Whoosh! Issue 67 - April 2002

THE GOD WHO LOVED HER:
THE XENA- ARES STORYLINE ON XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS


Page 3


Digression on Love, Death, and Genetic Immortality



Ares faces a breakdown after not being able to decide between the fish or the chicken

It's Callisto's body, but All Xena.


[71] At the end of the fifth season, Ares is quite literally humanized by his love for Xena to the point of becoming mortal. However, the connection between love and mortality may be a two-way street. Ares first shows tender feelings for Xena as a mortal in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS, and arguably a residue of those feelings remains after he returns to his bad godly self. It may be significant, too, that Ares starts coming to terms with his love for the Warrior Princess when he learns about the Twilight of the Gods and his own likely demise. Particularly in ETERNAL BONDS, he seems quite obsessed with the thought that he has only a short time left to live. Thus, in some sense, Season 5 Ares is already semi-mortal, though with his godly powers intact.

[72] Is Ares' pursuit of Xena linked to the specter of mortality now hovering over him? One obvious explanation is that he seeks to use Xena, as some detractors of the Ares/Xena storyline in Season 5 have put it, as an "incubator" for his progeny. While this explanation seems to be supported by Ares' persistent talk of a child, it is also inadequate. Xena cannot be the only woman in Greece with functioning ovaries. While it is understandable that the God of War would be selective about the genetic quality of his heir's mother, at some point the practical thing would be to settle for a less fit but more cooperative breeder. It is far more plausible that Ares sees a child as a way to cement his bond with Xena. His offer, after all, is "you and me together and a child". That is, until EVE, when the demand for a child seems to be less about procreating than about lashing out at Xena in punishing anger. In AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE, Ares readily accepts a "deal" with Xena that does not include a baby. [Note 14] Of course, in ETERNAL BONDS, he passes up the perfect opportunity to end the Twilight business by dispatching baby Eve.

[73] However, there may be a different link between love and mortality, namely the fact that the sense of his own finitude makes Ares more vulnerable. Intentionally or not, there is an interesting hint at this in SEEDS OF FAITH when Eli tells his followers that the Olympians know nothing of love. "True love cannot exist without the risk of loss. The gods are immortal, my friends. What can an immortal possibly know about loss?"

[74] Some of Ares' own words do suggest that he believes (or wants Xena to believe?) that the prospect of mortality has changed him. "Thanks to that kid of yours, I am dying. Why would I lie?" he tells Xena when she spurns his talk of love in ETERNAL BONDS. When she retorts that he always lies, he says, "Well, not anymore. All I want is to end my life the way it really started, fighting side by side with you." If Ares is sincere, this is a remarkable statement. It suggests not only that he is willing to accept mortality, but that the prospect of losing his life has forced him to reevaluate it and to recognize that it was meaningless, presumably for millennia, until he met Xena.

[75] Ares' sacrifice in MOTHERHOOD completes the circle. Intimations of mortality jolt him into awareness of his love for Xena, which eventually turns him fully mortal.


After the Twilight: Ares and Xena in Season 6

[76] The final season of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS opened on a rather "shippery" note in COMING HOME, where the mortal Ares is driven mad by the Furies and Xena concocts an elaborate plan to get them out of his head by letting him drown her. [Note 15] As Beth Gaynor noted in her commentary at Whoosh, "Ares' love for Xena gets full legitimacy at last. His insanity is mostly focused on her ... his despair when he thinks he's killed her is raw in its reality." The mortal Ares is far more openly emotional than the God of War. His wailing over Xena's body is in marked contrast to his restrained grief in LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE. In his mad rants, Ares gives full vent to the hurt of Xena's rejection ("I tried to give you Olympus! I tried to give you everything! But you stabbed me in the back!" and, "You're mean! If I could open you up I would show people the mean inside you!"); she listens to him with visible anguish.

[77] At the end of COMING HOME, Ares and Xena share a tender moment that includes their first genuine kiss. Xena comes up to examine the bruises on his face from their fight. After some humorous griping about mortality's ills, Ares takes her hands and says, "Maybe as a mortal I can experience something I could never have as a god, you." His soft-spoken, gently hopeful demeanor here is quite a contrast to the cockiness of his come-ons in Season 5. She responds by giving him a loving if rather chaste kiss. However, the conclusion of this scene effectively ruled out a full-fledged romance. Xena tells Ares that he was and still is bad for her. When he asks if there is even a one-in-a-thousand chance of them being together, she famously replies, "More like one in a billion."

Not the face, hey, NOT THE FACE!

After a brief flirtation with the idea of settling down, Xena and Ares once again part company at the end of ARES FARM.


[78] Nevertheless, the relationship between Xena and Ares was further explored in the charming comedy OLD ARES HAD A FARM, in which the Warrior Princess had to hide the ex-god on her grandparents' farm to protect him from vengeful warlords. In this episode, we saw a delightful mortal Ares. Full of bravado and vulnerability, softened without losing his cynical edge, Ares becomes a "bad boy" without the viciousness. He is rakish yet deeply in love with Xena. This is poignantly evident at the end, both in his abrupt change of heart about leaving the farm when she mentions that she may visit him, and in the look in his eyes as they say good-bye. We also got a glimpse of what things might have been like if Xena and the mortal Ares were together. She teases him and treats him like a big baby, and he, despite his pouting and his tantrums, is happy to let her boss him around.

[79] Unfortunately, mortal Ares appeared only briefly in two more episodes. THE GOD YOU KNOW (124/612), while using him primarily as beefcake, added some interesting touches to his character. Here Ares risks his life to protect his sister Aphrodite. This action suggests both that his ability to care for others is finally expanding beyond Xena and that, in contrast to his stint as a mortal in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER, he can be brave in the face of danger. That is not to say that the ex-War God was a coward in OLD ARES HAD A FARM. In OLD ARES, he is eager to fight the warlords with Xena at his side until she convinces him that he will be hunted forever unless he assumes a new identity. However, he has mellowed out enough to try to avoid a war with the Amazons in COMING HOME until the Furies goad him on. YOU ARE THERE (125/613), on the other hand, somewhat heavy-handedly emphasizes that Ares and mortality do not mix well. The former god becomes a rather pathetic figure, drowning his sorrows in booze and looking for action in a brothel. He is, however, touchingly protective of Xena when Nigel the reporter invades the farmhouse, and quite noble when he stresses, "Xena owes me nothing", thus settling the question of whether his MOTHERHOOD sacrifice had an ulterior motive.

[80] At the end of YOU ARE THERE, Ares regains his godhood with Xena's help, and then tries to get her to eat Odin's golden apple and become a goddess. What is interesting is how he tempts her -- not with talk of ruling the world, but with talk of being together. "Become a goddess, we could have some kicks," he says, in a very "Ares" way of camouflaging his romantic yearnings in slangy flippancy. After Aphrodite is restored to godhood and love flows back into the world, Ares tries again: "Aphrodite gave you back the power to love. Think about it, Xena. Think -- of the possibilities." Even more explicitly this time, he speaks to her in the language of love, not of power.

[81] The next episode, PATH OF VENGEANCE (126/614), finds Ares seemingly back to his old tricks, trying to incite a war between the Amazons and the Romans to rebuild his fan base, and in the process endangering Eve, Rome's peace emissary. Does he revert to being a "bad guy"? While many viewers saw it that way, most "shippers", interestingly, take a positive view of PATH OF VENGEANCE. Indeed, whatever TPTB's intentions, there are many ways in which the episode does not come across as merely a throwback to "old" Ares.

[82] For one, Ares' manipulations here are not directed at Xena. Eve stumbles into his plot, and when he says that she "got involved of her own free will," Xena readily believes him. He does prod the Amazons to execute Eve for her past crimes as Livia, but what he does not do is use the situation to try to manipulate Xena either into sex or into his service. Rather, he tells her, "Go in and grab your kid, I won't get in the way." He keeps his word, although in the process Xena completely wrecks his war plans, a result Ares should have been able to anticipate based on past experience. It would have been much more practical to get Xena out of the way by whisking Eve to safety. Could it be that he wants Xena involved, at the risk of having his scheme foiled, because it is an opportunity to be around her and watch her in action? "I'm kind of looking forward to see you take on a few dozen Amazons." A rather warped way of showing you care, to be sure, but then, Ares is a war god.

[83] Remarkably, too, Ares in this episode seems anxious to justify or at least explain himself to Xena, using the "Scorpion and Swan" fable to make his point: "I am the God of War and that's what I do."

[84] PATH OF VENGEANCE can be seen as an episode in which Xena and Ares find a new equilibrium of sorts, something of a mutual acceptance. Despite her anger at him when her daughter's in peril, Xena seems, however grudgingly, to accept his explanation. In contrast to ETERNAL BONDS, she appears remarkably unperturbed by her orgasmic response to his glowing touch. In YOU ARE THERE, she makes it clear that the world needs the God of War: "You can't have love without hate, you can't have peace without violence. I knew I couldn't just send Aphrodite back to Olympus without Ares. It would have thrown the whole world out of balance." She also seems to have come to terms with her sexual attraction to Ares.

[85] On Ares' part, the acceptance is even more explicit and wholehearted. At the end, when Xena has thwarted his plans, he exclaims, "You are so good!" She answers him in his own words, "It's what I do" and he says amicably, before vanishing, "And I wouldn't have it any other way."

[86] In a way, this recalls Ares' final exchange with Xena in his first episode, THE RECKONING. In both scenes, he compliments her on cleverly foiling his scheme and she acknowledges his compliment with a dreamy, slightly sensuous smile. However, there are some crucial differences. In THE RECKONING, Ares' scheme is intended to force Xena back into his service. Even while congratulating her, he adds, "Your choice was totally wrong, of course." In PATH OF VENGEANCE, he accepts and approves of her choice, and while he may still try to win her love, there will clearly be no more attempts to bring her back to the fold. He likes her just where she is.

[87] As a shipper and an Ares fan, I prefer to skip the sorry waste of an episode that was SOUL POSSESSION (132/620), a flashback/uber that brought back the evil Ares of late Season 3 for the War God's last appearance on the series. It managed to strip the Ares/Xena dynamic of the underlying emotional connection that had always been present even when Ares was at his worst. SOUL POSSESSION is all the easier to consign to oblivion considering that the holes in the back story it created were extra-large even by Xenaverse standards. Just as some Xena/Gabrielle subtexters unhappy with A FRIEND IN NEED (133/621, 134/622) have adopted WHEN FATES COLLIDE (130/618) or MANY HAPPY RETURNS (131/619) as their own series finale, many shippers regard PATH OF VENGEANCE, the last Ares/Xena episode in the actual chronology of Xenaverse, as their own moderately satisfying conclusion to this storyline.


Digression on Ares re: Xena's Dark Side

[88] Ares' final words to Xena in PATH OF VENGEANCE raise another interesting issue. Does the God of War, who first appeared on the show as a personification of Xena's proverbial dark side and spent years trying to woo her back to the darkness, eventually come to love the "Good Xena"?

[89] This possibility is first explicitly suggested in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE. Gabrielle tries to talk Ares out of accepting Xena's offer of herself, as a setup to persuade him that the offer is for real. If he accepts, she tells him, Xena will turn back into the vicious killer she once was. When Ares sarcastically replies that he "kinda liked that Xena," she parries, "Then why are you so obsessed with who she is now? Tell me you don't feel anything for the real Xena, the good Xena." Ares is shortly silent, with a thoughtful look on his face. Gabrielle's words have obviously hit a nerve.

[90] True, in his speech over Xena's ice coffin in LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE, Ares says that Gabrielle loved the self-sacrificing part of Xena while he appreciated her rage and violence. But maybe he does not fully understand himself as yet, just as he does not fully appreciate his own capacity for unselfish love.

[91] Of course, as god or mortal, Ares is attracted to the warrior in Xena, but there are some fascinating clues that it is not just the warrior he wants. In CHAKRAM, the War God is enthralled by Xena even when she has misplaced her dark side and is spectacularly unfit to be his Warrior Queen. He still talks to her about "bringing peace and order to the world through force". However, is it because, at that point, it is the only language he knows? Throughout the second half of the fifth season, he is ready to help her if she asks him, which, as we know from SUCCESSION, goes against his cardinal standard for judging warriors -- "Anyone who asks for his help doesn't deserve it". At the end of YOU ARE THERE, it is Xena's capacity for love, not for war, that interests Ares.

[92] True, Ares remains Ares, especially when in godly form. At the end of YOU ARE THERE, in a television interview from his throne on Olympus, he hilariously mocks Xena's quest for redemption -- "Oh, I killed so many people! The pain, the pain". However, let us not forget that the newly restored God of War is on TV with a reputation to maintain. His gibe comes right after he admits, apparently choking up a bit, that Xena's efforts to restore him to Olympus were not motivated by affection for him.

[93] Ares' words at the end of PATH OF VENGEANCE clearly reflect his real feelings. He has finally come to terms with the fact that he not only accepts, but also prefers, her as a warrior for good.

[94] It is also interesting to note that over the course of the show, Xena, Ares, and Gabrielle form an evolving triangle of light and darkness. In the early seasons, Gabrielle is Xena's "light" and Ares is her "darkness", while Xena's soul is the battlefield where light and darkness contend. Toward the end of the series, Gabrielle has been "darkened" while Ares has evolved toward the "light", with Xena as the magnet pulling them both in her direction (I am indebted for this insight to RoxyWP). In the beginning, Gabrielle does not understand or accept Xena's darkness, and Ares certainly does not understand or accept her goodness. By the end, both have come to understand and appreciate the whole package.


So... How Does She Feel?

[95] So far, this essay has focused on Ares' feelings for Xena. What about Xena's feelings for him?

[96] That Xena, as depicted on the series, is sexually attracted to the God of War is fairly clear, and not disputed even by subtexters, though many of them have been far from pleased with this depiction. Of course, such an attraction hardly precludes a romantic and sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. In ETERNAL BONDS, Xena's passionate dream is induced by godly tricks, but while Ares may have gotten into her dream and created a situation that would make her trust him -- saving Eve - it is unlikely that he could have caused Xena's sexual response to him. We also know from screenwriter Chris Manheim that he did not cause her daytime flashbacks. [Note 16] In AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE, she admits, once Ares has left the scene, that she "felt something" while seducing him. One may argue that generally in Season 5, she puts a bit too much enthusiasm into all those pretend kisses. In YOU ARE THERE, she feeds Ares the golden apple from her hand, in a gesture that has strong sexual overtones, and then sniffs sensuously at the apple where he bit into it. Then, there is Xena's reaction to the godly red glow in PATH OF VENGEANCE, as previously discussed.

[97] It is also clear that there is a deeper bond between the Warrior Princess and the God of War. Ares, after all, forged Xena into the warrior that she is and remains even after she turns away from his path. He knows and understands her in a way no one else does. This bond means something to her. It is confirmed in MOTHERHOOD where she confronts Ares several times after she has developed god-slaying powers and does not kill him, although by then, tensions between them have escalated to a hostility more bitter than ever before.

[98] Xena's clearest statement of some kind of feeling for Ares is her remark, "You always got to me," in COMING HOME. As it comes right after a tender, not very sexual kiss, it seems to refer to an emotional connection. Getting back into the tricky business of interpreting facial expressions, I will say that walking away from Ares seems to cost her something of an internal struggle.

[99] Surely, it also says something about Xena's feelings toward Ares that in COMING HOME, she is willing to risk her life, indeed, to die briefly, and to save him from the Furies. One could argue that the Warrior Princess has died so many times that another death for her is no more of a big deal than the common cold, but still, it counts for something. True, Xena's protectiveness toward the ex-god, here and in OLD ARES HAD A FARM, may be partly motivated by gratitude and the desire to repay a debt. Nevertheless, it seems clear that she cares about him as well. Xena's affection for Ares is suggested by several little touches. In OLD ARES, when she returns to the farm with his missing gauntlet, she wears it herself before tossing it to Ares. This indicates both remarkable physical comfort with him and, perhaps, a furtive desire for greater intimacy. Near the end of YOU ARE THERE, when Ares, having regained his godhood, walks off with Aphrodite and shimmers off this mortal plane, Xena is momentarily lost in reverie as she follows him with a wistful, slightly tearful gaze.

[100] If Xena does return Ares' feelings, why does she continue to reject him, particularly as a mortal? "You're bad for me" is a rather weak explanation. It is hard to see how the mellowed-out mortal Ares would be bad for Xena when he would clearly be putty in her hands. Perhaps that is just it. As a mortal, Ares would be too soft for the Warrior Princess. However, Xena may also be discouraged by the knowledge that even the mortal Ares has no interest in the Greater Good, the cause to which she has dedicated her life to serving.

Not sure if the beard is real or false, Xena decides to investigate

A scene that was cut from MOTHERHOOD resurfaces largely intact in COMING HOME.


[101] Interestingly, the original script for MOTHERHOOD had a conversation between Ares and Xena at the end that was largely similar to the one in COMING HOME, only Ares' chances looked considerably better than one in a billion. He asked, "Are you saying we can never be together?" and she replied, "Never's a long time. I'll see you around, Ares. Try to be a better human than you were a god." Does this indicate that the possibility of Xena and Ares as an item was at least considered? Even Chris Manheim, who apparently most favored such a development, and who left the show before the start of the sixth season, was at most ambivalent. "I think for Xena it would be really tough to give up her relationship with Gabrielle. However, if any man were going to get her, it would be Ares. Especially now that he's mortal." [Note 17] Shortly after the end of the fifth season, however, executive producer R. J. Stewart stated that an Ares-Xena pairing was out of the question. [Note 18]

[102] It is hard to tell if deference to the pro-subtext fan base was the main reason Xena and Ares did not become a couple in Season 6. My hunch is that without the subtext issue, they would have been allowed to spend a night together before going their separate ways, a la Hercules and Morrigan in HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS. However, if Xena could not be paired with Ares at least in part because the possibility that she and Gabrielle were lovers had to be kept open, she also could not say, "Sorry, Ares, but there's someone else, Gabrielle," because it had to remain no more than a possibility.

[103] Perhaps because of this quandary, Xena's sentiments toward the God of War remain murky. There is clearly enough feeling on her part to ensure that the Ares/Xena story is not completely one-sided. We know that she is attracted to him and that she cares about him. Beyond that, it remains a matter of each viewer's own conjectures, depending on her or his perceptions of the characters and the show.


What Went Right and Wrong with the Ares/Xena Storyline

[104] As I hope I have shown, the "Ares loves Xena" storyline did not come out of nowhere in the fifth season of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. It was in many ways a logical outcome of the Ares/Xena dynamic developed from the start of the series and anticipated by surprisingly many fan fiction writers. With apologies to Xena/Gabrielle fans, one might say that with GOD FEARING CHILD, the theme of Ares' love for Xena went from subtext to maintext. Despite the usual share of XENA inconsistencies, it remains, in my view, one of the most fascinating and psychologically "true" storylines on the show.

[105] This storyline brought to XENA elements of a classic "dark romance", often poignant and poetic yet remarkably unsentimental and down-to-earth. This is epitomized by the moment in which Ares explains his supreme sacrifice for his beloved by saying, "I got a thing for her". At the same time, it explored the series' central themes of unconditional love, the struggle of darkness and light in the human soul, sacrifice, and redemption. It gave us such unforgettable, wonderfully acted moments as Ares' speech over Xena's coffin in LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE, the "thank you" scene in MOTHERHOOD, and the conversation between Ares and Xena at the end of COMING HOME. Far from undercutting the theme of female empowerment as some have claimed, the Ares/Xena storyline could be seen as reinforcing it. After his earlier attempts to bend Xena to his will and make her his warrior, Ares makes it clear, from the middle of the fifth season onward, that he is willing to be with Xena on her terms and fight on her side.

[106] While many "shippers" have been at least somewhat disappointed by the development of this storyline in the show's final season, they did not necessarily want a "happily ever after" ending for the Warrior Princess and the War God. In an admittedly small survey at the message board, Talking Xena, the most popular ending, chosen by about 30 percent, was "Ares stays mortal with a better-than-one-in-a-million chance at winning Xena's love". Another 16 percent opted for the consummation of their love followed by the tragic death of one or both characters. Given its dark, twisted nature, one could see the Ares/Xena story as a quintessentially tragic romance. A story of love that is either unrequited or doomed by a long cycle of deception, mistrust, and misunderstanding.

[107] The largest missed opportunity of the sixth season of XENA lie, I believe, not so much in the failure to bring Xena and Ares together as in the overall handling of Ares' character. The theme of Ares coping with mortality had fascinating possibilities left largely unexplored. [Note 19] Moreover, upon his return to godhood, Ares seemed a little too unaffected by his prolonged stint as a mortal. Most troubling was TPTB's attempt, to some extent in PATH OF VENGEANCE but especially in the uber parts of SOUL POSSESSION, to negate the theme of Ares' redemption through love.

[108] Despite these failings, the Ares/Xena story will remain, for a sizable portion of fandom, one of the best attractions of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, and will continue to win new converts as long as Xena battles on in the reruns. For disappointed shippers, there is always fan fiction!



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