Whoosh! Issue 59 - August 2001


By I. Horwood
Group Therapy Project
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
4950 words

"Hardened War Criminal"? (01-02)
Season One: The Foundations Are Laid (03-10)
Season Three: An Ominous Darkening (11-18)
Season Three Onwards: Continuing Statements of the Love and Forgiveness Theme (19-24)
Friend In Need: Coming Full Circle? (25-30)
Does Love Survive the Finale? (31-41)
Conclusion (42-46)


"Hardened War Criminal"?

What can I say?  I'm just a girl who likes to play with fire!
Xena had a penchant for burning down villages from Day One.

[01] Following a screening of the Xena: Warrior Princess finale at the Museum of Radio and Television on June 19, 2001, series co- executive producer R.J. Stewart revealed a secret which had until that moment been well hidden from the show's viewers. He told them that Xena had not materially altered from the woman they first saw in the series' opener, SINS OF THE PAST, penned by R.J. Stewart himself, together with series' co-creator Robert Tapert. She had been a vicious killer then. She was a vicious killer now. She had been "softened", not changed. She had not attained the redemption she was looking for in that initial episode. She was not able to do so. She found redemption only by means of a death graphically depicted in FRIEND IN NEED, an episode he described as bringing the whole story line full circle.

[02] Many fans of the show were shocked by this revelation, and justifiably so, since up till this moment there had been good reason to suppose that the opposite was true. They had seen, apparently, the story of a Xena who sought for redemption by serving the greater good in life, not by accepting death. They had seen a Xena who tried every day that she lived to lead a better life, and tried even more impressively because there was no selfish motive involved. This Xena believed she was beyond redemption and did good only because it was the right thing to do. Moreover, they had seen a Xena who, though she could not forgive herself, believed that love and forgiveness could break the cycle of vengeance, and so perhaps lead to redemption.

Season One: The Foundations Are Laid

[03] This initial impression of Xena was created in SINS OF THE PAST. It begins with Xena, according to Mr. Stewart in another interview, facing the stark reality of her hideously evil past. Accepting her responsibility, and despairing of being able to atone and find redemption, she prepares for death and ritually buries her weapons and armor.

[04] Something intervenes, however, an encounter that is effectively the springboard for the remaining episodes of the show. The Warrior Princess meets Gabrielle, a peasant girl who sees in her the capacity for great good, and whose unconditional love will, it is later suggested, show her the way to finding the path to redemption.

[05] This is dramatized in a scene where Xena makes herself ready to receive punishment by being stoned to death at the hands of her angry and embittered former neighbors, with the tacit permission of her own mother. They cannot find it in their hearts to forgive her and she can think of no defense to make of her past conduct. However, at this point Gabrielle bursts in and persuades them to release the passive warrior. By this means, she makes it possible both for Xena to save her home town of Amphipolis from the threat posed by a warlord and for those same neighbors, not to mention her mother, to find peace in their hearts by forgiving her.

[06] Thus the first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess ends with Xena turning her back on death and accepting life with all its challenges and possibilities to do good, supported by the loving friendship of Gabrielle. Indeed, in the words of Steven Sears, answering questions in an on-line interview in 1998, as the show progressed Gabrielle came to be seen as having "saved Xena's soul".

[07] The later Season One episode THE RECKONING (written by Peter Allan Fields) reinforces this impression, as indeed do episodes like MORTAL BELOVED and PATH NOT TAKEN. It is easily the most important motif in the show at this stage in its development. Xena, driven again to despair by her recognition that she can never atone for her crimes, accepts the justice of a village court, and readies herself to submit to execution for crimes she did not in fact commit. Once more it is the loving and accepting Gabrielle who shows her a better way, one that, miraculously, transforms the situation. By fighting against this mood of acquiescent despair, Xena actually manages to bring the dead back to life. At the same time, she asks for forgiveness from Gabrielle for having hit her while possessed by an Ares-inspired rage, and this remorse together with the forgiveness she receives further bonds their relationship.

[08] By the time the first season reaches the episode CALLISTO, also written by R.J. Stewart, the show is ready to demonstrate how hanging onto the idea of vengeance is harmful and poisonous. Callisto herself has been warped not by Xena's accidental killing of her parents, but by her inability to move on beyond the anger and grief she feels. Callisto, it is clear, has allowed herself to be consumed and maddened by her desire for vengeance. As much as Xena might feel pain at the knowledge that she was the initial cause of this, she is not ready here to merely submit to her enemy's vigilante form of justice, which is merely wild justice: revenge. She has too much to do protecting innocents from Callisto's other mad actions.

[09] CALLISTO also provides the show's first clear statement of the alternative to vengeance. Tellingly, Gabrielle voices it. Love and forgiveness can break the cycle of hatred and vengeance, she tells Xena, and while Xena does not herself seem to intuitively feel this, still she recognizes its truth and attempts to live by it. She has, after all, the image of Callisto before her to demonstrate the terrible results of a failure to find it in one's heart to forgive. At the same time, her love for Gabrielle allows her to appreciate the possibility of a different, and far more hopeful, course of action.

[10] Thus, by the end of Season One, the show has established its moral foundation. The paramount values in the Xenaverse are the love between Xena and Gabrielle, which can movingly defy death, together with forgiveness. They can lead to redemption. Revenge, on the other hand, leads to madness and destroys the vengeful.

Season Three: An Ominous Darkening

You look a lot like one of Xena's old boyfriends
There was that whole rift thing in Season Three, starting with Gabrielle's association with Dahak and his minions.

[11] The initial omens that the show in fact had another agenda to promote made their appearance in Season Three, in the "Rift Arc", the brainchild of Robert Tapert. With a story line which would show the audience that the Warrior Princess was prepared to butcher a baby in its mother's arms and murder her best friend, it might be supposed that Mr. Tapert was taking the opportunity to reveal that Xena was indeed still a hardened war criminal. Paradoxically, the episodes that followed seemed determined to prove the opposite. They began the process of investing Xena with the whole of the show's moral authority. This authority had previously been shared between both the lead characters, as had been established in episodes like THE TIES THAT BIND, CALLISTO, IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE, and THE PRICE. By the end of the third season, Xena alone would be the show's moral touchstone.

[12] The first step in this transference is taken in THE DELIVERER, which turns Gabrielle into a helpless victim of rape and unwitting murderer. She is further undermined in GABRIELLE'S HOPE. Here, though Gabrielle clearly considers herself a mother to the infant Hope, Xena nonetheless expects her to permit the child's murder. The episode, apparently eager for the audience to approve of Xena's action, attempts to present Hope as unquestionably evil. To that end, the "nativity" scene was re-shot to provide further evidence of Hope's evil origins while the lines with which Gabrielle might have defended her were removed from the script, as R.J. Stewart revealed in an interview with Chakram at the time. In this way, Gabrielle's resistance is presented both as evidence of her disloyalty to Xena, whom she is expected to obey without question, and as proof that she is incapable of sound, independent moral judgement. Xena's judgment is, by contrast, presented as unquestionable.

[13] When Gabrielle is successful in saving the life of her child, she only lays the groundwork for a further assault on her integrity as a character. She tells Xena that she has killed the baby herself. This lie will later be presented as another betrayal and allow the episode MATERNAL INSTINCTS [Note 01] to imply that she should bear the entire blame for the death of Xena's child. This allows the writers to suggest that Xena's consequent vengeful assault on her best friend is not the act of an unredeemed war criminal, but that of a wronged mother. THE BITTER SUITE, by its silence on the matter, seems to approve of Xena's brutal actions, and to leave unchallenged her new status as final arbiter of right and wrong.

[14] These are traumatic experiences, yet the reasons for Gabrielle's actions are never properly considered, much less endorsed, further emphasizing her new status as victim, and by implication moral inferior. Moreover, her point of view is never explored, while Xena's is implicitly adopted as that of the viewer, and every effort is made to win the viewer's sympathy for the Warrior Princess instead. FORGET ME NOT, a belated entry in the Rift Arc, goes out of its way to strip every last shred of moral integrity from Gabrielle, while portraying the Warrior Princess as a model of saintly forbearance.

[15] The assumption throughout the Rift Arc then is that Gabrielle is wrong, and increasingly the reason appears to be that this is so because Xena is by her very nature always right. "She's just such a hero that way", was R. J. Stewart's shrug-of-the-shoulder comment on this new side of Xena some time later. The flawed and sympathetic hero of the show's opening seasons is being turned into an omniscient being, while her former source of "light", as Xena describes Gabrielle in RETURN OF CALLISTO, is becoming a figure of pity or scorn.

[16] Along with Gabrielle, her code is reduced by association to the hypocritical babbling of a naive fool who should have listened to Xena. In episodes like THE CONVERT and THE PLAY'S THE THING, Gabrielle is written as merely a caricature, while her beliefs amount to no more than a crass parody of pacifism. Beside her ineffectiveness and lack of conviction, Xena's warrior ways seem the only viable course of action. Indeed, THE WAY goes so far as to suggest that The Way of the Warrior, not love and forgiveness, will lead her to redemption.

[17] Thus, far from being presented as a hardened war criminal, Xena is presented as a noble warrior. It is the peace-loving Gabrielle who is exposed as inadequate at the end of this phase of the show's development, not Xena. The fourth season ends with her discarding her own beliefs in a frenzied killing spree that is disturbingly celebrated as a quintessential gesture of love in IDES OF MARCH (written by R. J. Stewart).

[18] At the same time as the current Xena was being transformed into the show's moral compass, largely at Gabrielle's expense, episodes scripted by Robert Tapert emphasized increasingly luridly the depth of evil Xena's depravity. That Xena ten years ago was indeed a war criminal of the blackest dye is made clear not in one episode, but again and again and again. An early entry, DESTINY, shows the young Xena dedicating herself to evil. In the third season, THE DEBT demonstrates how evil that can be, while ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE take her to new depths of depravity. Attempts on the lives of children, betrayals, impalings, wholesale slaughter of peoples, and much more abound. The bad girl warlord of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, who never harmed women and children, is transformed into a monster that could have given Morpheus nightmares.

Season Three Onwards: Continuing Statements of the Love and Forgiveness Theme

[19] Despite these developments, other episodes suggested that at least one brick of the show's ethical foundations was still in place. In THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (written by Steven Sears) those members of Xena's motley crew of mercenaries who are capable of love are also demonstrated to be worthy of a second chance, and therefore of redemption. In FORGIVEN, another R.J. Stewart script, Xena denies herself forgiveness, but teaches Tara that each person is as good as his or her last deed.

[20] Perhaps the episode most reminiscent of the ideas of SINS OF THE PAST is LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN, which is based on a story by Robert Tapert and Josh Becker. Here, Xena makes another of her impulsive and somewhat indulgent attempts at self destruction, but is once again persuaded of the possibility of living on to better effect by the heroically loving Gabrielle, who has been briefly reprieved from her usual fourth season assignment as gullible dupe, the better to serve the plot. The associated theme of the importance of forgiveness is developed in a subplot that concerns the bitter and vengeful prison governor, Thalassa, a character reminiscent in this aspect to Callisto. Xena's bard also teaches her that forgiveness is the way to rebirth as a morally whole person.

[21] R.J. Stewart again is responsible for THE WAY, the episode that enshrines the Way of the Warrior as the highest moral code in the Xenaverse. It does, as mentioned above, nominate another possibility, one that is chosen by Gabrielle. However, little time is spent on making the alternative convincing or attractive. This episode proposes that redemption is an irrelevant concept for Xena, who need only single-mindedly and unquestioningly follow her warrior way to eventually achieve it as a matter of course. That she would in fact be successful was shown in the previous episode, BETWEEN THE LINES, and as if confirming this, FALLEN ANGEL (R.J. Stewart again) at the beginning of the show's disastrous fifth season shows Xena ascending to heaven alongside Gabrielle, apparently redeemed indeed and worthy of that honor.

[22] Thereafter the theme of redemption is allowed to lapse from the show almost entirely, and seems to have become a dead issue as far as Xena herself is concerned. Season Five presents her not as a war criminal but as the show's ultimate moral arbiter. Everyone turns to her to be told what to do, and nobody, especially not Gabrielle, challenges her actions. This is so even when these actions involve the slaughter of 100,000 men (BACK IN THE BOTTLE) or the overthrow of a pantheon at the behest of a sinister, manipulative One God (MOTHERHOOD and its preceding "Twilight of the Gods" arc of episodes, again masterminded by Robert Tapert) who has already impregnated her without her consent. However, it is revisited in the story line surrounding her improbably conceived daughter Eve. Eve, despite having committed crimes which far exceed those of the unfortunate Hope, is forgiven her sins once she repents and allowed to follow the path we have been led to assume her mother has followed towards rehabilitation and redemption in this life.

[23] In the Sixth Season, little seems different, except that it is now Xena and not Gabrielle who preaches the doctrine of redemption through love and forgiveness. PATH OF VENGEANCE and LAST OF THE CENTAURS, for example, both show her supporting the view that forgiveness is preferable to revenge. Bizarrely, the extremely weak LAST OF THE CENTAURS has plot device Gabrielle apparently of the opposite point of view, presumably for dramatic emphasis.

[24] Therefore, by the end of the final season's 20th episode, just before the season finale, the last thing Xena appears to be is a hardened war criminal who has not essentially changed since her arrival on our screens six years ago. Granted she may have taken Mephistopheles' place for an episode: she was successfully purged of that evil. Granted too that she angers Eli's God in THE GOD YOU KNOW and has to trick a demented godling into killing himself. By this time, the show's writers seem to share the audience's lack of confidence in the goodness of this god, and few would opt to allow Caligula's insanity free rein. None of this shakes the show's utter conviction in the ultimate rightness in all circumstances of its title character.

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