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Tansy Rayner Roberts

My Fungus is Spreading [Xena Rewatch 4.1-4.4]

December 8th, 2012 at 10:43

4.1 Adventures in the Sin Trade Part 1

Ahh, those same old opening credits from Season 1, becoming less and less relevant.

Season 4 is the one I liked least of the entire Xena run, but given how long it took me to make my way through Season 3, previously my favourite, I am hoping to have my preconceptions challenged a little!

This episode is off to a good start, with an angry Xena chasing down the distracted and overworked god of the Underworld, Hades, across a battlefield which looks remarkably vivid for a single scene. The visuals of this season certainly have kicked it up a notch!

When she realises that Gabrielle’s dead spirit has almost certainly been filed with the Amazons, Xena ditches her beloved horse Argo and rides off across the Steppes (their ancestral land, apparently), burying her grief in a series of flashbacks about the last time she had anything to do with the Amazon afterlife…

Cue a long and complex saga involving Bad Hair Xena’s past affair with the dangerous but squishy-centred warlord Borias (long dead father of her now equally dead son Solan) and her encounter with the sinister shaman Alti.

One of the best things about the dynamic and ever-expanding backstory of Xena as a character is the tradition of powerful, mostly female role models she met along the way, mostly women who were far too good and noble for her to appreciate them as much in her Bad Hair days as Good Hair Xena did later, retrospectively. It’s like she stored her education in her head for when she was old enough to appreciate it. Though I suppose technically that’s how most education works…

Lao Ma, M’Lila… yeah Alti’s not one of those inspiring women. She’s very much the crazy-ass evil role model that Bad Hair Xena actually wanted, rather than a woman who would be retrospectively “good” for her once she started seeing straight..

After sacrificing a horse (not Argo!) to transport herself to the bleak Amazon land of the dead, Xena of the Now (I hesitate to say Good Hair cos, grieving. Oh hair, you confuse me) crosses paths with Cyane, a ghost from her past who totally makes her collection of ‘ladies I would have been BFF’s with had I met them when I was nicer,’ and whom I took valuable lessons from once they were dead.”

Gabrielle is nowhere in sight, but this new quest to redeem the sins of Xena’s past by helping Cyane and her Amazons to pass through the gate to eternity becomes a welcome distraction from that.

On a personal note, this season marks the point that I discovered online fandom, and thus my experience of these Xena episodes was assisted greatly by such resources as the old Whoosh! Episode Guides, fanfic and so on. 1999 was a big year for me! At the same time I was discovering online fandom for Buffy, my other big show of the time.
In the case of Xena, online resources were essential because of the erratic showings of episodes in Australia, so that I often missed episodes or got to watch them in a fun and apparently random order. Luckily I had been raised in Doctor Who fandom, so was able to navigate these choppy waters with a certain degree of calm and cool.

Oh, and I learned the hard way that reading episode transcripts is not a substitute for the real thing.

Back to Adventures in the Sin Trade. It’s a gorgeous, deeply emotional piece that looks amazing, particularly the new costume designs and the miracle of making New Zealand look like yet another new country and culture. And yet… it does feel very indulgent and slow in places. I miss my Xena banter to balance out the angst. It’s an oddly humourless piece, except for a few odd touches with Bad Hair Xena and Borias, who are the most adorable fucked up couple who never ever should have been together ever.

Oh and by the way? Alti’s spirit is still around, hidden inside an evil horse. That’s the cliffhanger.

4.2 Adventures in the Sin Trade Part 2

The relationship between Borias and Xena – and the key point that he is more into her and love generally than she is into him – is front and center throughout these stories. And yet… really, both episodes are all about the women, not about the hunky barbarian warlord. Sorry, Borias!

But the first big moment of this episode is that Current Xena pins her fringe back out of the way, and takes a steamy bath with one of her new friends. Meanwhile in flashbacks, we get to know more about her complex relationship with the Amazon Queen Cyane, including one of my favourite fight sequences ever in which Bad Hair Xena surprises a topless Cyane in her hut, and Cyane starts out apparently vulnerable, shielding her breasts with her hands, then manages to use her mighty fighting skills to effectively strip Xena of her own armour, dressing herself in those clothes and leaving Xena in little more than a scruffy blanket.

Okay, you kind of had to be there. But it is a hilarious, clever sequence that is more about character development than flashes of nudity, and shows some of the dark humour that I was missing in Part 1. Cyane is a great character, and you can see how she has also retrospectively had some serious influence on Xena’s growth – such as her chilly stare and her battlesmirk.

Interesting that after having her arse handed to her by the blonde Amazon Queen, Bad Hair Xena’s first response is not to declare war on her, but to decide she’s going to have to hang out with her for a while to learn some of her fighting tricks. That’s character progress for you! Lao Ma would be so proud.

In other news, there are so many strong and interesting women in this story that I have lost track of who some of them are. As soon as they take their reindeer hats off and hop into the sauna, they could be anyone!

The reindeer hats are pretty fetching, though.

Ultimately while the whole thing looks gorgeous, there are so many long meaningful looks and fight scenes that I did rather vague out. It doesn’t help that I can’t always figure out which bits are in the past or the present, as it can be one big blur of spiked trees, screaming and leather fringe. But most of all, Alti is no Callisto – she takes herself incredibly seriously, so wrapped up in being the Evil Priestess that she never feels like a real person.

This does not bode well for a future of Xena: Warrior Princess without Gabrielle.

But then, oh. Right at the end, as Xena and Alti fight on the spiritual plane, Alti tries to destroy Xena’s confidence by showing her a dreadful vision of the future: of Xena in a snowy land, being tied to a crucifix by grim-faced Romans. And at her side, an older Gabrielle with short hair, likewise being executed.

That’s what gives Xena the strength to win her fight, because if she and Gabrielle are being crucified in their future, that means Gabs is not dead NOW.

And that, my friends, is a happy ending, Xena-style.

We just have to hope Argo never figures out what she did to that other horse.

4.3 A Family Affair

Hey, so you know how Gabrielle sacrificed herself to destroy Hope and save Xena, at the end of last season, and it was totally awesome? Well, we’d better hope that that amazing and powerful finale is not wrecked in any way, by rendering both deaths as being massive cheats.

Yes, we’re back in the actual continuity, after Xena’s extended red herring holiday on the Barbarian Steppes. She finds Joxer right where she left him, glumly keeping up a regular supply of fresh flowers on the spot where Gabrielle fell, and tells him of her vision.

Humouring her, he follows her across country to Potidaea, Gabrielle’s home village where they find… well, Gabrielle. Shopping. Happy as anything. Their reunion is swift and joyous, and Gabby explains how she was knocked into a ‘niche in the wall’ while Hope fell to her death.

Yep, it all sounds too easy, doesn’t it?

Bodies are turning up drained of blood in Gabrielle’s previously peace-ridden village. Something is terribly wrong here. It doesn’t help that Gabby’s parents continue to be (understandably) anti-Xena, while embracing Joxer as the potential son-in-law they never knew they wanted.

Cue the schlock horror, and the slow gothic reveal.

Someone is trying to kill me and I think it’s my Gabrielle!

Yes, you guessed it. That whole thing where Gabby and Hope look identical has become mightily inconvenient. Who knew? Once the reveal is made that the Potidaea Gabrielle is in fact Hope, suddenly her acting skills (Hope’s, not Renee’s) fall by the wayside to make it Really Obvious in every scene. Funny how that always happens.

This starts out as a dreadful, dreadful story, which dilutes the brilliant ending from Sacrifice, makes Hope a far lesser villain than ever before, and pretty much chucks away the question of what was going to come of Hope’s Olympian baby to Ares: The Destroyer, Dahak’s grandchild.

Surprise, it’s a carnivorous monster. Pretty much the least interesting option. (what, no one else was looking forward to a ginger-blond Kevin Smith stalking around murdering people and taunting his grandmother Gabrielle?)

However, the story does the necessary job of bringing the real Gabrielle back to Xena – eventually. And the genuine, harder-won reunion is more powerful after our eyerolling was all used up on the insipid fakeout version of that reunion, so there’s that. Once Gabrielle is back in the story, it gets genuinely more interesting, with her having to deal the way her doppelganger daughter has replaced her in her own family.

Ultimately – well, how was this whole messy family saga going to end if not in tragedy? Hope, still angry at Gabrielle for constantly trying to murder her (fair point, really), is ultimately impaled on the spikes of her own monstrous son, himself lashing out at a perceived betrayal, and they die in each other’s arms.

There we have it, one last hideous trauma cherry on top of Gabrielle’s angst trifle. Suddenly following in Xena’s footsteps no longer seems like the way forward for her. But what else is there?

Ah well, she has the whole season to work it out, I’m that won’t have any tedious or annoying aspects to it at all. Oh, Season Four. I was so hoping you had changed in my absence.

4.4 In Sickness and in Health

So you know how Xena has always had this odd dichotomy of angst-drama episodes, action episodes, and comedy episodes, always treading a fine line between conflicting tones? And how sometimes, the sudden shift of moods of episodes seemed pretty odd and disjointed?

Well, welcome to Season Four, and the beginning of the Sheer Stupid Comedy episodes. It’s truly hard to imagine that this story exists in the same universe as Adventures in the Sin Trade or A Family Affair. The comedy is played so hard for laughs and gross-out moments that it feels painful, especially when Xena gets in on the action – in the past, she’s usually been the straight woman of comedy episodes, except when disguised as someone else. But here she is lice-ridden and slapstick driven, and it’s WEIRD.

Also, her hair is messy, which is screwing with my head. This is NOW Xena, she needs to have shiny hair.

And then there’s the rabbit. The one which is literally straight out of Monty Python. I think you know what kind of rabbit I’m talking about.

Unsubtle and sad, because I loved Xena comedy episodes, and they’ve kind of wrecked them now by taking it to ridiculous extremes. Scabrielle and X-ma. Sigh.

The only positive to come out of this episode is that Gabrielle and Xena are both such disgusting wrecks, and Joxer so patient and competent in dealing with their selfish butts that frankly he can be as annoying as he wants to be for about half a season – he’s earned a LOT of brownie points.

Oh and it wouldn’t be a real over-indulgent Xena comedy episode without a scene where Xena and Gabrielle bathe together! In this case, with all body mud packs and lice combing. Then swapping at half time.

The whole thing is pretty horrid, and I struggled to get to the end of it. The only thread that kept me going was Xena’s ongoing quest to earn back the love and respect of Argo, who was understandably miffed at being dumped a few episodes before. But even this was handled mostly with great awkwardness.

Then right at the end, Xena and Gabrielle shame Joxer out of taking financial reward for saving the village, so no one even gets to earn a living out of this one.

This episode got stupid all over me.

CHAKRAM STATISTICS:
People who want romance with Xena: 13
People Xena allows to romance her: 7
Xena dead lovers: 3
Gabrielle dead boyfriends: 2/7
“Adorable” children: 36
Babies: 5
Babies tossed humorously in the air during fight scenes: 6
Xena doppelgangers: 4
Xena sings a mourning song: 5
Gabrielle sprained ankles: 2
Xena dies: 3
Gabrielle dies: 4
Characters brought back from the dead (incl. ghosts and visits to the Underworld): 50 [an army of Amazons in this one, pushed the tally up like whoa]
Ares loses his powers and goes all to pieces about it: 2
Xena or Gabrielle earns money: 2
Xena or Gabrielle spends money (or claims to have money to spend): 7
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, Cleopatra, Crassus, Pompey

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!
Lunatic with Lethal Combat Skills
Coping with Your First Kill
Sweet Hestia, I’m In a Den of Filth
The Bitter and Sweet of It
Because Caesar Was Taken
Armageddon When??
Rolling Around Like Weasels
You Killed Me?

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2 Responses to “My Fungus is Spreading [Xena Rewatch 4.1-4.4]”

  1. Jac Says:

    Um the picture you used for Xena/Borias is mine. You just edited it a little.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Jac

    Do you mean the screencap? I’m sorry, I grabbed it randomly so I could put up the quote and didn’t see a credit from where it came from.

    I will use something else.

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