Whoosh! Issue 60 - September 2001

By Linda Lorenzo
Group Therapy Project
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
1353 words

Becoming a Discerning Viewer (01-03)
Attack of the Cultural Values (04-06)
An Extraordinary Series (07-10)


Becoming a Discerning Viewer

All right, how much am I bid for this old chakram?
In the early days before the chakram changed.

[01] At first, I was an unwilling viewer of Xena: Warrior Princess. It was on, so I watched it. I did not take it seriously at all. That lasted well into the second year. I always viewed my friends' zeal for the show with a bit of wonder. I had always thought that they were more discerning. Then, the English teacher in me took over and I started looking at the show in quite a different light. My friends were, after all, the more discerning viewers from the start. There was always much more to the show than its surface stories.

[02] What grabbed me first was the whole concept of the mythic warrior's journey within. It is a convention basic to the epic literature of all cultures. As Odysseus traveled home, he conquered monsters at every turn, but the main purpose of his journey always was an internal quest to re-establish his persona as King, husband, and father. Beowulf traveled to Hrothgar's land to conquer Grendel, but the true quest for this orphaned warrior was to establish a personal identity. The journey may take the hero to far lands, but ultimately it is always a journey within. There is, at the end, a moment of epiphany where the hero understands a truth, not about the enemy, but about himself, his own life, his destiny. This has been a basic element throughout the legend of Xena, and was most powerful in that final episode. In fact, it above all, explained why Xena stayed Gabrielle's hand at the last sunset.

[03] Another aspect of the series that tickled me repeatedly was the way the writers manipulated time and place and played with myth and history. This is what is supposed to be done to legends, each generation is supposed to interpret the tale in terms of its own reality. The best example of this in our Western culture is what has become of the legend of Arthur. Think of the tremendous amounts of literature, music, and movies all interpreting the Arthurian legend. There is even a cartoon about a football team that is trapped back in time as Knights of the Round Table! Variations on a theme redefined by each generation are good because no matter how the details are tweaked or manipulated, it is the underlying cultural values that are being presented.

Attack of the Cultural Values

[04] How those cultural values shone through Xena! The literary conventions for heroes have been pretty static for thousands of years: The hero is a super man, athletic, ultimately fighting for good, and always with a sidekick who is less than he is but of good heart (Sancho Panza, Wiglaf, Sir Bedivere, etc.). But this hero is a woman! A woman in a man's world, but better than men at the game they play! She is a woman with a hidden past that takes the entire series to be fully revealed. She has done great wrong, but she has also done great good. In each case of wrongdoing, she has somehow rectified the mistake. In that final ultimate sacrifice of her own life, she releases the last of the ghosts of her past. The themes of redemption, sacrifice, and responsibility are key to the show. They are reiterated against the backdrop of Greek, Norse, Hindu, and pre-Christian gods, both in this life and in the hereafter. This is the stuff of epics, of literature with universal themes, and of art forms that endure.

[05] Over the years, I have been constantly perplexed by the reaction of some fans who rage when historic facts are changed or when a story line takes a twist they do not like. They are forgetting their responsibility in this interplay of fiction between creator and viewer. In literature, Coleridge described this responsibility as "a willing suspension of disbelief". It is as though the author says, "If you forget that a woman can't run up the sides of buildings, I'll give you a good story".

[06] In other words, certain impossibilities are "given" and must be accepted in fiction -- it is, after all, fiction! If everything else flows logically from those impossibilities, then the creator has done his job. Who cares how many times Xena returns from the dead? It is what epic heroes do. Dante and Odysseus returned from Hades, Beowulf from the undersea den of Grendel's dam, and are we not still waiting for Arthur to return from Avalon? Who cares if Pompey and Crassus never met on a battlefield outside of Rome? So much good fiction is based on a "what-would-have-happened-if" foundation to explore the motivations and values of the historic figures. It is good writing to make the reader/viewer stretch the imagination and explore the possibilities.

An Extraordinary Series

Back in the day when TV guide was delivered in scroll form
Gabrielle used to have to puzzle things out more in the early days.

[07] My imagination was certainly exercised throughout this extraordinary series, but never so much as after the last episode. That was an amazing experience made even more poignant since I have lately been watching the reruns of the very early shows. Why had I not noticed those repetitions of themes before now? Why had I not noticed how they were being slowly developed over the 6 years? Although many writers contributed to this series, there obviously was a unifying hand at the helm and a clear vision of where the show was going. Neatly, however, it was not done without relief. There was comic relief in the musicals and in the totally off-the-wall episodes done with such wit and good humor that the progress of the theme was never overbearing.

[08] However, with little exception over the years, the show moved inexorably to the series' conclusion. It was very hard to watch Xena die, to watch her do battle against more than overwhelming odds. However, to complete the hero's role, Xena had to die and she had to die fighting alone. Beowulf was alone against the dragon and Arthur died in single-handed combat with Mordred. Their faithful servants, who stayed on the periphery during the fight, collected their lords and brought them to their final resting places. When Beowulf's pyre sent the smoke heavenward, women chanted the funeral dirge and foretold his future in the hearts of his people. Sounds like what will happen with Xena, only she has a warrior/bard to keep her alive, to do the deeds, and sing her song.

[09] Now we come to Gabrielle. She is so different from your average hero's sidekick. They are usually static characters, one-sided stereotypes, the doting dummy. At first that is what Gabrielle seemed to be. What a silly little creature she was at the beginning of the series! How self-assured Xena was! Then gradually the change occurred in them both. Interesting twist on the heroic convention. Here both hero and sidekick are dynamic characters who grow as individuals through their adventures. It was wonderful to see the evolution of the relationship between those two: hero/sidekick, mentor/student, hero/bard, friend/friend, and finally alter egos, soulmates and, yes, lovers in the purest sense of the word. There develops a perfect synonymy of purpose and a rhythm of being that resonates between the two. They really do become the yin and yang of a single force.

[10] As I realize it now, how many times did Xena tell Gabrielle that she was the better part of her? It makes so much sense after that last episode. What a brilliant, unspoken moment when Gabrielle used the chakram for the first time and just looked at it, slightly stunned, when it came back to her hand, and then that little smile when she knew it had become hers. In that last episode, we saw the apotheosis of both characters to their next level of being. What a perfect way to end the series!


Linda Lorenzo Linda Lorenzo

A woman of mystery.

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