THE BITTER SUITE
This ain't Poteidaia -- heck, it's not even Kansas!.
 THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) is one of the most ambitious episodes of Xena, a full-scale musical production in which the dialogue is mostly delivered in song. An intriguing concept, to be certain, although the episode disappoints in places. The plot involves Xena and Gabrielle falling into a dream world known as Illusia, which seems to be an Oz/ Wonderland type of reality.
Recapping "The Rift" BITTER SUITE (58/312) is the conclusion to the "rift" story arc that extends throughout much of Xena's third season. This arc began with the regrettable THE DELIVERER (50/304), in which Xena and Gabrielle confront followers of the demon-god, Dahak. As a result of being suspended in flames over the god's altar, Gabrielle becomes pregnant. The baby gestates at an alarming rate, and Gabrielle gives birth to the demon's child, a girl she names Hope (GABRIELLE'S HOPE [51/305]). In her innocence, Gabrielle refuses to believe that her daughter is inherently evil, however, when Xena suspects that the child has strangled a man, she insists that Hope should be killed. Gabrielle flees with the baby at first, and, when she finds she cannot escape Xena's relentless pursuit, she tells Xena she killed the baby when in fact, she sets the child adrift in a basket, floating down a river.
 The rift continues in THE DEBT I&II (52,53/306,307). Xena travels to the Land of Chin, intending to assassinate a young tyrant named Ming T'ien. Not wanting to see her best friend commit cold-blooded murder, Gabrielle arrives at Ming T'ien's palace before Xena (later, viewers learn Gabrielle was assisted by Ares) and stops the assassination. Xena is imprisoned and nearly executed as a result. Xena kills T'ien, but tricks Gabrielle into believing she spared his life.
 In MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311), Hope re-appears, as a child of about ten. She frees Callisto, a goddess after A NECESSARY EVIL (38/214), from her lava pit, and subsequently murders Xena's son, Solan. When Xena learns that Gabrielle's deception is inadvertently responsible for her son's death, she is enraged. Gabrielle poisons her daughter and almost poisons herself as well. After the funeral for their children, the two women part ways without reconciliation.
Plot Summary THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) opens with Gabrielle in an Amazon purging hut. She is attempting to be purified of the pain resulting from MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311). Joxer is concerned that Gabrielle has been in the hut too long, but Ephiny, the Amazon Regent, insists that Gabrielle must undergo the ritual until she has worked through the pain. In the hut, Gabrielle has a vision of Callisto, who tells her that the entire tragedy with Hope is Xena's fault because Xena brought Gabrielle to Britannia in the first place.
 Meanwhile, Xena stands high on a mountain top, wailing in grief. Ares appears and goads her into anger, telling her that the death of her son is Gabrielle's fault. Xena returns to the Amazon village, clearly intent on murdering her once beloved friend. Despite the best efforts of the Amazons and Joxer, Xena snags Gabrielle by the feet with her whip and drags her behind a horse for a considerable distance to the edge of a cliff. Just as Xena is about to throw Gabrielle over the cliff, Gabrielle revives and kicks Xena in the head. The two face each other. Gabrielle screams, "I hate you!" The two women rush at each other, then fall over the cliff and down a waterfall.
 Here, the musical part of the episode begins. Xena floats down a river while Callisto recites a poem. Callisto pulls the warrior from the water and revives her with a kiss. Callisto tells Xena that they are now in Illusia, a land replete with Tarot imagery. Callisto is dressed as The Fool, "about to pass through the gates of experience to reach Divine Wisdom ... Every man must journey forward and choose between good and evil". The choice of costume could not be more appropriate, since Xena has chosen good and evil at different times in her life, while Callisto has only chosen evil.
 Xena herself is garbed as the High Priestess, who in the Tarot sits between pillars representing positive and negative life forces. The meaning of this card is "hidden influences at work, unrevealed future ... A woman of great intuition, inner illumination".
 Callisto takes Xena's chakram and spins it, and it becomes the Wheel of Fortune, with its four mystical animals, which then begin to sing. They tell Xena, "We deal in truths / You're too troubled to face". Callisto tells her, "The darkness that rots you / Has brought you to this". She will be Xena's guide through Illusia, but cautions Xena that "all consequences / Are your own creation".
 Illusia, therefore, represents the subconscious mind of Xena and Gabrielle, who must journey through it in order to make their choices between good and evil. The animals tell Xena, "What's still unwritten / You can erase". Like Scrooge, she can alter the future through the choices she makes in the present. Callisto says, "I never betrayed you / That was...Gabrielle". Xena responds with anger, asking, "The one who betrayed me, is she in this land?" Callisto cannot answer. Xena must spin the Wheel of Fortune and decide her own destiny.
 Gabrielle floats down the same river into Illusia. She is pulled from the water by Joxer, who hangs suspended from a tree in the posture of The Hanged Man. One meaning of this card is "suspended decisions, a pause in one's life", suggesting that the journey to Illusia is a "time out" of sorts for both Gabrielle and Xena. At first, Gabrielle believes she is dead, but as Joxer sings another variation of "Joxer the Mighty", she learns that she is in Illusia. Joxer draws up a dress from the grass for her to wear.
Xena finds her Illusory surroundings equally puzzling at first.
 Xena, meantime, has arrived at a castle, where an army of warriors chants her name and sings her praises: "You've not lived 'till you've been gored by Xena!" Where there is war, there is Ares, and the god is on hand, dressed as The Emperor, a card which indicates "control of masses, temporal power". Ares and his warriors sing the glory of violence and destruction, and welcome Xena back to their realm.
 Gabrielle arrives home in Poteidaia, where the villagers celebrate her return and sing the joys of peace. Everywhere are signs of health, fertility and prosperity. This is appropriate since Gabrielle is dressed as The Empress, which symbolizes "productive, generative activities ... growth and organization ... universal fertility". Despite this cheery message, there is a dark undertone of violence: the villagers sing about her loss of innocence. Gabrielle's sister Lila tells her, "If your child had lived / We'd surely make her welcome, too". The dangers of dissipation and stagnation are suggested in the lyrics, "Nothing changes but the time / We don't even change our minds", and, "Vegetate until you die".
 Xena rides with Ares in a physical representation of The Chariot card, which indicates "Conquest, success ... triumph over ill health, difficulties, and foes ... a card of those who achieve greatness". Appropriately, Ares sings to Xena praises of her battle skill. He urges her, "join my vision / Don't deny your destiny!"
 The juxtaposed scenes of Gabrielle in the village and Xena in the castle begin to take on an eerie similarity, as the villagers give a scythe to Gabrielle, and Lila tells her, "It's just a case of killing to be kind". Meanwhile, the warriors incite Xena to avenge the death of her son. As the warriors chant "War!" and the villagers chant "Peace!", Gabrielle and Xena each mount a flight of steps, approaching each other. They open the door at the top of the steps, and Xena stabs Gabrielle to death with a sword.
 Ares then engages Xena in a seductive tango, his song merging images of bloodlust and sexual desire. Xena seems tempted to return to his ways until she dips down and sees Gabrielle's body. Callisto re-appears in the garb of Justice, and asks of Xena, "Did that ease your suffering / Or bring it to an end?" The question is a fitting irony, since Callisto herself faced this question in MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311). Joxer also appears briefly, in the garb of the Hermit, which indicates "one who will guide the seeker", the role that Joxer has played for Gabrielle in Illusia. Joxer and Callisto then vanish, suggesting that Gabrielle and Xena are now on their own. Ares taunts, "Ding-dong, the b*tch is dead", and vanishes also.
 Gabrielle re-appears and accuses Xena of killing her. Xena protests that she killed an illusion. The two are suddenly "flashed" into a representation of The Tower. They begin to argue, blaming each other for things that have gone wrong. Xena realizes that with every accusation, their words echo louder, and they cannot hear one another. Both sing of the pain they feel inside themselves, an acknowledgment in keeping with the symbolism of the Tower card, where the lightening represents a "momentary glimpse of truth".
 However, the anger and accusations arise again. Gabrielle alludes to their ill-fated journey to Britannia: "Because of you this happened / Because you had to carry out / Your vengeful little plan!" Xena responds, "Because of you my child is dead / His blood is on your hands!" Their argument reaches a fevered pitch, and the Wheel of Fortune opens again. The fires of Dahak stream through and seize Gabrielle. Xena grabs Gabrielle and follows her through the wheel. Another aspect of The Tower is "conflict, unforeseen catastrophe". Only Xena and Gabrielle can determine if their conflict will bring enlightenment or not.
Xena and Gabielle have to overcome a failure to communicate in the Hall of Echoes.
 The two women find themselves back in the Temple of Dahak. Xena says, "Everything about this world has been a torment. We've been guided through it for a reason ... we have to go through it together". The chamber is filled with tombs. One of these opens, and a sinister, hooded figure appears. In a grotesque twisting of the Judgment card, the phantom blows a horn, summoning other hooded figures from their graves.
 The phantom sings about hatred: "Its power will strangle / Your love and your joy/ And its hunger consumes / For it lives to destroy!" The other hooded figures are revealed to be Ares, Callisto, Khrafstar, and Julius Caesar. As they sing, Gabrielle is chained to the altar of Dahak, and Xena is bound on a cross, both at their darkest moments of suffering and despair. Two more hooded figures appear, an "evil" version of Gabrielle, who is poised with a hammer to break Xena's legs, and an "evil" Xena, poised to stab Gabrielle with a knife.
 The two women begin singing to each other of how their conflict has hurt them, that they are feeling the same pain, and that they should unite in love against the hatred that has wounded their friendship. As they reach this epiphany, the images of their foes, and their own inner evils, are destroyed. Gabrielle and Xena are now free from their bonds.
 A window opens. On the other side of a waterfall is a sylvan glade, in which Solan awaits. Gabrielle runs through the waterfall, but when Xena tries to follow, the water burns her. The phantom who summoned the others from their tombs appears, and reveals himself as Ming T'ien. Xena growls, "I killed you, you b*st*rd!", exposing her lie to Gabrielle. Xena sings the final song, asking her friend's forgiveness for the lie. She also asks Solan to forgive her for not having been "the mother [he] deserved". Gabrielle reaches through the waterfall for Xena. As they clasp hands, Ming T'ien is destroyed, and Xena passes through the waterfall to safety. Xena embraces Solan, then realizes it is Gabrielle. The two are back in "reality", and they fall laughing into the water of a tranquil beach.
Commentary THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) certainly fulfills the purpose of an alternate world: it guides Xena and Gabrielle through a journey of their own darkest emotions, and reveals to them that only love and forgiveness can heal the wounds they have inflicted upon each other. This harkens right back to the memorable campfire scene in CALLISTO (22/122), where Gabrielle tells Xena that the only way to end the cycle of violence is through love. Now, however, Gabrielle has learned what a difficult lesson this is to apply.
 The use of Tarot symbolism throughout the episode is very adroit. Many of the cards in the Major Arcana deal with a duality of some kind, and those who seek wisdom through the cards must negotiate these conflicting opposites in order to achieve balance in their lives. The most obvious choices that the two friends must make are those between love and hatred, good and evil. However, the dual "Welcome Home" numbers reveal the excesses of swinging to one extreme or the other.
 Gabrielle's village is shown to be cloying and false, and the people in it so self-satisfied that they cannot look beyond their own comforts. It is this existence, in part, which Gabrielle seeks to escape in SINS OF THE PAST (01/101). Her journeys with Xena carry with them an inherent risk of pain and danger, but she must accept these risks if she is to grow and change. The villagers' song also suggests the dangers of self-righteousness: of believing oneself so morally superior that one assumes others are incapable of making correct decisions. This alludes back to THE DEBT (52,53/306,307), where Gabrielle's moral high-handedness nearly costs Xena her life.
 Xena, of course, has been lured by her own dark impulses again and again. There are no surprises in the castle of Ares: warriors chant her name, and she is tempted with the promise of fame, glory in battle, power, revenge, and sexual pleasure. Ares has appealed to this base part of Xena's nature since THE RECKONING (06/106). This phase of the journey is almost cathartic for Xena, and it allows her to vent her pain, anger, and frustration without actually harming Gabrielle. In the illusory world, she revels in a return to her dark self, then ultimately rejects it.
 The episode is excellent from a production standpoint. The costumes and sets are magnificent, the visuals are imaginative, and the special effects are generally of a high caliber. Oley Sassone's direction is outstanding. A creepy sense of darkness pervades the episode, from the opening shot of Gabrielle being lashed in the purging hut, to the moment when Xena passes through the waterfall to embrace her son. The performances from the cast are also very strong, conveying the emotional intensity of the story, which is made even more impressive by the fact that all the musical numbers were pre-recorded, then lip-synched on the set. The voices of Renee O'Connor and Hudson Leick are dubbed, but the rest of the cast, most notably Lucy Lawless and Kevin Smith, get a chance to show off their musical talents.
 Viewers can be forgiven for wondering why such a crucial story would be rendered in musical form. Reviewing the episode for Whoosh!, Beth Gaynor postulates that the story...had to tackle deep emotions and deal with a lot of soul-searching and angst. Done in script, it would have been cloying and slow, with almost non-existent action and lots of grim emoting ... But breaking into song and dance lets the writers get away with a lot of emotions and themes that otherwise would have been syrupy and stilted, and a trip to the non-reality side covers a multitude of story and emotion sins.A musical episode allowed the writers to resolve the rift arc quickly, in one story.
Xena and Gabrielle make up, even if we don't see them kiss, at the end of THE BITTER SUITE.
 However, resolving the conflict between Xena and Gabrielle in a single episode carried the risk of making their reconciliation seem too pat. Unfortunately, THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) falls into exactly this trap. While a musical episode is certainly a novel idea, especially given the talents of the cast, the conclusion to a crucial story arc like the rift may not have been the best juncture for this experiment to be tried. The biggest fault with the episode is that the final songs are so saccharine, especially "Hearts are Hurting (Part 2)", which comes across like an Andrew Lloyd-Webber number, performed by Celine Dion. The visual impact of Xena and Gabrielle warbling about love and forgiveness while simultaneously tied to a cross and chained to an altar, is nothing short of ridiculous. Further, it is criminal that Lucy Lawless, the star of the show and arguably the best voice in the cast, was saddled with the three worst songs in the episode.
 The sticky-sweet ending undermines the impact of the first 30-40 minutes of the episode, which are as dark and twisted as anything seen on Xena to date. The two friends are so enraged at each other that their hatred has literally brought them to the brink of murder. They are caught up in a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, which came to its most tragic fruition with the death of Solan. Xena and Gabrielle's journey through Illusia shows them the worst parts of themselves. Their misty-eyed reconciliation, especially in the context of such a sentimental number, rings totally false with everything that has gone before it.
 Unfortunately, THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) reflects the patchy nature of the larger rift arc. THE DELIVERER (50/304), which set the groundwork for the arc, was itself too rushed and sloppy, sacrificing much character integrity for the sake of introducing Dahak. Gabrielle's pregnancy was dealt with much too quickly. The "abandoned baby" story thread languished for months before resuming in MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311). The story was re-written even after THE BITTER SUITE. FORGET ME NOT (63/317) reveals that Gabrielle accepted the assistance of Ares to arrive in Chin before Xena, yet no hint is given of this in THE DEBT (52,53/306,307). It seems as though the writers and producers wanted to have a rift between Gabrielle and Xena, but to also have a number of completely unrelated stories. Given the serious nature of the rift arc, such shoddy planning is truly surprising.
 The question remains of who actually created Illusia. Steven L. Sears, co-executive producer of Xena and co-writer of THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), stated in an America On-Line chat session (February 13, 1998) that Solan created Illusia out of "love for Xena". It is hard to believe that the ghost of a ten-year-old boy would have this kind of power, especially given the dark, adult issues, and the intimate details of Gabrielle and Xena's lives, about which Solan would presumably have known nothing. My personal interpretation of Illusia is that it is a place more akin to Xena's dreamscape in DREAMWORKER (03/103). Perhaps the journey through Illusia was, as Beth Gaynor in the Whoosh! episode guide suggests, a "cosmic time out" to allow the friends a chance to settle their differences. As an alternate world story, THE BITTER SUITE (58/312) works beautifully, but as a resolution to the rift, it leaves something to be desired.
Examples of Alternate Time Line Stories
Xena remembers her brother and gets a chance to see him (and more than she bargained for) in REMEMBER NOTHING.
Plot Summary REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202) is one of the most powerful and dramatic stories of Xena. Xena takes Gabrielle to the Temple of the Three Fates, where the warrior lights candles in memory of her brother, Lyceus, who died helping her defend Amphipolis from the warlord, Cortese. The temple is attacked, and Xena defends it. However, she realizes that one of the soldiers she kills is in fact a youth scarcely out of boyhood. Stunned at what she has done, Xena flees into the temple. The Fates appear and offer to grant her one wish in return for defending their temple. Still in a state of emotional turmoil, Xena declares, "By the gods, I wish I'd never followed the sword". With that wish, Xena's life reverts to how it would have been if she had never started fighting. The Fates caution her that if she sheds blood in anger, her warrior past will be restored.
 The change takes effect immediately. When Xena leaves the temple, Gabrielle has vanished. Xena is now wearing an ordinary dress. She encounters her brother, Lyceus, and clearly surprises him with her ecstatic greeting. However, when she returns home, Xena finds that her wish has had unexpected consequences. She is engaged to a young man named Maphias. Through her conversation with him, Xena learns that her mother, Cyrene, died, apparently from despair that Amphipolis was lost to Cortese. Xena visits her mother's crypt in a moving parallel scene to her visiting the tomb of Lyceus in SINS OF THE PAST (01/101). In her soliloquy, Xena tells Cyrene,
Now I've got another chance at life ... The hardest thing is losing you and Gabrielle. It makes it easier just knowing that in this life, I never shamed you ... And I know that's what you would have wanted. So you see, the warrior princess never existed. The world's a better place without her. Xena's resolve to live in this world is sorely tested when she realizes that Gabrielle is now a slave. In SINS OF THE PAST (01/101), Xena rescued Gabrielle and other people of Poteidaia from Draco's men; in this alternate reality, that rescue never happened. The viewer also learns that the Amazons and Centaurs, who joined forces with Xena to defeat the warlord Krykus in HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110), are now enslaved as well.
 Gabrielle is owned by Mezentius, a warlord previously seen in the episode, THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105). In that story, Xena had defeated Mezentius, preventing him from raping and murdering Princess Jana of Boeotia. In the altered time line, Xena knows that her best friend lives at the mercy of this man. The once innocent and carefree young woman is now hardened and embittered by despair. Determined to save Gabrielle from further mistreatment, Xena smuggles herself into the castle of Mezentius, and escapes with her friend. From Gabrielle, Xena learns that Krykus and Mezentius plan to form an unstoppable alliance. Gabrielle does not understand Xena's affection, but gradually begins warming to the strange woman who rescued her.
 While Lyceus and Xena plan the defense of their village, Maphias arrives with soldiers. He had bargained with them to return Gabrielle to Mezentius in exchange for leaving the village alone. Nonetheless, the soldiers take Lyceus and Xena along with Gabrielle, and imprison all three. Stricken by guilt at having betrayed his friends, Maphias sneaks into the castle and frees them. Maphias, Xena, and Lyceus then attack the warlords in their banquet hall. Xena fights using her hand-to-hand combat skills only. Lyceus pleads, but she refuses to pick up a weapon. Yet, when Gabrielle kills Mezentius, and visibly enjoys the experience, Xena says a silent farewell to her brother and kills a soldier. She finds herself back at the Temple of the Fates, in the moment before she killed the young soldier. Now, Xena disarms the boy and spares his life on the condition he will swear to never fight again. Gabrielle is concerned by Xena's odd behavior, but Xena reassures her, "I'm more myself than ever".
Even in an alternate timeline/universe, Gabrielle still can't avoid losing her blood innocence.
 The events of this episode give Xena the opportunity to experience her life as it might have been had she not become a warrior. She is thrilled that her many crimes have now been undone, but she learns that her compassionate acts have also been erased. The most powerful lesson Xena learns from this experience is that her evil and good natures are inextricably linked. Undoing one part of her life also undoes the other.
 Throughout much of this episode, Xena seems determined to live in her new reality. However, each unfolding event chips away at this resolve. Clearly, the most difficult experience for her is seeing Gabrielle enslaved, and the changes that this horror has wrought in her friend. Xena struggles to set things right: she attempts to rescue Gabrielle and she plots with Lyceus to defeat Mezentius and Krykus. For a while, it seems as though her determination will prevail. But Gabrielle's pleased reaction to killing Mezentius, the most effective and chilling scene of the episode, finally breaks Xena's resolve. She cannot abide seeing her friend's blood innocence destroyed. Perhaps Xena envisions Gabrielle becoming another "Destroyer of Nations." Faced with this grim possibility, Xena chooses to return to her original existence.
 The most interesting thing to observe is Xena's struggle to reconcile her life in the altered time line with her desire to fight for a more just world. In the opening, Xena asks of the Fates, "How can I be a warrior [without shedding blood]?" The Crone tells her, "As a warrior, you can't". The message seems to be that fighting, even to help and defend others, carries with it the inevitable risk of bloodshed. However, if she chooses not to fight, she must pay another consequence: the potential triumph of war, slavery, tyranny, and injustice. In the end, Xena chooses to keep fighting in her original reality, although perhaps with a greater awareness of the effects of her choices between good and evil. If nothing else, Xena seems to gain a small measure of inner peace knowing that her quest for redemption is not in vain.
 REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202) offers viewers an intriguing look at what Xena's life might have been like under different circumstances. This alternate time line gives fans of the show a chance to "meet" Lyceus, whose death had such a profound impact on Xena. One major continuity break of this story is that Xena's older brother Toris, who fled Amphipolis rather than fight Cortese, does not appear at all, nor is his name even mentioned.
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