Welcome to my first review of Xena: Warrior Princess. I already talked about how I came to be a Xena fan last week, so let’s get right to it. I’ll give a brief synopsis of the story, then go into my trenchant analysis. (Yes, that was a joke.) Xena first appeared (as a villain) in three Hercules episodes and was supposed to be killed off. But the producers realized the character had great potential as a dark anti-hero struggling for personal redemption, trying to make up for all the terrible things she’d done in the past. This episode starts with Xena meeting a kid in a burnt-out village and leaving him some food because she feels guilty … it was her army that burnt the village in the first place. Xena rides out into the wilderness and decides to say to hell with everything, burying all her weapons and armour. She’s interrupted by some bandits rounding up a bunch of scared villagers they plan to sell into slavery. One of the villagers (Gabrielle, who will soon become very important in Xena’s life … and ours, for that matter) offers herself if the slavers let everyone else go. That impresses Xena and she kicks the slavers’ asses, who she realizes work for a warlord named Draco. She tells the leader (Hector) to deliver a message to Draco before punching him out.
In Gabrielle’s village (Poteidaia), the villagers show their gratitude by asking Xena to leave town immediately. Gabi begs Xena to take her along and get her away from her boring life (and even more boring fiancé), but Xena’s not interested in a sidekick. At Draco’s camp, we see Hector telling him about Xena as Draco trains. Xena shows up later and there’s obviously history between her and Draco. She asks him to spare Poteidaia for old time’s sake and he agrees, even though she turns down his offer to join up for some mayhem (or some sex, he’s cool with either one). Xena says she’s going home to Amphipolis and Draco warns her she won’t be welcome. That night, Gabi sneaks out of her house to follow Xena, after a sweet goodbye scene with her sister Lila. The next day, Xena crosses a bridge on the way to Amphipolis and runs into a cyclops.
This isn’t just any Cyclops; Xena blinded this giant a while back and he’s not happy about it, but he can’t do much to stop her (especially after she drops his pants with her chakram). Meanwhile, Draco has decided to teach Xena a lesson by raiding around Amphipolis and blaming it on Xena. He sends Hector to follow Xena and report back on her position. Gabi follows the same road Xena did and runs into the same cyclops. She talks her way past him by pretending to be Xena’s enemy and promising to bring back various body parts for him to munch on. On the way to Amphipolis, Xena realizes she’s being followed and turns the tables, forcing Hector to tell her what Draco’s planning. Gabi manages to catch a ride to Amphipolis by charming an old man driving a cart. Xena arrives in Amphipolis to warn them about Draco’s army, but it turns out Draco was right about the chilly reception … her mother pulls Xena’s sword from its scabbard and holds it to Xena’s throat.
Turns out Xena’s mother (Cyrene) was just making a point about the “no weapons” policy in her tavern. But Cyrene isn’t happy to see her daughter, and neither is anyone else in Amphipolis; ten years ago, Xena convinced the town to fight back against an invading warlord and ended up becoming a warlord herself. The people of Amphipolis have no desire to see more of their family members die in Xena’s name and Cyrene is so ashamed of her daughter’s actions, she can hardly look at her. Xena takes the hint and leaves. At Draco’s camp, he challenges Hector and kills him for letting Xena know his plans. He sends his men to flank Amphipolis on multiple sides, in preparation for a full-on assault. The next day, Xena tries to convince her mother to leave, but Cyrene still doesn’t trust her. Xena says she wants to make up for her past, but when other villagers come in to report that Xena’s army is raiding all over the valley, Cyrene gives up and tells them to do whatever they want with Xena. What they want is to stone her to death—and it seems like she’s ready to let them—but Gabi shows up and convices them to let Xena leave. Xena’s not too grateful until Gabi points out that she just saved Xena’s ass. Xena takes Gabi along to visit her brother Lyceus … well, to visit his tomb. Lyceus was part of Xena’s army ten years ago and wound up dead, which is another reason Cyrene is so pissed off. Xena tells her dead brother that she’s trying to reform but it’s a hard thing to do alone. Gabi comes into the mausoleum and tells Xena she’s not alone. In the village barn, Draco shows up and the townsfolk offer him a wagon load of loot to leave them alone. Draco would rather have Xena, but the townspeople don’t know where she is. Before Draco can beat it out of them, Xena shows up.
Draco reiterates his offer to Xena and she refuses again. He challenges her to a duel with staffs, on top of a platform … first to touch the ground dies. There’s an extended fight scene which starts on the platform and ends with Xena and Draco walking on the crowd’s heads (which is an homage to a Jet Li movie called Fong Sai Yuk … the Xena crew are big fans of Hong Kong action movies, so we’ll see a lot of homages throughout the series). Despite some cheating on Draco’s part, Xena wins and Gabi helps by preventing Draco’s henchman Gar from propping up his boss. Xena spares Draco on the promise that he’ll leave Amphipolis alone and Draco agrees. We see that Draco does have some sense of honour, since he kills Gar when Gar tries to knife Xena in the back. Xena makes up with her mother, but knows she can’t hang around Amphipolis If she wants to redeem herself. That night, Gabi stumbles into Xena’s camp, exhausted from following her and we get the first of many campfire scenes. Xena’s ready to drag her back home, but Gabi convinces her they’re two of a kind, both trying to be something other than what everyone believes. (Xena: “It’s not easy, proving you’re a different person.”) Xena agrees to let Gabi come of her journey, warning her there’s going to be trouble. Gabi says friends stick by each other through trouble; I get the feeling Xena thinks Gabi might be jumping the gun a bit in naming them friends, but this is the beginning of the most important relationship in both their lives.
This is one of my favourite Xena episodes; it’s number 4 on my all-time list. Pilot episodes are hard to do because they have to introduce the characters and make us care about them, giving us some backstory but not too much. The pilot also has to set up the overall premise of the show and still have a contained story for that particular episode. Usually, we end up getting short-changed on story or character, but that doesn’t happen here. This episode feels like it could come in the middle of a season; it doesn’t skimp on character or story. I think the creators did a good job showing us Xena’s motivation without going too deep into her history. It’s almost like they assumed everyone had seen the Hercules episodes she was in and this is just the logical follow-up to those. But if you haven’t seen those episodes, it doesn’t matter; this story stands on its own.
In the teaser, a lot of people (including R.J. Stewart) see Xena as preparing to kill herself, but I don’t think that’s the case. (Why would she bury all her weapons if she was going to kill herself?) I’d say what Xena’s doing is a sort of “spiritual suicide”, where she’s giving up her quest for redemption because it’s too difficult. I think Xena always planned on returning to Amphipolis and wanted to show up unarmed. She was obviously hoping for forgiveness, but was prepared to take whatever happened … which could include the villagers killing her (which they almost did). I guess you could say that’s a form of suicide … “suicide by mob”, letting herself be killed for her sins. And if she didn’t find forgiveness in Amphipolis, maybe she would’ve gone and jumped off a cliff, or maybe she’d have moved to a cave somewhere and cut herself off from humanity. And being unarmed, she might’ve been killed by bandits or warlords or monsters … another passive form of suicide.
We don’t know how much time went by between Xena’s last appearance in Hercules and this episode, but in real life it was about six months, so if we assume the same amount of time in-story, that gives Xena enough time to travel around doing good deeds and meeting resistance everywhere she went. She probably tried to help people but they either attacked her or ran away, until she finally got tired of it and gave up. I’m assuming it was in those few months of good deeds that she blinded the cyclops; his wound looked scabbed over but still somewhat recent.
Xena is immediately drawn to Gabi because of Gabi’s spirit and her willingness to sacrifice herself to save her fellow villagers. In a deleted scene from the shooting script, Xena told Draco that one of the Poteidaians (i.e. Gabi) reminded her of herself when she was younger. We also see that Gabi is willing to fight when she has to (she knees one of the slavers in the face), which is something else she and Xena have in common.
I know a lot of people find Gabi “annoying”, especially in these early episodes, but I disagree. Yeah, she comes off like she’s trying too hard, but there are two explanations for that: the meta explanation is that Renee wasn’t quite sure how to play the character yet and the writers weren’t really sure how to write her, so Gabi ends up being a little over the top … even Renee said she was kinda annoying in the early episodes. But as Renee and the creators get a handle on the character (and realize how important she is to the show), those rough edges smooth out. As for an in-story explanation, Gabi doesn’t want Xena to send her back to Poteidaia, so she’s trying to make herself invaluable, and she ends up overcompensating and trying too hard. After a few adventures together, Gabi realizes Xena’s not going to send her packing, so she calms down and stops trying so hard to impress Xena.
In that vein, Gabi’s main strength so far seems to be her gift for gab (pun intended); she’s great at talking her way out of tight situations, as she does with the cyclops, the old man on the road, the mob in the tavern, and even Xena. We’ll see more of that in upcoming episodes, although it fades into the background a bit once Gabi tones down her exuberance. But right through the series she’s depicted as someone who’s good at diplomacy (and great at talking merchants into a lower price in the marketplace). And as we see in the scene with the old man, Gabi also knows when to stop talking and listen; it was her willingness to listen to his stories that convinced him to give her a ride.
The scene where Gabi says goodbye to her sister Lila is very sweet and we’ll see Lila again in future episodes, where we’ll find out she’s grown quite bitter at Gabi’s impromptu odyssey, and jealous that Gabi chose to go with Xena instead of staying with Lila at home. There’s no sign of that here, but Lila is very sad at Gabi leaving and maybe Gabi can’t see how hard it is for Lila because her own excitement is getting in the way. Gabi also tells Lila not to let their mother carry water from the well by herself, which makes me think Gabi probably carried the water most of the time. I get the impression Gabi worked her ass off around the farm, which explains how she’s in good enough shape to travel with Xena.
I mentioned a changed scene from the shooting script and there were quite a few changes made (which you can check out over at Whoosh, a great Xena fan site). A few more changed scenes I’d like to point out: Cyrene was much harsher to Xena in their reunion, spitting in Xena’s face, slapping her, and telling her to go kill herself. There was a scene where the old man stopped at a tavern and Gabi charmed all the patrons with her bardic skills. Gabi helped Xena more in the final fight scene, tossing her the staff when Draco disarmed her and propping her up like Gar did with Draco later (maybe they cut that for time, or maybe they figured only the bad guys should cheat). A scene I really wish they’d left in is right before the fight when Draco asks Xena to join him again; Xena looks around and realizes that the people of Amphipolis don’t trust her and can’t really see any difference between her and Draco, but then she sees the trust and faith in Gabi’s face and declines Draco’s offer.
- I’m not the first person to point out similarities between Xena and Lost Girl, but the scene where Xena saves Gabi from the slavers really reminds me of Bo saving Kenzi from the guy that roofied her in the first episode of Lost Girl; Gabi and Kenzi both end up slung over a guy’s shoulders, which is what caught my notice.
- Seeing as how Xena and Gabi eventually end up (for all intents and purposes) as a married couple, it’s kinda cool that they meet each other’s families here. (We don’t see Gabi interacting with Cyrene, but I have to assume they met off-screen, probably after the big fight.)
- While training, Draco catches three of four arrows shot at him, with the fourth one grazing his arm; next episode, Xena catches two of three arrows and takes the third one in the gut. I’m not sure what that says about their respective skill-sets.
- When Xena jumps Hector in the woods, she comes out of a tree … an early reference to her Amazon training?
- A recurring theme, especially in early episodes, is the fickleness of the crowd; the people of Amphipolis hate Xena, but when she’s fighting Draco they start cheering for her. As soon as the fight’s over, they go back to distrusting her, offering her the wagon full of loot.
- How do Xena and Draco know each other, and how close were they in the past? I assume Draco was part of Xena’s army after she started conquering villages. I also assume (from the way Draco talks) that he’s always had the hots for Xena, but never actually banged her.
- In real life, Amphipolis and Poteidaia are about fifty miles apart as the crow flies, a little farther by road. Draco mentions the Strymon Pass and the river that goes through Amphipolis (in real life) was called the Strymon in ancient times. In real life, Poteidaia is a port city on an isthmus, but I guess Xena takes place in an alternate universe (it certainly has a different history), so maybe Poteidaia is a few miles inland in that particular world.
- “You always did have trouble keeping your face clean”; Xena says this as she brushes dirt off Lyceus’s tomb, and there’s a great callback to it in the second season episode Remember Nothing.
- “She’d never let a man get close enough to do her … well, not that kind of ‘do her.’” Gabi says this to the cyclops when trying to convince him she can get close enough to kill Xena. It shows Gabi (or maybe R.J.) has a salty sense of humour.
- “You’re not alone.” These three words echo down through the entire series. Xena is in Lyceus’s tomb, telling him how hard it is to stay on her path of redemption when no one believes in her. Xena says Lyceus could see into her heart and I think Gabi can too, although Xena doesn’t realize it yet. Gabi letting Xena know that she doesn’t have to walk her difficult path alone gives Xena the courage to keep going. There’s a callback to this in the third season episode Forgiven, when Gabi tells Xena that it’s easier to believe in yourself if someone else believes in you first, advice Xena repeats to Tara after realizing Gabi’s words also apply to Xena herself. Xena’s not alone any more and she never will be again, right through to the end of the series.