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Friday, April 27, 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: Cradle of Hope, The Path Not Taken and The Reckoning

My Xena Warrior Princess watch continues with the next three episodes of the first season. It's clear that the writers are still figuring out the dynamics, not just of Xena and Gabrielle, but between those characters making the jump from the mother-show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

For example, what we see between Xena/Ares here isn't what the show settles on later down the track (not least because his first appearance plays out as though he's never met Xena before, something that's retconned later) and there's a tendency to introduce characters from Xena's past who seem to be of great significance ... and who are never seen again.
Still it's early days, and amidst these opening episodes are a few glimmers of the potential that'll be mined later. 
(And if you're wondering why I reference Merlin so many times in these reviews, it's because my first viewing of these episodes coincided with that show's season four).

Cradle of Hope
This one was enjoyable, but reasonably forgettable. I think it's most important legacy to the show is that the actor who plays Gregor has a long and illustrious career as the guy you see in the opening credits whenever Don LaFontaine says: "and kings..."
In a time of ancient gods, warlords, and KINGS!
It's interesting that the first episode to explore the notion of fate ends up revolving around a classic Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. If the oracle had never mentioned the baby would become king, he never would have been hunted down, and Xena would have never come up with the idea to have the king adopt the baby as his heir. I'm afraid I saw that plot twist coming a mile away, along with the Evil Chancellor (how original) and the Moses/King Herod nods. And why was the evil chancellor so hung up on killing the baby anyway? What's it to him?
The whole subplot with Pandora seemed to come a little out of the blue, and though they linked the two stories later what with the attempt at an exchange (baby for box) it still felt disconnected from the main storyline.
And some of it didn't make much sense, like how Pandora's grandmother was the original Pandora who opened the box (really, the world was a paradise only three generations ago?) and that people were trying to kill her when Xena arrives (okay, so they think she's cursed because of the box, but wouldn't she have explained to them that without her handprint, the box would open and hope would escape?)
And why did she say that having a family of her own was something "that would never be" when she clearly needs to have a kid to become the next caretaker of the box (as presumably, she became after the role was passed down to her from her mother?)
Okay, so apart from some obvious holes in the storyline, it was still fun. I liked the design of the box with the handprint and the ticking motif, and the fact that Xena's reputation still precedes her. The whole deal with King Gregor could have been cleared up fairly simply if he didn't know of her reputation as a war-lord. The moral quandary was raised of whether the life of an innocent baby was worth the safety and wellbeing of an entire kingdom (and the hope of the entire world), but like every good hero, Xena Takes a Third Option.
It would seem that Xena ran from Gregor's rooms with the baby for the sole purpose of getting an action scene in (complete with inevitable baby-throwing) but I realized that I've been watching way too much Merlin when I found myself flabbergasted at the sight of six female characters who a) had lines, b) were sympathetic, c) were important to the storyline, and d) had conversations with each other. SIX!
There have been more heroic female characters in a single episode of Xena than there have been in Merlin's entire run.
The Path Not Taken
Another episode that was good, but not necessarily great. It gave us another look at Xena's past, and I liked the use of Marcus representing the idea that Xena's "bad past" wasn't "all bad", if that makes sense. Amongst all the killing and maiming and pillaging, there was clearly room for a warm relationship with another person.
In fact, there was actually a risk of it going overboard, as Marcus came across as such a sweet guy (notwithstanding the scene where he has no visible concern at the thought of Mezentius planning to rape the princess) that it was actually difficult to imagine him as a criminal. He even got a Draco-esque scene in which he admits that he once tried leaving his life of violence, but didn't have the strength to follow it through.
Sadly, he may as well have had a target on his forehead right from the start, and his Redemption By Death was a little contrived, going from holding a dagger to the princess's throat to dying to protect her in a matter of seconds. Still, I was left hoping he would make it through. I thought he and Lucy managed to generate a fair amount of chemistry in their short time together (far more than she did with the farmer) and I was rather touched at the scene in which she rubbed her cheek against his hand. He was cute too. *sigh*.
It was cool to see Xena going "undercover" and re-establishing her old persona in order to infiltrate the crime ring, though again, this storyline was a bit hokey. I don't see why Mezentius agreed to her rather feeble proposition, and I couldn't understand why the princess was apparently free to wander around the compound, including up to the balcony to commit suicide, and into the hot springs to meet with Xena. Also, I felt a bit sorry for the actress having to wear an extremely low-cut, soaking wet dress. Geez, they weren't hiding anything there, were they?
I have a soft-spot for idiotic young lovers, even ones played by rather flat actors, and so the underlying Romeo/Juliet premise was a set-up that worked well enough for me. I liked how Xena was quite gentle with the princess, especially when she was talking her down from the ledge, and Gabrielle once again uses her mouth (though to slightly less successful effect) to try and help out the groom (I'm no good with these characters' names).  
There were a couple of nice bits of continuity, such as mentioning Draco and Gregor – this type of thing goes a long way for the fans – and though some interesting bits happened off-screen (how did Gabrielle get out of the prison? How did Xena get the princess out of the compound? Did the kids get married?) it was still a pretty good episode.
The Reckoning
I feel as though I should have tons to say about this episode, and yet for some reason...I don't. It was definitely one of the best yet – maybe the better an episode is, the less there is to talk (or complain) about! All in all, I thought the writer did a good job of melding two familiar storylines: that of the hero being on trial in a court of law, and that of tricking a god by extracting a promise from them. As everyone knows, a god cannot break their word.
I knew Ares would turn up eventually, though I'm ashamed to say that I honestly didn't recognise Kevin Smith until he appeared at the back of the council room. I liked the set-up of Ares framing Xena for a crime and having to deal with justice (though the village-leader was remarkably forward-thinking for his time), for as she herself says – she may not have committed this crime, but she's guilty of so many others that does it really make a difference?
It was an interesting performance by Lucy; she was mostly stoic throughout the proceedings (because I think Xena feels she deserves what she's getting) but also frustrated (because it's so unfair), disappointed (welcome to the tough side of being a hero – you're not always going to be appreciated), tempted (because no one wants to die for a crime they didn't do), and ultimately manipulative (finding a way to beat Ares without violence).
Ares knew exactly what he was doing when he set her up in these particular circumstances. She could have handled dying in battle against a fellow warrior, but being condemned to execution by a bunch of smug farmers? That's beneath her dignity. So it wasn't just about the things Ares could offer her, but also (mostly) saving her from an ignoble death.
I also like to think that as the god of war, Ares was able to stir up hysteria among the villagers (who by the way, are currently the holders of the Best Worst Actors Award for this show. That blonde with the pig-tails? Oy.)
Gabrielle was a nice counter-point to all of this; defending Xena effectively in the courtroom (pointing out the clashing of swords was clever), making enough of a scene by wrapping the wagon rope around her neck to calm things down, and preparing to bust her out of jail. I'm looking forward to seeing her interact with Ares for the first time – they're obviously not going to be fans of each other's work.
That said, I thought she seemed a bit too casual about Xena whacking her in the face; there probably should have been a little bit of concern over the fact that Xena is not as "safe" as she thought, and that Gabrielle herself isn't necessarily exempt from her violence.  
It was interesting how Xena refers to Gabrielle as her "best friend", though not to her face. I'm not sure how I felt about this – it felt like that particular realization should have been held off for a while. Gabrielle has been throwing the term "best friend" around for a few episodes now, though I get the feeling it's more to do with reassuring herself (and others) of her own importance to Xena than an actual belief in that claim, and so far Xena has mostly been treating Gabrielle as this diverting and amusing little pet that she allows to follow around after her. Obviously I expect the relationship to deepen in the future, but for now, I think the term "best friend" is a little premature.
I realize that Ares/Xena is a popular ship, but at the risk of making myself very unpopular, I was a little nonplussed by their interactions here. I certainly didn't think they were bad, but the whole seduction element was overplayed. Somewhere between the black leather and the silk dresses and the plush pillows and the fireplace and the bedroom eyes and the touchy-feely interaction and the saxophones wailing away in the background, I found myself thinking: "okay, I get it!"
Given that Gabrielle's virginity is thematically linked with her "blood innocence", it's only natural that Xena's love of violence and warfare would manifest as a seduction; though I have to say that in general I'm not a big fan of that subtext. Wouldn't it be nice if just for once a happy, elaborate sex life was seen as an attribute of the good guys? And that the villains were depicted as sexually inept as they are morally stunted?
At the same time, I suppose it was unavoidable – how else was Ares going to offer such a deal? He's obviously not done with Xena, and it was a neat conceit that when the god of war wants one of his disciples back, he lays a trap without the intention of destroying her, but of winning her to his side. That's so very Greek god-like.

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