IAXS Project #077
By Bret Rudnick (
Content © 1996 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 1996 held by Whoosh!
2507 words


This is a detailed analysis of both Callisto as a villain and the author's own experience with TV villains.

[1] There's no doubt about it. After watching CALLISTO (#22), RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29), and INTIMATE STRANGER (#31), there's simply no question. Callisto scares the vegemite right out of me.

[2] All shows that feature heroes/heroines also have villains. It is a necessity. There is just no effective counterpoint without something really evil/bad/scary to balance the ticket. These bad guys may be members of some large group (e.g., bacchae), or they may be unique creatures (e.g., minotaur), or we may see their handiwork without really seeing them personally (e.g., Hera). Then there are the true villains. Bad people that stand out in a number of ways and, over time, frighten the wits out of you 'more' rather than 'less'.

[3] Callisto fits the above description for me. As I came to this realization, I wanted to think back on other tele-villains I've known in the past to determine if there were any common factors as regards these wicked folk that make some more memorable than others. As the saying goes, "your mileage may vary", but allow me to share some examples and perhaps some of these patterns will seem familiar to you.

[4] First, a really memorable villain has to be three- dimensional. Just as a really good hero/heroine is a believable, unique individual, so is a really good knave. It is not sufficient to give the dastard just an eyepatch or a bad scar or series of trademark grunts and expect that to be what defines the character. A really good bad guy has motivations, memories, hopes, dreams, and desires, just as anyone we care about and identify with does.

[5] Second, not all that is evil or bad or otherwise unpleasant in some way wears three shades of black, looks ugly, hides in darkness, and/or speaks with an East European accent. Some of the most effective evil characters are pleasing to the eye. Not every job in real life has a uniform to go with it. One cannot always judge a book by the cover (but do not let the publishing industry know I said that).

[6] Third, and most important for my taste, is that the worst villains are also sympathetic in some way. When I think back on some of my 'favourite' rogues, all of them had something to say about their past, their present, or their motivation that made me say to myself, "You know, (s)he's right about that."

[7] For me, Callisto more than meets the basic criteria described above. First, she's not just a cardboard cutout character. She doesn't just say "I'll get you, Xena, and your little friend too," then cackle wildly. In her first (speaking) appearance (CALLISTO), we get to find out who she is and where she came from. The character is fleshed out with a history and with (albeit bloodthirsty) motivations. Second, just to look at her (except when she's giving us that trademark psychopathic face) she does not readily appear evil. In many ways, by appearance alone, she resembles our heroine (both are clad in warrior garb, both are competent fighters, both can ride horses and drive chariots well, etc.). Thirdly, and most importantly, she is (partially) sympathetic. She holds Xena responsible for the death of her family, and we cannot argue the fact that it was Xena's army, though not Xena herself, who destroyed Callisto's village. Callisto suffered a great childhood loss, as did Xena. But Callisto went a very different way in the long run. Faced with similar choices and experiences, Xena turned out one way, Callisto quite another.

[8] In CALLISTO, the blonde villainess makes several good points, not the least of which is the fact that Xena committed many foul acts in her "evil" life, as did Callisto. But while Callisto was going to be brought to trial for her crimes, Xena never was. Strictly speaking, Callisto has made a valid point that "justice" isn't necessarily "equal". Callisto also continually reminds Xena "You made me." We can assert that Callisto is simply blaming Xena for things she herself cannot handle, but in the cold light of fact, we also have to accept that if there were no Xena, or more specifically, no "evil Xena army", there would probably be no Callisto.

[9] As brutal as she has proven herself to be, Callisto is not a mindless killer in CALLISTO or in RETURN OF CALLISTO. Yes, she has razed a fair number of villages and put many inhabitants to the sword, but in these episodes, she does not do it because she glories in the killing for its own sake. It is simply a tool for her to get to Xena. Xena is her all-consuming passion, hatred, and motivation. Yet Callisto is also capable of compassion. For example, she does not just throw her followers to the wolves when it is convenient. In RETURN OF CALLISTO, when she broke out of prison (extracting a bit of revenge along the way on those who kept her there), she made a point to free her Chief Lieutenant (Theodorus, introduced to us in CALLISTO) and give him some responsibility. Later in the episode, she _warns_ him about getting too close to her, telling him that she would have to kill him if he fell in love with her. A simple, cold-blooded mindless killer would not do such a thing -- she would just kill him, period. This was another factor for me in deciding that Callisto was not just your 'killer warlord of the week', but was a force to be very careful of. Callisto recognizes value in followers and does not just disregard them.

[10] We see a bit of a change to this, however, in INTIMATE STRANGER. In this episode, where Xena and Callisto switch bodies due to the machinations of Callisto and Ares (the god of War), Callisto is looking for a way of making her old followers loyal to her while occupying Xena's body. She decides the most expedient way to do this is by slitting the throat of Theodorus in front of her army, thereby winning their respect and making them afraid of her. As she does this, the look on her face is one of taking extreme pleasure in the killing, which struck me as a bit out of character with what we have seen from Callisto thus far in her evolution. But perhaps I'm simply layering my own expectations on the character and seeing things not intended (or perhaps dying changes a person even further). Prior to this incident, it was always my impression that Callisto would not hesitate to kill or destroy anyone or anything that interfered with her taking revenge on Xena, but that this goal was pursued with cold detachment more than animalistic pleasure.

[11] INTIMATE STRANGER does, however, give us additional insight as to the singularity of Callisto's motivations. In one scene, Callisto, in Xena's body, is goading Gabrielle into learning to strike to kill by bringing up memories of Perdicas and how Callisto killed him. Since Xena now occupies Callisto's body, and Callisto knows this, she thinks it would be the greatest irony for Gabrielle to kill Callisto (now Xena) on sight. Gabrielle takes the bait and strikes Callisto (Xena) hard, though it upsets Gabrielle terribly after the fact. Callisto (as Xena) apologizes for having done that, but says that it was necessary. Gabrielle expresses distaste at feeling such intense hatred. Callisto tells her not to feel bad about it; hatred is not necessarily a bad thing. "For some of us," she says honestly, "it's all we ever know." This statement is important to understanding what the Callisto character is all about -- motivation by hatred and revenge alone. Later in INTIMATE STRANGER, when Ares is cross with Callisto for being obsessed with revenge on Xena, Callisto taunts him by saying the only thing she feels at all is hatred for Xena and the only goal she has is revenge upon her. She heaps further indignity on the god of war by telling him that she used him to further her own ends.

[12] In the end, Callisto wants Xena to be hurt more than she herself has been hurt. This might not be possible, but it is the force that drives her to fight hard, overcome the odds, win at any cost. I do not recall Xena fighting anyone in the series one-on-one so far as close to an equal as Callisto. Who else has caught Xena's Round Killing Thing in mid-air? Who else has, blow for blow, matched Xena in a fist fight or sword-fight and drawn blood more than once? Callisto may still be a notch or two below Xena in ability, but I have never before found myself even idly thinking Xena had a chance to lose with any other (mortal) individual.

[13] The first time Callisto ever attacked Xena (THE GREATER GOOD #21) she struck Xena from behind with a poisoned arrow. Had Callisto placed a little more poison on the tip, there would be no Xena. Period. In RETURN OF CALLISTO, the blonde villainess fought dirty and used a trick to distract Xena (forcing Xena to choose between defending herself or saving the life of an innocent child) and placing Xena at the mercy of her sword. "You have a heart," Callisto declares. "I no longer seem to have one. That gives me advantage over you." At that point, Callisto had Xena dead to rights, and if her objective was simple murder, we would be watching CALLISTO: PSYCHOPATHIC QUEEN rather than XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. But no, Callisto's motivations are far more complex than that. Callisto wants Xena to suffer. It is more a contest of wills than anything else.

[14] It is not often that TV villains make me actually stop to think about them as more than just the foil for the hero(ine). When I was growing up in England, the Daleks used to send me running for cover behind the sofa every time I heard that metallic rasping of "exterminate". But there wasn't anything redeeming about them -- they were simply killer squids in a can, and as I got a little older, I realized I could get away from them simply by running upstairs.

[15] The first telly baddies I thought seriously about were the "Mysterons" from the UK series "Captain Scarlet". For those who did not see the show many years ago, the premise of this Gerry/Sylvia Anderson Supermarionation series was: earth defends itself from creatures from Mars known as the Mysterons. Sounds simple. But in the series we find out that the whole trouble started because an earth expedition fired upon and destroyed a Mysteron city first and, technically, unjustifiably. So as I watch the series and see Captain Scarlet and his companions bravely defend earth, I cannot get out of my mind that the whole thing got started in such a way as to be earth's "fault" in the first place. I clearly recall thinking then along the lines of "This was a horrid misunderstanding. Can't we work something out peacefully?"

[16] As a kid, the Mysterons also scared me because we never saw them. We heard their voices, saw their handiwork, saw many earth "agents" who worked for them, but we never really saw what a Mysteron looked like. Spooky. Along the lines of "you have an enemy but you can't really see him" there is the theme of "your enemy might be the person standing next to you and might not". That scared me witless in the ITV series THE PRISONER. Sure we knew The Village was a "bad" place, but the people in it might be working for Number One, and they might not. That series also got me thinking the enemy could be within myself as well as some threat from outside.

[17] When it comes to individual villains, the last one to cause me as much consternation as Callisto was Dr. Meguilito Loveless from THE WILD, WILD WEST. Actually, I find a lot of similarities in that series and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS -- both of them treat their genre with little reverence and instead take things very tongue- in-cheek. Like Callisto, Dr. Loveless was made the way he was by events, rather than some intrinsic predisposition to evil. Like Callisto, his primary motivation became making Jim West suffer before his demise, much as Callisto wants Xena to suffer before she's dead. Dr. Loveless was nearly as resourceful as our hero, and Callisto is nothing if not resourceful. Both villains did not mind fighting dirty, neither particularly cared about civilians getting in the way, yet neither killed indiscriminately (although that scene in INTIMATE STRANGER with Theodorus still bugs me).

[18] If the job of a good villain is to make us frightened, concerned, or even to think about ourselves and our own motivations in contrast to heroic ones, then Callisto is more than up to the task. It's interesting to note that of all the baddies in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS to date, none have generated more ink or used more electrons in any area I've surveyed (newsgroups, lists, or even the hallowed pages of WHOOSH) than Callisto. I hope that, like Dr. Loveless, Callisto keeps finding ways to come back (but only once or twice per season -- I think she's been a little overexposed for effectiveness this season).

[19] Finally, the episode TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (#32) got me to thinking about something else. In this episode, Xena is in Callisto's body until the final scene. Hudson Leick does an admirable job portraying Xena in Callisto's body, and this made me wonder: How much of what we think of people is what we assess from the outside, rather than from the inside? What exactly was it that made Callisto take the path she took, versus the path that Xena took, given both women had a similar backgrounds? Could it be that the main difference between Xena and Callisto was that Xena came to supplant the hatred she felt with love -- love of self, love of others, etc., while Callisto knew only hate alone? Is it enough for Xena to be redeemed that she acknowledges her past and fights against it? In this context, Xena's words to Gabrielle (while she is still in Callisto's body) in the closing moments of INTIMATE STRANGER are very appropriate. "Try not to think of the hatred you have for this body -- for Callisto. Try and think of the love you have for Perdicas."

[20] Maybe we could all be better people, and consequently make the world a bit better of a place, for thinking thoughts of love rather than thoughts of hate. Perhaps, like Gabrielle, we can dream pleasant dreams again.

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