Subject: Letter to the Editor
Date: Mon, 14 Jun 1999
During the first two seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess, we were presented with the story of two women. One a flawed hero -- a warrior with a dark past seeking redemption. The other an idealistic young woman -- a bard seeking adventure.
It was fascinating watching the relationship between the women grow. Watching Gabrielle grow and mature. Watching Xena struggle to keep the dark side of her nature from gaining control.
This relationship allowed both women to flourish. Gabrielle grew from tag-along, to sidekick, to partner. Xena continued, with occasional lapses, to travel the path to redemption with much help and support from Gabrielle.
From the beginning it was obvious this show was unique. Gabrielle was already a remarkably brave and resourceful woman. In "Sins of the Past" she stood up to the slavers threatening her village and offered herself in place of her friends and family. She doggedly followed Xena, talking a Cyclops from making her into his meal along the way. She stood between Xena and the villagers stoning her and talked them into standing down. She offered friendship to a tortured soul who felt alone in the world.
In a sense XWP, even though I don't think it was intentional, became a coming of age story about Gabrielle. With Xena's quest for redemption being the other part of the story.
In my estimation, Gabrielle had found her "way" at the time of "The Quest". She had become Xena's equal. Not in the sense of physical prowess or fighting ability -- that will probably never happen. But in the sense of finding herself, choosing the role she would play (Amazon Queen), going on with her life despite being devastated by Xena's death.
Xena's quest was mostly fulfilled at this same time as well. She died but chose to come back to fight evil. As well as for Gabrielle.
At this point their story has mostly been told. Too soon. Now what?
The story is not completely told, however, because Xena has yet to become Gabrielle's equal. Xena is still far less emotionally and mentally mature and stable than is Gabrielle. The story still had a ways to go with Xena learning to become more like Gabrielle, not as the direction the show now appears to be going in -- that Gabrielle becomes more like Xena. That defeats the purpose and original premise of the show.
The rest of season 2 wasn't bad, with some notable exceptions, and could have been a good start to answering 'now what.'
One of the exceptions being "Ulysses". For me "The Quest" established X&G as soulmates. So why "Ulysses?" It was incomprehensible. As incomprehensible as Gabrielle marrying Perdicus. This was unfortunately just a taste of what was to come in seasons 3 & 4 with the characters -- especially Gabrielle-- being twisted to serve the plot.
Had they eliminated "For Him the Bell Tolls" "Ulysses" and "Comedy of Eros" from the mix, the last half of S2 would have been a good template from which to build the rest of the series. We were seeing the adventures of Xena & Gabrielle as they righted wrongs, fought for the greater good, rescued each other (Xena rescued Gabrielle from a despot in "Blind Faith" -- Gabrielle rescued Xena from herself in "The Price") and their relationship continued to grow.
Then things began to change astoundingly. After I recently re-watched "Is There a Doctor in the House" I found myself wondering at the end of it, "Damn this show used to be good. What happened? What happened to the characters? How could the same people who did this give us the sloppy drivel of the past two seasons?"
Unfortunately, I have no answers to these questions. Even if I did what good would it do? Tapert and Lawless assure us they are making the show they like now. Even though this was presumably the same Lawless who told us she and Tapert were willing to put up the money out of their own pockets to get IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE made. So what accounts for the drastic change?
The first few episodes of season 3, while not great, still fit the template established by the last part of season 2.
Until "The Deliverer".
Then, suddenly and without warning, we were sucker punched. The fans and the show have never been the same since. There followed such a change in tone and content that over half of the audience is gone and now some of the staff as well. The show itself has 30 more episodes remaining -- provided the ratings don't sink so low as to get it cancelled beforehand.
It's a shame really. A show that had been empowering and so positive to women becoming so misogynistic. A show that had violence, but presented it in a manner not to glorify it. A show that gave us two women fighting for, controlling, and finding their own destinies and ways, suddenly becoming puppets on a string for males to manipulate, control, and ultimately kill. Nothing even remotely positive here anymore. Merely a dark, nihilistic, depressing story of two women, who once defeated even gods with their own and each other's strengths. Now they are being defeated on a regular basis by the likes of Khrafstar, Dahak, Ares, Caesar. A flawed hero has been turned into a psychopath, and a bard into a moron.
Xena & Gabrielle died long before they were ever nailed to those damn crosses. I think they -- and the show -- effectively died in Britannia. The pod versions that came back were not the same characters. This was certainly in evidence as we began to see Xena's backstory rewritten to accommodate a different character.
And Gabrielle -- whose backstory we have never seen -- being made into a hack bard, gullible beyond reason moron, and punching bag for the new Xena. The relationship which had been such a unique one was suddenly turned into a brutally abusive and dysfunctional mess.
It defies understanding why Tapert would choose to go in this direction. Maybe it has something to do with his relationship to Lawless. It is _never_ a good idea for folks who work together to become intimately involved. Once it happened, someone else should have been in charge of XWP, not Tapert.
Despite the fact that Tapert once said that the X&G relationship was the core of the show, his tune changed as his relationship with Lawless intensified. Now the show has one star and one hero. In order to attain this I guess he thought it necessary to destroy the relationship and turn Gabrielle into a moron. He did succeed in doing that, but at what expense?
Being a normally optimistic person, I would like to think the staff changes herald a change in direction. Being a realist, I know Tapert is still in charge and expect nothing.
It's really too bad. If Tapert hadn't destroyed what he had built up in the first two seasons, this show had the potential to endure. To become the franchise Star Trek is. Instead, it will probably be gone for good after 30 more episodes, if it makes it that long.
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 1999
From: John Baber
Allow me to introduce myself. I am a writer of Xena fan fiction. My penname is Ogami. Writing fan fiction on the Internet is a wonderful freedom. However, a problem with Internet stories is that the author may have trouble getting the characters down. I readily admit this is a constant struggle.
When we have Xena do a fight, we want it to be within character. When we have Gabrielle say something comforting, we want it to sound like she herself would say it. You could say we fan fiction writers are hard on ourselves, because we want to be true to what the characters, and the audience, would expect.
That would be difficult enough, except for the fact that they keep changing the characters on us. It has gotten to the point that fan fiction authors, disappointed with the turn the show has taken in recent seasons, now mainly write Xena and Gabrielle stories set in the future. This is called Uber fiction. Others have decided to take their stories into alternate Xenaverses where the third and fourth seasons never happened. Still others, sadly, have given up entirely, unable to accurately render characters that change on the whimsy of the show's writers.
Look at the lack of stories based specifically on the fourth season. If fans cannot bring themselves to write stories about Xena and Gabrielle as they are now, what does that say of the show? What happened to Xena: Warrior Princess? What could take the number one syndicated show in the world, and turn it into a caricature of itself?
A land cried out for a hero, and that hero was Xena. The image of Xena: Warrior Princess was that of a reformed warlord who roamed the land righting wrongs, some of them of her creation. Yet the third and fourth seasons have been about nothing more than the fallacy of that image. Would a hero drag her best friend/soulmate to her death (THE BITTER SUITE)? Would a hero impale innocent women on tree branches (ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE II) or feed them to crabs (LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN)? What is the message here?
The original premise of Xena as a warlord was far different than how she has been portrayed in the fourth season. (I am deliberately starting with how Xena was portrayed in the first season of her own television show, and not from the Hercules/Xena Trilogy. The reason is that the thin character sketch needed to create a villain for Hercules was far different than the rich character study that began with Sins of the Past.)
Xena only became a warlord to defend her village from a warlord named Cortese. She then conquered the neighboring villages as a "buffer zone" against future invasion. A fair conqueror, she only killed opposing men in combat, and never harmed innocents. The warlord Xena was so tame in fact, that when she accidentally burned a village (the episode Callisto), her regret was profound. As she confided to Gabrielle, this event clearly distressed her, and was something she had trouble living with.
Gabrielle forgave her for this, and urged her to stay on the right path, so she would not "become a monster again". And Xena kept her promise all the way through the second season. Sure, there were disagreements, such as in THE PRICE. In that episode, Gabrielle's theoretical world of right and wrong came into sharp conflict with Xena's survival instincts. At the time of that episode's airing, the fans thought that this was as intense a disagreement as the two could possibly get into. After all, they loved each other. What could be more powerful than that?
Xena used to respect Gabrielle's opinion and Gabrielle hers. Yet all of this changed with the commencement of The Rift in the third season, with the episode Gabrielle's Hope. In this episode, Xena attempted to murder Gabrielle's child on the as-yet-unfounded assumption of pure evil on the part of Hope. She rejected Gabrielle's objections to this. At this point, Xena seemed to forget that this was the trusted companion of which she had spent the better part of two years with. She also ignored the fact that a new mother may not be favorably inclined to murdering her own child. (Although Gabrielle came around to this point of view in the perversely titled Maternal Instincts.)
Perhaps being raped lessened Gabrielle in Xena's eyes? While hopefully not the case, it certainly appeared that way. Gabrielle was raped, and Xena looked at her as untrustworthy and dirty from that point on. While very unpleasant to contemplate, it fits in with Xena's later motivation for vengeance in THE BITTER SUITE.
Xena was presented in the first two seasons as the warrior who always searched for the best way out of a situation. If Gabrielle would not let her murder her child, then Xena should have thought of another way. But she didn't. Close-minded and hostile to Gabrielle's point of view, she gave her partner no consideration in her single-minded objective to murder the progeny of Dahak.
Yet Gabrielle's character also suffered in this episode. Her refusal to see Hope's evil was a change from the Gabrielle we saw only a season ago. Perhaps it could be excused that a rape victim would not be in the best state of mind following such a horrific event, but she could have been more lucent. She should have recognized that Xena was right about Hope, yet insisted that Xena find some solution other than murder. Wasn't this the eloquent bard who talked a Cyclops out of eating her? Yet she couldn't talk Xena out of murdering her child. Consistent writing would have avoided this.
But this was the central problem. Avoiding this situation was not the goal of the writers. By having a Rift between Xena and Gabrielle, they hoped to spice up the ratings of the show. How do you avoid circumstances like this, when they are your goal? Thus it is clear why the writers never saw the obvious pitfalls involved in such bad characterizations. Fixing the problem would have dashed the Rift they were so desperate to create.
This explains why Gabrielle's rape in The Deliverer and Hope's "death" in Gabrielle's Hope were never addressed in subsequent episodes. THE DEBT, KING OF ASSASSINS, WARRIOR...PRIESTESS...TRAMP, and THE QUILL all went by with nary a mention of these horrible events. Why? Because Xena and Gabrielle could not make up before the big Rift the writers planned for the February Ratings Sweeps. The characters became doormats, pods, use whatever term you care for, simply to justify the timing of The Rift. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time the characters were yanked around simply to fulfill some writer's requirements.
But immediately after GABRIELLE'S HOPE, there was already another epic to get through, THE DEBT. Lushly filmed, and with a rich storyline, this two-parter stands as one of the best-executed Xena stories ever. With one little problem. The writers needed a dramatic conclusion to The Debt I, so the idea was arrived at for Gabrielle to dramatically appear in Ch'in ahead of Xena, to stop her from committing murder.
Was any consideration given to the logic of this? No, because the important thing was to get Gabrielle there for the part one finale. The stated reason for Gabrielle betraying Xena is that she believed Ming Tien when he told her that Xena would simply be exiled from the country. Bear in mind what Gabrielle knew: A despot, after being warned of an assassination attempt on his life, promised that the assassin would simply be exiled from his country.
Where was Gabrielle's head during this? This is the bard who outwitted a lecherous suitor in CHARIOTS OF WAR, who saw through the lies of the holy man in DREAMWORKER, who distrusted Velasca in THE QUEST for the evil despot she was. Yes, she takes the word of a man she knows to be evil. Someone evil enough to send henchmen to kill her, Xena, and a messenger at the start of THE DEBT I. It beggars the imagination that Gabrielle, after two seasons of traveling with Xena, would trust a stranger more than her. At the time, this made zero sense.
At this point you are probably asking, what about the revelations of the later episode, FORGET-ME-NOT? In the author's opinion, Gabrielle getting ahead of Xena in Ch'in was a loophole, not a favor from Ares. If you look at FORGET ME NOT, this detail is not crucial to that episode's plot, and could easily have been a last-minute insertion to make Ares her conscience in that episode, and not the real god tormenting her.
If that is not reason enough, then here is the clincher: Ares supposedly teleported Gabrielle to Ch'in ahead of Xena in order to extract a favor from her in times to come. Follow that? Then why would he ask Xena to murder her in THE BITTER SUITE before he ever had a chance to collect on it? The answer is that FORGET-ME-NOT was character revisionism, pure and simple. While working loopholes into the plot is a good idea, it fails when it opens even more loopholes.
So the writers had Gab betray Xena in Ch'in not out of misguided principles, but spiteful jealousy. Why? In order to cover a loophole they had created in THE DEBT. They were more concerned with covering loopholes than what this would mean for Gabrielle's character. Gabrielle would deliberately send Xena to her death out of jealousy? What kind of character growth is that? It was absolutely crazy, and Renee O'Connor herself stated in an interview that she would never do to a friend what Gabrielle did to Xena in THE DEBT I.
Moving on past THE DEBT, we come to the climax of the Rift, MATERNAL INSTINCTS. First let's address Gabrielle. Callisto is sighted in the area, and at the same time, Gabrielle decides Hope is not a threat, and sends her to Solan's home. How do you go from "Oh look, Callisto is in the area, trying to kill Xena's son", and then perform the very action that the goddess desired?
The reason, once again, is poor writing. The writers needed Gabrielle to do this, in order to provide the justification for her separation from Xena later on. No effort was made to explain this in terms of her character, other than just general stupidity. This is the chief failing of The Rift. For rather than write these women as we had come to know them, the writers felt inadequate in telling the story in such a manner, and thus forced Xena and Gabrielle to act in ways that would have seemed unconscionable a short season ago.
So, The Rift was complete at the end of MATERNAL INSTINCTS. With both children (presumably) dead, the warrior women parted ways, hopefully never crossing each other's paths again. And this was the logical conclusion to the Rift. But this is an impossible conclusion for episodic television. Both series leads were contracted for the remaining run of the show. They couldn't keep them apart indefinitely, yet what could they do? The writers had done such an effective job in separating these two women that they didn't give much thought as to how they would get back together. Thus The Bitter Suite.
A grand musical, THE BITTER SUITE was to be the greatest episode of Xena ever made. And in many ways, it was. Viewers were privileged to watch a television episode that played like a movie, and seemed like it, too. But were these the characters they knew and loved from the television show?
After some counseling by Ares, and apparently without any mental coercion, Xena decided to take justice into her own hands and murder the one responsible. That would have been Hope or Callisto. But of course, this episode was supposed to be about getting her and Gabrielle back together, so that option was out. The resulting idea, and obviously poorly thought out, was that Xena would drag Gabrielle across the countryside and then throw her off a cliff to her death.
There have been many excuses made for this scene, now infamously known as the GabDrag, but the bottom line is that the Xena of the first two seasons would never have done this under any circumstances. The writers needed something to dramatically bring them into the realm of Illusia, but this wasn't it.
Imagine if during RETURN OF CALLISTO, Gabrielle had blamed Xena for Perdicus' death, claiming that it was her fault, as she brought Callisto into Gabrielle's life. Gabrielle would then have spent the rest of the episode trying to murder Xena. Obviously, Gabrielle didn't do that, yet under the same circumstances with Callisto yet again, Xena opted to murder Gabrielle.
At the close of the episode, Xena asked for forgiveness for murdering Ming Tien, and lying about it. Gabrielle forgave her for that, and they reappeared at the base of the cliff they fell off of, with Gabrielle miraculously healed of her injuries.
Some have assumed Xena's forgiveness song to also cover the GabDrag, but it was specifically about the lesser crime of dealing with Ming Tien. The reason for this is plain sloppiness. The writers were so busy with all the musical sequences that they forget to make sense of things when the songs ended. As of the end of the fourth season, Xena has never specifically apologized for the GabDrag, indicating that Gabrielle in fact, deserved it.
Aggravating this incident is that many fans believe Xena and Gabrielle to be a couple, and not platonic friends. Thus The Rift doubly insulted these fans. Xena and Gabrielle should never have done these things to a total stranger or a passing acquaintance, let alone each other.
Xena and Gabrielle may have happily walked away from The Rift, but it irreparably shattered the fanbase for the show itself. Many fans walked away from the show for good as the Rift progressed, and those that remained were quite divided, but hopeful, over the direction of the show to follow.
The fourth season introduced dramatic change for both of their characters, for the worse. Incredibly, the writers did not learn from their mistakes of the third season, and instead compounded their decision to devolve and demean Xena and Gabrielle's characters. While the motivation for this remains unclear, the results are obvious.
Xena suffered particularly in this season due to new and constant revelations of her warlord past. Revelations that arguably made her unworthy of any redemption other than one attained in Tartarus. The point of these revelations is as yet unclear, but it appeared to be a concerted effort by the writers to render fourth season Xena as unheroic as possible.
Xena began the fourth season by going on a quest to restore Gabrielle to life. In the course of ADVENTURES OF THE SIN TRADE I&II, we learned that Gabrielle was still alive. But unhappily, we learned that Xena was far more evil in her warlord past than anyone had guessed.
Xena, Borias, and Alti traveled to Siberia, where Borias sought passage through some Amazon lands. But the shaman Alti had other plans. She talked Xena into murdering the four leaders of the Amazon tribes in the area. Alti wanted their mystical power, but Xena had another objective in mind. By their deaths, their tribes would wither away and die, leaving the area ripe for the plucking. The goal, as expressly recounted by Xena, was nothing short of genocide.
It was an astonishing scene to see Xena personally impale innocent Amazons on tree branches to watch them slowly bleed to death, yet there it was. What was the point of showing us this? That she was a monster? We got the point. It was very disturbing imagery though, simply because we were never given the slightest hint during the first two seasons that she had done things like this. Was this the Xena that deserved a second chance by M'Lila? Was this the Xena that was worthy of reform by Hercules? Was this the Xena that deserved to have a devoted sidekick?
Uncomfortable questions, but they were about to get worse. In a subsequent episode, LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN, it was revealed in horrific detail how Xena fed an innocent young woman to crabs. The audience was treated to sickening scenes of crabs tearing her flesh apart, all to the accompaniment of her screams. This woman was not a threat, was not a warlord, and did nothing to the Warrior Princess but get in her way. And she nearly paid for that "crime" with her life.
At the end of the episode, Xena escaped her just punishment simply by brute force, but the uneasy truth was that she really did deserve to spend the rest of her life on Shark Island Prison for what she did to that girl. They have a word for people who do things like that today: serial killer.
But the writers were not done! In DAUGHTER OF POMIRA, we saw another flashback to warlord Xena, with an elderly member of her army who was begging her to retreat. Since he was too old to be a fighter, he must have been an advisor of some sort. Well, he didn't last long in that capacity, as she stabbed him to death for his insolence. Such an action, in killing your own troops in a moment of anger, is the biggest cliché of "evil bosses" in television and movies. And now this applied to Xena as well.
XWP has had many villains over four seasons, but none of them ever equaled Xena's record for evil, at least according to the fourth season. It raises the question of what this show is celebrating. What is the point? That all mass murderers deserve a chance to reform? That they should be freed from incarceration, because they promise to be (more or less) good from now on? This is a terrible thing to say about XWP, but it seems to be the view the writers wanted to give.
Gabrielle returned to life this season in the most poorly thought-out return since Bobby Ewing appeared taking a shower on Dallas. She climbed out of the lava hole that she plunged into with Hope, and woke up in a hospice. There is a mock question of whether the Gabrielle of this season is really her, or another of Dahak's tricks, but that shall be ignored for now.
Gabrielle's intellect has suffered incredible damage these past two seasons, as it seems that Xena's sole job now is to rescue her from every kook who crosses her path. The plot is the same in every case. She gets taken in by a kook (Khrafstar, Najara, Aiden, Eli, Najara again), falls for the silly speech of "the way of peace", tells Xena she's not enlightened enough to understand, and then Xena has to save both of them by the end of the episode.
One has to wonder whether this continuing arrangement reflects more poorly on Xena than Gabrielle. Why does not she just dump her sanctimonious bottom back in Poteidaia for a few episodes? Perhaps spending a month back with those "dirtclod farmers" would cure her of whatever high she's currently on. But her character problems are nothing compared to Xena's.
The revelations in the fourth season on Xena's conduct in her past are quite disturbing, largely because they were never even hinted at before. Think back to the first season episode Callisto. Remember when Xena confessed to Gabrielle of how her army accidentally started a fire in Cirri, killing women and children? How comforting would Gabrielle have been in that scene, were Xena to have continued the confessions of the fourth season? To confess for genociding Amazons, to confess to feeding innocent girls to crabs, to confess to stabbing her own men in fits of anger, and so forth.
Would Gabrielle have been so supportive then? Or would she have recoiled in horror at this monster she had elected to follow? And if Gabrielle had decided to stay with Xena, what would that then have said about her? After all, it's what she's doing now.
The fourth season closes with Xena and Gabrielle being crucified for trying to make a difference in the world. And Xena is shown as having earned the right to some sort of paradise with Gabrielle. Yet for many fans, the third and fourth seasons have been nothing short of hell.
So where is the author going with all of this? Surely there is a point to this article. No, there is not, because if there were, there would be a point to the third and fourth seasons of XWP also. The third season was a pointless rift. The fourth season was a pointless spiritual quest to la-la land. Two characters dashed against the rocks, time and time again, in a meaningless chase for ratings by uncaring writers.
This is the image of Xena and Gabrielle that the writers have given us: A warrior who is genocidal, sadistic, and thoroughly undeserving of all the chances that good people have given her to reform. A sidekick who is murderously jealous, brainless, and incompetent in a fight. This was not the show we signed on for, it was not the show we started with, and the writers owe the fans, as well as Xena and Gabrielle, an apology.
Okay, you might say it is easy to complain, but how about some constructive advice? All right. First of all, they can write character bibles for Xena, Gabrielle, and even Joxer. Flesh out what these characters are, what they believe, and where they are going. Give us no more discordant comedy episodes mixed in between dead-serious dramas. The first season had zero comedy episodes, yet there were many funny scenes and lines throughout that every fan can point to. Hire staff directors, and keep them on the show. Rotating guest directors every episode is as bad as constant guest writers. And speaking of writers, why not hire some who actually care for Xena and Gabrielle as people? How about it, RenPics? Give the fans what they want, quality entertainment featuring the adventures of two intelligent, brave, and supportive warrior women. It is not too much to ask. You did it before.
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