Whoosh! Issue 60 - September 2001

By Michal Salat
Group Therapy Project
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
2115 words

Way to Go (01-03)
It Was a Horrible Accident (04-06)
The Good (07-09)
The Bad (10-11)
The Ugly (12-15)
Conclusion (16-18)


Way to Go

Ooh, dat's gotta hoit
Six years of planning lead to a bitter battle.

[01] We have learned, from his recent comments at the Museum of Television & Radio, that Rob Tapert planned this ending to Xena: Warrior Princess all along. This means he has had six years to come up with a way of presenting it befitting Xena and Gabrielle and all they have come to mean to so many, and he still failed. In the process, he also managed to render all that has gone before essentially meaningless. Way to go.

[02] One certainly would have thought a screenwriter of R.J. Stewart's experience and previously demonstrated skill capable of handling the task of bringing Xena: Warrior Princess to some reasonable completion. But FRIEND IN NEED's alleged plot, badly recycling several good stories and elements from the series' past into one large sucking chest wound of a story, shows just how creatively bankrupt this franchise has been for quite some time. The show has been lurching and limping along, narrative-wise, for two years, despite a few bright spots that were more flukes than hints of a cohesive vision.

[03] I have long been tired of the religious travelogue and overblown supernatural hokum taking the place of relatable human stories, and "human" includes the Greek pantheon, who despite superhuman powers were ultra-human in their motivations. Tapert and Stewart apparently were not qualified to handle the story that needed to be told, and resorted to hackneyed nonsense that insults the intelligence and sensibility of any viewer who has bothered to invest their time and interest in the show and its presumed themes.

It Was a Horrible Accident

"Xena, it was a horrible accident."
--Gabrielle, FRIEND IN NEED

[04] Gabrielle is of course correct and therein lies the problem. Tapert knew that if he had Xena consciously kill forty thousand (oh, please) people, the hue and cry would be off the Richter scale. Therefore, he made it an accident, which only makes Xena's needing to remain dead to avenge these souls, once they are already freed, totally ludicrous. Perhaps we were not supposed to be paying attention when Akemi said, "You redeemed me. You redeemed us. You redeemed yourself." Silly us, we thought redemption was the theme of Xena: Warrior Princess. Guess we missed some fine print.

[05] Once more, it comes down to us the audience being expected to do the creators' work for them. I am not talking about being left the freedom to interpret something according to one's needs and experiences, but about a deep failure on their part at the essentials of storytelling, at a time when it was most crucial that they get it right. It is precisely as a tale of redemption, as the supposed culmination of Xena's search for peace and forgiveness, that FRIEND IN NEED is a complete mess.

[06] The episode's absence of logic adds further insult to injury, for Xena's decision to stay dead is utterly without merit, rendering it void of any emotional impact other than confusion and annoyance. Oh look, there she goes, dead again, only this time for an even worse reason than trying to save Eli's little milquetoast cultniks. So what? Whose afterlife is it anyway? If it is Tuesday, this must be Shintoism. But who cares? It is all hung on a frankly unbelievable basic premise and motivation, and flies in the face of whatever integrity the character had left.

The Good

[07] Is there anything good to say about FRIEND IN NEED? Certainly there is. The set design and cinematography were first-rate over all, despite some lapses like the incoherent fight scene in the forge. I suspect, however, that was fudged because no one had a real idea with what to do with it. Likewise, apart from Xena's regrettable little Frederick's of Edo death trip getup, which was out of place and totally wrong for this context, the costumes were marvelous. Nevertheless, why have we, until the last minute, been so long denied the sight of Gabrielle wearing that shade of blue? Furthermore, Joe LoDuca's score, while never as transcendent as it has sometimes been in the past, was always competent and sensitive, and occasionally moving.

[08] Lucy Lawless' performance was her best in a long time, and Renee O'Connor's, her best yet. They both gave far more than the material deserved. Michelle Ang took me by surprise. My initial response to the unfolding picture of a bratty teenage Japanese girl with a grudge against her father, hot for Xena and making Gabrielle jealous, was, "Hey! Someone's been reading Paul Seely's uber fan fiction!" However, Ang was quite good at the naive-yet-conniving thing and, given that her character was not very well developed, never embarrassed herself.

[09] Largely it was, despite being nonsensical and derivative, all beautifully shot and visually compelling. To give Rob Tapert his due, he does have a marvelous eye. As a director, he makes a great cinematographer. He creates very pretty pictures. As a friend put it, "such pretty pictures that people tend to ignore what's in them". Here is hoping he takes time off now that he is unemployed to take some classes in oil painting. He can then devote himself to painting nice landscapes that someone will surely buy to hang over the sofa, and never bother us TV viewers again. That is my fervent wish.

The Bad

[10] As the end of the series approached I was never averse to the idea of a good death as a conclusion to the Warrior Princess' quest, provided it proved an ennobling and true hero's death that earned her redemption, left a loving legacy to Gabrielle, and came about through a story that was powerful, original, and true to the characters. Alas, that was too much to expect. There was no heroism here and no integrity, only nihilism. At best, this was an assisted suicide. Xena, through a plot contrivance so feeble it was audibly gasping for life, inexplicably rejected what she had sought all along: redemption through Gabrielle's love. It is surely the most indefensible plot twist imaginable.

[11] How is this ending supposed to be "good for Gabrielle"? Is it because she made it out alive? True, she is alive...and a widow at 25, condemned to Hell on earth (given the Sufi tradition defining Hell as the absence of the beloved), and walking a path not her own. I give this new warrior Gabrielle, queen of the pathetic five or so remaining Amazons, a year at best before, as an on-line fan put it with such chilling clarity, it will be "her head rolling on the forest floor" because she has sought out her death as well.

The Ugly

Had Xena not lost her contact lens in the middle of a battle, things might have gone very differently
Xena fights alone to the end.

[12] As for Xena's demise, the way it was presented has permanently tainted any enjoyment I ever took from this show. Many commenting upon this episode so far have read into it something not in the script: that Xena was accorded honor in death. Not so. In fact Gabrielle's remark to the samurai at the end - "Dignity, huh? Like you showed my friend?" - belies this assertion completely. Clearly, Gabrielle saw what was done to Xena's corpse as an obscenity. Nowhere does the samurai ever say that Xena's death was that of an honored opponent. His only concern is with his own honor.

[13] There has been much discussion that because beheading is what Gabrielle denies him, it must be the honorable way of death. This is true to a point. The script takes significant liberties with seppuku and the traditional meaning of complete decapitation, which was for the execution of common criminals. But it matters not at all what the dialogue says when the imagery says otherwise, and the imagery in FRIEND IN NEED, which would never have been used for a male hero, says only that Xena met a brutal, degrading, and dishonorable end. Mutilated, stripped, and strung up like an animal for gutting.

[14] Rob Tapert is a filmmaker and as such would surely be the first to say that on screen the visual image is everything, designed to override words and to be what makes the ultimate, lasting impression. I agree. Here the visual imagery is inescapably suggestive of sexual violence. As another on-line fan posted, "you don't need years of experience in law enforcement to know that when you find a body in that state, you do a rape kit, first thing". It was an image of vilification, not of "honor". Not of a "good death". No matter what is in the script or intended to be taken as "canon", or what words some minor character may spout to the contrary, the picture of her headless, bound, naked corpse put on display is the message being sent. It is one of intense and deeply ingrained misogyny.

[15] It finally, unequivocally, gives the lie to Tapert's supposed concern about the children in his audience. How long until the new Detachable Head Xena action figure hits the market? Will they accompany it with Look-Who's-Left-Holding-the-Chakram Gabrielle, pining in her widow's weeds? A Flaming Village Play Set? What age will he deem appropriate for his kids to watch FRIEND IN NEED, and to be "surprised and entertained" by the sight of their mother in this piece conceived and directed by their step/father. Two? Eleven?


[16] I am an avid Sopranos viewer. Believe me, I am not squeamish about graphic depictions of violence and its consequences. However Xena was not The Sopranos, and it was not Braveheart. For Rob Tapert and R.J. Stewart to inflict upon the title character a demise which, far from being noble, honorable, worthy, or even dramatically justified was just so despicably grisly. Furthermore, to leave it to her soulmate to search for her head is nothing more than schlock horror of a particularly vicious type.

[17] I suppose nobility and honor are concepts that do not lend themselves well to gruesome special effects and horror-show pictures, so I can see Tapert being a little at a loss as to how to portray them. He started out as a hack schlockmeister, and I am now more convinced than ever that his brief rise above those ranks was only due to the talent he has had the luck to surround himself with. Perhaps if Messrs. Tapert and Stewart had exercised a modicum of discipline and humility and less arrogance and self-indulgence, Xena could have been given a demise that would have been universally understood as truly glorious, heroic, and heartbreaking. As it stands, with this plot full of holes and contradictions and their choice of visual messages, I cannot see it as other than meaningless and ultimately pathetic.

[18] At least they had the sense to show Gabrielle retching when she comes upon Xena's body, mirroring our response. However, that does not change the fact that this episode was the most virulent, spiteful thing I have ever seen in the exchange between a television series and its audience. Spiteful is the only word I can find for it. Only time will, perhaps, unearth the truth of the studio politics and juggling of the rights to the show that led to this sorry state of affairs. But from this side of the TV set it looks like nothing more than a bad case of "If I can't have her, no one's gonna have her". Rob Tapert, with all the maturity of a petulant five-year-old, has taken his toys and gone home, giving the finger to the audience that gave him his success. It is quite clear that he has never expected the viewers to think when watching his shows. However, I have bad news for him: not only do most of us think, we also remember.


Michal Salat Michal Salat

A lifelong Pittsburgher, I have worked as a sound tech, independent bookstore manager, and horse trainer, and now for a university library system. On my own time I relax by cooking and working on ship models (note that I did not say anything about finishing them), when I am not spending way too much time at the computer. I write uber-Xena fan fiction with Joann Muscolo. (http://www.clinched.net/gmta/)
Favorite episode: THE DEBT
Favorite line: Minya: "The whip is mine, the frying pan is yours. Hower's mine, she's yours." A DAY IN THE LIFE
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE
Least favorite episode: FRIEND IN NEED, COMING HOME

Return to Top Return to Index