Please note: This review contains spoilers.
Duel With A Stranger is not only one of those classic episodes from Queen of Swords, it's not only one of the absolute highlights of the show's writing and acting, it's also the single-most heartbreaking episode to watch.
But it's also done with GREAT intelligence and purpose.
Tessa Alvarado has grown and flourished as the Queen of Swords. She's proven herself to be the champion of Santa Helena and its people, earning their love and adulation, and saving the day every time. But just when you think the series is in danger of becoming predictable, Duel With A Stranger (like Death to the Queen) turns all expectations upside down for the viewer, with the events here scarring Tessa forever.
Desperate to try and rid himself of the Queen of Swords, the corrupt Colonel Montoya has hired Spain's finest swordsman, Antonio to do the job. However, Antonio is the love of Tessa's life (once thought lost-forever), and the Queen naturally refuses to fight him. But Antonio is desperate for the riches promised for fulfilling the assassination (as his family was ruined by the war), and is so honor-obsessed that he refuses to listen to the Queen's facts about Montoya's corruption.
You have ALL the makings of a rich, outstanding episode, and thanks to Elizabeth Keyishian's writing and Richard Martin's directing, the whole thing comes together perfectly. The Queen of Swords faces her first, genuine struggle/torment that comes with her dual identities, and an unyielding opponent that she's unwilling, yet forced to fight for self-preservation. We also get insights into Tessa's past in Spain and see how true the romance was between her and Antonio, and also Marta's disapproval/dislike of him.
Antonio himself is a character that's every bit as three-dimensional as the Queen/Tessa. At heart, he's a fine, compassionate and noble man, with skills that are even greater than Tessa's. However, he has lost his way, and his obsession with honor has not only become self-destructive, it's made him desperate, arrogant and made him somewhat ego-maniacal. He stubbornly refuses to listen to Tessa or the Queen and he pushes the buttons of the woman he loves, forcing her hand in a brilliant fire-escape scene at Antonio's hotel room where the Queen narrowly escapes.
Of course, this all leads to the inevitable confrontation which is dramatic, psychological and flawlessly directed with the Queen of Swords not only being shockingly defeated, but also unmasked by Antonio! The music in this sequence is beautifully dramatic, and Tessie Santiago's expressions of having her identity compromised by her love are so genuinely human! Antonio's own shock and the exchange that follows make the drama all the more compelling!
It all snowballs from there. Antonio is now determined to get the truth, and starts vehemently defending Tessa's honour after being angered by a casual comment from Vera, who is coerced into revealing the truth about the Queen's activities. Unable to complete the job - now knowing the truth about Tessa's secret and crusade - Antonio steals Montoya's gold to help his family, and also plans to take Tessa with him back to Spain, who angrily refuses to rob from the people.
The whole thing is just SUCH a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions, and it's truly Tessie Santiago's crowning moment. After settling into the role of the Queen/Tessa, Santiago had truly thrived and grown to give what was arguably the performance of her life. Her desperation, her torment, her resolve, her love for Antonio, her fear of her identity, career and life all coming to an end, her refusal to listen to Marta's warnings, her despair over Antonio's dark change, her arguments with him and ultimately her reaction to losing him was all truly award-winning.
Big props also to Cristian de la Fuente who was perfectly cast in the role of Antonio. He was just as great as the main-cast and played up the depth and development of the character perfectly. You fear that he's changed for the worse - whereas Tessa has changed for the better - but in that final, tense climax, when you're unsure whether he's going to reveal the Queen's secret and end the life of the woman he loves, Antonio chooses to redeem himself by throwing Montoya's gold down and make a last stand to defend the Queen and what she stands for.
Of course in doing so, Antonio dies by Grisham's hand (whose hatred towards Antonio was built-up since the episode's beginning after being beaten soundly by him), and Tessa's attempts to stop him and save him are all for naught. Antonio is gone forever, the vengeful Grisham is not only soundly reprimanded by Montoya, but left to think what his jealously cost them both - a chance to rid themselves of the Queen. And of course, the grieving Tessa is left alone to despair and contemplate Montoya's vow that the Queen will 'pay for ruining ALL their lives.
Tessie's expression says it all. It truly feels like the Queen of Swords has done more harm than good, not just to Montoya, but to her own life as well.
I know I've waffled on for this review more than any other I've done for this show, but I can't help it. The story, plot, characters were ever-changing. The way Duel with a Stranger changed gears constantly was masterful and when the dust finally settled, things wouldn't be the same again, and would certainly haunt Tessa forever (as touched upon in End of Days).
Final rating: 10/10moreless