Whoosh! Issue 37 - October 1999

LOVE AND DEATH:
AN EXAMINATION OF DEATH SCENES AND SUBTEXT IN XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS EPISODES

IAXS project #726
By Kate Goodman
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
4507 words



Introduction (01-02)
Joanna Russ Article (03-07)
Season One (08-14)
Season Two (15-17)
Season Three (18-20)
Season Four (21-29)
Conclusion (30-36)
Biography



Love And Death: An Examination Of Death Scenes and Subtext In Xena: Warrior Princess Episodes



I said *scratch* my back, not *stab* my back!


Caesar's death seems to surprise no one but Caesar in IDES OF MARCH.



Introduction

[1] According to certain cultural traditions, death waits behind our left shoulders. For Xena and Gabrielle, however, death happens to reside behind both shoulders, in front of them, and often under their feet when they are dangling above a precipice. The women have died or have been near death numerous times in the course of the series, but despite the fact that death lacks that particular sting of permanency which it has for the rest of us, the death of the two main characters does provide a strong dramatic purpose.

[2] Death in Xena: Warrior Princess allows the open use of the language and physical expressions of love in the form of comfort and grief. It is the vehicle which enables the writers to bring subtext into maintext but in seemingly socially acceptable circumstances.


Joanna Russ Article

[3] The "Hurt/Comfort" scenario has now become a self-conscious and openly exploited storyline in the realm of fan-fiction. There has always been a strong element of unapologetic fantasy and wish fulfillment in the works of fan fiction written about television shows. In a fascinating essay about a particular genre of STAR TREK fan-fiction called K/S stories, the well-known science fiction writer Joanna Russ [Note 01] discusses the way the Hurt/Comfort scenario plays into the erotic intention of the stories, not the explicit sexual relationship between these two characters [Note 02]. The premise of the stories is that Kirk and Spock are fated to be lovers, soulmates if you will, but usually there is a self-imposed delay to their union due to scruples or pride. All this causes a great deal of angst and frustration before the love between the two men can be consummated. The primary focus of Russ' essay is the fact that these stories about two men in love were written and read by heterosexual women.

[4] In explaining this unexpected audience, she notes that one of the primary elements of most of the K/S stories was the fact that one or the other of the characters was always hurt or in pain: "Somebody is always bleeding or feverish or concussed or mutilated or amnesiac or what-have-you in these tales..." They may both die but "they can at least die in each other's arms" [Note 03].

[5] The Hurt/Comfort storyline engages outside forces beyond the characters' control to bring the two together, thus eliminating any natural inhibitions against the match. Russ believes that such a storyline is congenial to the female experience. Women have been instructed by our culture to be cautious and to hold back sexually. The K/S stories are emotionally satisfying because pain and death, external and uncontrollable circumstances, bridge the separation and bring the romantic pair together. The reader enjoys a consummation that would otherwise be taboo. Says Russ: "Thus the enormous plot conventions which finally free the lovers to be sexual, in which that lack of responsibility is itself exciting. An intensifier of arousal, vulnerability and emotion made out of condition" [Note 04].

[6] Russ makes the point that the stories do not really depict a masochistic love of violence. The purpose in this fantasy fulfillment fiction is not the horror and pain of it all. The whole point, rather, is the release of emotion that death allows: "Thus also the material about the death of one or the other or both...the meditations at the graveside, the grief that is somehow beautiful and exciting, not painful, all of it delicious" [Note 05].

[6] Certainly in the fan-fiction on the net growing out of Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) there have been many stories that use the Hurt/Comfort dynamic. The interesting thing about Xena, however, is that the writers of the show have carried this typical fan-fiction motif into mainstream television. Xena: Warrior Princess episodes openly play with this fantasy, particularly in the scenes where either Gabrielle or Xena face death. As in the fan fiction stories, the death of the characters provides a safe screen behind which erotic emotions can have full play.

[7] Unlike the K/S stories or the XWP fan fiction, of course the show itself stops short of any explicit consummation of love. Nevertheless, the death scenes are based upon the Hurt/Comfort scenario, which is by its nature an erotic fantasy. The death scenes on the show are filled with intense moments of physical intimacy and words of love. These scenes are about the closest the show steps towards depicting maintext love between the two characters. Using Russ' article as a guide to assist in viewing the Gabrielle and Xena death(s) scenes, let us now turn to the scenes in question.


Season One

Xena, you've got a little spinach right *there*.


Gabrielle kisses her friend farewell in THE GREATER GOOD.


[8] At the beginning of the first season, XWP episodes give the impression that Xena and Gabrielle are, as the saying goes, "just good friends". Before the season is over, however, the death scenes have been used as plot devices to illustrate the growing depth of their friendship. The writers are clearly already using scenes of loss and death to allow the characters the opportunity to reveal their true feelings.

[9] The death experience on XWP for the two main characters can be divided into three phases, each allowing open displays of emotion. There is the "goodbye phase", where one or the other characters is saying goodbye, which is always extremely emotional and allows for those long unsaid words to be said. The second phase is the "grief and separation phase" when the characters prove how much they love each other by their physical displays of grief and by the ways they are emotionally broken apart by the loss. The final stage is the "reunion stage", which, luckily for the fans of the show, has always followed.

[10] In THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), the touching discussion of Gabrielle's pony and her insight into the loss of things she loves, foreshadows Gabrielle's loss of Xena in this episode and is used to draw out the fact that there is love between Xena and Gabrielle. There is also the tender scene where Gabrielle leans down and kisses the body of what she believes to be her dead friend. It is an acceptable kiss because Xena is, after all, supposedly dead, but it provides the opportunity of emotion and a tender physical expression of that emotion that is less common between platonic friends. It becomes acceptable because grief allows for such expressions. Gabrielle's assault of a tree is also a moment of passion resulting from her feelings of anger and grief at Xena's death. The writers have used Xena's death to allow the viewer the satisfaction of seeing the great depth of Gabrielle's feelings for Xena.

[11] The next death scene is an even more dramatic illustration of emotion between the two women. In IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124), Xena's feelings for Gabrielle are allowed to rise to the surface. The first thing a subtext voyeur will notice when watching this episode is the manner in which Xena physically comforts the injured Gabrielle when she is brought in on a stretcher. Xena strokes Gabrielle's head and gently whispers words of comfort. Pain again is the excuse for physical contact that indicates Xena's concern and love for her friend.

[12] When Gabrielle appears to die, Xena's extremely passionate reaction is startling. As in many a gothic novel, Xena is the tall dark stranger who hides passionate emotions under a stoic exterior. The death scene, where Xena pounds on Gabrielle's chest and refuses, in Heathcliff fashion, to accept her loss, is even more dramatic because there is the build-up of tension through earlier depictions of Xena's tendency toward repression. Even Xena's grief about her loss of Marcus, not once but twice during the series, was temperate in comparison to the emotional storm we see in IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124).

[13] Again, as in the K/S stories, part of the pleasure in death scenes comes from the sense that, until then, strong feelings were being held back. The initial setup of the death scenes is key. One of the best lines from a subtext perspective occurs in the second season in the episode, THE PRICE (44/220), when Xena says to Gabrielle, "You don't know how much I love... that". There is romantic tension and pleasure in the pause, and in the word that is not said in that line, but lurks just beneath the surface. The suppressed feelings of love are the foreplay to the physical release and expressions of love in the numerous dramatic death scenes throughout the series.

[14] In Xena, Gabrielle and Xena's deaths are more like a leap onto a trampoline than a fall onto concrete pavement. The death scenes in Xena: Warrior Princess are not just satisfying to the subtext fan because of the moments of grief. The characters bounce back to life without much trouble and some of the more pleasurable scenes are the moments of their reunion. In IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (24/124), the way that Xena cradles the revived Gabrielle to her bosom and kisses her forehead twice is another example of the way the death scenes allow a more physical expression of feeling.


Season Two

No really!  This will help you lose weight!


M'Lila comforts Xena in limbo in DESTINY.


[15] Season Two has, of course, some of the most famous subtext scenes of the series, notably in the episodes DESTINY (36/212) and THE QUEST (37/213). Gabrielle's reaction to Xena's death in DESTINY in many ways mirrors Gabrielle's own death scene in IS THERE A DOCTOR... (24/124). Once again, we see just how powerful Gabrielle's emotional attachment to Xena is, but an added element of emotional intensity in DESTINY is depicted in the very last scene. Xena is ready to give up, but instead M'Lila asks her to listen because the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. Xena hears Gabrielle's thoughts begging Xena to return to life, and the images we are shown on screen are flashbacks of intimate moments shared by Xena and Gabrielle. Xena's love for Gabrielle is what draws her back to life. Xena says simply but with conviction, "I have to go back".

[16] In THE QUEST (37/213), we are allowed one of the more beautiful reunion scenes, when Xena, through the body of Autolycus, reveals to Gabrielle that she is not "completely" dead. Gabrielle immediately breaks down into tears, and the air is laden with emotion. The unreal dreamscape background give the strong impression of water flowing around and behind them, a visual metaphor for connection, emotion, and sexuality. This setting gives the scene romantic power. The infamous kiss in this unreal atmosphere is the most sexual kiss exchanged between them in the course of the series. It is not one of those almost maternal kisses on the forehead, or even the quick lip kiss given at the time of Gabrielle's marriage. Instead, Xena bends down to kiss the still emotional Gabrielle in a scene that looks like the cover of a romance novel.

[17] The romantic kiss in THE QUEST (37/213), however, was purposefully veiled. I have heard the kiss in THE QUEST described as merely a comfort kiss. That is exactly what it was. The writers were able to play with the romantic connection between Xena and Gabrielle in the safe context of expressions of grief and reunion. In THE QUEST, when Gabrielle opens her eyes, she is in the midst of a very sexual kiss, however, she is kissing Autolycus and not Xena. It was never a bodily kiss with Xena, only an emotional one. The writers, it seems, are playing with the homosexual taboo in a daring way. Because Xena and Gabrielle's bodies do not really touch, their "kiss" is within acceptable bounds. In other words, the women can exchange a romantic kiss as long as one of them is dead.


Season Three

Looks like you're gonna die again, Gabrielle, but you should be
used to it by now.


Xena comforts Gabrielle after she is wounded in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY.


[18] Season Three does not let us down in terms of death scenes. ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) is an episode that unapologetically gives itself up completely to the Hurt/Comfort fantasy. The episode is less about Xena's upcoming fight with an entire Persian army than it is about the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, the strength of their love for each other, and Xena's fear of losing her companion. Gabrielle plays the part of Camille to a tee, even coughing occasionally as the poison takes effect and her life starts to ebb away. The tears over the death bed, the heart-wrenching scene where Gabrielle is delirious and flashes back to when she first met Xena, the words of love that are exchanged between them - all these emotionally satisfying elements come into play in this episode. Xena, for the first time, even initiates an "I love you" to Gabrielle, instead of responding to Gabrielle's declaration, according to her usual procedure. One is reminded of Russ' description of the K/S death scenes in which grief "is somehow beautiful and exciting, not painful..." [Note 06].

[19] It was fascinating this season to see DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422), in which Annie uses the scenes from ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313) to provide evidence to Harry that Xena and Gabrielle are soulmates. Annie's use of this example illustrates, without question, the writers' conscious knowledge of the romantic image they have created in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY. "Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you," Xena says in the flashback clip, an understatement to say the least. It is death, in fact, that brings them together.

[20] The final episode of Season Three, as well as the first three episodes of Season Four, play out for us, again, different phases of the Hurt/Comfort scenario. In fact, the writers have drawn out the death into several episodes, making it central to the action of the series and teasing fans for as long as possible. Gabrielle's screaming slow-motion leap into the fire pit in SACRIFICE II (68/322) did not give us much chance for the goodbye phase, except for a look of love exchanged between Xena and Gabrielle before she falls out of sight. However, luckily for us, the editor replays this meaningful look shot again. Viewers are allowed to savor the knowledge that Gabrielle has given her life to save Xena.


Season Four

A show with strippers and Amazons?  Next thing you'll tell me is
that HERC is ending!


Xena confronts some of her evil past deeds up close and personal in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE.


[21] Season Four begins with the grief phase of death in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE I (69/401). Xena's grief is so great she decides to visit the land of the dead herself. "She must be a very good friend," a dead Amazon says to Xena when she realizes that Xena is not actually dead and is only going to Eternity to see her friend. "She's the only friend," Xena replies.

[22] Xena's decision to help the Amazons instead of continuing to Eternity includes a scene analogous to what Russ described as a graveside meditation scene" in the K/S stories. Xena speaks words of love to the dead Gabrielle, and she says that Gabrielle is her light. Xena decides to help return the Amazons to Eternity because she knows that is what Gabrielle would want her to do. The scene makes clear to us, once again, the depth of Xena's feeling for Gabrielle. Even though Gabrielle's character does not appear in the episode, the emotional relationship between the two of them is one of the central themes of the drama.

[23] ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE 2 (70/402) is in many ways a truly bizarre use of the death theme. In ADVENTURES II, Xena realizes that Gabrielle is still alive, which provides a moment of relief and joy. However, the way Xena realizes this good news is that Alti shows her a vision in which she and Gabrielle are going to die, crucified together. In other words, the end of one death phase scenario is initiated by a vision of another, upcoming, parting death scene. Alti is completely confused when Xena tells her that this vision of Gabrielle on a cross makes her happy, not understanding that Xena is responding to the end of the current death phase rather than worrying about the future death phase. "Whoopee," Xena says in effect, "We get to do this death thing again".

[24] The vision scene, first shown in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE II (70/402) is actually a moving death scene in many ways. The music played is sad and haunting, the few words exchanged between Xena and Gabrielle are emotional and loving, and the scene itself, with the snow coming down around them while they are being nailed to the cross in what seems like slow motion, is visually beautiful. The idea of a crucifixion is one of violence, horror, and pain, and yet, as in Russ' description of the death scenes in K/S stories, there is something strangely sweet about the way the death scene is imagined.

[25] In A FAMILY AFFAIR (71/403), there is also an interesting twist on one of the phases of the death scenarios, because there are actually two reunion scenes. One is the faux-reunion, where Xena mistakes Hope for Gabrielle. There is happiness and many smiles as they hug, but there is something vital missing from that scene, and the reunion is emotionally dissatisfying. What is missing does not really become clear until Xena and the real Gabrielle meet. Instead of pure happiness in this real reunion, there are also many tears. It is a scene of true emotional release and of body-rattling feeling. The real Gabrielle's reaction is reminiscent of her earlier reaction in THE QUEST (37/213). Gabrielle is so moved, Xena makes her sit down. They talk while Xena gently holds her hand and kisses it. The feelings are so strong between them that the joy at seeing each other and the trauma they have been through at their separation threaten to tear them apart emotionally.

[26] The Fourth Season actually gives itself over to the theme of death as almost every dramatic episode was haunted by the crucifixion vision first seen in ADVENTURES II (70/402). During the course of the season, the writers are able to draw upon this image whenever they wanted to bring forth these heart-wrenching emotions. We see Xena and Gabrielle say goodbye to each other many times in the beautiful, snowy scene. Time and again we are reminded how much they love each other, and they seem almost happy to be facing the end together.

[27] By the time IDES OF MARCH (89/421) comes around, we all know what to expect. There has been so much build-up to the final death scene that it would be hard for it not to be anti-climatic, although one must concede, in the end, it is not. The scene between the two heroines immediately prior to the crucifixion is another one of those quintessential Hurt/Comfort scenes in which raw emotions are safely displayed. Gabrielle holds the paralyzed Xena in her lap, gives her comfort, and strokes her. Once again, there is a physicality to this scene that is allowed because Xena is hurt, and they are both facing death. The unsaid words are finally expressed. Gabrielle reveals that only Xena is able to truly see her, while Xena expresses regret at never having read Gabrielle's scrolls. "You would have liked them," Gabrielle replies.

[28] As in THE QUEST (37/213), there is a curtain to make sure this romantic scene stays safe and subtextual rather than slipping into maintext. Instead of Gabrielle saying she has chosen the way of love in protecting Xena, she says she has chosen the way of friendship. However, the word "friendship" there is merely a veil in the same way Autolycus was used as a veil for the romantic kiss. Underneath that veil is the reality of the erotic/romantic fantasy and the visual images of love openly portrayed on the screen. Once again, Gabrielle has sacrificed her life, and not just her life but her way of life, non-violence, in an attempt to protect Xena. Their goodbye scene in prison as they await their death is another example of a scene where outside forces beyond their control allow them an opportunity to express their love for each other and use the language of love.

[29] The death itself happens as we have been forewarned and is a scene that focuses on love and beauty interspersed with moments of horror as the two are nailed to crosses. In the end, their spirits rise from the dead and hover above their bodies. Xena gently raises Gabrielle's chin, or rather Gabrielle's spirit's chin, and awakens the dead Gabrielle. Their connection is beyond death after all, and even in the midst of the sadness, there is a melancholy sweetness that permeates the moment as their spirit bodies smile and leave the scene.


Conclusion

[30] It will be no surprise to any viewer that Xena and Gabrielle will return next season. Death has no victory over our two heroines as long as their series is being renewed. We will all be looking forward to their joyful return, together, to human form. What is a mystery is how many more times this death, grief, and reunion theme will be played out in the series.

[31] In her essay, Joanna Russ makes the point that because this formula of Hurt/Comfort was essential to the erotic/romantic elements of the story, the road to get there could be quite predictable. In one of the footnotes, Russ notes that in a K/S parody story written by fans of the genre, Kirk and Spock alternately beat each other in the head with a shovel, and then say, "Let me be with you in your hour of pain," mocking the formulaic nature of the stories and the fact that the stories had to create pain in order to get to the comfort elements [Note 07]. In the next Xena seasons, one wonders how many more times Xena and Gabrielle will manage to die in each other's arms and then return, without losing complete credibility. The explanation for Gabrielle's return after the leap into the pit in SACRIFICE II (68/322) was, at best, strained. The fourth season was almost entirely a meditation on their death together and their expressions of love for each other. Where can they go from here?

[32] In fan-fiction, much of the point is to get to those emotionally crucial scenes which are the same in all the stories. The plot characteristics for the Xena and Gabrielle "first time" fan-fiction stories for example - the characters' hesitations and scruples and fears, and then finally the absolutely fantastic sex scene - are all part of a formula that scratches a particular emotional fantasy itch. It can be done cleverly or awkwardly by the fan-fiction writer, but the formula remains essentially the same from story to story.

[33] As in fan-fiction, the XWP show itself is relying on its own death formula to scratch an emotional itch and to recreate romantic scenes between Xena and Gabrielle. If you are like me, a subtext fan, then you might begin to look forward in a strange way to the next death scene, to enjoy those deathbed partings and those emotionally charged scenes where the characters touch each other and hug each other while confronting death. It is not about violence and death after all. Rather, it is about the sweetness of expressions of love.

[34] A friend of mine who is not a fan sometimes teases me by saying, "Which one of them died this week?" The fact is, as a lesbian often deprived of romantic images in this culture, I feel I deserve my lesbian version of a romance and Gothic novel. Though it's true that any formula can begin to wear thin, the writers for this series have been able continually to find their way to the emotionally satisfying death scenes through new and original methods.

[35] Occasionally I feel disappointed that the show will go so far and no further. Serious romantic scenes between Xena and Gabrielle without death looming nearby would be too dangerous culturally and permanently destroy the "friendship" interpretation. As long as the "I love you's" and kisses can be seen as a result of the loss, grief, and reunion formula, they become safe expressions of feeling in an extreme situation. Only in the comedies, such as A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) and FINS FEMMES AND GEMS (64/318), can real lover-like intimacy without the proximity of death be expressed with a playfulness that is non-threatening. I do not expect the show will ever challenge in an outright manner the homophobic culture.

[36] Still, one of the interesting facts about subtext fans of the show is that they are not made up solely of gays and bisexuals. Like the K/S stories, where the majority of fans were not gay men, there is something about the holding back of emotion followed by the release in death that appeals to many people's experience about sex and romance. If it is a formula, it is also breaking ground by using the death cliche to create a lasting image of romance between two women. By drawing on these universal emotions and, at the same time, using images of two women to do this, I believe the show does a positive service for our culture, creating images of romance beyond gender.

Reincarnated as angels.  Yeah, right.Why don't we just redeem
Callisto while we're at it?


Xena and Gabrielle, together in spirit, at the end of IDES OF MARCH.



Notes

Note 01:
Russ, Joanna: "Pornography By Women For Women, With Love", Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985. pp. 79 - 99.
Return to article

Note 02:
This genre of fan-fiction is also called "slash" after the slash between the K and the S.
Return to article

Note 03:
Russ, p. 82
Return to article.

Note 04:
Russ, p. 87.
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Note 05:
Russ, p. 87.
Return to article

Note 06:
Russ, p. 87
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Note 07:
Russ, p. 99
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Biography

Kate Goodman Kate Goodman
Born and raised in San Francisco California, I participated in my first gay parade at age 13, when my mother mistakenly took a left turn onto Polk Street, and we found our pastel blue Rambler surrounded by drag queens and parade floats. I graduated in 1979 with a B.A. in History from U.C. Santa Cruz, where I developed a strong aversion to alfalfa sprouts. I took a Masters degree in English in 1991 at Mills College in Oakland and participated in the successful undergraduate strike to keep Mills a Women's college. Currently I write poetry and short fiction, although this has nothing to do with how I make my living.
Favorite episode: ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313), IDES OF MARCH (89/421)
Favorite line: "You don't know how much I love...that", THE PRICE (44/220)
First episode seen: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (24/124)
Least favorite episode: ULYSSES (43/219), KING CON (61/315)

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