The Quickening is a fictional concept related to the immortal characters of the Highlander franchise, first introduced in the 1986 movie Highlander. Originally, the Quickening referred to the energy immortals are born with that makes them invincible to death unless beheaded. An immortal can take another's Quickening after beheading them, increasing their personal power. It is said that eventually there will be only one immortal, who will gain the Prize, the collective energy of all immortals who've ever lived.
The concept was expanded on in the live-action spin-off Highlander: The Series, where characters often use the word "Quickening" to refer to the process of when an immortal's energy is released after death and absorbed by the immortal who killed them. The TV series also cemented that the transfer of Quickening energy included a transfer of some knowledge and skills. The series producers stated, "The power of the Quickening is the equivalent to a major electrical storm hitting—windows explode, lights short circuit, it is almost as if the victorious Immortal is in the center of a lightning storm." Across the franchise, a side-effect of being born with the potential for immortality is that the person cannot biologically have children.
In the original movie Highlander, humans who are born immortal possess an energy within them that can be absorbed by another immortal if they kill the former. An immortal ages normally until experiencing a fatal incident. After this First Death, they no longer age. In the original film, the Egyptian warrior Ramírez demonstrates to protagonist Connor MacLeod that they are immortals and have a connection to nature. As he shows Connor that they can survive being struck by lightning, as well as sense the emotions and heartbeat of a nearby stag, he explains that this power and the sensations it brings "is the Quickening." The film also shows that the Quickening energy allows immortals to sense each other.
When an immortal kills another in the movie, a bright light manifests around the victor as wind rises and surges of electricity affect the surrounding area. Often, the victor is temporarily levitated into the air and in pain as they absorb the energy and power of the dead immortal. The process lasts moments.
Ramírez explains to MacLeod that many immortals hunt each other in order to absorb more energy and power. This "Game" has one rule: never to fight on holy ground. Ramírez says this rule is one no immortal will violate, remarking "it's tradition." He also explains that one day where there are only a few immortals left, those who remain will feel a pull "towards a faraway land" where they will fight for the "Prize": the collective Quickening energy of all immortals before them, granting them enough power to enslave humanity. At the end of the film, Connor MacLeod becomes the last living immortal in 1985 and screams "The Quickening overpowers me" as he absorbs the Prize, adding "I know everything! I am everything!" He then explains that the Prize has not only made him mortal, able to age and have children, but has increased his ability to sense other living things. Now he can know the thoughts and dreams of anyone alive on Earth.
Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
The 1991 movie Highlander II: The Quickening contradicted several aspects of the first movie and created a new alien-based origin for the immortals. It was now said that Connor MacLeod and Ramírez were revolutionaries on the planet Zeist. They and other criminals are exiled to Earth, becoming immortal in the process (though how is unexplained), and told they are to kill each other. The last survivor will be made mortal again, allowed to remain on Earth or return to Zeist with amnesty. In this movie, the Quickening no longer refers to an energy present in all immortals and is not the source of their immortality. Instead, the Quickening is a form of magic used by Ramírez, who is depicted here as a sorcerer. The Quickening forges a bond between Connor and Ramírez that allows them to resurrect and help each other even after one has died by being beheaded. Later, Ramírez uses the magical Quickening to delay a death trap so Connor can escape.
Highlander III: The Sorcerer (1994)
Also known as Highlander: The Final Dimension, this 1994 film indicates the Quickening may transfer knowledge as well as power. When the immortal sorcerer Nakano is beheaded by the evil immortal Kane, his killer now also possesses the same magic. It is not clear if Nakano's sorcery was an inherent power or something that he needed to learn. If the former, then it was a transfer of power to Kane rather than of knowledge.
The film shows an immortal die from being beheaded by a guillotine during the French Revolution. Only mortal people are around when this death occurs and there is no visible Quickening, confirming the release of explosive power only occurs if another immortal is close enough to absorb the energy.
This film indicates the rule against immortals fighting on holy ground may be more than tradition. When Kane attacks Connor at a Buddhist shrine, the Highlander warns him that this is holy ground. Kane ignores the plea and attacks. They duel but once they are close to the altar, Connor's sword explodes when Kane's blade makes contact, and the two immortal sense powerful energy around them as wind rises. Rather than continue the fight, Kane flees.
The TV-series and later theatrical film Highlander: Endgame (which follows the TV continuity) do not consider this film canon.
TV series spin-offs
Highlander: The Series (1992-1998)
This live-action show depicts a timeline where the events of the original movie still took place but in a world where many more immortals exist. As a result, Connor's battle with the Kurgan in 1985 does not result in him winning the Prize. The series follows Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), born and adopted by the Clan MacLeod decades after Connor discovered he was immortal.
In agreement with the movies Highlander II and Highlander: The Final Dimension, the series showed that immortals don't need to directly kill another immortal to absorb their Quickening energy and that there is no energy released if there isn't an immortal nearby. When mortals threaten to behead the immortal Fitzcairn, he warns "there will be no Quickening" and that all of his power and "knowledge" will be lost since there is no immortal among them. Series producer Panzer later said, "as long as an immortal is present, he gets the Quickening... if there is no immortal present, then the Quickening just goes to the Source." The Source is never fully explained, but is implied to be an energy well that gives newborn immortals their initial power.
The immortals in Highlander: The Series do not have the connection to nature that Connor and Ramírez display in the original film. When they use the term "Quickening," they are often referring to the process of one immortal absorbing the energy of another. Adrian Paul explained, "The Quickening is the receiving of all the power and knowledge another immortal has obtained throughout his/her life. It is like the receiving of a sacrament or a massive orgasm." Visually, the release of the Quickening is depicted as a glow or mist emerging from and enveloping the dead immortal's fallen body, sometimes surrounding the victory in wisps of mist as well. Lightning erupts in the area, causing damage and often explosions to varying degrees. On occasion, clouds darken or gather. On some occasions, levitation of the surviving immortal or nearby objects occurs.
The TV production crew and promotional materials included with the DVDs of Highlander: The Series refer to people who have the potential to become immortal but haven't experienced their First Death to activate the power as "pre-immortals." Once activated, their Quickening energy not only arrests their aging but heals all wounds, sometimes with a visible lightning effect around the wounds. As with the films, immortals and pre-immortals cannot biologically produce children.
The producers were required to make the beheadings less violent, thereby adhering to television standards. William Panzer, who was Peter S. Davis's partner and a joint executive producer, explained, "In the movies, you know, we had a lot more license. But this being television in the early 1990s, we couldn't have a lot of body parts flying around. So, we tried to use something that created the idea that somebody got their head cut off, but that it was more like a jolt of light came out of the head, and the lightning flew around them. This, I suppose, was less violent than the movie version." Consequently, the Quickening scene in the pilot episode, "The Gathering," is described in the script as follows:
"We will call this shot for want of a better term, the Quickening Thrust. This will be one of our signature shots of the show. Perhaps it is a strobed, slow-motion shot. Perhaps there is particular glint to the sword as it slashes towards us on a POV shot, representing the coup de grâce which is about to be delivered. In any event what we will NOT see, is a decapitation. No head leaves the body, indeed no sword strikes the neck. Instead, we cut to: The Quickening is a blinding flash of blue light emanating from what was the bad guy and filling the screen and arcing into anything electrical nearby. Thus, street lamps, car headlights, windows, etc. are blown out."
The series indicates that the rule against fighting on holy ground also applies to immortals fighting with mortals. On multiple occasions, Duncan finds a mortal enemy at a cemetery or crypt and feels duty bound not to attack them. This is treated as a rule of honor, similar to the first movie. In the episode "Little Tin God", the character Joe Dawson describes a legend that says the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was caused by "two Immortals going at it in a Temple of Apollo" in Pompeii, breaking the rule. However, he admits this is only a rumor with no evidence to back it up.
The series indicates a Quickening transfer involves not just power but also physical skills. Some episodes indicate a temporary transfer of knowledge, with immortals experiencing visions of the dead one's life. On rare occasion, personality traits and mannerisms temporarily manifest. In the fifth season episode "Haunted", Richie Ryan briefly takes on the voice and appearance of Alec Hill, an immortal he killed the previous year, when meeting Hill's wife. In the film Highlander: Endgame, which continues the canon of the TV series, Duncan MacLeod reluctantly absorbs the Quickening of an immortal he considers family and later manifests the man's face and voice during a battle against a mutual enemy, as if briefly possessed by a soul still inside him.
On even rarer occasions, the Quickening overwhelms an immortal with personality traits of the immortal they killed, resulting in corruption (a "Dark Quickening") or a new perspective that leads them towards remorse and altruism (a "Light Quickening"). The immortal Darius was said to have been ruthless until absorbing the Quickening of a particular immortal turned him into a kind pacifist, leading him to become a monk. The immortal Native American named Coltec is said to have a special gift to absorb the darkness of others. After centuries of this and hunting many evil immortals, he becomes overwhelmed and corrupted. Forced to kill Coltec, Duncan is overwhelmed by the Dark Quickening and engages on a violent rampage until he kills a wise and noble immortal whose Quickening partially restores his balance. He later undergoes further healing at a spring said to be magical in nature.
When Lucas Desiree is beheaded in the episode "Innocent Man," his close friend Duncan MacLeod is nearby, senses the Quickening energy, and instinctively knows his friend has died rather than another immortal. This ability is not consistent with the rest of the series however, which repeatedly shows that immortals, even those with a close bond such as Duncan and Connor or Duncan and Amanda, cannot distinguish if they sense a friend or foe nearby or if a friend has died in a nearby battle and won't know until they make visual confirmation.
Producer William Panzer said the most elaborate Quickening in the television series appeared in the Season 1 episode "Band of Brothers." He explained, "When the pyrotechnics went off, it was shot in slow motion, and so the actual take, the wide shot was two and a half minutes long, and I was still, it was probably the most amazing Quickening that we ever had."
Highlander: Endgame (2000)
The 2000 movie Highlander: Endgame follows the continuity of Highlander: The Series. It shows an immortal named Kell absorbing Quickening energy from multiple newly killed immortals at once. One of these scenes takes place in the Sanctuary, a site described by another character as holy ground. Fan complaints regarding this scene resulted in the DVD release of the film removing all references that the Sanctuary was holy ground.
Highlander: The Source (2007)
This movie, continuing the continuity of Highlander: The Series and Highlander: Endgame, takes place in a future world where Earth societies have largely fallen to violence and chaos. Duncan MacLeod and others investigate the Source. In the movie's plot, direct access to the Source is protected by the Guardian, an immortal empowered by magic to have great speed and strength. One immortal succeeds in beheading the Guardian, only to then be forced to take his place after taking his Quickening. Another nearby immortal is corrupted by absorbing part of this Quickening, condemned to have his body continuously decay over the course of his life.
The movie indicates that if immortals are near enough to the Source (even if still a few miles away), then their immortal healing abilities no longer work and they can die of blood loss and excessive injury.
A re-cut version of the movie has an expanded ending that reveals direct access to the Source allows an immortal to have children.
Highlander: The Source received largely negative fan reaction and critical review, cancelling plans to expand the mythology of the Source of Immortality in further stories. A short filmed called "Reunion," written by series producer David Abramowitz and directed by Don Paonessa, was released in 2008 that seemed to contradict its continuity. The next year, writers and actors from Highlander: The Series attending the Highlander Worldwide Convention referred to Highlander: The Source as a "bad dream" Duncan MacLeod had, leading several fans to regard it as removed from canon.
Highlander: The Animated Series (1994-1996)
Taking place in its own timeline, this show follows Quentin MacLeod, an immortal and the last of the Clan MacLeod, who lives on Earth in the 27th century. Seven centuries previously, a meteorite caused great devastation across Earth, leading Connor MacLeod and other immortals to renounce their lives of violence and act as guides and helpers to humanity. One immortal, Kortan, refused and became ruler over much of Earth.
Aimed at young children, Highlander: The Animated Series had to limit its violence (any beheadings happened offscreen) and also wished to have its young hero Quentin grow in power through means other than regular murder, particularly as all immortals beside Kortan were now established as altruistic pacifists. In this series, the immortals are able to pass their Quickening to another immortal if both grip the same sword and wish it to be so. This allows Quentin to grow in power while also helping other immortals gain mortality, giving them the chance to have children and age naturally as they permanently leave the Game behind.
- Highlander, 1986.
- DVDfile.com, last accessed September 4, 2007.
- Highlander: The Series Season 4 - "The Innocent."
- Episode "The Sea Witch," Bonus Material, William Panzer's interview, in Highlander: The Series (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, Inc., 2001), disk 3.
- Adrian Paul, at DVDfile.com, last accessed September 4, 2007.
- Episode "The Gathering," Bonus Material, William Panzer's interview, in Highlander: The Series (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, Inc., 2001), disk 1.
- Episode "The Gathering," Final Shooting Script, p.41, in Highlander: The Series (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, Inc., 2001), disk 9.
- Highlander: The Series Season 2 - "Unholy Alliance Part 1."
- Episode "Deliverance", in Highlander: The Series, (season 4) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, Inc.).
- Episode "Band of Brothers," in Highlander: The Series (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, 2001), disk 5.
- Episode "Innocent Man," in Highlander: The Series, (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, Inc., 2001), disc 2.
- Episode "Band of Brothers," Bonus Material, William Panzer's interview, in Highlander: The Series (season 1) (DVD, Davis-Panzer Productions, 2001), disk 5.