Rolling Around Like Weasels [Xena Rewatch 3.20-3.22]

3.20 – Vanishing Act

“Somewhere in this castle he is chained up with two hundred locks… it’s going to take him at least an hour to get out of them.”

Another Autolycus episode! OK it’s been nearly a year for me because for some reason Season 3 got the better of me, but it does seem odd to have two apparently unlinked episodes with the same guest star right next to each other. Even odder that the only reference to previous episodes is that time Xena borrowed his body, and not the time they saw each other just last week. But of course as I keep reminding myself, this is the 90’s model of television, before season-long arcs were officially encouraged, when the ideal was to have episodes that could be shown in random order.

I especially shouldn’t complain about this because thanks to the marvels of Australian television, I did indeed watch most of Xena in entirely the wrong order. As of this rewatch there are still a couple of essential episodes I am yet to see!

In any case, this is a good old fashioned Autolycus romp, in which he is taking one of his rare tourist trips to the right side of Xena’s moral line, which means she has an excuse to enjoy a mad heist with him. (And indeed the whole question of moral lines is explored further, as it turns out that Auto is firmly in the ‘no killing people’ camp while Xena only draws the line at profiting from crime (okay, and cold-blooded execution).

After the drama of Tsunami, this one is a flat out comedy, complete with girning, pratfalls and cartoony sound effects. None of which seems overly necessary when the real humour comes from Xena playing dress ups (it is an essential character trait that our hardbitten, poker-faced heroine adores any excuse to put on a fake accent and act like a maniac) and Gabrielle impersonating a fence without being entirely sure what the word means.

The trick to this one is that it isn’t quite the fluffy farce it appears to be up front (okay, it mostly is) with some revelations about Autolycus’ tragic past, and what made him into the king of thieves in the first place. The emotional stuff is pretty reliant on some ‘as you know Gabrielle’ exposition, but the fact that the story revolves around the ‘true bromance’ friendship that exists between Xena and Autolycus basically saves it.

I very much like the trust and competence of all three main characters in this, and the way that Xena and Gabrielle have such faith in and respect for Autolycus’ skills and vice versa – makes me realise how often fantasy adventure fails to do this. I also like that the story is mostly about the women being protective of their male friend, and his emotional wellbeing. He’s the vulnerable one in this story.

Will Autolycus win back his title of the King of Thieves, or will he turn to the dark side by murdering the man who killed his brother long ago? Whose method will win, Xena’s “good old fashioned kick butt that’s my warrior princess action” or Auto’s trickery and illusion?

3.21 – Sacrifice Part 1

Callisto: Not happy to see me, are you? Neither am I, really.

Callisto drags herself out of the last stop-gap measure to keep her from wreaking havoc on the world (for once, not a rockfall), escaping the ‘prison between dimensions’ from Armageddon Now. There are quite a few other old friends back in this big season finale that would, once again, pull the rug out from under the feet of our heroines.

Mysterious priests in red and black, chanting? An innocent girl set to be sacrificed to bring back the return of a goddess? This all sounds quite familiar.

We get Ares back too, freshly cranky from his last Callisto/Hercules crossover, and determined to beat the chainmail bikini goddess of battle-screams even if that means hooking up with Xena again – oh, who are we kidding? He’d take any excuse to fling himself at Xena’s feet. Ares actually spends most of the first part of this story begging Xena to come play war.

The new priests are using a lot of Maori style dancing and costume elements, which is unfortunate because in this universe, that reads as ‘Amazon,’ and they definitely aren’t that. More misdirection? Possibly. The important thing is that they are celebrating the return of a ‘goddess of the blood,’ and we all know who that is, don’t we?

Callisto is her usual ruthless awesomeness, happy to sword fight with Xena (“It’s just for decoration”) or to swap burning balls of godfire with Ares. But there’s a new edge to her – she has moved even further over the suicidal edge she has been toying with for her entire character arc, and is a touch more bonkers than ever before.

She’s also a red herring. The new priests of the ‘goddess of the blood’ don’t even know who Callisto is. They’re all about a different goddess, who is in serious need of being reborn. Oh yeah, baby. Hope, daughter of Dahak and Gabrielle, is coming back to prove all over again how ironic her name is.

The rebirthing is deliciously gross, far more than any other ‘back from the dead’ storyline this show has tackled. Hope is regrown in a flesh cocoon, and fed regular fresh corpses by her surprisingly loyal servant Callisto (who is in it for the ultimate reward, oblivion).

Meanwhile, Gabrielle struggles with her childhood friend, a sweet girl called Seraphin who is now a loyal follower of Dahak and Hope. It makes for an interesting exploration of reality vs. mythology, and how religion can possibly function in a world where the gods are walking around being assholes half the time. Gabrielle is in the surreal position of having to debate theology with her friend about a god she knows more personally than any other – and to reconsider her own role in the cult and mythological traditions surrounding Hope.

Bringing Hope back yet again after the massive storyline mid-season could have been dreadful, but it works because this time there is no doubt in Xena and Gabrielle’s hearts that they are on the same team, and even though they play with the audience a little about the idea that Gabrielle might once more choose her daughter over her friend, that was never seriously an option.

There’s a different betrayal on the cards, though. Ares reminds Gabrielle of the debt she owes him, for providing her with some speedy transport back in the appropriately named episode “The Debt.” For payback, he takes her to the Fates who prophesy that if Xena kills Hope, Xena will die.

Interesting, isn’t it? Ares could cash that debt in for anything, and he chooses to use it as leverage for Gabrielle to save Xena’s life, even though that’s going to be her default setting anyway. There couldn’t be anything else going on here, could there?

Gabrielle stops Xena from killing the only-vulnerable-until-fully-reborn Hope, causing her to miss a vital window of opportunity. The final reveal of the episode as the cocoon squelches open is that Hope is all grown up now, no longer played by a ginger cherub, and guess what? She looks exactly like her mother. Yay for Renee O’Connor getting to play a dual role, because she rocks at it. Not so yay for the future of Xena and Gabrielle.

Cue the closing credits…

3.22 – Sacrifice Part 2

Callisto: Oh, the mother and child reunion. I’m all misty-eyed.

The twist for Part 2 is not just that Hope is now a dead ringer for Gabrielle. It’s more disturbing than that. The twist is that Ares has given up on ever seducing Xena back and thrown his support to Dahak, despite (or perhaps because of) all previous fears about what this new god would do to his own kind. As a measure of good faith, Ares is also offering his sexy bod in service to Hope so they can sire a new race of gods together.

Yes, Gabrielle, your daughter has a taste for bad boys in leather. And poor old Callisto has to put up with the two of them making out in front of her. No wonder she craves oblivion.

Ares: You are so not like your mother.”

Callisto: The sight of her and Ares rolling around like weasels made me sick. Yes Gabrielle, it seems your daughter is in heat.”

While Gabrielle is determined that Xena should not cause her own death by killing Hope, that doesn’t leave many reliable options, especially now Hope is so powerful.

Xena herself is happy to die if that means ridding the world of Hope, and preventing more parents from the loss she endured. Meanwhile, Callisto loses faith that Hope is going to live up to her promise, and tries switching sides to achieve her own desired death, but Xena remains unforgiving: she doesn’t see why she should bring peace to the person who helped Hope murder her son.

Xena: May you live forever.

But of course, the team up was inevitable – and there’s nothing quite like Callisto, Xena and Gabrielle sharing an intimate campfire under the light of yet another full moon.

This episode is a love letter to the show so far, touching on so many familiar beats – Xena’s late night ability to sense Ares’ presence, Joxer’s incompetent reputation allowing him to be a secret weapon, Gabrielle’s little stick, Callisto’s pyromania, Ares getting his lust on and so many of the fan favourite duels and pairings.

It’s nice in a way, because this was the last time that Xena would properly look like this. The next three seasons would be constantly questioning and re-inventing what the show was. End of an era in so many ways…

Renee O’Connor does a brilliant job with the emotional material here: Gabrielle having to deal with her pregnant evil daughter (Gabrielle’s gonna be a grandma and Ares her son-in-law!) and Hope’s surprising vulnerability in facing the mother who abandoned her as a baby and killed her in her childhood.

Hope: Come, be my mother.
Gabrielle: Hope, when I gave you the poison…
Hope: I forgive you.
Gabrielle: I’m so sorry it didn’t finish you.

Xena spends this episode walking towards her death, knowing that she will have to sacrifice herself to end the threat of this most evil of gods. And Gabrielle quietly spends the episode knowing she won’t let that happen. It sums them up so well, and of course, in the final moments, it’s not Xena who manages to topple Hope into the endless abyss, it’s Gabrielle who does it, falling to her death in a lava river in front of Xena and Joxer, the two people who love her most.

She’s died before, but this is the big one. And it’s hard to ignore that Ares has a big part in Gabrielle choosing to make her sacrifice – despite all his apparent allegiances with the Big Bad, keeping Xena alive is still his top priority. That’s going to mean more, in future seasons of the show.

Callisto is really the star of this story: queen of battle screams and rockfalls. She’s scarier and more vengeful than ever before, and she gets all the best lines. Which is as it should be, because “Sacrifice” is her swan song.

Callisto: Seeing poor dear Gabrielle sacrifice makes it all worthwhile. It finally gives me a reason for living and I have you to thank, Xena…

(Callisto giggles helplessly, the last line cut off as Xena stabs her)

Xena: No more living for you.

So yes, Xena kills Callisto. Properly, this time. The fury and shock of Gabrielle’s sacrifice is the only thing that allows her to overcome her (current) moral line and her previous determination to let Callisto live with herself. She uses the hind’s blood dagger to give her greatest enemy what she has been asking for all through the episode – oblivion.

And, as she falls, Callisto is grateful.

Since she first stepped into the show at the end of season one, Callisto has been strutting and laughing, destroying and bitchfacing her way across the screen, devastating Xena and Gabrielle both individually and together. She even briefly replaced Xena’s body with her own. And now her story is done.

One of the most important choices that the Xena production team did was to end Callisto’s story here, at the end of season three, and never to bring her back (apart from a distant epilogue which will be discussed when we get to it). They never did manage to replace her villainwise (no one could!)… but bringing her story to a crescendo and a conclusion before she became a diluted parody of herself was a class act.

So the antagonists are all gone, but so is Gabrielle. What is Xena going to do for the next three seasons without her best friend to keep her on the straight and narrow?

Stay tuned to find out.

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 at a funeral: 3
Gabrielle sprained ankles: 2
Xena dies: 3
Gabrielle dies: 4
Characters brought back from the dead (incl. ghosts and visits to the Underworld): 22
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??