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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: The Warrior Princess, The Gauntlet, Unchained Hearts

I realize this blog has been a little dead lately; work is keeping me very busy and when I do get some time to myself, it's usually spent catching up with my TV shows and my ever-growing To Be Read pile. So in a bid to keep up a regular flow of posts, I've delved back into my now-defunct LiveJournal and other message-boards to pull out some of my older reviews and metas.
Between 2011 and 2017 I watched all six seasons of Xena Warrior Princess and reviewed each of the one hundred and thirty-four episodes on the BBC Robin Hood Fan Community boards with other long-time fans of the show (one of whom supplied me with the DVDs).
It was a ground-breaking show in so many ways, made all the more interesting by how it first began. Xena started as a recurring character on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, a show that stands as one of the quintessential Nineties fantasies: hokey plots, all-American hero, and extremely dated FX.
But Xena Warrior Princess was a little different; tackling more serious themes of violence and redemption, with a main character that constantly fought her dark past and tried to make amends for the crimes she committed in her youth. Oh, and she was an unbeatable warrior woman who became a feminist and lesbian icon.
It's a fascinating story, one that grew and evolved and changed in unexpected ways, with plenty of highpoints and pitfalls along the way. For the sake of posterity, I've decided to shift my personal Xena journey to this blog, so as to track her development and archive her story.
I'll post these episode reviews three-at-a-time, starting with her guest-starring stint on Hercules, the trilogy that led directly to her own spin-off. Just keep in mind that I originally wrote this after viewing all but the final two episodes of Xena. This time around, I'm posting in chronological order.

So in a bid to delay the inevitable, I went back and watched Xena's debut episodes on Hercules: The Legendary JourneysThe Warrior PrincessThe Gauntlet and Unchained Hearts. I thought it would be a nice way to get one last fresh look at the character before the finale of her own show, but – wow. She may as well have been a totally different character from the one I've spent the last six seasons with. Even stranger, she's practically a different character in each of the three Hercules episodes!
That said, it was fascinating to see how she's evolved from her first on-screen appearance to her last, without all the backstory that was filled in during that time. There are some things that remain consistent: she's always been referred to as a Warrior Princess (despite not being a princess of anything and certainly not referred to as such by any of her followers), a title which provides the name of her introductory episode.
Her theme music (involving the sound of female voices chanting) was right there from the get-go – in fact, it sent a shiver down my spine to hear it! Her armour is a rough facsimile of her trademark outfit – though she's going to lose the cloak and shoulder pads quickly enough. Her ululating war-cry is also present and accounted for.
And she even has her chakram - though it occurs to me that in six years of her spin-off show, we're NEVER given an origin story for it. We learn how she got her title (Lao Ma), how she learnt about pressure points (M'Lila) and her gravity-defying abilities (Lao Ma again) but never anything on her chakram. In hindsight, it seems an odd oversight.
I'm kinda sad she ditched those shoulder pads.
But of course, there's no Gabrielle, no Argo, and... well, this definitely isn't the Xena we know and love.
Her first appearance is the conclusion of a segue from the line "she's out there somewhere", in reference to a potential love interest for Iolaus, indicating that's going to be her role in the series. Yikes! Though we soon discover that she's proficient in combat and out to kill Hercules, she still remains in this role, seducing Iolaus in order to set him against his best friend and make Hercules a more vulnerable target (as it happens, she also does this to another poor sap, sending him to attack Hercules in order to lure him into a trap). Xena as a femme fatale? That's so wrong.
The episode itself is pretty mediocre, based as it is on a woman coming between two best friends, and Iolaus in particular is so gullible and stupid that you almost wish Hercules ditched him: any friend whose resentment is so great that he can be easily led into betraying his best friend isn't a friend worth having. Their reconciliation was equally unsatisfying, with Xena galloping off like a typical one-shot baddie, complete with: "you haven't seen the last of me!"
Not a particularly auspicious beginning for our Warrior Princess, especially with bits of dialogue throughout the episode that describe her as a "murdering harlot" and "a crazy woman". That the audience is meant to agree with these monikers only demonstrates how far we've come.
The next episode The Gauntlet already shows a profound difference in the way Xena is written. This Xena tells her men: "we are warriors, not barbarians" (a marked change from when she sent a love-struck man after Hercules with instructions to stab his target in the back if need-be) and has a strict policy on not killing women or children.
On her own show, we never see any iteration of dark!Xena killing a child, but they've certainly been menaced, and we know that women have never gotten special treatment either. But this Xena refuses to kill a baby, defying her more blood-thirsty men in the process.
There's also a softer side to her when it comes to her interactions with Salmonius (who she seems to find amusing) and her maternal instincts are fascinating when you consider that a) technically she's already a mother, though b) the writers have no idea of this yet.
(You know what would have been cool? If after the twenty year time-skip there had been an episode in which Xena comes face-to-face with this baby again, now a grown man. He could have explained their history as something his father had told him about, and it would have been a great bookend to conclude Xena's redemption, this being the first on-screen depiction of her capacity for good).
There are some more questionable decisions in the writing of this episode: Xena's all-male army don't need much convincing to turn against her (though to give them credit, they defend her after she survives the gauntlet and Darphus orders they finish her off) and she's put through a slow-motion ordeal in which she's stripped of armour and beaten up by her own men.
But it's fascinating to note that this whole thing felt more like a Xena episode than a Hercules one. She gets most of the screen-time and character development, while Herc is stuck in a b-plot that simply involves a lot of cross-country travelling. I'm not sure at which point Sam Raimi green-lit Xena's spin-off, but it's obvious how interested he was in the character just from this episode (given she's already eclipsing Hercules).
Finally, Unchained Heart is a direct continuation from the last episode, focusing on how Xena is inspired by Hercules's belief in her to become a better person (choosing to sleep with him in the process, which is a bit icky considering she also slept with Iolaus in her debut episode).
Now, within the context of these three episodes, this plays out reasonably well, especially since she was established as already having a code of honour and drawing the line at killing women/children. But after watching six years worth of flashback sequences on Xena that detailed the exploits of dark!Xena, psychotic killer and remorseless Destroyer of Nations? It's completely and utterly ludicrous.
If memory serves, the last time we saw Xena chronologically was in Scandinavia, in which she was rubbing shoulders with Odin and the Valkyries. Which means these three Hercules episodes come on the heels of Xena murdering Valkyries, assaulting Rhinemaidens, and stealing gold in order to bolster her own personal power. That's not to mention her wholesale slaughter of the Northern Amazons and her betrayal of Lao Ma. We're meant to believe that that feral monster had a complete turnaround in her ideals and ambition thanks to a couple of hours with Hercules? HA!
Of course, the writers had not yet delved into Xena's past and so had no idea they would eventually write her sinking to such depths. At this point Xena (even the Xena of her own show's season one) was just a girl who was a decent person "ten years ago" (a friend to the likes of Helen and Flora and various others) before she went off the tracks. Bad, but not evil.
In hindsight, it's a pity they didn't track her redemption arc with a little more care, since here it comes down to a stern talking-to and a roll in the hay with a guy she barely knows, but you can't really blame them considering so much of Xena's story and character was in its infancy.
Also noteworthy is Lucy Lawless's acting choices, for there's a profound difference in how she plays Xena here compared to the character on her own show (though naturally this has to do with her still figuring out the character – heck, for the first episode she probably didn't think there was anything more to it than being a femme fatale).
This Xena is more feminine, soft-spoken and demure – there's none of that masculine swagger and loftiness that would later define the character. And though the character never entirely loses these traits, this Xena is more deceptive and manipulative. Only occasionally can you spot little glimpses of dark!Xena, for even this early Lucy plays Xena as someone who isn't just good at combat, but who enjoys it.
Still, never in a million years did I think I'd see Xena gush: "that's the most courageous thing I've ever seen!" or remark: "stop, or you're gonna make me cry." Sarcastically, sure - but here it's played with 100% admiration and sincerity. Terrifying!
One more thing: it's interesting that Xena uses parts of her own backstory as a cover story in coaxing Iolaus to join her, though an embellished version. She tells him that her father and brothers were killed by a warlord – obviously this was either a lie (from Xena) or a retcon (from the writers), though it is almost immediately established on her own show that her younger brother (singular) did indeed get killed by a warlord.
So that was an interesting (though strange) trip back in time to the early days of Xena, and it's incredible to see just how much the character has changed and grown over the years. Who would have ever guessed that the women we first see trying to put wedge between Hercules and Iolaus with her feminine wiles would end up a feminist hero and lesbian icon? Not me.
And now I find myself back at the beginning of Xena's journey – it's a great place to be.

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