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]