guise of Kronos that Duncan is completely unfamiliar with) for bits of the conclusion -- including an endless, seasick-inducing scene in a confessional with Beaufort.

The inexplicable need to stretch this nonsense out over three episodes serves only to make Duncan look stupid, since he winds up spending most of his time in these two episodes wandering around Paris in a cute pair of sunglasses before finally commencing to doing something about the demon. "Avatar," frankly, serves no function as an episode, as the actual useful things that happen amount to about five minutes' worth of material, all of which could've been put into "Armageddon." (Classic middle-of-a-trilogy syndrome.)

The climax of "Armageddon" is the worst. The idea of overcoming the demon by achieving satori is an interesting one, but it is also more or less impossible to convey on a television. As a result, we get Duncan doing yoga moves while Ahriman-as-Kronos keeps missing him with a sword. It comes across as beating the devil through calisthenics, and is one of the goofiest-looking scenes HL has ever shown.

The only reason why "Armageddon" gets as high as a 3 rating is due to the stellar work by Jim Byrnes as Joe Dawson. Ahriman (again in the form of Horton, Joe's brother-in-law) tempts Joe by giving him working legs. The scene is an absolute tour de force for Byrnes, who magnificently conveys Joe's anguish and temptation. In fact, he manages more emotion in that scene than Adrian Paul can gather up over the entire three-part story.

Just as the Kalas three-parter was the high point of HL as a franchise, this trilogy is the absolute nadir.

"Sins of the Father" -- 6

This is the first of several episodes to introduce candidates for the starring role in a new HL spinoff (see also "Patient Number Seven," "Justice," "Deadly Exposure," and "Two of Hearts") -- a role that eventually went to none of them, instead being given to Elizabeth Gracen's Amanda character. First off in this derby that nobody won is Alex Raven, who is one of my two favorites. Dara Tomanovich has a sufficiently exotic look for the time and place she's supposed to come from, a level of charming snideness that would give Methos a run for his money, some nice moves, and she is also completely not charmed by Duncan MacLeod -- indeed, he thinks she's the bad guy initially, and so does the viewer, which is a nice touch. (I must admit, my male hormones rather enjoyed the wet t-shirt Quickening, too -- plus, she is the first female Immortal to win a swordfight since Felicia Martins in "Free Fall.") I'd have no problem watching a show that starred her. The plot -- a rather timely one involving the return of money that victims of the Warsaw Ghetto had put in trust before the Nazis invaded in WWII -- manages not to be too terribly preachy, and Ian Richardson brings a quiet dignity to the role of Max. As a general rule, I'm sick and tired of WWII flashbacks on HL, and episodes where the bad guy isn't an Immortal tend not to work (for every gem such as "Promises," there's crap like "Bad Day in Building A," "The Zone," and "Revenge of the Sword"), but here, both are used to fine effect.

One nice thing that this episode showed is that -- since we're stuck with the dorky Ahriman trilogy in any case -- there are consequences. The barge is still stripped of all but the barest essentials, Duncan is still meditating and drinking herb tea and other Zen-ish things, and he has put his katana away in a trunk and won't take it up. (He faces Alex with a pipe at one point, which prompts a deserved laugh from his opponent. I must confess that it seems a little disingenuous to decide to be "nonviolent" by using a stick instead of a sword. I don't see beating someone as inherently more noble than stabbing that someone.) The sword stays in the trunk until "Diplomatic Immunity," and he doesn't actually take a head with it until "Black Tower" (and he has good reason by that point).

"Diplomatic Immunity" -- 5

A decent revisit of the plot of "Nowhere to Run" with the charming Jasper Britton turning in a delightful performance as Willie Kingsley, another scoundrel Immortal to add to the list that already includes Amanda, Gabriel Piton ("Eye of the Beholder"), and Benny Carbassa ("Vendetta"). The episode has a bit of trouble figuring out what its tone is -- Willie's smoldering anger at Molly's death doesn't track as well with his daffy charm as the script obviously intended, except at the very end when he tries to kiss and make up with Duncan and Duncan (sensibly) refuses.

My main problem with the episode is the utter lack of consequences for the murderer. I mean, all the diplomat's kid gets is a lecture from Saint Duncan on how "you have to live with it." Molly deserved better than that.

"Patient Number Seven" -- 5

The second Spinoff Girl is Kyra, played with aggressive charm by Alice Evans. Unlike "Sins of the Father," this episode is pretty much entirely Kyra's, Duncan's role being reduced to a walk-on. Evans plays half the episode as an amnesiac, but ultimately her personality is pretty much the same either way, with the added detriment that she falls into bed with Duncan as soon as she meets him in the flashback (though the bed scene is hilarious). She handles both humor and drama with equal skill, which is important, and the episode follows the basic good-guy-Immortal-versus-bad-guy-Immortal structure. Michael Halsey is sufficiently smarmy for the bad-guy role of Milos Vladic. As with Alex, I'd watch a show with Kyra as the protagonist.

"Black Tower" -- 4

A back-to-basics episode, as Duncan is stalked by an evil Immortal, this one a British aristocrat who had a hard time accepting the realities of Immortality when Duncan encountered him after his first death in 1634, and seeks a misguided revenge against Duncan now. As with far too many of these vendettas, you have to wonder why he waited so long, and does the world really need yet another take on The Most Dangerous Game? Plus, I guessed the truth about Margo about two seconds into the teaser, so you have to wonder why Duncan didn't see it until it was too late. The episode's high point, frankly, was the gleefully manic performance by Alexi K. Campbell as the unsubtly named Dice.

"Unusual Suspects" -- 4

Y'know, I was really looking forward to this one. The teaser made it look like a charming Agatha Christie pastiche, the idea of an all-flashback episode is one I've always been fond of (and wish the show had done more often), and even the worst episode featuring Roger Daltrey's Hugh Fitzcairn has been entertaining. The plot -- Fitzcairn is "killed," and Duncan has to solve his friend's murder, all the while putting up with kibbitzing by the "corpse" -- sounded charming, so I expected great things.

No such luck. When Daltrey's on camera, the episode shines, but -- since he spends the episode hiding in the shadows, as everyone thinks he's dead -- he's not on camera nearly often enough. Paul seems to be sleepwalking through his role, only coming to life when he has to argue with Daltrey, and even that gets tiresome. The plot is paint-by-numbers, the supporting cast has no charm whatsoever, and the jokes are beaten right into the ground. Worst of all, whatever happened to the Duncan MacLeod who actually cared when mortals were killed? People are dying all around him, and Duncan seems more interested in making fun of Fitz's bank account than in solving the murders and/or preventing any more of them. (Admittedly, this is not the only 1920s flashback that shows a morally dodgy Duncan MacLeod -- see also "Vendetta" and "Glory Days" in particular.)

"Justice" -- 5

Spinoff Girl #3 is Katya, played by Justina Vail. While she makes an adequate guest star, there doesn't seem to be much there to support an entire series. Although there are differences between her and Alex Raven and Kyra, too much of this plot follows the same track as the other two episodes: woman has lost someone close to her (in this case a surrogate daughter that she raised from a baby and stayed close with to the daughter's middle age, when she was killed by her husband), woman is seeking justice and/or revenge, Duncan stumbles onto it, woman eventually gets justice and/or revenge, often through no significant contribution from Duncan. The plot is paint-by-numbers, as were the other two, but doesn't give you anything to emotionally hang onto (like the Warsaw Ghetto and Max's dignified anguish in "Sins" or Kyra's journey back from amnesia in "Seven"). No Immortals are involved, either, and Katya's major flashback details the circumstances leading to her first death, so she doesn't even get a Quickening (and leads to the question of how a 14th-century Englishwoman contrived to get the name Katya).

As an episode, as opposed to a pilot, it's all right, but nothing to leap in the air about. It would've been nice if, when Duncan was trying to comfort Katya and give her advice, he actually talked about what happened with Little Deer and Kahani (he may not have raised Kahani, but he was the kids' surrogate father for three years; seems to me that that's worth mentioning when asked if he's raised a child) and his attempted revenge against Kern ("Line of Fire," "Something Wicked"). And, like Kyra, Katya falls right into bed with Duncan when she first meets him (snore).

This episode pretty much strikes the final nail into the coffin of the Zen Duncan. He's cooking pesto, drinking wine, bedding female Immortals, and the Spartan barge is now being used as a dance floor.

"Deadly Exposure" -- 4

Screw the new female Immortal, I want to see a series with Dave Hill's Interpol cop. He was by far the best part of this episode that -- despite some nifty moments and touches -- was dumb as the offspring of a village idiot and an E! host.

Those nifty moments and touches: Sandra Hess is okay as Reagan Cole, kickass bounty hunter and the fourth Spinoff Girl, though not nearly as good as the magnificent Hill. Murphy is the kind of silly character that is never killed -- or if he is, it's early in the episode -- so his death in the second half was an effective shock. Usually when cops say, "We can do it here or downtown," it intimidates the person the cop is talking to into cooperating, so it was refreshing for Duncan to say, "Fine, let's go downtown." The almost-a-sex-scene in 1833 was hilarious (and it's nice to see Reagan has her natural hair color there, unlike Kyra, who managed to get her hands on peroxide in Renaissance France). And Reagan's method of taking out the terrorist is brilliant.

None of this is enough to save this clunker from plot holes large enough for Duncan to pilot the barge through. If this guy's such a brilliant terrorist mastermind, why is he getting his nose out of joint about a possible photo taken during a bloody fashion shoot (for which 95% of the photos are discarded in any case)? Even if his nose is out of joint, why go after the photographer in public, why not wait until she's back at her studio or darkroom where you can take her out without prying eyes watching? (Admittedly, this is Highlander Paris, where shooting someone in the street is an occurrence that goes by completely unheeded, cf. "Finale Part 1" and "Avatar.") Why isn't he bright enough to check the garbage bins? Why is he so concerned with being identified if his photo is available on the Internet? (Yeah, okay it's a fifteen-year-old photo -- big fat hairy deal, he doesn't look that much different with hair and a moustache.) Concurrent to that, what's the big deal about Reagan sticking around to ID him when his picture's on the Internet? What does Interpol need her for?

While it's been a long time since I was last in Paris, I seem to remember that the place had plenty of public phones, so why did Murphy have to go back to his apartment to call his agent? Also, he was supposed to spend hours at the Louvre before meeting Reagan at the cafe, yet he went back to the apartment right after Reagan left, and was still on the phone with his agent after Reagan had a) gotten back to the cafe to meet him and waited for him, b) called him and got the busy signal, and c) made it all the way to his apartment -- conveniently, the sniper waited until she showed up to off him.

If security is so tight at this shindig, why do they let a doctor in with an oxygen tank without once asking why he has an oxygen tank? It's not standard equipment for doctors who are guests of shindigs, so why do the dumbass guards let him through without question?

"Two of Hearts" -- 7

Of all the spinoff girl episodes, this is the one most obviously set up as a pilot for a new series, as it is the only HL episode with none of the regular characters. It is also the best of them, as Claudia Christian is magnificent as Kate, looking more assured and relaxed in the role of heroic lead even than she did as Ivanova on Babylon 5 -- indeed, it's the finest performance I've ever seen her give. To be honest, it's a stronger pilot than "The Gathering" (though it doesn't need to establish as much as that episode did), as it nicely introduces us to Kate and her mortal husband Nick, who rather sensibly thinks the Game is a load of hooey. The plot itself is pretty standard -- Bartholomew is a relelentlessly average bad guy, just your basic did-I-mention-to-you-I'm-evil? nasty Immortal -- but in this stinker of a season, an average episode is something of a relief, and the two leads are great fun to watch. Not having Alex Raven, Kyra, Katya, or Reagan Cole as a lead is something I can live with; not having Kate as a lead is a major disappointment.

"Indiscretions" -- 8

Duncan who? Not only does this episode work magnificently without the star, it works better than it would have with him -- after all, if MacLeod had been around, there would've been all kinds of pretentious speeches and arguments we've heard before. The banter of Joe and Methos was much more fun -- and, frankly, a welcome change after eight episodes of Beige Duncan and one very unsuccessful comedy. This story worked on every level, from Methos's survivor's instincts and general snide commentary to Joe's anguish and his usual routine of letting his personal feelings get in the way of his duty and getting in trouble for it (cf. "Brothers in Arms," "Judgment Day"). The plot itself is fairly straightforward HL stuff, but there's nothing wrong with that, and they don't let the formula get in the way of having fun with two characters -- and two actors -- who work brilliantly together. We've seen flashes of this in other episodes ("Finale" and "One Minute to Midnight" in particular), and it was great to see an episode devoted to it before it all ended. Let's hope Davis/Panzer have the brains to keep the team supreme together for the spinoff...

"To Be" -- 4
"Not to Be" -- 4

Has anyone noticed that -- with the notable exception of the first season's excellent "The Hunters" -- HL has really stunk at ending their seasons? The second and third seasons gave us weak endings to promising two-parters ("Counterfeit" and "Finale"), the fourth season gave us a clip show ("Judgment Day"), and the fifth season gave us HL's nadir as a franchise ("Archangel").

For the show's last hurrah, we get It's a Wonderful Life. Oh joy. It's a concept I've never been too terribly thrilled with in the first place, and the only thing they add to it is that Duncan can actually interact with people in this alternate universe where he never existed. Unfortunately, that concept is mainly used to give Duncan a chance to succumb to a male fantasy (more on that in a minute). The concept works best with Methos, Kronos, and Richie, works okay with Amanda and Joe, and fails dismally with Tessa.

Before we get to that, let me just say that the Liam O'Rourke plot was fairly lame as these things go (just what we need, someone kidnapped right outside the barge again), although Methos's speech to MacLeod in the barge is beautiful, and proves a good way for the character to go out (that, and showing up -- with a gun, but somehow without a buzz -- to save Duncan's ass again). Still, the less said about that, the better, and besides, it's just an excuse to see what life would've been like without Duncan.

The Richie/Kronos/Methos/Joe portion of "Not to Be" is the best part. The idea that Duncan's influence would've kept Methos from rejoining Kronos is specious, but the fact that Horton shot down the woman he loved in front of him right before he was going to propose is more than sufficient motivation to my mind. The progression of Richie's life without Duncan makes perfect sense, and I must say it is fun to see Stan Kirsch again -- the screen lit up when he was there. The Joe/Richie confrontation was vintage, reminding us all of what the show has lost in the last year, and seeing Kronos, Methos, and Richie being slimy together made me pine for more. And indeed, we could've had more, if they'd cut the unutterably pointless swordfight between Methos and MacLeod.

The Amanda and Joe bits in "To Be" were okay. Duncan's ability to interact with people didn't really serve much function with Amanda -- the Watchers would've shown up to kill her in any case -- and with Joe, it just saved Roger Daltrey some expository dialogue. The Joe scenes went on way too long; it might've had more poignancy if "Stand by Me" actually had any prior significance to these two characters. Instead the scene came across as almost comical, not aided by Jim Byrnes's fright wig -- a dead badger on his scalp would've been more convincing.

Then we have the offensive Tessa bits. I mean, Amanda turns into a black widow, Fitz is killed 300 years sooner, Richie still gets whacked by someone he thought was his friend, Joe becomes a drunk, and Horton takes over the Watchers -- all of these are things I can see as negative consequences of Duncan not being around. But Tessa is still alive. Yeah, she doesn't sculpt anymore, and yeah her husband's a bit of a putz, but so the hell what? She's alive. A life without passion is still very much a life -- not to mention the lives of her two children. This episode desperately wants us to believe that Tessa is better off dead -- and her two kids are better off never having existed. But you can get out of a loveless marriage (and, while the guy was no prize, her hubby didn't come across that badly -- he was perfectly polite to Duncan, and seemed very fond of Tessa), and she could always take up sculpture again -- the chance is there. There's no chance if you're dead.

It's obvious that the only reason to have Tessa there -- and, to be honest, the only reason why this was an interactive vision -- was so that Duncan could sleep with her again. It's male-fantasy bullshit, and I don't buy it for a second.

(Just by the way, despite my objections to the writing, the acting by both Paul and Vandernoot in this sequence is nothing short of magnificent. I never liked Vandernoot while she was on the show, but her two return appearances, here and in "Counterfeit Part 2", were both excellent. As for Paul, his controlled anguish is magnificently played, most of all when Tessa's husband announces he has to return to the office, and Paul's expression is a perfect combination of "Oh God, no, he's leaving me alone with her" and "Yes! He's leaving me alone with her!")

The pacing was off for the whole two-parter. The O'Rourke plot is rushed through, then the rest of "To Be" drags endlessly. In "Not to Be," we plow through the Richie/Methos/Kronos segment full tilt, and then we get that wholly unnecessary fight between Methos and Duncan. The entire story, such as it was, would've been much better served by letting some of "Not to Be" spill over into "To Be" and evened things out.

All in all, a very mediocre ending to a very mediocre season. I still think the franchise would've been better served if the show had ended with "Forgive Us Our Trespasses."

Ah, well. On to the spinoff....

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