Whoosh! Issue 60 - September 2001

By Mark Wisniewski
Group Therapy Project
Content copyright © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2001 held by Whoosh!
5516 words

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Finale (01-04)
On-Line Travails (05-10)
Myth in Modern Society (11-20)
Ending a Myth (21-26)
The Best of Endings, The Worst of Endings (27-30)
Why That Finale? (31-37)
Where Things Went Wrong (38-47)
What is Done is Done (48-50)


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Finale

Blow in their ear and they'll follow you anywhere
Xena and Gabrielle's parting in the finale is bittersweet.

[01] It could have been worse. Seriously, it could have been much worse. I was spoiled on the fact that Xena was going to die a week before I saw the finale. I spent that week walking about feeling angry, depressed, and betrayed. When it was time to finally sit down and watch the finale, I did so expecting to hate the episode, but a funny thing happened. I did not hate it.

[02] How could I possibly hate this episode when it had Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor pouring their whole hearts and souls out on the screen in every scene? How could I hate it when the costumes, special effects, action, direction, and everything that makes Xena: Warrior Princess great, were all done to the absolute best that Renaissance Pictures could do? From start to finish, I was riveted to the screen. Lawless was fabulous, utterly commanding the screen. She was fierce and sensual. I particularly liked her delivery on the line, "Gimmie, gimmie".

[03] What about Renee O'Connor? She had a standout performance. Her reaction on seeing Xena's body was intense. When she was fighting that Samurai, who could miss that beautiful drop-spinning kick, followed by an outside crescent kick, that popped straight back to a roundhouse kick to the head! I jumped off the couch, pumped my fist going "Yes"! Nevertheless, that is me. I like the martial arts. I do not know if O'Connor has the slightest interest in being the next Cynthia Rothrock, but she could do it if she wanted to. Do not ask me why I love that tattoo and those Samurai robes so much. Typically costumes on O'Connor are best when they follow the "Less is most definitely more" philosophy, but she looked so cool in those robes. I was a bit annoyed that they still had to use an excuse for the kiss, but that was definitely a real kiss in my book. In the end, Gabrielle was alone, but not really, as Xena seemed to remain a very tangible presence in her life. In addition, the bond between Xena and Gabrielle in the show has always been portrayed as something that transcends the physical.

[04] After seeing FRIEND IN NEED, I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing -- well, as good as I could possibly feel after bawling my eyes out for twenty minutes. Primarily, this was because I had been dreading the finale so much, and the reality was not even close to what my fears had been.

On-Line Travails

[05] I went online and began shoveling my way through the hundreds of spoiler emails that I had set aside in a subfolder. I have read all the complaints about FRIEND IN NEED, most of which I can discard. I suspect we would not be now hearing trivial complaints such as "How did everyone get to Japan so fast" or "What was in those barrels that made such a huge explosion" had Xena come back to life at the episode's end. I know some people were upset about Xena's beheading, but given that Xena went out in the midst of a battle, surrounded by samurai with very sharp katanas, it did not seem gratuitous or unlikely at all. Those swords can make a mess. It really could have been worse.

[06] However, two criticisms extant on-line are not at all trivial.

[07] The first criticism is that absolutely nobody wanted the series to end like this. Nobody wanted to see Xena die and nobody ever wanted to see Xena and Gabrielle separated. So, why do something that could potentially alienate your entire fanbase?

[08] I can think of one good reason. Xena is not an ordinary hero. I doubt this is news to anyone here, but let me explain nonetheless. Every year, countless stories are told, countless TV shows are made, countless movies are shot, and most of them have heroes. That is not unusual. Having a lesbian/bisexual hero is definitely unusual. Note that due to Lucy Lawless' "outing" of Xena on Conan 0'Brian, we can consider this as fact, not just a point of view. However, with Witchblade going like it is, perhaps not unique for too long. There are many, many great love stories created each year, though the particular, special magic that happens between Xena and Gabrielle onscreen together is something I doubt we will ever see the like of again. However, a great love story is not particularly unusual or unique.

[09] What makes Xena different, what makes her special, what makes her rare is that Xena has become a Myth. That is Myth with a capital M. An archetype, make that THE archetype for the Woman Warrior for modern culture.

[10] Think about it. Do you know ANYONE who does not know who Xena is? I am not talking about whether or not they watch the show, have seen it even once, or really understand what it is about even slightly. Is there ANYONE you know who, on hearing the word "Xena, does not think of a tall, beautiful, fierce leather-clad raven-haired female warrior? That level of response is something you just do not get when you say "Buffy", "Lara Croft", or "Dark Angel". As much as I may like these characters, and as popular as they may become, none of them have the same impact or resonance that Xena does. You frequently hear critics refer to these other characters as "Daughters of Xena", and there is a valid reason for that. It is not a coincidence that every time a poll asking "Who'd win in a fight, Xena or [insert female hero here]"? Xena always wins by an extremely wide margin. There is no question about it, Xena is THE female hero for our era, and all others walk one step behind.

Myth in Modern Society

[11] The opportunity to create and work with this kind of legend is unbelievably rare, if it ever happens at all. It also places a special responsibility on Renaissance Pictures that is much different than if Xena was simply an ordinary TV show.

[12] Writer Neil Gaiman, best known as the creator of the critically acclaimed Sandman comic books, which draw heavily on myth and legend, had this to say about myths of the 20th century:

"I remember speaking to a woman who had been a friend of Joseph Campbell, and she said that Campbell believed that superheroes are the mythologies of the twentieth century. I do not think they are. Mainly because they don't have stories attached to them--they are simply characters. You've got this strange division in twentieth century mythology right now, in which you've got stories floating around with no people attached, like the urban legends: the vanishing hitchhiker, the death cars. And you have characters like Tarzan and Superman and Batman--but with no stories."
-- Comic Book Rebels, Stanley Wiater and Stephen R. Bissette, Donald I. Fine, Inc., NY, 1993.

[13] I have pondered Gaiman's words and there is truth to this. Take Beowulf, for instance. Everyone knows the Story of Beowulf: Beowulf travels to another kingdom, kills the monster named Grendel, then kills Grendel's mom, then returns home, where he rules as king for a long time, then he dies after killing a dragon that was threatening his kingdom. Hero + Story = Myth.

[14] Let us try another example, Hercules (the original Hercules, not Xena's ex). This is trickier to sum up quickly, because, as the greatest of the Greek heroes, Hercules has so many stories assigned to him. Tour the highlights with me. Zeus impregnates Hercules' mother while disguised as her husband. Hercules grows up under the tutelage of the centaur Chiron. He is always fighting off his mother's disfavor, does two sets of twelve labors, is one of the Argonauts, and so on. Then his wife, afraid he might be getting ready to dump her, dips his tunic in the blood of a centaur who was killed by Hercules, as a charm against his infidelity. The blood poisons Hercules to the point where the pain is so great he demands he be placed on a funeral pyre and then, Hercules ascends to Olympus to become one of the gods. Hero + Story = Myth.

[15] Compare this to a modern superhero. Let us start with Superman. There does appear to be a story here. Superman is born as Kal- El on the planet Krypton. He is launched into space just moments before the planet explodes. His rocket crashes to Earth, where the Kent family adopts him. He grows up, goes to Metropolis and becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet, meets Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and, um, fights crime and, um, Lex Luthor's in there. That is it. That is all I can remember.

[16] We will try again. Batman's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, was born to a wealthy family and traumatized as a boy when he saw his parents murdered in front of him by criminals. This led him to dedicate his life to fighting crime. To hide his identity, and because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, he creates an identity to inspire terror in said criminals, hence Batman. He meets Robin, and uh, he has a Batcave, and a Batmobile, and um, he fights Catwoman, the Joker, and a bunch of other villains, but I cannot remember much else. Here we have the same problem again.

[17] Interesting how I can remember the beginning of the story, but cannot remember anything else. I should be able to. It is not as if there is a shortage of Superman and Batman stories that have been told and retold over a period of decades. Why can I not remember enough to make at least ONE coherent story for the characters?

[18] Perhaps you see what I am getting at. To be complete, a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The old heroes have stories that end. They die. Thus, they have complete stories. The new heroes never die. Except, of course, temporarily as a cheap marketing gimmick, and that is all the much-publicized "Death of Superman" was, a couple years back. They never die because the fans never want to see their heroes die, and the companies that own the rights to the characters never want to stop making money off them. Thus, we are occasionally told and retold the beginning of the story, which stays roughly the same through each retelling, and then are endlessly given the middle of the story. For decades upon decades we are presented with more and more "middle" stories, so many that, when pressed, we cannot remember even one story that feels like part of The Story, that feels definitive, that feels like part of that character's history. Because the myths of the modern heroes do not end, they are not complete, and in a sense, as Mr. Gaiman claims, they do not exist at all. It is worth noting that Gaiman's own hero died at the end of Sandman's run.

[19] Who knows if this is the reason Rob Tapert chose to end the series with Xena's death, but it is an excellent reason to do so.

[20] Yet, I have heard some people comment that this had to happen, that the series had to end this way, to which I say: It is easy to rationalize something as inevitable after it has already happened. The truth is, though the Story of Xena had to have an end, it did not have to end now, or like this, or not even necessarily with Xena's death.

Ending a Myth

[21] There are many ways to end a myth. Death is the most surefire way to do this, and, from most of the old myths I can remember, the most common. However, death can be done in many different ways. Having Xena die by sacrificing her life for people who did not deserve it would have been an end. Having Xena die of her wounds after defending the world from some great unspeakable evil would have been an end. Having Xena and Gabrielle die in their bedrolls while camping on the Nile at age 92 when the noises from their lovemaking frighten a nearby herd of hippos into stampeding and trampling them both to death, that would have been an end as well. It would definitely have been a very memorable way to go out, too. I am sure the hippos would not forget it anytime soon.

[22] Note the flexibility with the timeframe. When I heard of Xena's death, while intellectually I understood the need for it, I was not --and still am not--ready to let go of her NOW! It is too soon, and there were other ways to complete the legend. For example, when Babylon 5 ended, both its hero, John Sheridan, and the space station itself were destroyed, but this episode was set twenty years into the future! Enough time to give the hero and the station full lives, and to give the fans and the series creators plenty of "wiggle room" to write plenty of additional stories in the middle of the heroes journey.

[23] Note that I said that though the hero's story needs to end, it does not necessarily need to end with the hero's death, though that is the most common method. What *is* needed is a permanent change that has the hero leaving their heroic ways behind. I hate to break it to you people, but "walking off into the sunset" is NOT an END. That is more middle, and would leave the Xena saga incomplete. Renaissance Pictures can have Hercules end with Hercules and Iolaus walking off to more adventures because Renaissance Pictures does not have the same level of responsibility to the Hercules myth, which has and will endure for thousands of years with no help from them. Hercules was the greatest hero of the Greeks. There are more stories about him than any other hero. So many, that it was much harder for me to remember, off the top of my head, exactly what the full Story was. However, it did not matter that I could not remember all the stories, so long as I could remember the beginning, a few deeds, like the Labors for the middle, and his death as the end. There has to be ONE story that most people can latch onto as being The Final Story, which concludes the myth. Death is certainly the most effective way to do this.

[24] "Happily ever after" can be an ending, but it has to be done just right. It has to be made clear that whatever happens to the hero, if not death, DEFINITELY and COMPLETELY ends their journey as a hero. Odysseus is on the short list of classical heroes who ended their sagas peacefully, by retiring on Ithaca, permanently ending his wandering ways. In addition, Spock's eventual end on Star Trek: The Next Generation had him leaving the Federation to be a sort of ambassador to the Romulan Resistance. The idea was that he would spend the rest of his days teaching the Romulans the philosophies of Vulcan in order to work towards the reunification of their two peoples. That is an end, too.

[25] Of course, Xena's temperament has never been portrayed as being terribly compatible with retirement, although Missy Good might be able to do that with her fan fiction version of Xena and make it believable. Having Xena morph into an emissary of peace, or something similar, could easily have gone down much worse with the fans than her death, so I can understand why The Powers That Be decided that killing Xena was the best route.

[26] However, if it was an ideal situation, and I could choose how I wanted the series to end, and assuming we have decided that death is the best way to end the heroic cycle, I still would not have ended the series like this.

The Best of Endings, The Worst of Endings

Hey!  Pull my finger!
Would Xena and Gabrielle have ended up like Meg and Joxer?

[27] I would have set the ender at LEAST 15 years into the future, to give our soulmates some good long years of happiness together, maybe even had them adopt and raise some kids, to give both of them a chance to really experience motherhood. In addition, this would leave lots of room in the Middle for additional Xena stories from the fans and possibly the creators. At any rate, I would have both Xena and Gabrielle die of their wounds after defeating some Great Evil that threatened their village, and eventually would have destroyed the whole world if they had not stopped it. Having Xena end her life defending the kind of people she once preyed upon, with Gabrielle adamantly refusing all entreaties to save herself, insisting that Xena's side is where she belongs, no matter what the circumstances--that, to me, would have been the BEST possible ending.

[28] However, as I said at the beginning, it could have been worse. You know what the WORST possible ending would have been? An ending like Star Trek: Voyager had, where the most memorable thing about the episode was the transphasic armor or whatever that they tricked out Voyager with. You had all this stuff going on, Torres is having a baby, yes, whatever. Seven and Chakotay as a couple? Since WHEN? WHY? I mean, the actors did a good job with it, but it still left me scratching my head and going, "Huh?" Voyager blows up a lot of Borg, returns home finally, and I am sitting on my couch wondering why I should care even slightly.

[29] The worst scenario is that FRIEND IN NEED could have been boring. I would pick a show that would break my heart and leave me an emotional wreck over one that would leave me feeling absolutely nothing. I would pick a powerful, intense love story that flourishes despite all intentions to hide it, over one that is randomly thrown together at the last minute in a pathetic attempt to manufacture an epic romance. I felt more passion, more tenderness, more love in that "exchange of water" than in any of the more obvious displays between Seven and Chakotay.

[30] Is it possible that Xena could have ended up like Voyager? Remember Season 5? Remember MOTHERHOOD? They were headed toward a Voyager finale, and that is what we would have gotten if Renaissance Pictures had not turned itself around. As far as the Death of Xena goes, I would also prefer to have seen this done later, in a movie or something, but then there are other issues that most of us know nothing about. One thing that Superman, Batman, and Xena have in common is that the people who created these characters no longer own the rights to them. Maybe Tapert felt that if he did not end the story NOW, he would never have a chance to do it later. Perhaps he feared Xena would be turned into a purely moneymaking enterprise with no spirit left at all. Maybe he felt that he could not trust Studios USA to leave Xena alone if he tried to end her story by peacefully retiring her. Maybe he felt he was saving us from some hack job that would have made Season 5 look like Shakespeare, and would have ended with a Voyager finale. If that is indeed the case, then we all owe Rob Tapert our thanks for sparing us from that. I still like my ending better, though.

Why That Finale?

[31] Given that there are numerous ways Renaissance Pictures could have chosen to end the story, why pick this one?

[32] FRIEND IN NEED was a way to go full circle, not just for Xena the TV show, but for Renaissance Pictures itself as well. They decided to end the show with an homage to one of the movies that inspired Evil Dead, and thus started off the whole chain of events that brought us to where we are today.

[33] FRIEND IN NEED, as others have pointed out already, is the Xena version of the classic Hong Kong horror film A Chinese Ghost Story. The film is a beautiful, tragic tale of a man who falls in love with a ghost, and all the things he has to do to eventually free her spirit. To anyone who has not seen this movie, I highly recommend that you go rent or buy it if you really want to understand what Renaissance Pictures was trying to accomplish. Changing the location to Japan was probably done because culture in Japan has always been much more in tune with the nature of mortality than other places. In Japan, there is a standard of beauty called "mono no aware", which means "an awareness of things". The idea is that things are beautiful because they are transient. The most important thing about the cherry blossoms is that they fall. They must be appreciated now, because they may not be there tomorrow. That is the significance of those scenes with Xena and Akemi in the forest, extending their senses, and Akemi's poem. Xena herself states it perfectly when she says:

If I only have thirty seconds left to live,
this is how I'd want to spend them.
Looking into your eyes.

[34] It is not a haiku by any means, but Xena was never a poet, so I would not expect her to count syllables or anything. However, it rather feels like a haiku, just a bit, like it could become one if you just worked with it long enough.

[35] For those of you who are wondering as to what degree Xena can physically comfort Gabrielle in her current form, if the movie A Chinese Ghost Story is any indication, the answer would be "in every way." In the movie, the mortal man and the ghost could and did make love. This also logically follows from FRIEND IN NEED as well, since the purpose of Lord Yodoshi's female ghost servants was to seduce mortal men so he could feed on their souls. If these powers could be used for evil, why not for good?

[36] One difference between Ghost Story and FRIEND IN NEED was at the end of Ghost Story the hero has to say goodbye to his lover, so she can be reincarnated into a new form. Xena is not going anywhere so long as Gabrielle is alive. For many heroes, their deaths are merely passages. Hercules "died," but he really did not, as the gods took him directly off his funeral pyre and into Olympus. No other hero got this treatment. All other heroes went to the Greek version of Heaven, the Elysian fields. Hercules got to Olympus. He got better than Heaven.

[37] Xena gets to spend Eternity at Gabrielle's side. If that does not qualify as "better than Heaven", then I do not know what does.

Where Things Went Wrong

[38] That is not to say I do not have some problems with FRIEND IN NEED. Though I can reconcile myself with Xena's death, what I cannot accept is the *way* she died. This is also one of the objections that has been constantly raised by the people who hated FRIEND IN NEED. I take this objection seriously. It is not a quibble. It is a SERIOUS problem. It is a bad thing to have your mythic hero die in a way that goes against everything she ever lived for. Throughout Xena's adventures, the main Message of the show was of the futility and worthlessness of vengeance, compared to the redemption offered by love and forgiveness. However, Xena died by letting spirits of people she did not really kill blackmail her ("We'll all be cast into oblivion if you don't die, too"-- Yeah, right!) into allowing them to take vengeance on her. NOT a good end for our hero.

[39] It was vengeance, a pure, old-fashioned blood feud. You harmed me, so you must suffer in payment. This is the kind of feud that ignores objective justice, which would find that Xena was simply defending herself. She blew *one* fireball, enough to make the mob flee, then stopped. If she had continued blowing fire at the mob, and the nearby buildings, which would have been understandable, given the mental state she was in at the time, it might be a slightly different story. The true blame belongs with the mob that attacked Xena in the first place, and the Higuchi fire department that could not contain the blaze before it became a city-killing firestorm.

[40] I have a solution to how FRIEND IN NEED could have ended, and still remained true to the themes and the characters we have seen for the past six years.

[41] Official Version:

Xena: But, for those souls to be released into a state of grace, they must be avenged. I must stay dead.
Gabrielle: But if I bring you back to life...
Xena: Those souls will be lost forever.
Gabrielle: That is not right. I don't care. You're all that matters to me.
Xena: Don't you know how much I want to let you do this? But if there is a reason for our travels together, it's because I had to learn from you, enough to know the final, the good, the right thing to do. I can't come back.

[42] My Version:

Gabrielle: That may be so, but I've learned plenty of things from you, too. One thing I've learned is just how empty and pointless a path of vengeance is. So if what these spirits think they need to find grace... is vengeance on you... then they can just go ahead and suffer.

(Gabrielle tips Xena's ashes into the fountain)

[43] Sometimes the Greater Good is not about doing what is best for the most people, sometimes it is about doing what is right for one person, defending them against the tyranny of the majority. It would truly have been full circle, going back to SINS OF THE PAST, where Gabrielle stops a mob of villagers from stoning Xena to death, because Xena was too overcome with guilt to stop them. The Story of Xena has all sorts of great themes involving the redeeming powers of love.

[44] However, Xena would not have died in my version, and I have gone over the reasons Renaissance Pictures would want to end the series with Xena's death. It seems as if Renaissance Pictures was caught in one of their classic errors: trying so hard to make a specific story work that the characters are shoehorned in and do not quite fit.

[45] Rob Tapert has been villified by many of the fans recently. People have been calling him cruel, they have been saying he "just doesn't get it" and "just doesn't care about the fans". Of course, this is why he wanted to have a fan write an episode of the show, because he just does not care about the fans. Perhaps that is why he pushed this idea over and against the objections of everyone else at Renaissance Pictures, when they all thought it was the Stupid Idea to end all Stupid Ideas, when no other TV production would even consider doing something this "crazy". That is how much he does not care about the fans. Makes perfect logical sense, correct? If your sarcasm detectors have not gone off yet, they need to be taken in for maintenance. Of course, there are those who would dismiss this, or Lucy Lawless' sudden declaration that Xena really was gay, as a publicity stunt. I will not argue with that, because there is absolutely nothing I can say that can prevent anyone from finding the nastiest motives behind the nicest gestures.

[46] There are those who would say that Rob Tapert ended the series because Xena was ultimately a Bad Girl, and society says that Bad Girls Must Die, and Rob Tapert was subconsciously following this dictum. This may or may not be true, but I do not know how useful this explanation is, as it can never be proven one way or the other. No one can ever tell if they are subconsciously putting things into their work, not even the author. There are good, conscious reasons to end a story with the hero's death. Tapert may have felt that failing to conclusively end Xena's story would have ultimately sentenced her to a fate far worse than death -- losing her stories. Perhaps he cared enough about Xena to do this although he knew the fans would hate it and hate him personally. They may have made a serious mistake with how they did end Xena, though, with a death that felt tacked-on and meaningless. This was most likely due to being so focused on telling a particular story, in this case A Chinese Ghost Story, that they lost sight of important details regarding their themes and characters. A habit, sadly, we have seen them do before with The Rift, The Twilight of the Gods, and so forth.

[47] I have heard some people say that because of the way the finale ended, they will not have anything more to do with Xena, Lucy Lawless, Rob Tapert, and so on. One of Xena's main messages, the one they forgot at the end of the finale, is that the bad things you do in life do not invalidate all the good things you do in life. Rob Tapert and the rest of the crew at Renaissance Pictures have done many fantastic things for us. Otherwise, no one would be reading this article. I certainly cannot fault anyone for disliking FRIEND IN NEED, or for disliking any Xena episode, for that matter. Yet, if you cannot forgive the show's creators for this mistake, if you can only curse them for Xena's death without thanking them for her creation and her life, then you might as well toss out all your Xena posters, tapes, T-shirts, and whatever else you have spent your money on, because clearly none of that stuff has ever done you the slightest bit of good.

What is Done is Done

[48] However, I am not going to harp on any of that anymore. What is done is done and cannot be undone. Mostly I will remember all the great things this show has given to us, the magic and the joy that we get from a great Xena episode, and all the great fan fiction that the show has inspired.

[49] Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor, even if they never touch the characters of Xena and Gabrielle again, let us hope they will work together on some other project in the future. If because of the series finale some people are angry, or upset, or distraught beyond all sense, it is only because the characters of Xena and Gabrielle, and the love they felt for each other, have been so real. The thought of losing them, of never getting to see Xena and Gabrielle again, of never again being able to witness that special magic those two have with each other--well, it is more than many of us can bear. Remember that the phenomenon of people reacting with such levels of grief is a pure testament to the fact that Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor were able to create characters that people care about so deeply.

[50] They will be missed.


Mark Wisniewski Mark Wisniewski

Mark Wisniewski, age 25, currently works at a computer helpdesk but is open to other opportunities if anyone's hiring. Will do most anything so long as it pays well. Has years of experience with sci-fi, comic books, anime, martial arts, gymnastics, and various other geeky fanboy activities, before becoming frighteningly obsessed with the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard. Main pet peeve is people who drive slow in the fast lane. Turn-offs: anything involving "clamping". Current life goal is reach that level of karmic perfection that would be most likely to get him reincarnated as Gabrielle's tattoo.
Favorite episode: "Last Chance" (never filmed), THE QUEST, WARRIOR...PRIESTESS...TRAMP
Favorite line: Anything preceding or following a GabSmirk
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE, but I did not get into the show until LOST MARINER

Return to 
Top Return to Index