Character: Joe Dawson
Spoilers: All seasons of Highlander, with an attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum.
Website: Sword and Stake
Thanks to my beta the_rice_girl
The Human Touch
Surrounded by Immortals, what sets Joe Dawson apart is his very humanity. Joe is a good man, but first and foremost, he is a man. He’s brave. He’s loyal. He has principles. He makes mistakes. Tempered by loss, he nevertheless retains his optimism. He cares. He’s the kind of friend I’d want to have.
We first meet Joe Dawson in the first episode of the second season, The Watchers. Mortals have discovered the existence of the Immortals and are systematically exterminating them with no care for the rules of the Game, and no interest in whether the Immortal is good or evil. Their ‘difference’ is enough to make them targets. When Duncan MacLeod’s good friend Darius, a priest and a man of peace, is murdered in his own church—where he should have been safe on Holy Ground—Duncan goes looking for answers.
Following a clue left for him by Darius, MacLeod goes to a bookstore called Shakespeare and Co. in Seacouver, and both MacLeod and the viewers meet Joe Dawson for the first time. We discover that Joe is a member of an organization called the Watchers, a secret society of men and women who know the truth about Immortals and who observe and record for posterity, but who never interfere. Well, non-interference is part of the official credo, but as we’ll eventually discover, Joe isn’t always good at following that particular rule—and thank goodness, he isn’t!
Joe values honor and friendship more highly than unthinking adherence to rules. But those very qualities put Joe smack-dab in the middle of conflicting loyalties.
In his very first appearance on Highlander, Joe discovers that it is rogue Watchers who are murdering Immortals, and they are lead by his own brother-in-law, James Horton.
Joe has dedicated his whole life to the Watcher organization and he absolutely believes in the value of that organization. To Joe, Immortals are fascinating, fantastic individuals who carry centuries of experience and historical truth within their minds. They know exactly what happened in the past, because they were there. The observation of Immortals enriches humanity.
On the other hand, Joe is 50ish and unmarried. Having lost both legs in Viet Nam, Joe is rather shy and awkward around women. He doesn’t date much, and has forged a life he is comfortable with, around his duties as a Watcher and his love of books and music—especially the Blues, which speaks to his soul. He meets his needs for intimacy and connection by maintaining a close relationship with his sister’s family—his brother-in-law, James Horton, who is also a Watcher, his niece, Lynn Horton, and her fiancé Robert, yet another Watcher.
When Joe discovers Immortals are being indiscriminately murdered, he is disturbed. When he discovers one of the casualties is Father Darius, for whom he has the utmost respect, he is shocked and saddened. When he learns that it is his own brother-in-law, consumed by hate and envy, that is masterminding the killings, perverting the resources of the Watcher organization to do so, Joe is devastated.
Still believing there must be some kind of mistake, Joe goes to confront Horton, discovering that Horton has even killed his prospective son-in-law to keep his secret.
MacLeod is also tracking Horton to avenge Darius’ murder.
When Joe confronts Horton, his response is to threaten to kill Joe. There is a struggle and Horton shoots MacLeod, who manages to run Horton through with his sword; leaving Joe to comfort Lynn, who has lost both fiancé and father, and leaving the viewer with an interest in learning more about the Watchers, and especially Joe Dawson.
For me, that interest never waned throughout the run of Highlander and beyond; transferring to another form of Watcher in the character of Rupert Giles of BtVS, who equaled, but never exceeded my love for the character of Joe Dawson.
Horton’s attempted annihilation has also irrevocably changed the Watcher/Immortal dynamic. Watchers have always known about Immortals, but an Immortal is now aware of the Watchers. If either Joe Dawson or Duncan MacLeod had been a different kind of man, a bloody war of revenge could have resulted from Horton’s killing spree; instead, an uneasy truce is agreed upon.
Joe has made his decision, and within a short time, actually contacts Mac to let him know that a mass-murdering Immortal is back in the picture. Mac and Joe begin to work together, although the trust is still tentative.
That tentative trust is severely strained when another of the renegade Watchers kidnaps Mac’s fiancée as bait to set up MacLeod in The Darkness. Mac defeats the murderous Watcher, but as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as they have made their escape, a junkie attempts a robbery and Mac’s fiancée and protégé are shot. Tessa is dead, but Richie lives.
The ‘heart’ of Highlander has always centered on Mac’s relationships with others. Old loves and old enemies frequently provide the drama as Mac encounters figures from his past, but it is his present day core-group that becomes his family—Tessa, Richie, Joe, Amanda and Methos.
This essay’s purpose is to focus on Joe Dawson, but in order to understand the character, it is important to know something about the characters with whom he interacts.
What originally drew me to Highlander was the quality of the writing and the depth and texture of the characters. There are no one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out characters here. It may seem strange, when looking at the premise of the show—which is fundamentally a kill-or-be-killed existence, consisting of never-ending battles to the death with other Immortals—to realize that the overriding tone of Highlander is warmth and friendship.
Duncan MacLeod has the ability to engender deep, caring friendships, and these friendships form the emotional basis of the show. Even the women with whom he is involved—Tessa, who shares with him a deeply passionate love, and the immortal Amanda—are also his friends. Richie, the street punk he takes in and mentors is his friend. Amanda and Methos, both morally ambiguous Immortals that haven’t always chosen the ‘right’ or honorable paths, according to MacLeod’s deep-seated sense of honor, are his friends. Charming rogue Hugh Fitzcairn is his friend; and Joe Dawson, MacLeod’s Watcher, who could so easily have become his enemy, becomes instead, his friend.
That friendship is sorely tested throughout the series as circumstances conspire to tear them apart again and again, but due to the extraordinariness of both men—the Immortal and the human—it survives.
The first real test of that friendship occurs within a very short time. In Unholy Alliance, Parts I and II, (2.14, 2.15), Mac finds out that Horton is alive and well. Joe could not bring himself to kill his brother-in-law, so he spared his life on the condition that Horton ‘disappear’, and have no further contact with Immortals or Watchers. Of course, Horton can’t let things go; he is truly evil and has an agenda. Horton teams up with an evil Immortal to ‘fix’ the Game. Horton has promised to help Xavier St. Cloud be the last Immortal standing (‘There can be only one’), in return for delivering Mac to Horton.
Joe is in an untenable position. He swears he knew nothing about Horton’s evil plans, but Mac doesn’t care; Joe lied to him and the trust is broken. Joe attempts to help Mac track down Xavier, and they separately follow Horton and St Cloud to Paris. Horton nearly escapes, but Joe has realized the error of his earlier leniency and shoots him. Unbeknownst to Joe, Horton has once again managed to cheat death.
Joe and Mac make peace, and team up to protect an innocent victim from an Immortal pretending to be a vampire. (The Vampire, 2.16).
James Horton has not ceased his evil plans, however; in the two-part season finale (Counterfeit, Parts I and II, 2.21 and 2.22), he conceives a truly twisted plot to take his revenge upon Mac by breaking a female criminal out of jail, arranging plastic surgery to make her a dead ringer for Tessa and arranging for Mac to meet her.
Joe flies to Paris to warn Mac that Horton may still be alive—his loyalties are no longer conflicted. Knowing the kind of men MacLeod and Horton are, Joe is now firmly on Mac’s side. Richie saves Joe’s life and Mac finally kills Horton—probably.
Mac and Joe begin to rebuild their friendship, and when Joe’s new girlfriend is killed by an Immortal (3.04, The Cross of St. Antoine), Mac agrees to help.
The relationship will be tested throughout the series, but the mutual respect Joe and MacLeod have for each other eventually triumphs over the kind of external events that would certainly have destroyed a lesser friendship.
One of the keys to the Dawson-MacLeod bond is that they relate to each other as equals. Joe may be in awe of MacLeod’s life experiences over the past 400 years, but he does not envy Mac’s immortality nor want it for himself. He doesn’t put Mac on a pedestal. He views Mac as a decent, honorable man.
Joe has not had a particularly easy life, and he suffers periods of depression, but he never becomes bitter. He keeps on—trying to do the right thing, living his life as honestly as he can.
We learn through backstory that Joe was a football hero in high school, dating the prom queen (5.04, Glory Days). He was a good student; popular and optimistic. After high school, he joined the Marines and fought in Viet Nam. In 1968, he lost both legs in a mine explosion (4.02, Brothers in Arms) and was saved by being carried through the jungle on the back of his Sergeant, whom he had previously seen die. In pain, despondent, and thinking he’s gone crazy, ‘Boy Scout’ (Joe’s nickname in Viet Nam) decides to commit suicide.
Ian Bancroft pays Joe a visit in the field hospital and assures him that he’s not crazy—Marine Sergeant Andrew Cord is an Immortal, and Ian is part of an organization called Watchers. Ian piques Joe’s interest, invites him to join the Watchers and gives Joe a reason to live. Joe has found his calling.
For twenty-five years, he is an exemplary Watcher, until Horton goes rogue, setting in motion a chain of events that will change Joe’s life forever.
A deeply private man, Joe sees himself as flawed. He is used to dedicating his life to work; he reads, he researches, he sings and plays guitar.
Joe’s ‘first contact’ with Immortals changes all that. He goes on to develop close friendships, not only with Duncan MacLeod, but with Amanda, Methos and Richie, as well. When we first meet Joe, he is the proprietor of a bookstore, an eminently appropriate occupation for one who watches and observes. Joe eventually comes to believe in himself enough to realize his dream—he opens a bar he names Joe’s Place, which features live blues music—frequently played and sung by Joe, himself. Joe has found his place.
In the fourth season, Joe is indicted by the very organization he loves and serves. The loss of Watcher lives has risen sharply in recent years, and the Watcher Tribunal attributes that death toll to Joe’s breaking his oath by telling Immortals about the Watchers (4.21 Judgment Day).
Mac tries to help Joe escape, but he refuses; Joe has always performed his duties with honor and integrity and he puts his life in the hands of the organization he serves. When found guilty and sentenced to death, Joe helps Mac escape, but hr refuses to leave; he accepts that he did knowingly break his Watcher’s Oath, does not regret doing so, and is willing to accept the consequences.
Mac and Methos discover that the Watcher killings are being done by an Immortal in retaliation for the murder of his beloved wife of 200+ years by—you guessed it—Horton’s rogue killers (4.22 One Minute to Midnight).
The Watchers’ Tribunal prepares to execute Joe by firing squad and he is shot, but the revenging Immortal, Jacob Galati, guns down the Tribunal. Mac and Methos are able to rescue a wounded Joe, but that does not negate his willingness to die for his principles and accept the consequences of his actions. Joe’s death sentence is eventually rescinded and he is reinstated in the Watchers.
Joe’s greatest temptation and crisis of conscience comes about through the enticements of an ancient Zoroastrian demon, Ahriman, who comes into power and attempts to take over the world every thousand years. This most recent cycle begins in 5.18 Archangel.
Each time Ahriman arises, a champion is designated to fight him. In 1625, Mac met a hermit who had been the previous Champion. At the beginning of the current millennium, this Champion had fought and defeated the demon that is the harbinger that ushers a great evil into the world. The hermit prophecies that MacLeod will be the next Champion.
When Ahriman does appear, Mac goes to Joe for help. Joe enlists other Watchers to help with researching Ahriman and anything at all they can dig up from the Chronicles and records which would help Mac.
Ahriman discovers the assistance of the Watchers and appears to Joe to get him to stop helping (6.02 Armageddon). Ahriman reminds Joe that Watchers are sworn to non-interference, and by dragging his friends and colleagues into the fight, Joe will be responsible for their deaths. When four of the Watchers are killed, in order to protect the organization, Joe calls off the Watcher help and support, but continues to do everything in his power, himself, to aid in the coming fight.
Having failed with intimidation, Ahriman switches to seduction, offering Joe the one thing he knows Joe desperately wants—not immortality, but the restoration of his legs. Joe refuses. His integrity triumphs over his deepest desire.
Jim Byrnes, the actor who plays Joe Dawson and captures his nuances so well, has discussed the character in interviews.
“We are all Watchers, everybody that’s a fan of the show. We are all members of the same organization, so I think that puts me, an ordinary guy, in extraordinary circumstances, and that gives everybody something to hang on to.
“I think that’s why the character has worked. We all get older and have our aches and pains and we look different every day, you know, a couple of extra miles, so it gives that sense of continuity. I just put everybody, all the viewers, I think, a little bit closer to the picture. Because they see me, and some days I don’t look so hot and some days I look all right. It’s the human element. Joe’s just an ordinary person witnessing extraordinary events.
“Joe’s been through the wringer. When you think about the consequences of what this would do to somebody seeing this shit happen, it’s like, whoa . . . devastating. It would be hard for [normal] people to be around him [Joe] too much, I think. He’s kind of a loner, because at some point, he’s got to have some serious demons. These people have witnessed this crazy stuff; how do you deal with it? It’s hard to be ordinary. Joe is ordinary, he’s really ordinary; I mean that in a good way.”
The very fact of Joe Dawson’s ordinariness makes him extraordinary to Highlander fans. If the Highlander characters were holidays (work with me here; it’s five days until Christmas and I’m in Holiday mode) MacLeod would be Valentine’s Day—romantic, loyal, chivalrous, loving and sexy. Amanda would be the Fourth of July/Guy Fawkes Day—explosive, exciting and sparkling. Methos would be Christmas—decorations obscuring what is underneath and wrapped packages that may contain wondrous gifts or a really ugly chartreuse sweater from your great aunt; Methos is an enigma. But Joe Dawson is Thanksgiving—warmth, thankfulness, friendship and family; he’s a rich, satisfying repast. He’s extra-ordinary.
One of the best general Highlander Fan Sites can be found at Highlander: the Series:
It includes information about the characters, the cast, episodes, friends and foes and has everything needed to begin a relationship with Highlander or to renew acquaintance with a long-time favorite.
Matt Notley’s The Highlander Watchers’ Chronicles:
is another very good resource, designed to follow the format of the actual Chronicles.
Seventh Dimension is an extensive Highlander Fanfic Archive where fanfic for nearly every taste can be found:
Note to my “other” fandom: If you’ve re-watched your Buffy Season 7 DVDs and are looking for something interesting to occupy you while waiting for Angel Season 5 to be released and Serenity to hit the theaters, why not give Highlander a chance? The first five seasons are out on DVD, with the 6th due in February. Plus, you can catch Anthony Stewart Head in the first season (1.21 Nowhere to Run) and Alexis Denisof in the last (6.04 Diplomatic Immunity).