3.5 – Gabrielle’s Hope.
Yes, it’s been a long time between drinks. I think I put this one off because it’s a very emotionally tough episode, and one I never particularly enjoyed. Apart from anything, there are – violence and pregnancy and baby themes in this one. When it comes to SF/fantasy TV, that’s rarely a good thing.
The episode opens with a moment of deep hurt/comfort. Gabrielle is disturbed by dreams of her first kill from the previous episode – and has turned the whole thing around in her head so her victim was a sweet, innocent flower as opposed to a calculating religious obsessive who tricked Gabrielle into taking her life. Gab’s reaction is not just emotional, but physical – she keeps feeling nauseated. Xena is certain this is a normal part of the healing process.
But then things start getting screwy. Banshees attack them, only to profess worship of Gabrielle. Villagers gather, determined to burn Gabrielle as a witch… and, oh yes. She has food cravings. Weird, icky food cravings.
Can anyone else see where this is going?
Yes, Gabrielle is great with child – one of those speedy demon babies who whips through the system in under 24 hours (oh, the STRETCH MARKS) and isn’t going to stick around long. Unlike Deanna Troi in Star Trek: Next Gen though, this one is going to have long, long ramifications.
[Note to all, the review for this ep was written a million years ago, or possibly about six months, but it ties in beautifully with the discussion we had on the last Galactic Suburbia about mystical pregnancy, so yay!]
There’s some general running and shouting, and the convenient appearance of a bunch of knights who rescue Gabrielle and Xena (excuse me? Really, rescuing?) and offer them sanctuary while Gabrielle produces the little cutie pie. Who is of course absolutely adorable, and for once there’s a good reason for a recently born baby on TV to look like a six month old nappy commercial.
It’s all fine and good until people start dying.
[I don’t normally spoil the end of the episode but I totally am this time, has to be done. if it’s any consolation, it’s a really stupid ending]
This, sadly, is the big problem I have with the episode. It doesn’t make sense. The whole thing leads towards the powerful final scene, in which Xena chases down Gabrielle, determined to kill her baby, and Gabrielle flees from her, only to turn around at the last moment, pretending she has thrown her own baby over the cliff and that really, Xena was right all along.
It makes no sense. No sense at all.
For a start, we never see the baby become a demon. We see some knights mysteriously dead, and we see Xena staring accusingly at the baby, but really, we see NOTHING but circumstantial evidence. It’s a really cute, innocent looking baby. Also, only a few episodes ago, Xena was insane. Sure, her hair is Exceptionally Tidy in this episode, but I’m lost as to how we are supposed to believe that Xena is in the right. I’m even MORE lost as to how we’re supposed to believe that Gabrielle is willing to let her baby float down a river in a literal moses basket in order to kiss up to Xena again. To give the baby a chance to get away, sure, but… how can she forgive Xena for putting her in that situation?
I know that the two of them doing unforgiveable things to each other is kind of the point of this episode, but this one doesn’t work hard enough to convince me that these two women, who love and trust each other so very much, could get it so wrong. It all comes down to the baby. We need some flashing red eyes and CGI alien teeth, thank you very much, and it all would have been fine.
This is one of those epic much-with-flashbacks stories which meld Xena’s past with her present. Possibly one of the best ever stories, and one which I used to rewatch multiple times. However I’m suspecting that it suffers from coming straight after the rather awful Gabrielle’s Hope. Luckily for me, I accidentally took a six month hiatus.
The opening scene is lovely – it shows a Xena and Gabrielle who are bowed but unbroken by recent events, and launches into a classic fight scene within a minute or so. The only problem is the same one from the previous episode: the show has not actually made it clear whether Gabrielle gave up her baby because she agreed with Xena that Hope was evil, or if she did it to protect the “innocent” baby from a psychotic Xena. It kind of makes a difference, and this is one instance where we have too much subtext and not enough, you know, TEXT.
Taken on its own, the story works far better and I would personally have liked to see it set before the Britain stories, so that THIS was the first betrayal between our heroines.
Yep, there’s another betrayal coming up. And I will spoil the whole story, again, because what happens right at the end of The Debt is hugely significant to the rest of the season.
Xena has been summoned to Chin on a mission which she attempts to fulfill on her own. When Gabrielle challenges her, she admits she doesn’t want Gabrielle there because she is going to kill someone called the Green Dragon.
We’re back in flashbackland, the back story here following on directly from Caesar’s betrayal back in Destiny. We see Xena and her Official Warlording Doingses across the plains of “Chin” and get introduced to Borias, her beautifully moustached lover (first mentioned back in Orphan of War, father to Xena’s son).
Borias turns out to be glamorous and a little bit evil, but draws the line at killing prisoners in order to foreshadow the fact that he’s going to be all soppy about centaurs someday. Xena is clearly the baddest of this duo, because her hair is extremely messy, and she doesn’t bother to wash her face. She conceals her messy hair beneath a coin veil, which is fooling no one when she screams ‘killemall!’ at the camera, not for the first time. Sadly this version of Evil Xena is also a bit dumb, and there are times when she embarrasses her boyfriend with her thoughtless, fiery displays of random badassery.
We’re introduced to a tale of political machinations, yurts and steamy groping on horseback. An interesting detail is that Xena still uses a cane after the great legsmash Caesar inflicted upon her – it’s not evident in the early scenes until one where Borias pushes her off her horse to keep his barbarian girlfriend from stuffing up his delicate attempts at diplomacy, and throws her cane after her.
The story kicks into gear when we are introduced to Lao Ma, the wife of one of the Chin kings whom Borias is trying to deal with. It looks at first as if she might be there to get between the two romantically, but in fact we’re building up to a far more interesting relationship, that between the wild, savage and deeply angry Xena, and the cool, controlled and civilised Lao Ma.
(Xena, furious at what she sees as flirtation between Borias and Lao Ma, flings a knife at the dinner table, only inches from Lao Ma’s fingertips. “That’s my piece of meat you’re reaching for,” she growls. “You’re wrong,” Lao Ma replies calmly. “I don’t eat meat.”)
The twist is that when Xena later attacks Lao Ma, she discovers that the elegant, dispassionate older woman is actually a NINJA QUEEN OF NINJANESS. Who also has a magical punch that can chuck you through walls. Oh, yeah, baby. Xena has found herself a new teacher.
The indispersed scenes of Gabrielle being judgy about Xena’s past, and even the steamy scenes between Xena and Borias, are all pretty much window dressing. This story is about who Xena was, and it’s fascinating to see the shape of the Xena we know in this wild, younger self. In one scene, for instance, she crashes a horse through the paper windows of a house, cuts off the flow of blood to a warrior’s brain, and cheerily informs him of this fact, then lets him die.
It’s surprising to realise how little Lao Ma actually appears in this first episode, as she’s all I remembered of it. Every scene she is in is marvellous, though: she is a beautiful, complex and deeply intelligent woman, played with great subtlety. We see her save a Xena who is at her lowest point: barefoot, disabled and hunted by men she has wronged… and we learn a little of where Lao Ma herself comes from, a former courtesan who is now a wife of great power, status and inner peace.
Back in the present day, the cliffhanger to this episode is brilliant and startling, as Gabrielle (who still only knows half the story, but is horrified at the thought her friend would return to her wicked ways) betrays Xena to her would-be murder victim, the Green Dragon: a very young man who happens to be the Emperor of Chin.
More alternate history Chinese shenanigans here, with Xena floating around in an utterly disgusting waterlogged prison, and Gabrielle gussied up in silks, pleading for her friend’s freedom (the fact that she’s shocked at Xena having to face consequences for trying to kill the Emperor is the weak spot of the episode). Honestly, I’m just counting the minutes until we get more Lao Ma flashbacks – what she taught Wild Hair Xena, and what she failed to teach her.
We also learn about a far more toxic influence of the past, in getting to know the young Green Dragon – as a child, kidnapped by Nasty Xena, he learned the true nature of evil (apparently it’s awesome) and steered his life accordingly. OMG, Batman created the Joker!
As with M’Lila in Destiny, the tragedy to this story of friendship is that Lao Ma’s improving influence on the troubled Evil Xena is doomed to fail (she cannot save Xena because that’s Hercules’ job, exactly ten years later] and that it is only in retrospect that Good Xena can entirely appreciate what she was offered by this woman. At the time, all she knew was that Leo Ma was teaching her better and more effective ways to kill, to control her anger, and to appreciate precision over brute force.
In prison, in the present day, Xena discovers that Lao Ma was executed by the Emperor, and is devastated. It’s sad for the audience too, that Lao Ma didn’t get a chance to get to know this Xena, who is far more her equal and someone she could have been proud of.
We learn that Chinese warriors can also demonstrate explosive powers of the mind, and Xena struggles to learn this too – it’s the first time that our very physical hero experiments with magic of some kind, but not the last.
It’s also, quite explicitly, a love story. Whether or not the love between Lao Ma and Xena is platonic or romantic, it is openly discussed, and can be read either way. The coyness of this show when it comes to girl-girl sensuality continues to be an oddity to me, when looking at it with post-Torchwood-&-HBO lenses. It makes me wonder what subtle (or less than subtle) differences might be wrought on the story if it were made today, with an openly bisexual heroine and her non-monogamous adventures. It’s almost surprising to not see the sixty second slo-mo nudey women having sex (sometimes with each other) scene which HBO or Starz would have added to each episode, as a matter of course.
The coyness, however, also leads to some gorgeously subtle scenes which imply romance, such as that in the first part of The Debt where Lao Ma kissed Xena underwater to put extra air in her lungs and keep her hidden, or the one in this episode where Lao Ma heals Xena’s leg with many slow, sensual hand movements. If that scene in Buffy where Tara and Willow do stuff with magic and breathe heavily a lot over a rose is a sex scene, then so is this one. Also: mood lighting, and a silk wrapping dance. And later, a floating-through-the-air-in-big-frocks scene. Though that one is followed up pretty quickly by a rekindling of Xena’s relationship with Borias, just in case anyone got funny ideas!
It’s only a shame that in a story which hangs on Gabrielle’s love for Xena and her determination to save her from becoming her old villainous self, that Gabrielle herself is written badly (there’s one quite awful scene in which she tries to beat Xena into a promise to never be naughty again), and every scene with her in it is a disappointment in comparison to the luminous flashbacks. Lines like “my reverence for life kept a brutal tyrant in power” don’t really help – though it is actually a really important learning experience for her.
The Debt works as a sequel to Destiny in all senses of the word – it climaxes with Xena bound to a wooden Chinese letter reminiscent of Caesar’s crucifixion, only this time, with the assistance of Lao Ma’s memory, she is not beaten but frees herself with nothing but her own skills and body. Our Xena has reclaimed her past, and herself.
Only… no. There’s one final betrayal, and this one’s a beauty. SPOILER SPOILER. In the final scene, Xena tries to appeal to the humanity in the “Green Dragon,” but is gutted by his cruel taunts about Lao Ma. She is stunned and angry to realise that he knew all along that she was his mother. The episode closes with Xena and Gabrielle sweetly discussing how good it is that she took the moral high road and didn’t kill him.
Except of course, what’s this? Is there a hair clip stuck into his brain? Oh, Xena.
If only this was the sort of show where our heroines telling appalling porkies to each other would in some way come back to bite them in some sort of… arc thing. Of stories. An… arcstoryish. Nah. Let’s have a random slapstick episode and forget about it for a while!
Gina Torres, you say?
Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi and GINA FREAKING TORRES AS CLEOPATRA, YOU SAY?
Well, all righty then.
This is on the whole a fairly innocuous Xena-lite comedy episode which sets up the enjoyable pairing of Autolycus and Joxer, who previously used to take turns being the comic foil to whichever of the lead actresses was least in need of a holiday.
Gina Torres makes a fabulous Cleopatra in the little time she has on screen, and it’s a shame they didn’t bring her back to do something more substantial with that role – even more disappointing that when Cleopatra does finally return, she is played by a white actress, in order that Xena can more convincingly take her place. The visible diversity on screen in Xena continues, however, to be one of the show’s strengths, particularly when it comes to iconic historical women. As with Helen of Troy and even Boadicea, it’s nice to see them choose something other than the “obvious” young Hollywood blonde waif type of actress.
The inclusion of Joxer’s evil assassin brother Jett (also played by Ted Raimi) is mostly here for the laughs and the comedy of misunderstandings, but I think it builds very nicely on the quiet tragedy of Joxer’s backstory, the unloved bumbling son of a family of ruthless warlords. And of course Raimi plays the dual role with pitch-perfect timing, especially the scenes where the two brothers talk to each other, and those where they are attempting to impersonate each other – even the heights of arch comedy, there are moments of genuine emotion there.
The tiny scene at the end where Cleopatra and Xena meet only shows what might have been in an episode that gave both of them far more to do. The chemistry between both actresses is electric, and borders on flirtation – which is of course undercut by Cleopatra snogging Autolycus ten seconds later, because proving girls are not into other girls is what his character is basically here for.
It only occurs to me just now that we don’t ever get a real Xena-Cleopatra story in which the two characters get significant interaction. Boo!
People who want romance with Xena: 12
People Xena allows to romance her: 7 (yes, I’m damn well counting Lao Ma)
Xena dead lovers: 3 (ditto)
Gabrielle dead boyfriends: 2/7
“Adorable” children: 32
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: 2 (including barbarian gold)
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
Random piece of awesomeness: Dudes, Jacqueline Kim who played Lao Ma was also Mr Sulu’s daughter!
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