Whoosh! Issue 57 - June 2001

By whitesword@hotmail.com
Content copyright ©2001 held by author
Whoosh! edition copyright ©2001 held by Whoosh!
3493 words

Six Years Ago That Hero Was Born (01-20)
Now The Hero Is Deconstructed (21-32)


Six Years Ago That Hero Was Born

''Higuchi!'' -- ''Gesundheit!''

Xena had a habit of setting villages alight in her early years.

[1] She was Xena of Amphipolis: slayer, destroyer, tortured spirit, and seeker of redemption. She was complex and multi-layered, the custodian of hideous memories and the wielder of skills, which, if turned to good, could raise the world from misery to joy. She knew well what misery meant. She had suffered it, then returned it to her world a thousandfold. The darkness that had festered in her and flowed out upon the Earth from the Mediterranean to the walls of China had taken on the specter of the scourge of humankind.

[2] There is a precept that greatness is born in turmoil. True greatness comes from tempering, that the mind, soul, and body must be forged in the fires of the will in its determination to overcome adversity. The soul may go astray in the process, but for some, there is restitution. The dark side wars with the light, an eternal balancing act, and the fortunate come to understand the difference between them.

[3] Xena embraced the darkness. There were many reasons, influences, and markers on her road to wickedness, and her rampage was a long and bloody one. This is an established fact of who she is, or was. What is important is that a tiny spark of decency remained within her, and when the time was right, a simple breath of humanity warmed that frail ember, and shifted her motivation and intent. With that all-encompassing revelation, all the fury and skill of a war-master was refocused and concentrated onto a single new desire.

[4] This core motivation and novel identity made Xena someone unique, and is perhaps embodied most perfectly in the words to the main title. Written in Bulgarian, the language that is predominant today in the territory that was Thrace in the middle of the First Millennium BCE, they are a tale of woe, and of rising phoenix-like from the ashes of personal despair to a triumph that is legendary:

Jenata iazdi samotna
Neinoto minalo srazi ia
Sreshtu voiskite ot tumen sviat
Voiuva za dobro tia

Rogovi zvunove idavt
Napraite put na voine!
Tupani biat vuv ritum
Princhesata e pak tuka!

[5] Which translates as:

The Warrior Princess rides alone
Her past drives her from shame.
Against the forces of a dark world
She fights for good, not for fame.

Horns sound her coming, blare her name
"Make way for the Warrior! Cheer!"
Drums beat a rhythm
Let villains beware
The Warrior Princess is here!

[6] This was a credo, and it required no interpretation whatsoever on the part of the audience. Up was up, down was down, and Xena had turned her face to the light. Her shoulders were as broad as the entire world, and she would defy the gods themselves to bring justice to the ill-used, mercy to the suffering, defense to the weak, and to stand for those who could not stand for themselves. All her years of savagery had made her flesh of iron and her soul of granite, but from within this armored shell of suffering had come the plaintive cry of the human being, the simplicity of wanting ordinary human things.

"Not long before I met you, I was at the end."
— Xena to Gabrielle, THE DEBT (52-53/306-307)

[7] Xena tells Gabrielle that she had reached the end of the road of hate. She would change or die, her soul had rotted with wickedness, and, as evil is well known to have its way with those who take it to heart, she had reached her impasse. Hercules provided the catalyst for a change, a catalyst whose seeds were sown long before in the lessons Lao Ma had tried to teach, but which had lain fallow in Xena's soul. Her fated meeting with a young bard, when the warlord Draco had raided Poteidaia, sealed the change, bound her way to a course that would burn the earth under the feet of the unjust.

[8] In much of the first season, Xena is untalkative, and she carries around her a sense of brooding. One can almost feel the delicately balanced personality that actively considers its commitment, evaluates it constantly, and remakes its vow with each stroke.

"It starts with one good deed."
— Xena to Marcus, THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105)

[9] Xena begs Marcus to follow her on the road to redemption by turning against his mercenary paymaster, an act for which he cannot find the will, until giving his life and coming to the very realization she had tried to explain. When Xena would smile, it was as if there was hope for the world. When her expression, through her mask of control and reserve, shone out, it comforted the weary with the hope that nothing was beyond restitution. So often, these flashes of humanity, of feeling, were in response to Gabrielle's infectious innocence, a sunshine that could charm a smile from a heart of stone.

[10] Together they represented something virtually unknown in television history, a partnership of unprecedented character. Though the figures of the embittered warrior and the young idealist are as old as story-telling (think of Pizzaro and Young Martin from Peter Shaefer's THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN), it was the first time they had been brought together in this way, and especially in the female idiom. Each week we welcomed into our homes and our lives a pair who embodied many things to many people. Their ability to overcome adversity, through both martial skill and plain quick wits, was an inspiration to those for whom life was a heavy burden. So in addition, was their friendship, which quickly emerged as the soul of the program, the rock-solid relationship that represented the permanence many longed for.

[11] Here we had a perfect dichotomy: the warrior who knows all dire things, fighter supreme, grim and troubled, paired with the bard who carries goodness in her knapsack, wields her wits and her tongue to win through, and is filled with the enthusiasm and drive of one for whom the world is mysterious and fascinating. One is taciturn, the other garrulous. One is a fighter, the other a thinker. One is troubled, the other carefree. They struck the odd spark, got on each other's nerves now and then, but this was an attraction of opposites. Indeed, there could not have been greater opposites, and it was perhaps this polarity that created such fascination.

[12] It may be argued that the "land in turmoil" got two heroes, not one, and in many ways, Gabrielle developed into a complex and interesting person fully able to take on the hero role. She embodied not merely the emergence of skills but the bedrock strength of character that makes believable their wielding.

[13] With the complex circumstances of late Season 2, that is Lucy Lawless' injury, the program explored new areas of the relationship, fostering the public's delight in the close and human moments between Xena and Gabrielle. Episodes that brought this into clearest focus scored the highest ratings at any point of the six-year chart. It seemed the die was cast for not merely a genre success, but an across-the-board success such as was rare in the industry.

You bear a strong resemblance to Borias!

Gabrielle didn't see it coming with Khrafstar.

[14] Then something happened. It happened over time. From the initial shock of THE DELIVERER (50/304) and Gabrielle's demon-rape, with the ensuing turmoil amongst viewers over what did or did not happen, through the subtle grading of the following connected stories, the viewing public stayed with the program in the faith that the upset to previous notions of 'normality' would be rectified in some brilliant cataclysm. This deep-seated change happened without the recognition or even willingness to accept of many members of the audience. In what has been claimed to be a deliberate attempt to generate drama by counter-active formula, the producers generated the "Rift Arc" of Season 3. More has been written on the motivations, intent, repercussions, and critical review of these episodes than might ever be fully known, and this is not the place to resurrect those issues. Suffice to say that the ratings began a downward trend following the conceptual climax and closure of the arc, THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), from which they have never shown any real sign of recovery, at least no sign of scaling the heights originally conquered.

[15] The "Rift Arc" comprises a batch of some eight episodes scattered through the season, seemingly unconnected with the standard episodes or the comedies, in whose close company they ride ill at ease. It was most likely the ability to compartmentalize the arc that preserved audience figures above four million households in this period. There were, after all, standard-style episodes still to be had, and a recognizable format within which to operate. The arc could be sealed and shelved, and next week a recognizable episode would allow the mess to recede into the past. For those who could do this, the program was still a viable entity. For the many who could not, it was already tainted beyond repair by the undermining of the characters' integrity.

[16] Character integrity was an issue the producers treated with something akin to contempt, alternately reinforcing it, then handing it away. From my review of TSUNAMI (65/319), located at "Whitesword's On-Line Xena 'Zine":

"Perhaps the best single thing in the episode was Xena's going back to give air to the thug despite him fighting on the way up. On the beach, in the Tag, he asked her defiantly and uncomprehending of her gesture: 'What do you expect from me?' Xena's reply: 'From you -- nothing! From myself—nothing less'. This was classic Xena, this was the person she used to be, the person for whom redemption takes many forms and many paths, and saving the life of even an ingrate has consummate value."

[17] This was integrity at bedrock level, and it stands out as incongruous as it flew in the face of the gradual disintegration of Xena's integrity that was taking place at that time. Yet, a few words, a scene or two, are simple offerings in the face of a gradually overtaking obsession with evil, apparently on the part of those who maintained thematic control of the program, "the powers that be."

[18] The thematic issues of Season 3 and the resulting ratings fall were said to have prompted urgent redress at studio level. However, the reorganization essentially achieved nothing in terms of restoring the initial winning formula. During Season 4, XENA was back-storied on a constant basis, and her actions were drawn ever more graphically as those of a person who was, in all reasonable degree, beyond any redemption. The more terrible she was made -- she was no longer simply a fanatical military commander whose thirst for conquest made her name synonymous with doom, but an insane and depraved harpie whose wickedness knew no depths—the less realistic the notion became that she could turn to the light at all. We are retrospectively asked to believe that Darphus' willingness to put a baby to the sword was enough to awaken a sense of decency in the breast of one already so demonstrably rotting with evil that she would more likely have eaten the child raw before its mother.

[19] This is revisionist history, in defiance of established criteria. For, in that very scene, way, way back in THE GAUNTLET (H11/111), Xena, the child in her arms, tells Darphus that her army does not make war on women and children, that they are soldiers, not butchers. Compare this with Xena's glee as she stakes out Thalassa to be eaten alive by crabs, about seventy episodes later but chronologically several years earlier.

[20] Another instance is in CALLISTO (22/122), where Xena tells Gabrielle of the burning of Cirra. Yes, she recounts it with a dreadful smile, the terrible beauty of war still touches her warrior soul, but she speaks with conviction. We have no reason to believe that she is telling less than the truth when she says she does not know whether the fire was started by her own men or some other way. In addition, when the incident was filmed in the HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS two-parter ARMAGEDDON NOW (H72-73/413-414) we found that it was the ultimate irony: the time-wandering neo-deified Callisto was present, and the fire was most certainly not the deliberate act of Xena. Yet Xena, as depicted in this story, was certainly capable of it. The Xena as backstoried in continuing installments, would not have hesitated at such an act.

Now The Hero Is Deconstructed

[21] During Season 4, Xena appeared exhausted, confused, and dispirited. The demons of her past, previously held in careful balance, seemed to be pulling her down as never before, and the recurrent vision of the crucifixion hounded her without mercy. We will leave aside the logical simplicity in confounding the conditions for the vision to come true, but focus instead on the re-emergence of evil. As Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker, "You don't know the power of the dark side!" Xena knew, embraced it with Ares' blessing, and made the whole world tremble, and gradually, insidiously, and with the delusional rationalizations of her conscious mind acting in an excusatory capacity, the dark side reached out and took over.

[22] We were shown Xena committing acts of atrocity not simply in her "evil days", but in the here and now. The infamous dragging of Gabrielle was perhaps the earliest incident, the beginning of a chain of events that saw the integrity of the relationship and the partners themselves erode in a cycle of abuse, excuse, and debilitating lack of respect. In a crudely comical way, the Season 4 episode IF THE SHOE FITS╝ (80/412) described this in the way Xena treated and misused Gabrielle with such disregard and contempt that the bard was compelled to walk out on her. Unfortunately, Gabrielle came back, and in so doing betrayed her own integrity. The producers also missed an excellent opportunity, to have her keep going, and for the resolution of their "mini-rift" to constitute another minor arc, giving actual substance to the disagreement. As it was, it reinforced the new precept that Xena is always right, and Xena cannot be punished for anything. Compare this with Xena's line, from TIES THAT BIND (20/120):

"Everyone makes mistakes, even me."

[23] The Xena with which we were presented initially knew the difference between right and wrong, and how to behave toward others, and her nigh-superhuman skills, still generally within the bounds of known human ability, and making allowance for the off-the-wall Hong Kong-style gymnastics, served to reinforce these values. The deconstructed Xena no longer shares values with others, and assumes a definitely superior right to administer rough justice and life-affecting decisions to others as she personally sees fit.

Looks like I'm gonna have to cut the cord!

Xena is LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN because of past crimes.

[24] Another definition for this is tyranny. This tyranny is coupled with an ever-amplifying supernatural power that has finally seen her gifted in the capacity to slay gods and turn armies to stone. There are exceptions, of course. LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407), a sado-masochists' romp in a women's prison, saw Xena voluntarily accept punishment for a single act of barbarism many years ago, which itself was out of step with the new precept, but provided another flimsy pretext to morbidly depict the abuse of women. Though she preserved her humanity in the face of brutality, one must question whether dwelling on such a theme is wholesome entertainment. The producers extemporized upon this formula with WHO'S GURKHAN (116/604) in Season Five, with even further amplification of brutality.

[25] The deconstruction is essentially complete with her use as a vessel for divine insemination and subsequent gifting with the ability to move and function in the realm of gods. The Xena who once defied the Olympians, entered Hades for love and outsmarted Ares at his own game, is now the willing tool and vessel of another god, a pawn in a divine power play, the rightful Queen of the Damned, and an agent of the downfall of angels.

[26] Can anything be construed from this? Taking the entire run of the program as a united whole, a dangerous thing to do as it clearly was never intended, one can read the gradual phasing of Xena's personality, from the admirable to the despicable, as a parable for the notion that there are no heroes, that all idols have feet of clay, and behind every great person there are skeletons. This is oddly like real life, but to assume that this was the intended message of the series is probably asking too much of any creative team. The genre, the hype, and the presentation of the program still promote Xena as a hero, something she has not been in a long time.

[27] There is no longer a credo, and it also requires no interpretation on the part of the audience. Up is no longer up, down no longer down, and Xena's face is turned to whatever rewards Xena's notion of right. If this means to corrupt an angel to weasel her way out of Hell, so be it. She no longer seeks redemption for the blood of untold thousands that stain her hands, as if the good deeds of a few short years have outweighed her sins, and she assumes the right to deny justice to others. Just look at her intervention in Eve's ethically justifiable indictment and punishment at the hands of the Amazons, when the Xena we used to know would have done what was right for the wronged, no matter what. That was one of her cardinal strengths, it made her understandable and therefore sympathetic. She is now accountable to no one other than an unseen divinity that has yet to provide so much as a slowing influence upon her excesses. Xena is a wildcard, indestructible, insensate, and as engaging as a rock.

[28] Thus, the deed is done. The protector has become the abuser, the hero has become the villain, the righteous has become the wrongful, and the mortal has become supernatural. Reason, reality, consequence, and even simple continuity, no longer have meaning.

[29] Other than the negative message that one cannot trust heroes to last, can anything be drawn from this confusion: that the world works by simple laws that come from the gutter, that might is right, that women have no independent will unless it comes to them from a higher masculine source, that spousal abuse is a natural part of human relationships? One could go on at length about the lessons this program offers its viewers, but there is no longer a point.

Realising too late that Egypt is not south of Japan, Gabrielle ends up in New Zealand

Gabrielle sails off into the sunset with Xena's ashes in FRIEND IN NEED.

[30] With cancellation at the end of Season 6 recently announced, the program no longer has anywhere to go. In the opening episodes of this season it has reached a depth of depravity barely equaled, and investigative committees rightly notarize it as one of those products inappropriately marketed to minors. With that in mind, there is little surprise that approaching two-thirds of its peak-rating audience has now departed, and that overseas discontinuation continues, e.g., Britain's Channel 5 recently terminated the program after Season 4 in the midst of a ratings collapse similar to the pattern found in Australia. The only genuine mystery remaining is how it has escaped cancellation for so very long. In the "bad old days" if a program suffered falling ratings for any more than a few weeks running, its neck was wrung. XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS has experienced falling ratings for two and a half years, and continues to exist. The syndication system clearly plays a part, and it would be interesting to contrast the network and syndication system approaches in light of the program's dedicated down-trend performance since the Rift Arc, available timeslots, and national and cultural factors apparently notwithstanding.

[31] Beyond this, one is left to ask, why? Has it ever happened that a program that offered an uplifting and positive message has chosen to undercut that format by promoting the vilest aspects of human nature instead, and handed away its audience by millions of viewing households in the process?

[32] Perhaps a better issue to pursue is the genesis and deconstruction of a television success story that, at the end of the day, could have been worth literally billions. It is a sad realization, when XENA merchandise is piling up in sale bins and the posters are coming down.


a woman of mystery whitesword@hotmail.com

Favorite Episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110)
Favorite Line: There are so many to choose from...
First Episode Seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407)

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