This one starts with Xena and Gabi traveling through a forested area. When Gabi goes ahead to look for a road, Xena hears the sound of fighting and finds a hooded man attacking some farmers nearby. Xena fights the hooded man, but he turns out to be a better fighter than she’d anticipated, and disappears into thin air. Three of the farmers are already dead but Xena tries to help the fourth guy (Teracles), using her sword to put pressure on his wounded shoulder and dumping out his money pouch to use it as a tourniquet. Unfortunately, when Teracles’s fellow villagers show up, they see Xena standing over him with bloody hands (and sword) and three of their friends dead on the ground. Naturally, they assume Xena killed the others and quickly surround her.
Not wanting to fight a bunch of lowly peasants, Xena takes off and finds Gabi having fun in a nearby stream. They retreat into the woods, not realizing the glade they’ve entered has no other way out other than the way they just came in. Back at the village, the people are howling for Xena’s blood, but one villager (Benitar) actually has a sense of justice and insists Xena be brought in alive to stand trial. The villagers know Xena can’t escape the glade without coming out the way she entered, so they block off the access and wait. Xena tells Gabi what happened and suggests they sneak away in the dark. It’s interesting that Gabi immediately believes Xena’s account of what happened, including the vanishing man in the hood (which does sound a bit strange). Xena tells Gabi the hooded guy was as good a fighter as her—or maybe better—and warns Gabi to take off if they get separated. Obviously, Xena already has a pretty good idea who her mystery opponent might be and doesn’t want Gabi in danger. They soon realize there’s only one way out of the glade and try to slip away early in the morning, but the villagers are lying in wait. Gabi gets caught and Xena gives herself up after negotiating Gabi’s freedom. As soon as Xena surrenders, one of the villagers (Peranis) conks her out with a shovel.
Xena is chained up in the town jail and Gabi promises to help defend her. Xena again orders Gabi to leave, but naturally Gabi doesn’t listen. Xena is visited by the hooded man, who turns out to be Ares, God of War (just as Xena suspected). Ares (who refers to himself as Xena’s former mentor and still her biggest fan) releases her and whisks her away to a military camp, where he tempts her to lead his armies in conquering the world. (He also tries to put the moves on her, but she seems less interested in that.) Knowing Xena’s not as bloodthirsty as she used to be, Ares sweetens the deal by showing her all the good she could do: people taxed only on their profits, care for the elderly, teaching of medicine. Xena is somewhat tempted by the thought of being able to do good, but of course all that would only come after she takes over the world … with Ares at her back. Ares tells her she can be a benevolent dictator and promises to save her from the villagers anytime she calls his name. Xena appears back in her cell where several villagers come in and drag her outside. Benitar is telling Gabi that, as an outsider, she can’t be Xena’s advocate because it was all he could do to get the villagers to agree to a trial in the first place. They hear the commotion and go outside to find the villagers prepared to drag Xena to death through the streets.
Gabi wraps the rope around her own neck, ready to die to protect Xena. That, and Benitar’s pleas, quell the mob for a while and they take Xena back to her cell. Benitar is impressed by Gabi’s bravery and agrees to let her be Xena’s advocate. Xena gives Gabi shit for risking her life and Gabi says it’s something best friends do for each other. Gabi goes out to look for exonerating evidence and finds bootprints at the site of the fight. She goes to get Benitar, but Ares erases the bootprints before she brings Benitar back, so Benitar thinks she’s just wasting his time. At the trial, Gabi brings up some really good points (like the fact that the villagers heard swords clashing but none of the dead farmers had swords, or what happened to the money Xena supposedly stole) which really should’ve gotten Xena off. But the survivor of the massacre is brought in and in his addled state, he ends up making it seem like Xena attacked them. Benitar is pretty much convinced and ends the trial before Gabi can even cross-examine the witness, although Benitar does allow her to talk to the village council. In Xena’s cell, Peranis and some pals come in to give her a beating, even though they’re sure she’ll be executed tomorrow. Ares re-appears and tempts Xena again, getting her so pissed off that she breaks loose from her chains and starts pounding Peranis and his friends. Xena’s berzerker rage lasts until Gabi comes in and Xena gives her a backhand across the face that sends her sprawling. After Gabi runs off crying, Xena realizes what she’s done.
Benitar finds Xena tending to Peranis and the other guys she pounded and wonders why she didn’t just take off. Xena says even though she didn’t kill the farmers, she’s probably capable of it (and has killed plenty of people in the past), so maybe she deserves to be executed. Later that night, Gabi comes back with Argo, planning to bust Xena out of jail. Xena is surprised (and touched) that Gabi came back after the beat-down, but Xena’s already working on a plan to deal with Ares, so she asks Gabi to leave her in jail. Xena calls on Ares and gets him to promise her anyone—living or dead—for her army if she’s condemned to die by the villagers. Ares gives his word and Xena says she’ll call on him when she needs him. The next morning, Xena is condemned to be executed and when Ares shows up, she asks him to provide the three dead villagers for her army. (Since Xena’s the only one who can see Ares, the villagers—and Gabi—think she’s talking to herself.) Ares is forced to comply (since he gave his word) and the villagers appear, hale and hearty. Naturally, that means Xena isn’t guilty of killing them (and the newly-revived villagers give a glowing testimonial about how she defended them from the hooded man), so she’s released and the villagers all end up cheering her … once again showing the fickleness of the mob. After they leave the village, Xena thanks Gabi for coming back for her and Gabi takes a swing at her to even things up, almost breaking her hand on Xena’s armour (or possibly her shoulder … it’s hard to tell exactly where the punch lands). As they head off through the forest, Xena fills Gabi in about Ares.
This is a really good episode and gets better every time I see it. (It’s #47 on my all-time list and would probably be higher if there weren’t so many other great episodes to come.) We get our first look at Ares, who will be a very important character in the future, and see his obsession with turning Xena back into a warlord. And Gabi finally gets to do something, defending Xena with passion and zeal, even risking her life (not for the last time) to save her from being unjustly executed. I think this is the first episode where Gabi really gets to shine and probably where Ares first takes notice of her. He was watching (invisibly) when Gabi was ready to sacrifice herself for Xena and he was watching when she found the footprints that could’ve exonerated Xena. I think Ares realizes he can’t tempt Xena as long as Gabi is around, which is why he makes getting rid of Gabi a priority in his next appearance, Ties That Bind.
This is our first look at the Xena/Ares dynamic and it sets the tone for the rest of the series: Ares has seen Xena as a kick-ass warlord and loves that part of her, so he’ll do anything to bring her back to that life. Xena was never 100% comfortable with that life, but she can’t deny that Darkness is a part of her and that she kinda enjoys certain aspects of it. Basically, Xena is fighting against her own nature, pulling back from the warlord she was (and liked being), trying to be something better. Ares knows just what buttons to push and tempts her with the possibility of doing good things once they’ve conquered the world. That idea does make Xena consider Ares’ offer, but in the end she knows a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship and plenty of people would be hurt getting there. (Plus, how benevolent could it be with Ares whispering from the shadows?) And maybe Xena also knows that she’d end up enjoying it too much and lose control; after all, she originally started out wanting to do good (protecting her village from Cortese) and it snowballed into her being a bloodthirsty warlord.
- Xena says she always wondered what Ares looked like, but as we’ll see, she’s dealt with him before many times. I assume maybe he used a different face (or faces) back then, or maybe wore a mask, so this could be the first time she’s seeing his real face.
- Gabi calls Xena her best friend, which I kind of chalked up to Gabi’s usual exuberance, since they’ve only been together for six episodes. But after Xena backhands Gabi and is talking to Benitar, she says “You saw what I did to my best friend” to Peranis, so I guess Xena’s on board with them being BFFs. Too bad Gabi wasn’t there to hear it.
- It’s interesting that Xena is brought out of her “Dark Side” rage by hitting Gabi; in future episodes (Ties That Bind, The Price) we’ll see Gabi using other methods to bring Xena out of a rage. Eventually, their relationship will evolve so that Gabi can snap Xena out of her Darkness with just words (The Furies, Crusader, Paradise Found).
- Gabi makes a pretty good lawyer here, bringing up several points that really should’ve proved Xena’s innocence. This isn’t the last time she’ll act as Xena’s advocate in a trial, although that doesn’t turn out any better than this did. Actually, Gabi (or maybe Renee) is good at giving heartfelt speeches in general, as we’ll see in future episodes.
- When asking Ares about an army, Xena mentions Hector, Achilles, and Agamemnon, saying they’re “all long gone”. As we’ll see in a few episodes, the Trojan War is almost over, so Hector and Achilles are dead, but Agamemnon is still alive. Maybe Xena meant he was unavailable because of the War, or maybe news from Troy is so spotty that nobody really knows if Agamemnon is alive or dead at this point.
- Ares mentions Xena having “super-mortal strength” and she does bust free of her chains and kick a heavy door off its hinges. Maybe it was just adrenaline, or maybe Ares helped her out a bit with a power boost. I think Xena’s probably stronger than most mortals, but she isn’t as strong as Hercules. I definitely prefer her to be a “mere” mortal … it makes everything she does accomplish more meaningful (and means there’s always a chance she might fail).
- The whole thing of Ares wanting Xena to call on him for help and her ultimately refusing (or tricking him when she does call on him) reminds me of the 5th season episode Succession, where Xena tells Mavican that Ares considers anyone who asks him for help to be unworthy of his aid.
- “Action and power draw you like a moth to a flame. It burns inside you.” Ares giving a very accurate assessment of Xena’s character and her constant fight to deny it … which we’ll see in many episodes to come.
- “I also know now that there’s a big difference between what justice is and what the law is. I don’t think we better wait around for justice.” Gabi learning a hard lesson about how good people can sometimes end up doing the wrong thing, while thinking it’s right.