Whoosh! Issue 59 - August 2001

FULL CIRCLE?
WAS LOVE OR REVENGE THE FINAL MESSAGE OF
XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS?

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

Page Two



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.



Friend in Need: Coming Full Circle

In an act he will soon regret, Borias put one of those deer hat things up 
behind Evil Xena's head
Borias tries to warn Xena of Akemi's true nature but is ignored.

[25] Thus we reach the show's finale. Much has gone wrong with the original magic by now, yet something survives. Part of that something is the idea that love can defy death and that together with forgiveness, it can bring redemption. FRIEND IN NEED, however, has other ideas.

[26] This episode brings us back "full circle" in the sense that it explicitly revives the theme of Xena's quest for redemption as the mainspring of the plot, thus revisiting the concerns of SINS OF THE PAST. Ominously, for those of us watching a story about two complementary heroes, one of who is not a warrior. It focuses entirely on Xena, on her warrior aspect, and on her crimes as a warlord.

[27] Xena is suddenly confronted with a new, and so far entirely unsuspected, cause for guilt and despair over her evil past. She seems aware that this time her death only will atone. In fact, she embraces it twice in the course of the episode: the first time when she allows samurai to kill her (naturally, without her consent, even 1,000 samurai could not overcome our hero), the second when she chooses not to accompany the loving Gabrielle back to life. The justification for this second decision is because, without her death, 40,000 vengeful souls baying for her blood will not find peace. Or, as the episode phrases it, "a state of grace", using a phrase quaintly if inappropriately reminiscent of Christian doctrine.

[28] This justification deserves closer consideration. If she does not choose to stay dead, 40,000 souls will not find rest because they are tormented by their vengeful desire for her death, even though these 40,000 souls are now supposedly "redeemed", and even though, of all Xena's past crimes, this one was most clearly unintended and accidental. Therefore, it seems that in this new version of the Xenaverse, redeemed souls need not find it in themselves to forgive.

[29] If this is so, then forgiveness, one of the show's core principles, must be dumped into the trash bin. Clearly, forgiveness is not required for redemption, nor is it for a state of grace, nor for peace of mind. Instead the show apparently discounts forgiveness and validates vengeance. The souls will have "closure" only when they are avenged. Xena shows that she concurs with this by willingly submitting to the cycle of vengeance.

[30] Redemption, both in and after life, must join forgiveness in that trash bin. The episode has already suggested that it cannot be found except in death. Now it goes on to suggest that it has nothing to do with atonement for and cleansing of one's sins. Instead, it suggests that forgiveness is not required as a prior condition for redemption. Only a sated appetite for vengeance can do that, since the redeemed souls still crave it. Callisto, had she known, would surely have ground her teeth in frustration at having been written out of the show before this finale. Moreover, being redeemed is also shown not to be sufficient, in itself, to attain a state of grace. Redemption thus becomes an empty concept, stripped of all meaning. It makes no difference to the fate of one's soul whether one is redeemed or not in FRIEND IN NEED.



Does Love Survive the Finale?

[31] So much for redemption and forgiveness. What about the show's third principle? Does love survive the end of Xena: Warrior Princess?

[32] Technically, the answer is yes, since Xena tells Gabrielle, in the brief, two minute exchange which is all the time allowed for this crucial issue in the whole one hour and a half of the finale, that her example has enabled the warrior princess to find redemption. Nevertheless, in practice the answer seems really to be no, despite Renee O'Connor's glowing portrayal of Gabrielle's love for and heroic commitment to Xena.

[33] This is partly the result of Robert Tapert and R.J. Stewart's choice of story for their show's finale. The basic concept on which FRIEND IN NEED is built necessarily excludes both the show's other lead and the core relationship from the center of a chain of events which began many years ago and which does not directly involve them. Much of the episode's running time concentrates on these earlier events, thus leaving little time for scenes developing the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle in the present and preparing for its tragic end.

[34] In addition, the desperate contrivances of the plot undercut the love we have supposed to be paramount in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and subvert any other impression created during the course of the episode or indeed the show. Granted, Gabrielle's love emerges unscathed from the ordeal, but in the end, one cannot ignore the fact that Xena herself has chosen death in preference to this love, which evidently failed to bring her the peace she craved. Gabrielle is left alone at the end of the show's final episode. Thus one of Xena: Warrior Princess' most enduring and endearing themes, the willingness of both women to defy death to stay together, has been fatally undermined.

[35] A story which presents as its final image one lover bereaved because the other has decided she would rather be dead than with her, is not really giving a ringing endorsement to the power of love. Furthermore, there is nothing in the spurious rationale actually provided for Xena's last-minute decision to dispel the nasty suspicion that this love might have been denied because both lovers are female.

[36] The problem is worsened by the amount of attention which the director (Robert Tapert, also responsible, with R.J. Stewart, for the script) chooses to lavish on the obviously erotic dalliance between the young and evil Xena and Akemi, a precursor to Gabrielle whose deliberately emphasized similarity serves only to diminish the importance of the show's second lead. Where Xena is seen with Gabrielle, the emphasis is often on her being Gabrielle's teacher. In itself, this is an unexpected development, since the show has not before suggested that Gabrielle's destiny was to be a warrior in the Warrior Princess mould. Quite the contrary in fact: her gifts, skills, and temperament seemed much better suited to a very different way of life.

[37] Still worse, the second part of the finale has Xena, now happily reunited with Akemi, apparently deceive Gabrielle in a manner reminiscent of her devious first love's tendency to scheme and manipulate. Xena sends her "old friend" (as she is jarringly addressed on one occasion) on a quest that the Warrior Princess knows is doomed. When Gabrielle succeeds, it is only to hear Xena proclaim that she has instead decided to embrace death anyway. Gabrielle, who earlier declared to Xena, "You are my life," must live on alone.

[38] In this way, the same flawed reasoning which allows redemption to be attained without forgiveness is also allowed to throw doubts on the nature of Xena's love for her declared soulmate. While Gabrielle's love is selfless and unconditional, Xena's, it seems, is not. Gabrielle gives without thought for herself. Xena merely takes. Her love is depicted as ultimately selfish, as a counter she is prepared to exchange in a dubious bargain for that coveted state of grace. Yet, she must know that this decision will pain Gabrielle and bring her soulmate no peace. Hardly a choice which demonstrates much love for Gabrielle, and the obviously tacked on epilogue cannot reassure the viewer on this point. The actual last image of the show, of Gabrielle dwarfed by distance as she stands by herself on a crewless ship sailing away over an uncharted ocean, will always be the strongest one.

[39] This does not seem to trouble the redeemed Warrior Princess however. Thus, we are left with the impression that Xena will accept Gabrielle's sacrifice cheerfully, since she could hardly be "at peace" if she felt any need to take responsibility for the lonely existence to which Gabrielle is now condemned. FRIEND IN NEED leaves us in no doubt of the extent to which Xena loves Xena. Unfortunately, it only casts doubt on the extent to which Xena can feel love on her part, and offer it to Gabrielle.

[40] That tacked-on epilogue only reinforces this last impression. If we are to read it as literal, not a figment of the bereaved Gabrielle's imagination, Xena, evidently happy and at peace, now has everything: redemption, peace, the ability to wander where she will despite having given up on both love and life. So much for her sacrifice since she ends up effectively having lost nothing. Gabrielle, on the other hand, has either a ghost lover to preclude any possibility of her making a new life for herself, or a funeral urn filled with ashes.

[41] Thus, love must join forgiveness and redemption in the show's trash bin.



Conclusion

[42] This resolution to the whole six year journey undertaken by Xena and Gabrielle is a shock to anyone who believed that the series' writers and producers meant it when they wrote about the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation in this life, and meant it when they talked about the power of love and forgiveness to bring these desirable consequences about. It seems they did not. Though Gabrielle is allowed to make reparation for her accidental killing of a young man in LEGACY, though both Eve and Borias' son are allowed the same opportunity for renewed life and atonement following their intentional massacres in PATH OF VENGEANCE and LAST OF THE CENTAURS, this humane and compassionate resolution is not be offered to the show's title character. Xena will find peace only in the death she was spared by Gabrielle's love in SINS OF THE PAST. Supporters of capital punishment, if nobody else, will be delighted.

[43] Moreover, Xena will do so at the expense of that love, thus leaving Gabrielle to pay the real cost of the exercise. She must live on without her soulmate and as a warrior: not the choice she made for herself, repeatedly, from at least the first season episode PROMETHEUS onwards. At the end of Xena: Warrior Princess we therefore witness the destruction of not one character, but two.

[44] Thus not Love but Revenge is the final message Robert Tapert gives fans of his show. The lesson is that redemption and rehabilitation cannot be achieved in life, that only death will atone, and that vengeance is justified. More painfully, for those who loved the show for the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, it teaches that love is futile. In Xena: Warrior Princess it becomes an exercise in the selfish exploiting the selfless, a matter of giving and taking where only the taker benefits. Conclusions which are exactly the opposite of the ones I, at least, believed I had seen, six long years ago, at the end of SINS OF THE PAST.

[45] These conclusions hardly return the show to its starting point, unless its starting point is taken as Xena's original despairing wish to escape her responsibilities by annihilating herself. For myself, I cannot help wishing that she had dissuaded Gabrielle from saving her from her vengeful neighbors in Amphipolis. The result would, at least in accordance with the principles at work in FRIEND IN NEED, have been so much happier for all concerned. The villagers would have fed their desire for vengeance and Xena would have found both redemption in death and a state of grace by helping them to do so. Instead of being turned into a living monument to Xena, Gabrielle would be free to find her true destiny. Not as a warrior but as a playwright who lives on a vineyard by the sea.

[46] I am struck by the fact that a completed circle also draws the figure zero. Perhaps that is why I now feel that the total effect of a show which once struck me as hopeful and inspiring in its portrayal of the power of love and forgiveness has, abruptly, been negated. Earlier episodes can only echo hollowly when seen in the context of FRIEND IN NEED and its revelation of how much love and forgiveness really count in the show. Perhaps that is why six years of Xena: Warrior Princess ultimately add up merely to a feeling of desolation and emptiness - to nothing.



Notes

Note 01:
Tellingly, only Xena's maternal instincts are considered valid in the episode MATERNAL INSTINCTS. The events surrounding the shocking death of Gabrielle's own child are treated as of little importance.
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Articles

Inga Horwood. Xena and Achilles. WHOOSH #35 (August 1999)
http://whoosh.org/issue35/horwood1.html



Biography

I. Horwood I. Horwood

A woman of mystery.
Favorite episode: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (24/124)
Favorite line: Gabrielle: "There is only one way to end this cycle of hatred and that is though love and forgiveness." CALLISTO (22/122)
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: SOUL POSSESSION





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