As far as best episodes of Xena ever go, this one makes a good case for itself. In the pre-credits sequence, Xena does her usual thing of trying to save a bunch of villagers (and Gabrielle) from some big meanies. Only this time, she manages to get herself seriously wounded. To the show’s credit, they don’t let her fall thanks to an ordinary fight, or an error in judgement.
No, to get the better of Xena it takes a massive great tree on a pulley system cracking her against another massive great tree.
In any case, she manages to give Gabrielle instructions on where to take her to get help (a mountaintop, that won’t be hard at all!) and lapses into unconsciousness.
As Gabrielle struggles to get Xena to her destination, we are treated to a flashback story about how Xena crossed over from a bad-ass woman with a mission to protect her village, to an evil warlord who cared about nothing but power and screwing people over and KILL KILL KILL.
Naturally, it’s because of a bloke.
At this point, if someone were describing it to me, I would be very annoyed that our major subversive feminist hero went to her darkest place ever because of a man. I might in fact want to kick, bite and break things. But we are not just talking about any man here. We are talking about (drum roll) JULIUS FREAKING CAESAR, thank you very much, and as the episode demonstrates, it’s not just any love story gone bad. It’s far more interesting than that.
My favourite Caesar anecdote of all times, made especially glorious in Colleen McCullough’s retelling in (I think) Fortune’s Favourites (a novel rumoured to have inspired this very episode), is about how as a young man he was captured by pirates. He not only demanded that they ask a much higher ransom than they originally intended, but also promised that he would come back and capture them all in return, and that when he did, he would crucify them honourably rather than selling them as slaves. They laughed good-naturedly, knowing he could never find their secret cove again, but he was true to his word, much smarter than they gave him credit for, and duly had them all executed.
In this version, Xena is the pirate captain. And Caesar is devastatingly charismatic, while at the same time giving the overall impression that he is a smug, privileged private schoolboy with delusions of grandeur. Caesar is played by Karl Urban. He is smarmy, irritating and supremely confident, and Xena pretty much wants to rip the clothes right off him. So she does.
[FAR TOO MANY SPOILERS FOR THIS ONE, COULDN’T HELP MYSELF]
Xena also quickly comes to trust Caesar, as an equal and a friend, believing that his plans to rule the world fit beautifully with her own. Which makes it all the more crushing when he betrays her, and then has her crucified, her legs broken (technically in historical terms this is an act of mercy to make death come faster, though it’s not so merciful if the crucifee escapes the cross) without turning a hair.
Urban’s performance is brilliant and dynamic. He is completely wrong in so many ways, compared to the Julius Caesar in my head, and yet so very, very right. This is Caesar played as a Bond villain, but we see his motivation quite clearly in scenes where he talks to Xena or his men about his plans for his future. His cleverness and cruelty dovetail into this perfect performance. And oh, for the classics student, the IN-JOKES, oh my, the in-jokes. His dialogue is littered with actual Caesar quotes, made to fit natural dialogue, and he carries it off with such aplomb. My favourite beyond all measure is when he casually informs Xena that Gaul is divided into three parts, because it’s relevant to the conversation at hand. THIS IS COMEDY GOLD, PEOPLE.
Ahem. To look at it another way, this is not a story about Xena/Caesar at all. It is the first of a series of stories which show us how ten-years-ago-evil-Xena (all flashbacks occurred exactly ten years ago, much like the moon is always full in every single night scene) befriended and learned vital skills from an interesting woman. In this case M’Lila, an Egypto-Gaulish (go with me on this) slave/warrior/healer who cannot even speak the same language as Xena is captured by the pirates, and uses pressure points while fighting them. Xena spares her and demands the girl teach her to do the same.
M’Lila later rescues Xena from the cross, and takes her to her healer friend to fix her legs – the same healer friend to whom Gabrielle takes the brutally damaged Xena ten years later. And here’s the clever part. While Caesar’s betrayal undoubtedly hurt Xena, it is M’Lila whose actions push her over the cliff to the sea of evil when soldiers break into the hut and the girl deliberately takes a crossbow bolt meant for Xena.
What follows is a powerfully staged fight scene in which Xena battles a gang of Romans all without standing up (which she can’t, her legs still being broken) and uses the pressure point thingy to suffocate at least one of them under her hands. It is interesting to see her develop the techniques which she later uses to limit the violence she does to others, only here using them in a brutal fashion.
The kicker to the episode is when present Xena, after wallowing in the mistakes of past Xena, finally dies. Yes, again. Hush. As Gabrielle mourns, dead Xena chats with the serene and just-as-dead M’Lila about her future. Because of course, Xena can’t stay dead. Right?
I wonder how tempted they were not to finish this episode with ‘to be continued.’ This episode has a similar kick as Buffy’s “The Gift” which came at the end of her season 5, and it would be nice if we could entertain the notion even for a minute that the death might be final, and tragic. But here we are only a season and a half into Xena’s story arc, and she’s dead again. So of course she’s coming back. The only question is, how?
Following on from possibly the best episode of Xena ever comes possibly the best ever Xena-lite episode – and as I mentioned before, the bar for these is set pretty high. In this case, Xena is mostly not in the episode because she’s dead, but that’s okay. We won’t let a little thing like this stop us.
It’s also fair to say that, while The Return of Callisto featuring the death of Perdicas was Gabrielle’s growing up episode, this is the first one that really shows her coming into her own and taking on adult responsibilities. When she lost Perdicas, she still had Xena to prop her up, but now she is entirely on her own – well, not ENTIRELY, as we shall see.
Iolaus turns up for a short interlude early on in the episode, and I have to admit that this scene made me completely ship he and Gabrielle for some time (I think I continued to do so right up until I saw the skeezy first episode back in season one where the show was actually trying to ship them, and went completely off the idea). He is rather lovely in this, being the person she has to break the news to about Xena’s death (everyone else hears it on the grapevine) and there is much comfort cuddling before he runs off to tell the most important person in HIS life all about it. Cos obviously Michael Hearst was just on his lunch break from the Hercules show.
Gabrielle next runs into her old pals the Amazons, and discovers that the awesome queen from last season has been killed off by the snarky and obviously evil new queen, unless of course Gabrielle wants to exercise her pesky Right of Caste and be queen herself. No pressure.
The evil queen, by the way, is called Velasca. While I never watched the OC, I did occasionally notice screenshots of Melinda Clarke being generally evil, or marrying Jim from Neighbours, or whatever, and I always without fail went ‘oh look it’s Velasca, Eeeevil Amazon queen!’ Cos that is what she is. Evil with four ‘e’s.
Gabrielle once more has to choose between her loyalty to Xena and the Amazons, and Xena’s death does give the Amazons a bit of a fighting chance… but no, here comes Autolycus, possessed by the ghost of Xena, doing a touch of bodysnatching, and who could resist going along with the plan? It’s an awesome plan!
I now face my greatest regret of this rewatch, which is that I was not counting kisses. I’m convinced this isn’t the first Xena-Gabrielle kiss. Not even the first non-lifesaving one. Right? Then again, maybe it is. This feels like a pretty important one, anyway, mostly because it is utterly romantic rather than just aww you’re my best friendy. Also – and this is where the subversive queer-friendly fans have a legitimate beef – it happens while one of them is in the body of a man.
Okay, I can start the count for that one, I guess, since this is the first and not last time that occurs.
INTERLUDE: UNEXPECTED MINI-ESSAY ABOUT XENA AND LESBIAN SUBTEXT
It’s important to remember the climate of the time. Lesbian kissing was a Thing and not yet so trendy that people were rolling their eyes about it, or it was guaranteed to pull in ratings.
1991 – first lesbian kiss on TV ever, in LA Law. Fainting couches were required.
1997 – Xena kisses Gabrielle from the underworld, only for Gabrielle to open her eyes and realise she was really kissing Autolycus, mustache and all. Embarrassment!
1998 – Will and Grace starts, gay characters are officially cool, though there is a suspicious lack of same sex kissing in the show, and Will doesn’t actually get a boyfriend for a very long time.
2001 – Rachel kisses some female celebrity on Friends, Willow & Tara have a relationship, and lesbian kissing is officially a thing that TV does to make itself look hip and with it.
2004 – The L Word begins, featuring multiple lesbian characters who do not (all) get killed or end up hooking up with blokes. Hooray!
You know what’s really interesting? In my very brief hunt for information about this, I found a whole lot of timelines showing the progression of lesbian kisses and relationships in TV. Know what show did not rate a mention in any of them at all? Yep. I mean, I know it was filmed in New Zealand, but come on, people! This was ground-breaking stuff. And even if you subscribe to the theory (as I did for many denial-filled years) that Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship is entirely 100% platonic, that doesn’t explain how the show got away with so much overt girl-on-girl content except that people were so busy looking at the CGI centaurs they missed the naked women in a bath together.
I think I just answered my own question there.
Somehow, Xena managed to balance a fine line, between being just titillating enough that straight men could pretend that Xena & Gab were putting on a show for them, and just subversive enough that people who liked the idea of a lesbian relationship could genuinely enjoy the interactions, and yet JUST conventional enough that they could whistle loudly and claim that no one was doing anything threatening or gay over here, no sirree. Geniuses of subtlety.
Except, and here’s the thing. They weren’t actually being that subtle.
In previous posts I mentioned that the possibility of Xena and Gabrielle being a couple was a meta-joke in the show until many many seasons later. Um. No. Because there’s The Quest, smack bang in the middle of season two. This entire episode is about Xena and Gabrielle’s love for each other – Gabrielle’s frustration and grief at being left behind, and Xena’s determination to make it back to her. It’s a love story, guys. Here am I blinking my eyes, trying to figure out how I didn’t realise that the first time around. Oh, right, social conditioning. Never mind.
The scene in which Gabrielle ends up kissing Autolycus after Xena borrowed his body – sure, a man has been used to “transmit” the kiss, but the two actresses did actually kiss and it was not a friendly ‘I’ll be there for you’ kind of peck, it was a firm, romantic statement. If that’s not clear from the scene, it is most definitely clear from the frozen “is that my moustache in your mouth” scene between Autolycus and Gabrielle immediately afterwards, and his sheer embarrassment at not having realised before that, you know.
There’s a THING.
It’s a weird thing, though, because the show does play with the concept, ducking back and forth, committing to the love between Xena and Gabrielle and yet denying it. They both fall in and out of other romances, and jealousy only rears its head when, as with Gabrielle’s marriage, they look close to losing each other. So are they romantic, or not? It feels a bit like we’re expected to accept a dual parallel reality, one in which they are saucy bisexual wenches who love each other but like to play with other people, and one in which they are genuinely just good friends who happen to kiss, touch and gaze at each other a lot, and make grand declarations of eternity and soulmatitude, but are still potentially open to finding that special guy. Because they are all down with the straightness.
It’s doing my head in, to be honest. It’s not that I want to put them in a box and declare that they are DEFINITELY in a relationship or DEFINITELY not, because that tightrope is part of the show’s essential identity, but at times I think too hard about what the show wants me to think, and then I get all confused and befuddled. There is definitely a feeling that a) the production crew are covertly including a lesbian narrative and b) said narrative is only present in certain episodes and we’re expected to completely ignore it the rest of the time. There are episodes which make no sense if the characters are not in love, and episodes which make no sense if the characters ARE in love.
Which is, you know. Befuddling. But let’s get on with the actual episode reviews, shall we? Oh, no, wait, we can’t yet because…
Normally, if a Herc or Xena character crosses into the other show, it’s not a big deal. Even if the headline acts do it, you’re not necessarily missing much. There are a few notable exceptions (one being that Hercules’ character arc is not wound up in his own show but in a Xena ep the following year) and for some reason they mostly involve Callisto. It’s obvious from the scene with Iolaus and Gabrielle at the beginning of The Quest, and at other times, that Hercules and Xena have met up between episodes on occasion (or send each other strangely informative text messages from time to time), and I’m happy to leave it at that – stuff happening off screen is awesome and helps the world feel a bit more substantial.
But every now and then it’s worth catching up on what we did miss over in Hercules, in this case a Major Development concerning the formerly dead Callisto.
In “Surprise,” an episode which screened on the same day as “The Quest,” the goddess Hera visited Callisto in Tartarus and offered her one more day of life if she would kill Hercules. Being Callisto she says yes, and starts out by drugging Herc’s whole family. Blah blah blah, they team up together to save his Mummy, and Callisto ends up biting the fruit of the tree of life and getting immortality. BAD HERCULES. Sure, he traps her in a collapsed labyrinth, but you know she’s going to get out as soon as the Xena production crew can think up a remotely plausible (cough, or not) reason to do so. In other words, next week.
It is worth remembering though that in future when Gabrielle or Xena blame each other for Callisto being not dead and on the loose? It is actually Herc’s fault. All of it.
I love the whole Callisto crossover thing, and I’m a sucker for a bit of Hercules – when the show was screening in Australia back to back with Xena, I happily watched them alternately, as I did with Buffy and Angel. But I do think it’s weird to have a crossover like this which creates such a change in the Xenaverse, to a major Xena character, happening in the other show. It’s not the only time this happens – one of the most important Callisto stories which brings her arc full circle happens in Hercules, and if you only watched the Xena episodes, you would miss out on some really important stuff.
It’s also worth mentioning that immediately after “Surprise” comes the three part arc in which Hercules falls in love (actually quite a rare thing in his show, he only had 4-5 real lovity love interests over 6 years plus the telemovies) and marries Serena, formerly Ares’ “Golden Hind”. At the end of the storyline he wakes up on his honeymoon to find himself drenched in her blood and accused of her murder. Apart from it being one of the best runs of episodes in Hercules, with great chemistry (the actress playing Serena ended up marrying Kevin Sorbo!) and the introduction of Kevin Smith’s Ares as the nemesis of Herc (he was so good in Xena that Hercules decided to borrow him forever), it’s also important because Xena and Gabrielle make an appearance at the wedding, and it serves as the official drawing-a-line-under the Herc-Xena relationship. Not that we really needed confirmation of that! But closure is important.
The last of those three episodes finishes a few weeks after this point in the Xenaverse but I am assuming that despite the running order, the Hind episodes come first in the character chronology – while it’s clear Xena and Hercules do occasionally meet up between episodes, this is the perfect opportunity for him to mention to her what he did to Callisto (I haven’t rewatched these recently so don’t remember if this is on screen but suspect not) and it’s implied that there has been a longish time gap between “Surprise” and “A Necessary Evil”.
Possibly no one but me thinks too hard about this stuff.
Anyhow, moving on…
In which bitch queen Velasca gets hold of ambrosia and turns herself into a goddess, determined to get revenge against Gabrielle and the rest of the Amazons. Xena decides that her best bet is to free Callisto from her prison. Yes, really. That was her first response. “I know, let’s release our greatest enemy, that will help the situation!” The good news is that during her “entombed for eternity” phase (less than a week real time) Callisto seems to have gone even crazier than before and is now having deep and meaningful conversations with rats. Awesome!
I always loved this one, as I love every episode in the Callisto arc, but revisiting it this time around I was struck by the extreme irony of the title. Really, it wasn’t necessary at all. Releasing Callisto was blatantly a stupid thing to do.
It’s a thin excuse for teaming Xena up with the immortal Callisto, and even if the result is pretty awesome – in the way that nemesis team ups are always awesome, especially if you throw in a bunch of Amazons and explosions – I kind of wish they’d worked harder to make it believable especially when the emotional core of the episode is how utterly awful it is for Gabrielle to deal with Callisto, the woman who killed her husband. Plus, you know, Callisto is pretty bloody untrustworthy, as proven by the fact that it takes her about ten seconds after meeting Velasca to suggest the two of them team up to destroy Xena. Ten seconds. This was not a surprise to anyone, Xena!
But let’s not dwell on the stupidity. There are some gleams of goodness here. There is a marvellous campfire scene between Callisto and Gabrielle, and then Callisto and Xena. The three actresses have fantastic chemistry, and you can see everything you need to know about the characters in that one scene.
And oh yes, by the end of the episode, Callisto has got her hands on ambrosia, so is not just immortal but a god. Good one, Xena. You just swapped a vengeful goddess who has hated Gabrielle for five minutes for a vengeful goddess who has hated you both FOREVER. Okay, you put her in a river of lava (love the idea that this is a natural feature of Ancient Greece) but, still. We all know she’s coming back.
Who needs a clip show to do the meta thing? A Day in the Life is one of those episodes in which the Xena production team take control of the presentation of the show’s mythology. It was also a fan favourite, though not one of mine – looking at it now, I realise why. Later on there were two grades of comedy episodes – those in which Xena plays it straight, and those in which she is far too arch and heightened-realism. I love Xena (the character) being deadpan funny or sarcastic funny, and I enjoy the higher comic acting when she’s forced into crazy situations or dress ups, but I feel uncomfortable when her character goes too far into arch and slapsticky and silly, and very uncomfortable when Xena herself becomes a figure of fun.
This isn’t one of those, but it comes close. While it’s done very well here, there are moments that make me wince, thinking of some of the horrific bad comedy episodes to come. (oh, the foot fungus one, oh dear)
A Day in the Life (which I think is also Michael Hearst’s debut directing for the show) is basically a collection of Xena greatest hits, which is why it reminds me of a clip show. There’s comedy fishing, a fight scene involving domestic implements, a giant, some bloke falling for Xena, a bath scene for the two women, etc…
What lifts it above its basic material is the dialogue. The conceit is that this is just an ordinary day, possibly one between episodes. Xena and Gabrielle bicker like a married couple and keep each other entertained with guessing games and meta-chat about how their life works. The whole thing is full of running jokes, and people poking holes in the conventions of the show. The guy Xena puts “the pinch” on interrupts her usual explanation because he’s heard about it before. Xena uses one of Gab’s scrolls “in the bushes” because there weren’t any big enough leaves, and Gab retaliates by using the chakram to clean fish. There’s also Minya, a Xena fangirl who knows more detail about their lives than they do.
The conventional wisdom among fans was I think that this episode is the first one that acknowledges/hints at Xena and Gabrielle being a couple (seriously, after The Quest, it took this one to make people think that?) – there’s one line in particular where the lovestruck villager Howard asks Gabrielle if Xena has ever thought of settling down and she replies “she likes what I do” though is then hit by a fish and corrects by saying “she likes what she’s doing.” I believe it might have been an ad lib that got out of control…
What I really like about this one is that it acknowledges the inventiveness and creativity in Xena’s fighting style, and looks a little at the mechanics behind that. It shows all the “behind the scenes” aspects of their life including how they deal with lovelorn villagers (& leather fetishists), how they deal with meals and bathing and going to the toilet (seriously, LEAVES?). It shows the long boring bits in between the action and adventure, and how they keep themselves entertained. Also, they fly a kite.
Boys who want romance with Xena: 9
Boys Xena allows to romance her: 3
Xena dead boyfriends: 2
Gabrielle dead boyfriends: 2/7
“Adorable” children: 31
Babies tossed humorously in the air during fight scenes: 6
Xena doppelgangers: 3
Xena sings at a funeral: 2
Xena dies: 2
Gabrielle dies: 1
Characters brought back from the dead (including ghosts and visits to the Underworld): 13
Ares loses his powers and goes all to pieces about it: 1
Xena or Gabrielle earns money: 1
Xena or Gabrielle spends money (or claims to have money to spend): 4
Out of the Pantheon: Morpheus, Ares, Hera, the Titans, Hades, Celesta, Charon, the Fates, Bacchus
The Celebrity Red Carpet of the Ancient World: Pandora, Prometheus, Hercules, Iolaus, Sisyphus, Helen of Troy, Paris, Deiphobus, Menelaus, Euripides, Homer, Autolycus, Meleager, Oracle of Delphi, David, Goliath, Orpheus, Julius Caesar, Brutus
Previous Xena Rewatch Posts:
Warlord is a Lady Tonight
I Don’t Work For Money
Amazon Wanna Take A Ride?
Go To Tartarus!
Swashbuckle and Shams
Death In A Chainmail Bikini
Full Moon It Must Be Xena
How Do You Mortals Get From Day to Day?
The Future is Archaeologists