I have listened to the soundtrack to this episode so many times that I think it’s imprinted on my skin somewhere. Fair warning, I really love this one, and it’s probably one of the episodes I have most rewatched, though not in recent years.
Xena and Gabrielle are broken apart, forever. Both are lost in grief and despair. What could possibly heal the rift between these two?
In an era of brilliant kooky musical episodes (and other kooky gimmick episodes, remember Farscape’s animated episode, or the Angel muppet experiment), The Bitter Suite leaves Buffy’s Once More With Feeling in the dust. The music is bizarre and beautiful, the imagery is surreal, and the characters drag themselves through every painful emotion that they have.
We see Joxer come into his own in the opening scenes, trying to protect Gabrielle from a murderous Xena, who actually goes so far as to rope Gabrielle’s ankles and drag her in the mud behind her horse. But when they stop on a cliff’s edge, it’s Gabrielle – in touch with her own previously-suppressed anger thanks to her inner Callisto – who pushes her friend over the edge…
And into the pretty, song-obsessed fantasyland that is Illusia.
Hudson Leick and Ted Raimi are fantastic in the bizarre comedy song and dance numbers that introduce the warring friends to this strange new world, and Kevin Smith is his usual seductive self in a sultry number about how Xena really needs to get on with ruling the world now please.
Damn, I love that man. Ares is beautifully summed up in this episode: the great war god who is whipped as hell when it comes to Xena, and adores every minute in her presence. He would burn the world for a chance to watch her rule it, and she will never ever love him back. Also, he looks astounding in blood red armour, singing about what an awesome warrior she is.
The design and costumes of this episode are extraordinary, with much use of tarot symbolism and a bold colour palette.
Xena and Gabrielle both have separate journeys through Illusia, but their experiences mirror each other so that almost every song is a split screen duet – Xena gets Callisto as her totem guardian, Gabrielle gets Joxer; Xena is serenaded about war, Gabrielle about peace… but of course the story ultimately about both of them getting a chance to work through their feelings, and have a decent conversation about all the betrayals of this season.
But not before Xena dances a barefoot tango with Ares, HELLYES.
The climactic song number, a true duet between Xena and Gabrielle, is partly awkward due to some blatant dubbing of Gabrielle by someone who can actually sing, but doesn’t sound like Renee O’Connor at all. Also, the Dahak & other villains ‘hate is the star’ song seems to have been plucked straight out of a Disney movie. A sinister, strange Disney movie.
Meanwhile, Lucy Lawless has an extraordinary voice, and it’s rather lovely to see it being used in such a powerful way.
And you know I’m REALLY starting to think I should have put ‘Xena is crucified’ in the Chakram statistics, as it’s happening every other episode now.
Our final shot from the episode is the two heroines, lying in the surf (sand in armour, oh noes!) and laughing, holding on to each other. The rift is over.
Phew. Admit it, you were worried!
Never mind the Romans, now we’re fighting Persians! This looks at first to be one of those stock standard Xena-is-an-awesome-warlord stories which I normally find admirable but dull. We get Marathon (including the famous marathon runner), Spartans, Athenians and Thermopylae… basically most of Herodotus, in under forty minutes. But the important thing is that Gabrielle’s adorable red boots are horribly destroyed by Xena.
Rest in peace, boots.
If any of you were holding out for some hurt/comfort after the gruelling rift saga, Gabrielle not only sprains her ankle trying to learn the Xena flip and has her boot sliced open, but is then shot by a poisoned arrow in trying to protect a deserting soldier.
While this story is about Xena being an awesome strategist, it’s also about how brave Gabrielle has become, and the heroic choices she makes, in demanding that Xena prioritise the danger to Athens over her own failing health. It’s nice to see the two of them back as a unit again, and that Xena has to acknowledge that Gabrielle isn’t a little girl any more – they are both adults, and equals in the face of battle.
We get the closest thing so far to a declaration of love/soulmateship, too:
“You’re my source, Gabrielle. When I reach down inside myself and do things I’m not capable of, it’s because of you. Don’t you know that by now?”
It’s easy to take Xena for granted, but this episode culminates in the sight of a powerful woman taking on an army entirely on her own. It’s a mighty feminist scene, and when her theme music kicks in, it’s impossible not to hum along with the Bulgarian women’s choir.
XENA: “Go home, there are thousands more like me.”
Gabrielle is challenged by a no good punk goth girl who wants to take her place with Xena (and someday will grow up into goody two shoes Liz on Roswell). Gabrielle is understandably bitter when the little thug scratches her up in a bar brawl just to get Xena’s attention.
There’s a plot about a sacred urn and a gang, but really it’s forty minutes of Xena trying to connect to a ratbag kid who reminds her of herself, while Gabrielle is pushed to the limits by Tara’s high-school bullying techniques.
The theme of the episode is the question of how to be good when those instincts don’t come naturally, and I did find that interesting despite mostly sympathising with Gabrielle’s desire to push Tara off a cliff.
I also like that while it’s set up as being a story about Gabrielle’s (totally reasonable) jealousy, Tara has more to learn from Gabrielle than from Xena.
But it’s not my favourite.
3.15 – King Con
This one scores a resounding ‘meh’ for me, largely for its attempts to provide a romance for Xena despite the fact that those story lines always, always suck. Rafe is a mediocre bad boy trying to convince us all that he’s a competent con man. It doesn’t wash.
Which is a shame, because Xena vs. The Casino has a lot of potential as a story. I love the scene of her throwing craps (with roman numerals on the dice!) and there are a few funny scenes of her and Gabrielle in full con woman drag, having fun while they fleece a dumb thug or two.
But the romance is cheap and unconvincing, and the whole “betting on getting a woman into bed and then falling for her” plot is so old it makes the Trojan Horse look like the hot new thing. I quite like the twist in the story that plays on so many Xena tropes (it’s not remotely unrealistic that Rafe would die tragically or that his less attractive friend would betray them). But I did find it hard to be remotely interested in the story all the way through to the end.
More and more I’m starting to feel that Xena as a series would have benefited hugely from 12 episode seasons. Once again we’ve had a fabulous mid-season crescendo and climax, followed by a bunch of so-what stories to pad things out. At least I know there’s a hell of a season finale cropping up eventually… right?
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 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: 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: 2
Xena or Gabrielle earns money: 2
Xena or Gabrielle spends money (or claims to have money to spend): 6
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
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