Xena Warrior Princess: Hooves and Harlots, The Black Wolf, Greeks Bearing Gifts
My rewatch begins to heat up a little, with one really good episode, and two that might be more mediocre than not, but still have some solid scenes amidst the dross.
It's clear at this early stage that the writers are still figuring out Xena's backstory – at this point the working theory is that she went off the rails about a decade ago, but has plenty of friends from before that time who can call on her for help in times of trouble. It's a far cry from what we'll see later on, in which Xena is little more than a feral animal during her conquistador years.
Still, all three involve strong, interesting female guest-stars, and the arrival of the Amazons in particular introduces an important recurring culture within the mythos of the show.
Hooves and Harlots
I loved this one, and so far it's been the only episode I've watched twice. I really got the feeling that (apart from the pilot) this was the first episode that was actually establishing something important in the show's mythos that will be brought up again later – and that's not just because I was tipped off by Danielle Cormack's presence.
The Amazons are a logical (and wonderful) addition to the show, and despite the outfits (or lack thereof) they're still allowed to be fully formed characters intead of just fetish fuel. They packed in a lot about their customs and culture into a single episode, and the likes of Ephiny and Queen Melosa are great fun to watch. As a point of comparison, Merlin featured six important, powerful, sympathetic, three-dimensional female characters during its entire run – Xena managed to get nearly as many (five) into a single episode.
This was also the first time that an episode managed to evenly balance out Xena and Gabrielle's stories – both had very different things to do, but each story was important, and intersected nicely at the end. The bad guy was a little tedious (he seemed inexplicably happy at the oddest moments) but between Xena's detective skills and Gabrielle's development as a warrior in her own right, there was lots of great stuff going on. I especially liked the sequence at the end with the centaurs pulling the Amazons' chariots into battle, and the Xena/Melosa showdown (and the hilarious lead-up to it).
It's been said before, but for the first time I was struck by Xena's medical abilities – she's very much like Aragorn in her combination of fighting/healing skills, and she also had some great deadpan deliveries here: "I'm an Amazon princess?" "Great." There were plenty of cute, funny exchanges throughout, and the CGI on the centaurs was surprisingly good (most of the time). But there was also some weirdness: why were Ephiny and Xena fighting in the forest in the first place?
I did wonder if perhaps this episode was shown out of order with the last one, simply because of Gabrielle's clothing. She seems to have gained articles of clothing here (especially the blue necklace) that she was already wearing in the last episode, yet they change her outfit again in The Black Wolf. Ephiny's gift of a staff also seems to go missing in favour of a simpler one in the very next episode.
But those little quibbles aside, this was a great episode, and definitely my favourite so far.
The Black Wolf
This one was another okay episode. It's hard to get particularly invested in these one-shot episodes that introduce characters I know aren't going to show up again (which is a shame, because I liked Flora) and which are full of contrivances (this is probably the first time we see Xena separated from her chakram, and it's only so Gabrielle can sneak it into the jail for her).
It was a fairly standard "jail-break" episode, complete with La Resistance and ninja-warriors, but it was good to see Xena and Gabrielle rely on wits and cunning rather than strength (for the most part), and for Xena to go undercover with her bad-girl persona to try and break out the Black Wolf. I could see that it was Flora from a mile away, and though I didn't notice the other wolves looking at her every time a decision had to be made, I'll take Xena's word for it.
One thing that didn't make any sense to me at all was the old tree climbing story. Apparently Flora was meant to learn "you have to have faith in yourself" from it, but all I could visualise was a bullying Xena taunting a younger girl trying to climb a tree. That said, I had trouble really visualising their relationship at all. Did she and Flora grow up in the same village? Because Xena described her as "the closest thing to a sister I have", and yet the fact she's never been mentioned before (or since) doesn't really make that claim very convincing.
But it was neat seeing Salmonius again. I remember him well from the Hercules days, and he managed to make some distinctly non-funny lines... extremely funny. I'm guessing this was the first time that he'd met Gabrielle, but apparently not Xena? Someone may have to fill me in on their background.*
*Update: I've watched the pertinent Hercules episodes since seeing this one, and yes – Salmonius has not only met Xena before, but actually played a part in her initial redemption arc.
Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts
I think by this stage it's clear that Xena works best when the writers are working with their own mythology, rather than borrowing bits and pieces from the actual mythology. Trying to shoe-horn a ten-year siege into forty-five minutes was doomed to fail. And who knew that such an epic battle could be so...piddly. Troy looked like a dump and the Greek army was made up of approximately ten people (and wasn't Xena talking about Achilles and Agamemnon just a few episodes ago as though they were legendary heroes? Seems ridiculous that THIS is the place where they met their demise).
Also, it was the weirdest battle I've ever seen. A random soldier would shoot someone, people were wandering in and out of the city at leisure, there would be tiny skirmishes that achieved nothing, and the traitor may as well have had "traitor" tattooed on his forehead (I guess in that, this and Merlin aren't so different).
I suppose I quite liked Helen's character arc (and I thought the actress was lovelier than Diane Kruger), in that she decides to stop being a pawn for men and seek out her own destiny. The bit with the prophetic dream was interesting, and I liked the friendship between super-butch Xena and girly-girl Helen – though it's surprising how many "old friends" Xena has who knew her before the rampaging years and decide to ask for her help. Undoubtedly this is the last we'll see of Helen, but I enjoyed this interpretation of her.
Perdicus makes a return as Gabrielle's boyfriend of the week, but I get the feeling that he at least will be making a return. The dynamic seems to be very different now than it was in the pilot (is it even the same actor?) as there it appeared he was an arranged suitor that Gabrielle hated and found boring, and here it very much has an old friends/childhood sweethearts vibe.
It was a cute twist that the Trojans use the horse to sneak out of the city again, as was the trick Xena pulled with Helen's tiara at the end, but for the most part this episode didn't really work. Using the Trojan War as a backdrop for Xena just didn't fit somehow – and there were dozens of contrivances concerning people being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time in order to see other characters sneaking around. I think my favourite bit was when Xena notices Helen trying to sneak out of the city...and then they both notice Evil Brother sneaking out of the conspicuous escape route...in broad daylight...with tons of soldiers milling about.
Still, I get that the show is still finding its feet, and even in the show's mediocre episodes, there are always a few scenes or character beats that are worth the watch.