Whoosh! Issue 26 - November 1998


Dissing Dahak:
What Went Wrong In The Third Season Of Xena: Warrior Princess




More Problems With Season Three


Altered States: Character Development

[41] As noted above, season three presented very little growth in the recurring characters, most notably in Ares, Joxer, and Callisto. Autolycus provides the only real exception.

First I said it, then I did it!


Ares is a bit gobsmacked at the appearance of Dahak in SACRIFICE.


Ares
[42] In seasons one and two of XWP, and season three of HTLJ, the character of Ares evolves marvelously. He is presented as a villain with a lot of complexity, far from a stereotypical bad guy. Ares has his own interests and agenda, which he pursues with much enthusiasm. He is shown as devious and clever, sometimes blinded by his own ego and single-mindedness, but never as a fool who can be easily deceived. There is much humor to the character (e.g., his perpetual annoyance with Strife), and even a sense of integrity: when he gives his word to Xena in THE RECKONING (06/106), he keeps it, although it means losing that particular confrontation. TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208) offers the idea that Ares has his place in the universe, and although Xena may dislike him, he is needed in the larger scheme of things.

[43] Much of this complexity falls by the wayside in Xena's third season. Ares is always evil, his actions always wrong. Worse, he is easily tricked, deceived, and manipulated by Xena. He also demonstrates incredibly poor judgment in choosing his lackeys [e.g. Agathon in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303)].

[44] The Dahak arc might have allowed Ares to grow as the only Olympian willing to confront the demon, thereby realizing that even a god must sometimes fight to protect his place in the universe. Such an encounter might not have necessarily made Ares heroic, but at least it might have shown that he had enough spine to defend himself, his interests, and his world. His capitulation to Dahak smacks of the cheapest character stereotyping: evil characters must always be lazy, and worse, cowardly. Surely Ares, a master manipulator, would not believe that once he had spawned those six monsters, Dahak would allow him to live!

Joxer

At least we can share clothes!


Joxer and Jett work out some issues in KING OF ASSASINS.


[45] Joxer has generated much controversy among Xenites, and the third season does not lessen the dispute. Almost nothing has been done to develop this character. Going into the fourth season, viewers have yet to learn even the name of Joxer's home village.

[46] KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308) is perhaps the greatest disappointment. Joxer encounters his hit-man brother, Jett, but there is little meaningful interplay between the two. At the end of the episode, when Joxer might have talked Jett out of killing Cleopatra, Xena turns up and saves the day, thus ruining a chance for Joxer to demonstrate even a small amount of courage or intellect. This episode further suffers from a general lack of direction in the plot. The presence of so many characters (Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Jett, Autolycus, Cleopatra, a number of guards) creates another distraction, because each character's role in the story is not clearly articulated.

[47] Joxer's best moments come in BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302), THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER... (56/310), and to a lesser extent, FORGET ME NOT (63/317). His unrequited crush on Gabrielle provides some wonderful poignancy, but unfortunately, he is not allowed to grow as a result of this love. In the unspectacular FORGET ME NOT, Joxer throws sand into a guard's face to enter the temple of Mnemosyne, a good instance of his concern for Gabrielle forcing him to be resourceful. Sadly, such occasions are few. His futile effort to protect Gabrielle from Xena in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) provides one of the most powerful moments of that episode, clearly demonstrating that Joxer would rather die himself than see Gabrielle harmed. But Gabrielle's continuing obliviousness undermines his efforts. Most discouraging of all, his heroism in SACRIFICE II (68/322) largely takes place off-screen. This lack of development will continue to feed the annoyance of Xena fans who dislike Joxer and the frustration of those fans who enjoy the character and would like to see more done with him.

Callisto

And it's so cool to be a goddess and not have to worry about
breaking a nail!


Callisto develops a habit for being buried by rocks later in her career.


[48] The first two seasons of Xena present Callisto as a vengeful, psychotic character who would stop at nothing to make the Warrior Princess suffer for the destruction of Cirra. Callisto is clever and manipulative, unerringly able to pinpoint Xena's weaknesses, and use them. She even tells Xena in CALLISTO (22/122): "...I will dedicate my life to destroying everything you love: your friends, your family, your reputation, even your horse".

[49] Becoming a goddess obviously gives Callisto the chance to make good on this desire. However, one characteristic of the action-adventure genre is that the hero will eventually triumph (and this is certainly true of XWP, especially in the third season). This presented the writers with the challenge of reconciling Callisto's godhood with the need to have Xena prevail over her rival.

[50] As noted above, Callisto's revelation at the end of MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311) might have provided the necessary loophole: to have Callisto cause (or witness) great pain in Xena with the death of Solan, then realize that regardless of this revenge, her own pain will not end. This pivotal event might have led in any number of fascinating directions, none of which were taken by the writers. Callisto becomes increasingly shallow throughout SACRIFICE (67,68/321,322). To allow Xena to prevail, Callisto is dumbed down as a goddess to render her more susceptible to defeat. Xena burying Callisto under rock pile after rock pile (A NECESSARY EVIL (39/214), MATERNAL INSTINCTS, and SACRIFICE [67,68/321,322]) is the nadir of this denigration.

Autolycus
[51] The King of Thieves is the only recurring character to undergo significant development in the 1997-1998 season, but most of that growth occurs in Hercules episodes. Autolycus is forced into a heroic role in MEN IN PINK (H71/412); he must cooperate with Iolaus, a man he dislikes, to save Hercules in PORKULES (H75/416); he suffers and survives the wrath of an angry god in ONE FOWL DAY (H76/417); and he falls in love with and is rejected by a woman in MY FAIR CUPCAKE (H77/418).

[52] On Xena, he learns that selfish actions sometimes have unexpected consequences in TSUNAMI (65/319), but despite his self-recriminations, he seems little changed at the end of the episode. VANISHING ACT (66/320) brings him face-to-face with the man who killed his brother, but the structure of the episode allows for little dramatic tension. The viewer knows Autolycus would never kill in cold blood, and there is no element of surprise to make murder even a remote possibility. It is almost sign-posted that Xena will talk the thief out of this act of revenge. Further, the low-brow comedy of the episode (the outrageous costumes and accents) completely undermines any emotional impact the encounter might have carried.


Warrior...Princess...God? SuperXena

[53] Xena's humanity has long been an appealing part of the character. Unlike Hercules, whose godly blood protects him, to a certain extent, from direct physical harm, Xena's mortality creates the possibility that she might be harmed or even killed. Indeed, one of her first character-building experiences is running a brutal gauntlet of her own army [THE GAUNTLET (H12/112)]. This experience, combined with other events in the episode, brings about Xena's change of heart and forges her decision to fight for good instead of her own gain.

[54] All throughout the first and second seasons, there are occasions when Xena's life is threatened. There are episodes when she must use her wits and intelligence, rather than her combat skills, to resolve the problem at hand. As the character of Gabrielle developed, Xena has been able also to rely on her friend for assistance. In the first two seasons Xena makes mistakes. She is captured, injured, and occasionally bested in combat. Part of the fun of each episode is watching Xena work her way through the current dilemma, and observing the changes that she undergoes through this process.

[55] The third season has all but eliminated that enjoyment. More and more, Xena settles her problems by simply beating up her opponent. Whether that opponent is mortal, immortal, or god; one, a dozen, or legions, she now seems capable of besting anyone. She defeats gods in one-on-one combat [THE FURIES (47/301)], and 'thinks' her way through spells they cast [THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER... (56/310)]. She vanquishes an entire army single-handedly [ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)]. She runs circles around Caesar in his own dungeon [WHEN IN ROME... (62/316)].

[56] Instead of an extraordinary mortal, Xena now verges on demi-godhood. In a post to the Ares mailing list (May 18, 1998), Mich Price makes the following observation regarding a scene in SACRIFICE II (68/322):

How about that scene in which Xena was apparently unable to hold Seraphin from plunging down the cliff? ...One moment Xena is fully extended, exhausted, and barely able to hold on. Then Xena simply throws the girl 30 feet up onto the ledge.

[57] This invincibility is not only silly, it is tedious. Xena's friends are reduced to cheerleaders for her greatness. The other characters become less significant as the focus narrows more and more on Xena herself. The villains no longer act as worthy opponents against whom the warrior must match her strength and wits. They are mostly buffoons who exist merely to make Xena look good. The cheapening of characters like Ares, Callisto, and Caesar is nothing short of criminal.


Been There, Done That: Recycled Episodes

Oh please put that special pinch on me again!  Please, please!


VANISHING ACT -- a retread?


[58] Seasons one and two of XWP include a number of wonderfully original episodes. Even when drawn from history, mythology, or contemporary culture, the writers invariably put their own unique twist on familiar stories, cleverly adapting them to the Xenaverse (e.g., DESTINY [212/36] is based on an incident from the life of Caesar).

[59] Sadly, four episodes in the third season are clearly lifted straight from earlier Xena stories. THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303) is almost an exact duplicate of A FISTFUL OF DINARS (14/114), with Xena and her unwilling collaborators in pursuit of Hephaestus-forged weapons instead of Ambrosia. ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) is a cross between THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), with Gabrielle poisoned instead of Xena, and THE PRICE (44/220), with the Persian army standing in for the Horde. Most of the gags in FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318) are taken from A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215): the fish, the kite, the obvious subtext jokes, and even the final shot of Gabrielle and Xena star-gazing. VANISHING ACT (66/320) is a carbon copy of DEATH MASK (23/123), with Autolycus and Tarsus in place of Toris and Cortese, by way of THE ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES (17/117), where Autolycus and Xena go undercover as bidders in the auction of a priceless artifact - the statue of Pax instead of the Ark of the Covenant.


Remember Nothing: Revisionist History and Inconsistencies

[60] Instead of maintaining the various backstories established in the first two seasons, many third season stories disregard characters' histories, creating some notable incongruities.

Family Matters
[61] In SINS OF THE PAST (01/101), viewers meet Cyrene, Xena's mother, and learn that Xena's brother Lyceus died in a battle to defend Amphipolis. Later in the first season, viewers learn that Xena's father, Atrius, evidently vanished when she was very young [TIES THAT BIND (20/120)]. DEATH MASK (23/123) introduces Toris, an older brother who fled Amphipolis rather than stay and fight. Driven by guilt at his cowardice, Toris later tries to hunt down Cortese, the warlord who invaded the town.

[62] After the first season, however, details about Xena's family life begin to fall by the wayside. The second season's REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202) offers Xena the chance to undo her warrior past. Lyceus is not killed in battle, however, Cyrene apparently dies of despair. Toris is not seen in this episode, or even mentioned.

[63] The third season opener, THE FURIES (47/301), finally reveals that Cyrene killed Atrius to prevent her drunken husband from murdering Xena. However, Atrius is never mentioned by name, he is just called "Xena's father". Moreover, Cyrene never mentions that she had been concerned for her sons' lives as well as her daughter's. The death of Lyceus is alluded to, but once again, Toris goes unmentioned.

The Daddy Question
[64] The original script for THE FURIES (47/301) ends with the revelation that Ares, not Atrius, in fact fathered Xena. However, the writers and producers shied away from this ending, perhaps because of the uncomfortable incest issue. Instead, the script was re-worked to leave the question of Xena's paternity ambiguous.

[65] This conclusion seems unwise. In an interview with Bret Rudnick (Whoosh! Issue 10, July 1997, Kevin Smith (Ares) states that if indeed Ares had been revealed as Xena's father, the "texture of the show" would be changed, because Xena would be, like Hercules, half-god and half-mortal. One appeal of Xena for many fans is that she is human and prone to all the vulnerabilities of mortality. An elevation to demi-godhood removes the viewer's sense of identification with the character. Moreover, in season three, it seems that many writers have chosen to portray Xena as a demi-god, despite the official ambiguity. She becomes physically more indomitable with every episode.

Meeting Again for the First Time
[66] When Xena first encounters Ares in THE RECKONING (06/106), she tells him, "I always used to wonder what you looked like", clearly indicating they would never met face-to-face. However, the third season story THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303), seems to indicate that they interacted a lot "about ten years ago'. Note the following exchange:

Xena: ...I wasn't the easiest warrior you ever dealt with.

Ares: No. No, you never let me get away with anything. You had the nerve to question me, and you never took anything I said at face value.

[67] In THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310), Ares tells Aphrodite, "I made the warrior". He also brags to Gabrielle: "When [Xena] first came to me, she was just another lost warlord, hungry to kill. I gave her a purpose". And in SACRIFICE (67,68/321,322), he takes credit for having given Xena her "focus". All this flatly contradicts THE RECKONING (06/106), incorrectly suggesting that Xena's relationship with Ares goes back far beyond the first season.


A Necessary Evil: Gabrielle and Xena Go Their Own Ways

No, Joxer, that's 'vapid warrior', not 'rapid warrior'!


Gabby awoke with a jerk in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER.


[68] Due to scheduling constraints, Lucy Lawless is not able to appear in every episode (obviously the case when she fractured her pelvis in the autumn of 1996). Each season there have been two or three episodes in which Xena appears only briefly, if at all. In these stories, the focus shifts to Gabrielle and whatever recurring characters she encounters.

[69] Unfortunately, in season three, these "Xena-lite" episodes have been very weak, not due to the absence of Lawless, but because of the writers' clumsy efforts to have Xena save the day, despite being largely gone from the story. In KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308), her sudden appearance at the end of the episode ruins Joxer's chance to deal with his troublesome brother on his own. In FORGET ME NOT (63/317), Xena's abrupt heart-to-heart with Gabrielle does not allow the younger woman an opportunity to mull through her inner conflicts alone. In both these stories, Xena's emergence makes her seem like a big sister who must always be on hand to save or soothe an inept younger sibling.

[70] By contrast, Xena's absence in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310) makes perfect sense. Gabrielle unwittingly writes her friend out of the story. At the end of the episode, Gabrielle determines a means of bringing back the warrior, and does so. When Xena returns, viewers learn where she has been through a humorous exchange of dialogue. Xena then works together with her friends to break the enchanted scroll's power and set everything right again.

[71] Ideally, the Xena-lite stories could be used to allow Gabrielle time to step out of Xena's shadow and exercise her own resourcefulness. Episodes such as THE PRODIGAL (18/118), THE QUEST (37/213), and FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216) provide character growth for Gabrielle, and demonstrate quite nicely that Renee O'Connor is more than capable of carrying an episode by herself.

[72] Furthermore, Gabrielle and Xena need opportunities for separate adventures. Gabrielle's involvement with the Amazons would provide a good context for separation. Gabrielle might deal with a problem the Amazons face while Xena deals with a crisis elsewhere. Each woman would have to work on her own, while each would grow and learn as a result. Such stories would also allow Gabrielle and Xena to interact individually with recurring characters.


Comedy of Errors: Self-indulgent Humor

I said I wanted a plastic SURGEON, not a plastic STURGEON!


Something is definitely fishy in FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS.


[73] One of Xena's strengths has been the show's ability to deftly mix humor and drama. Although somewhat darker in nature than Hercules, XWP's first two seasons retain the same penchant for humor through witty one-liners, deliberate anachronisms, and exaggerated stunt scenes. Both series, at their best, walk the fine line between self-aware camp and self-indulgent slapstick. The smart humor and well-written stories, not to mention stellar acting and directing, are qualities that set both Hercules and Xena above other series in the action-adventure-fantasy genre (e.g., Sinbad [TV, 1996], Roar [TV, 1997], etc.).

[74] An unfortunate weakness of the writing in Xena's third season has been an inclination toward slapstick humor. KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308), FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318), and VANISHING ACT (66/320) provide the most obvious examples of this tendency.

[75] Instead of the humor flowing from the relationship between Joxer and Jett, KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308) makes the mistake of trying to build the comedy around the brothers' physical resemblance and the resulting mistaken identities. That gimmick is already overused in the Xena-doubles episodes.

[76] FINS, FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318) suffers from an appallingly dull script with virtually nothing at stake for any of the characters. The obsessions of Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer carry almost no comedic value because there is nothing in the larger story to which the jokes are tied. Each moment of humor exists in a vacuum, with no connection to the overall episode.

[77] VANISHING ACT (66/320), despite a stronger concept, cannot rise above the obvious gags in the script. The masquerade of Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus as bidders in the auction of Pax should have been a device in the larger story. However, their ridiculous costumes and accents prove so distracting that the actual plot falls to the background, eclipsed by the cornball gimmick. So much is given away early in the episode that there is no dramatic tension to engage viewers' interest. The outcome of the story is almost a forgone conclusion. By contrast, the far superior THE ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES (17/117) holds two crucial punches until the end of the episode: the arrival of the real Cinteres and the nature of the weapon up for auction.

[78] WARRIOR...PRIESTESS...TRAMP (55/309) provides a solid addition to the collection of Xena-doubles episodes. The story is unspectacular, but the familiar catalog of role-switching and mistaken identities is livened by good dialogue and some hilarious character moments - such as Xena taking the 'confession' of a sexually frustrated young Hestian, Meg becoming drunk on sacramental wine, and the naughty rendition of "Joxer the Mighty", performed by an adoring chorus of tavern wenches.

[79] The third season's best comical episodes are BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302) and THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER...(56/310). Both stories involve a boon granted by a god that goes unexpectedly awry. Xena and her friends spend each episode trying to elucidate the nature of the problem, devise a means to remedy the situation, and execute the solution, all while dodging the effects created by the spell itself. The humor in both stories is inherent in the scripts. The jokes are sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious, but the humor is, for the most part, sophisticated rather than low-brow.


'Small World' or 'Great Big Universe'? Lack of a Larger Picture

[80] The first two seasons of Xena succeed, to a certain extent, in placing the stories against a larger backdrop. Geography is often sketchy, but historical and mythological characters, and established historical locations are woven into many episodes. Even when not entirely effective, such as in ULYSSES (43/219), the viewer has a sense of a larger world in which Xena and Gabrielle are players, a world that seems real and interesting.

[81] Unfortunately, this has become less true in the third season. The focus of the episodes has shifted to the Xena-Gabrielle relationship, with little emphasis on the world around them. The two women seem to plunk down in an undefined location every week with no reference to anything that might be happening in other regions. There is no sense of kingdoms rising and falling, leaders coming to power and being toppled, or of events in one place having an impact elsewhere.

When you eat those really, really hot peppers


Xena doesn't get short of breath in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY.


[82] This trend is most evident in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313). Instead of a fully-developed story involving the Persian invasion, the story focuses only on Gabrielle's injury, Xena's reaction to Gabrielle's injury, and Xena's single-handed defeat of the Persian Army. The opportunity to develop a drama involving many characters, and the chance to incorporate historical and political details is completely wasted. A potentially magnificent episode is reduced to a therapy session and a fight scene.

[83] The stories would be much more effective if played out against a larger backdrop. Ideally, subtle details developing in the background of one episode would emerge to the foreground of a subsequent episode, or a minor character in one story would evolve into a major player later in the season. Furthermore, expanded use could be made of the rich panoply of Greek history, culture, and mythology. There are dozens, even scores of gods, mortals, and creatures with whom Xena and Gabrielle could interact. Not only would such an expanded vision create opportunities for interesting scripts, the stories themselves would become more complex and fully-realized.



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