"If I were to take your head right now, I would receive all of your knowledge and strength. That is the Quickening." -Duncan MacLeod, Free Fall When an Immortal is beheaded, there is a powerful energy released from their body which is called a Quickening.
Actor, Adrian Paul, explains, "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." The producers describe it so: "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."
This energy is absorbed by the Immortal who took his/her opponent's head. Producer, Bill Panzer explains that if "an Immortal is decapitated by something other than the sword of the Immortal he was fighting... what we thought was, as long as an Immortal is present, he gets the Quickening." Therefore, if an Immortal is beheaded and there is no Immortal nearby to receive the Quickening (for example if the killer is a mortal or the Immortals' head was removed in an accident) then the Quickening dissipates.
On extremely rare occasions, when an Immortal beheads a very evil one, the dark Quickening can completely overwhelm the personality of the good Immortal, making him evil. This is a Dark Quickening. The reverse can also happen; Darius is the only known example of a Light Quickening.
An Immortal can sense when a Quickening takes place nearby and he might even know which Immortal is dead, as demonstrated by Duncan MacLeod in Highlander: The Series.
A build up of quickenings from evil Immortals can overwhelm even the best of Immortals and lead to a Dark Quickening. The Dark Quickening draws out the darker elements of an Immortal's psyche until they are evil themselves.
In season four of the series, an Immortal named Coltec, who took it upon himself to rid the world of evil by killing as many evil Immortals as he could, was eventually overwhelmed by the Dark Quickening. Duncan MacLeod was forced to kill his friend and was himself overwhelmed. Duncan then went on a rampage in Paris, ending with the beheading of another old friend Sean Burns. Burns was known as one of the wisest and most peaceful of the Immortals and his Quickening subdued the Dark Quickening long enough for Methos to take Duncan to a long forgotten healing spring where Duncan was able to vanquish the darkest elements of his soul.
In the first season of Highlander, the Immortal monk, Darius was introduced as an ancient Goth warlord who led an army across Europe. When he reached the gates of Paris, Darius encountered an Immortal holy man who tried to protect the city. When Darius beheaded the holy man, his purer essence overwhelmed Darius and caused him to disband his army and spend the next thousand years living in peace on holy ground.
From the 5th season episode, Revelation 6:8 the only known example of a double Quickening came as Duncan and Methos battled the remaining Horsemen in their lair. Duncan battled Kronos, while Methos turned against his former "brothers" and battled Silas. As Duncan and Methos won their respective battles at the same time, the Quickenings merged and split between the two of them in an unusual display of a spiraled lightning effect.
Renegade Watcher, James Horton, and his band of followers, beheaded several immortals between 1990-1993. Since they were mortal, the Quickenings were lost.
This type of beheading was featured in more detail on the spin-off series Highlander: The Raven. In one episode the mortal character Nick beheaded an Immortal by firing his gun at a huge pane of glass which sliced the Immortal villain's head off. With no other Immortal present the Quickening appeared as a stream of lightning floating up towards the sky. It's unknown if this is the same effect that happened with Horton's beheadings since it was revealed later that Nick was a pre-Immortal (one who had not died his first death yet). The only time we see Horton behead an Immortal on screen, a second Immortal was present and, though he didn't deliver the killing blow, the Quickening went to him. This was also shown on Highlander: The Raven when Nick beheaded an Immortal and Amanda was nearby to receive the Quickening.
In Highlander 3, the immortal, Pierre, was beheaded by guillotine. Connor MacLeod was present, but presumably out of range, and no Quickening effects were seen or heard. However, it should be noted that the flashback ended quickly after the beheading, thus it is possible MacLeod could have received his quickening off screen.
In Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, a dying Dahlia killed Marcus' immortal lover by sticking a grenade in her mouth. The result is a massive spherical explosion of Quickening rather than either of the above effects.
Holy Ground Beheading
The rules state Immortal combat is strictly forbidden on Holy Ground, though in Endgame Jacob Kell beheaded multiple immortals and there were no noticeable repercussions, despite them being on reputed holy ground. (Fan complaints led to references of Holy Ground being eliminated in future cuts of the film.) In Highlander II: The Quickening, General Katana (played by actor Michael Ironside) stated that the 'Golden Rule' is that immortals must not fight on Holy Ground. This could explain Jacob Kell's actions in Highlander: Endgame when he beheaded several Immortals at The Sanctuary, a location referred to as Holy Ground. The Immortals at the Sanctuary are all in restraints, meaning that Immortal combat did not take place.
The theatrical trailer of Highlander: Endgame has Kell state that he does not care about The Game. However, when confronted by Connor MacLeod in a cemetery, Kell decided to step into the road running alongside it before fighting him. Connor holds his sword to Kell's neck but stops short of actually beheading him.
At least a hint of those unknown consequences can be glimpsed in Highlander 3 when despite the rules, Kane engaged Connor in battle on the grounds of a sanctuary. A foreboding atmospheric effect begins with a closeup on a statuette of The Buddha (the location on which they are fighting is a former Buddhist shrine). The fight culminates with the destruction of Connor's sword which shatters into thousands of fragments. The two immortals wisely chose to postpone their battle.
In the Season 1 episode of the series called 'The Hunters', Darius was killed in his church. However, his beheading was carried out by mortals with no Immortal present. Therefore, the rules of Immortal combat wouldn't apply and the Quickening may not have manifested itself.
According to Joe Dawson there is a Watcher legend about "two Immortals going at it in a Temple of Apollo" in A.D. 79 in Pompeii, which may have led to the eruption of Vesuvius. However, he admitted that this was only a rumor and no one knows if it is true or not.
Portrayal in Films
In the continuity of first two Highlander films, the Quickening is not limited to beheadings. Connor stands on a mountaintop in Scotland and raises his arm and is struck by lightning multiple times, appearing to be in great pain. Ramirez says "The sensation you're feeling is the Quickening." In this, the original story, the quickening also occurs when a group of Immortals meet. During the training sequence, Connor is taught by Ramirez to use the Quickening to psychically draw the speed from a stag and run with the stag's speed.
Highlander II: The Quickening
Like the first film, the Quickening is a means to many different abilities and feats, which the sequel expands upon. One Quickening de-ages Connor, who had grown old after winning the Prize. The next Quickening managed to resurrect Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. At one point, Ramirez achieves what he describes as "something glorious" in form of glowing Quickening-esque energy flowing from the palm of his hand. Ramirez uses this to stop a large fan from killing Connor. The final new use of the energy is seen when Connor manipulates the final Quickening to destroy the shield surrounding the Earth. Nearly the all the newly added powers of the quickening are absent in future Highlander media, with the sole exception being the use of a large Quickening to destroy a greater threat. Collin uses Marcus' Quickening to destroy a virus in the surround area in Highlander: The Search for Vengeance.
Highlander: The Final Dimension
In this film the Quickening is shown to more directly transfer knowledge and skill (as opposed to the vague transfer seen elsewhere). The whole plot of the movie is that the villain beheaded an Immortal wizard and gained his magical abilities for himself. In theory Connor received these abilities at the end of the movie. Though other Highlander stories have featured Immortals with unusual gifts, none have shown the direct transfer of those gifts upon beheading. The second Quickening to be seen, where Kane beheads one of his henchmen, causes an electrical storm powerful enough to be felt by Connor MacLeod halfway around the world. This would serve to warn Connor that the Game was not over yet; whether this was an isolated event or something that happens after a long time has passed by with a temporary 'suspension' of The Game remains to be seen. All Quickening sequences featured in this movie have a common theme, starting with Kane receiving the Immortal sorcerer Nakano's Quickening after beheading him, down to the scene where Connor receives Kane's Quickening. The transfer of energy begins with the deceased Immortal's headless body levitating and the surrounding area filling with visible electromagnetic energy capable of causing structural damage to nearby objects. The final Quickening was powerful enough to levitate Connor while he was receiving it; reminiscent of the final Quickening in the first Highlander film.
This movie represents the only two occasions of a single Immortal receiving multiple Quickenings at a time. The first occurs when Jacob Kell penetrates the Sanctuary where Immortals tired of the Game spend their days and decapitates all of them, with the sole exception of Connor MacLeod. Kell's associates, who are also Immortal, may also have been around to share the Quickenings. However, it was more clearly shown by Kell's beheading of his gang in a mass execution; the resulting Quickenings were powerful enough to levitate him in mid-air.
Duncan seemed to briefly take on the voice and appearance of Connor at one point prior to Kell's defeat, which has never been seen in other Quickenings. The final Quickening, was unique in which a disembodied head is generated from the spot where Kell's decapitated body fell; this head shoots lightning bolts at Duncan MacLeod. Also seen during this Quickening is a spiraling plume of water and electrical discharge rising rapidly towards the clouds and generating an electrical storm that lasts until Duncan fully receives it.
Highlander: The Source
Only two Quickenings are featured in this sequel to Highlander: Endgame; both are received by the Guardian. In keeping with previous Quickenings seen in the movies, the beheaded Immortal's essence (represented by electrical discharges) first emanates from the base of the severed neck, followed by explosions on-site. Due to the power of the Source's manifestation, Immortals who sought the location of the Source lose their Immortality (and theoretically their Quickening); Immortal characters could thus be killed permanently without beheading, and when decapitated do not release the Quickening.
The Quickenings feature several notable differences, unique to the movie and important in both plot and character development. The first Quickening shown (the Quickening received by the Guardian shortly after being awakened) has two unusual effects: it magically removes a piece of armor protecting the Guardian's neck from beheading, which was attempted by the Immortal Zai several times during his losing battle with the Guardian, and also grants him the ability to use a sword drawn from his own flesh (the Guardian did not have a sword when awakened; he killed Zai with his own blade). This effectively enables the Guardian to once again participate in the Game after several thousand years of inactivity. The second Quickening, shown in a flashback several thousand years earlier in the movie's timeline, results in a curse affecting the two Immortals surviving the battle against the previous Guardian: one was transformed into a mass of decaying Immortal flesh; the other was cursed to take the Guardian's place.
Highlander: The Search for Vengeance seems to follow a similar approach as the original film series. Quickenings occur after beheadings as usual. But there are two Quickenings, in the same manner as in the original Highlander movie. First there's a Japanese woman in the fields, only vibrating her head and rolling her eyes a bit as she turns immortal. Then there's Colin MacLeod's quickening by lightning inside an old stonehenge-like structure, a Quickening much like Connor MacLeod's in the Highlands of Scotland.
Portrayal on Television
All Quickenings featured on the television series take the form of lightning or electrical storms. The exact nature of each Quickening varies. With the exception of Slan Quince's Quickening in the episode, The Gathering, the Quickening sequences begins with a foggy or misty veil enveloping the loser's fallen body; lightning storms of varying intensity then follow. Sometimes it is seen as a transfer of knowledge (represented through visions of the deceased Immortal's life or briefly taking on their mannerisms), while other times the world around the Immortal changes through cloud coverage and the passage of several hours (generally day to night). All Quickenings feature lightning and explosions (the power of the surrounding explosions also varies). Sometimes physical manifestations (ghosts, spirits) and levitation (of the receiver or nearby objects) accompanies the Quickening, especially very powerful ones.
Taking place in a new continuity, the animated series added a different type of Quickening than any previously shown. Due to the fact that it was a show aimed at young children and most of the Immortals passed on their power willingly, beheadings took place off-screen and only by Kortan; the Quickenings of the main character, Quentin MacLeod, were transferred by both he and the Immortal Jettator making the transfer gripping his or her sword. If in the future, this becomes canon, it will mean that an immortal can give up his/her own Quickening to another at will, while still able to be taken by beheading an opponent. In one episode, Kortan was shown killing Connor MacLeod off-screen because he refused to transfer his Quickening through sword. Kortan later threatened Quentin with the ominous quote, "Your head will roll at my feet as did the head of Connor MacLeod."
There was never any official explanation given in the animated series as to how this type of Quickening developed, or if it had always been possible. The animated series is not considered canon.
Background Information and Notes
- In Highlander: The Series, the producers had to make the beheadings less violent and acceptable to television standards. Executive Producer Bill Panzer explains, "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."
- 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."
- Panzer remarked about the Quickening seen in "Revenge Is Sweet", "outside during day is not great for Quickenings. Quickenings like night, Quickenings like the special effects it gives you, Quickenings do not like blowing up flower pots. This is something we've learnt from experience here and we never did it again."
- Panzer says about the Quickeing seen in "See No Evil", set inside the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, "Because it was...a real old theater, doing the Quickening in there was a little eerie because any kind of pyrotechnics were kinda to be used outside, were dangerous, [they were] fireworks. And we had to use a whole new system of pyro, to cap it safely inside, and everybody was kind of happy that we worked it out in the theater without burning it at all."
- Panzer believes the most elaborate Quickening the staff ever made was the one in "Band of Brothers": "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."
- The fourth Highlander movie follows the plots and continuity of the show rather than the earlier movies. Therefore the Quickenings in this movie follow the rules of the show. The villain Jacob Kell has amassed more than 600 Quickenings. This is reflected in his increased skill as a fighter, and Connor's assertion that Duncan must kill him in order to be strong enough to defeat Kell. Criticism of the holy ground beheadings meant that all references to the Sanctuary being holy ground were removed from the DVD edition.