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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Lunatic with Lethal Combat Skills [Xena Rewatch 3.1-3.4]

January 28th, 2011 at 21:54

Season Three is upon us! Is it me, or is Gabrielle’s top getting tinier? Also, her boots this season are awesome.

3.1 – The Furies

Unlike last season, which ran through a few ‘meh’ episodes before hitting its stride, season three opens with a bang, presenting us with a powerful story that shows Xena in a whole new light, and potentially adds a whole lot of baggage to her mythos, while drawing a sharp line under one previously important element of her backstory.

Ares, that sexy snarky bastard, sics the Furies on Xena. Reimagined as a trio of New Romantic stripper babes with spiky hairdos, the Furies curse Xena with madness until she brings justice against a member of her family whose death was never avenged: her father.

The madness plotline is where the story could really have gone off the rails. Indeed it looks at first like they are going that route, with Lucy Lawless enacting her “madness” in a manic eyerolling, pantomime style. They make up for this unpromising start with some quieter scenes between Xena and Gabrielle as Xena tries to make sense of what is happening to her, and particularly where Gabrielle takes on the role of carer to her confused, hallucinating friend.

It is worth noting that, as with Callisto, Xena’s state of sanity/insanity is conveyed through the degree to which her hair is unbrushed.

It’s interesting that the production team decided to retroactively kill off Xena’s father, whom she always believed had left the family when she was young. Even more interesting is the revelation of who killed Daddy – Xena’s mother confesses quietly to the crime. The story is a classic Greek myth, then, with Orestes son of Agamemnon referenced – his situation was similar to Xena’s, and his story ended in great tragedy.

The clever part to this story, as Xena rants, rolls, threatens suicide and is enthusiastically corrupted by Ares, is that there is an element of Oedipus the King in here too – specifically, the way he plays the part of history’s first literary detective, working out the crime through the testimony of witnesses. Even when crazy, Xena is sharp as a sword, and the whole situation crashes towards one of the show’s most iconic scenes, in which a deranged Xena completely lawyers the Furies, convincing them and the audience that her real father is in fact Ares.

The episode is utterly convincing on this score. But – Ares, Xena’s father? Really? Once her sanity has returned, Xena makes it clear to Ares that she was lying to convince the Furies and doesn’t really buy the idea that he is her father. Indeed, the issue is never mentioned again – but it’s left up to the individual viewer to decide for themselves whether it’s true.

For myself, while I am intrigued by the idea of Ares being Xena’s father and the entirely squicky angle that adds to his attempts to seduce her over the next four years, I don’t want it to be true. The awesome thing about Xena is that she is not half god – her powers and skills are her own, and she has created her own identity as a great warrior. I don’t want her to be just another Hercules, in the shadow of a godly parent. The fact that she can kick Ares’ leather-clad arse is so much more excellent if she is entirely mortal, even if it’s a touch improbable.

3.2 Been There, Done That

Simply one of the best standalone Xena episodes ever. By now you should be used to this show’s habit of taking a trope used by every other SF/Fantasy TV show and putting a special Xenaverse spin on it. This is the Groundhog Day episode. It completely suckered me the first time around, killing Joxer in a street fight three minutes in, and having our heroines grieve for him before the opening credits roll. It’s memorable also for forcing Xena to grieve for Argo, and for Gabrielle. I completely can’t hear the words ‘rise and shine’ without remembering this one!

Apart from the fact that “Groundhog Day” is an excellent plot that enables you to explore character in all kinds of interesting ways, one of the cool things about this one is that again we get to see our heroine using her brain, playing Great Detective. Her eventual solution to needing to be in several different places at once, involving a mixture of psychology and geometry is ingenious, impossible and very, very Xena.

It’s also one of the best pieces of evidence that Xena comedies work best when Xena herself is deadly serious, with occasional outbursts of snark, Emma Peel eyebrow lifts and impulsive violence.

Her bwahaha moment at the end also proves my point, but from the other direction.

PS: This one is all Cupid’s fault. He is basically stalking Xena at this point, though never actually appears.

3.3 The Dirty Half Dozen

This is another ‘Xena gathers a gang of bad bad people together for a nobleish cause’ caper – one I really loved the first time I was watching this season. It doesn’t hold up well, sadly. The central romance between an angry man-hating feminist slaver and a hunky alpha male gladiator (yes, really) is dreadfully trite, and the whole script is full of painful dialogue. What works, as ever, is Ares (it’s now a tradition to shoot him on the diagonal, possibly to make the actor look taller) being wicked and trying pathetically to replace Xena with a warlord who isn’t fit to spit-polish her breastplate.

In this case, we have Agathon, a stringy-haired youth armed with super-powered armour made by Hephaestus. And you know, there’s lots of running around and shouting and Xena’s new allies all trying to kill each other. The best bit, the jailbreak of Xena’s allies, is explosive and fun.

The point of the episode is very clear: this is a group of people who were Xena’s protegees in the old days, and whom she shaped into very bad people. Gabrielle quite rightfully asks some tricksy questions about this – namely, what would have become of her if she had followed Xena in those bad old days? While the questions are given serious attention, they aren’t really answered beyond the obvious – duh, Xena wouldn’t have looked twice at her back then.

Xena’s history is never forgotten, and is always coming back to bite her. You could certainly argue that she does far more to acknowledge, own and repay her debts from the past than other villain-redeemed TV shows such as Angel who got off pretty lightly thanks to the whole soul/not soul division of actions.

The badass feminist manhating slaver Glyphaera is played by that woman who was a vet on Home and Away once. I used to know her character’s name off by heart, and feel a little sad that I no longer do. Shame about the dodgy Californian accent.

3.4 The Deliverer

This is the first episode of “the Rift” arc which dominated season three. It’s this story arc which really saw Xena come of age as a show, with the production team bold enough to shake their formula to the core, and to allow both their female leads to come into drastic conflict. For a show that is very much about female independence, it fascinates me that they used maternity as the theme to create antagonism between Xena and Gabrielle, setting it up as the one tie that is more important than that between the two of them. It is to the show’s credit that it survived such a harsh emotional arc which pushes both women to the brink of wanting to kill each other – not due to a misunderstanding, or cosmic interference, but because they have legitimate cause to hate each other – and then to resolve it so they can continue their friendship, more deeply than before.

It could have gone so terribly, terribly wrong.

But I digress! All I remembered of this episode was pretty much the last five minutes, which is the part relevant to “the Rift”, and had entirely forgotten that it centres around Boadicea as well as the return of Caesar. Boadicea is one of a long line of powerful female characters who have a history with Xena, and whom Xena has come to appreciate differently now that she is a more loving and caring person.

The Queen of the Britons is here played magnificently by Jennifer Ward-Leland, a New Zealand theatre/TV actress who also happens to be married to Michael Hearst (Iolaus and later a regular director on both Hercules and Xena). Ward-Leland brings a great gravitas to Boadicea, and beyond her great performance I enjoyed the fact that she is a statuesque older woman. It is always nice to see glamour roles played by women who aren’t stick thin or under 25, and to be fair this is something Xena did excellently.

Xena’s friendship with Boadicea has barely weathered the storm of her past betrayal, and the two women work together though they still do not trust each other, to bring down a common enemy: Caesar. Their interactions are rocky and at times violent, though ultimately they do work amazingly together and the chemistry between the two characters is fantastic.

Caesar is in good form again, repeating some of his catchphrases mantra-like and strutting around Britannia like an armoured peacock. Watching the look on his face as Xena and Boadicea get the better of him on the battlefield is totally worth the price of admission.

But of course, all of this is one glorious, clever, distracting red herring. The story isn’t about Boadicea and Caesar at all, though it will be very significant that Xena came to Britannia out of anger, to get revenge on the man who betrayed her. The real story has been happening in the quiet moments between Gabrielle and the burly Celtic priest who brought them to this country – a priest who worships one god.

We’ve seen this before. It’s an allusion to the Christian/Hebrew god, and that means the priests are gentle and trustworthy, right? Right? Only, too late, Gabrielle discovers that they weren’t talking about “the god of the Israelites” at all. There’s another god whose followers claim him as the only one, and we’re suddenly at sea, far from Christian mythology… well. Ish.

The god in question is Dahak, and his followers manage to force Gabrielle into a situation where she has to take a life. There is blood on her hands, and as the episode closes, she weeps uncontrollably in Xena’s arms, knowing that nothing will ever be the same again…

How right she is.

The emphasis on Gabrielle’s “blood innocence” which has been alluded to regularly since she joined Xena, is finally paid off in the powerful close to this episode, where her innocence is used as a sacrifice to an “evil” god we have never heard of before. These events and those which follow will have repercussions with Gabrielle and her journey over the next two years, as she struggles to make sense of her place in a violent world, and how she can come to terms with sharing Xena’s life but not her casual attitude about sticking swords in people.

The creation of Dahak as villain is an interesting one. Up until now, in the Herc-and-Xenaverse, they have been content to use “real” gods, mostly from Greek mythology, as antagonists. Ares and to a greater extent, Hera, have both played the part of villain in true melodramatic form, but they are always given quite human or humanistic (and traditional) motivations which reflect their character and backstory – Hera hates Hercules because of Zeus’s infidelities, Ares is jealous of his father’s affection for Hercules, and also wants to lure Xena back to “serving him.” Aphrodite mostly wants to make sure all her temples are well-tended, and isn’t above starting a war or two to get what she wants. Hades is all about the paperwork. All of these gods can be reasoned with and bargained with, because they have needs, desires and personalities. Dahak, though, is pure evil, pure darkness, and no personality beyond a fairly stereotypical demonic presence – though it is important to note that he is firmly placed outside Christian tradition, and in fact we’ll be getting to “real” creatures from the Christian concept of Hell a bit later.

While it does make sense to create a fictional lord of darkness rather than using an existing mythology (which might raise red flags of offensiveness), I’m not sure why they were so set on such a creation. Despite his lack of charisma or historical tradition, Dahak has his uses. While he has no personality as such, his stories are deeply personal for our protagonists, and his appearance always raises the stakes to world-in-peril proportions. As a side note, he was used excellently in Hercules in later seasons, and morphed into a very effective Big Bad over there.

The best thing about the introduction of Dahak in this episode is Ares’ reaction. I was startled to see Ares turn up as I didn’t recall him having much to do with this arc at all – and indeed he doesn’t. He is here because he knows Dahak is coming, and he (along with the other gods – we see the first appearance of mouthy goth girl Discord in this ep) is afraid. He even tries to trick Xena into destroying the temple, but she sees through his ruse if not his reason for trying it on.

So we know that bad stuff is coming, the kind of bad stuff that sends chills down the spine of the meanest god we’ve met so far on this show. That can’t be good…

CHAKRAM STATISTICS:
Boys who want romance with Xena: 10
Boys Xena allows to romance her: 5
Xena dead boyfriends: 2
Gabrielle dead boyfriends: 2/7
“Adorable” children: 31
Babies: 5
Babies tossed humorously in the air during fight scenes: 6
Xena doppelgangers: 3
Xena sings at a funeral: 3
Xena dies: 3
Gabrielle dies: 3
Characters brought back from the dead (including ghosts and visits to the Underworld): 21
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): 5
Out of the Pantheon: Morpheus, Ares, Hera, the Titans, Hades, Celesta, Charon, the Fates, Bacchus, Aphrodite, Cupid, Poseidon, the Furies, Discord
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, Ulysses, Penelope, Cecrops, Boadicea

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
Divide and Conquer
My Sword is Always Ready to Pleasure You
Hide the Hestian Virgins!

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One Response to “Lunatic with Lethal Combat Skills [Xena Rewatch 3.1-3.4]”

  1. Alex Says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Furies, (and/but) those costumes are outrageous! :D

    Love a good Groundhog Day.

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