Whoosh! Issue 62 - November 2001

A RIFT WITHIN A RIFT, OR,
AN INDEPENDENT ODYSSEY:
THE DEBT

By jammer@senet.com.au
Content © 2001 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2001 held by Whoosh!
6517 words


THE DEBT (01-05)
THE DEBT I (06-35)
THE DEBT II (36-60)
Conclusion (61-67)
Notes
Articles
Biography



A RIFT WITHIN A RIFT, OR,
AN INDEPENDENT ODYSSEY: THE DEBT



THE DEBT

And another thing!  You never let me drive!
Xena and Gabrielle part company early on in THE DEBT.

[01] Over a year has passed since the first airing of THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) in Australia. Only now do I feel sufficiently distanced from the emotional storm that broke over the rift episodes to even consider watching them. Though I have seen THE DEBT some four times to date, I have yet to watch the Dahak stories Note 01. THE DEBT is thematically unconnected and was part of the rift only because it contributed to the general disassociation the two characters were experiencing. In view of this, it can be taken as a distinct entity. Furthermore, it provided an opportunity to assess the episodes outside the context of the early third season. Indeed, it can be viewed as a self- contained congruent story.

[02] Some would say this is a bad approach, and only in the context of the season's flow as originally presented can it be properly viewed. However, no material in the episode relates directly to any other episode in the Rift Arc, and there was no specific time-stamp that placed it relative to the other episodes of the early part of the season. Given the producers' pointed reshuffling of the airing order to adjust the material to the demographics during season four, it is just as possible THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) could have been slotted elsewhere in season three, as simply as making the decision to do so.

[03] Frankly, it may have been received better if placed late in the season, perhaps obviating the need for FORGET ME NOT (63/317), or placing that one very late indeed. However, that is another debate that I handled in my FORGET ME NOT review, and I will leave it strictly alone here.

[04] This much angst, coming hard on the heels of the two opening rift stories, was perhaps too much for the audience to accept. Compounding the situation, to follow it directly with two silly comedies was a trivialization that almost told the viewer s/he was silly to have become so involved with the dramas. That is insulting to the viewer. Nonetheless, THE DEBT was a remarkable, and at times stunning, piece of television.

[05] It is best to watch both parts together as a movie. The first time I saw them I practically over-dosed on Xena: Warrior Princess with only time to make a cup of tea between the parts. Now, I am the first to agree that it is a fundamentally adult movie, that its themes and concepts, its means of execution, and even aspects of the cinematography, are unsuitable for children. It was not proper for it to be shown in the same slot as previous episodes, as this goes for the whole rift arc. With the continued ratings slide, only ameliorated with a slight upturn in the second half of season four, destroyed again by THE WAY (84/416), such an error in judgment proved to have carried its own punishment. Many specific criticisms were leveled at these episodes, and this paper will discuss them.


THE DEBT I

[06] There is a line between spectacular cartoon violence and the real thing. Xena, at times, has crossed that line. The unrealistic violence that features lots of whack and biff, cartwheels and acrobatic falls, after which the bad guys all get up and run away, eventually becomes—and this is meant in only the best way—ever so slightly passe. While it can still be appreciated as a highly skilled, stylized ballet, as in show wrestling, it is hard to become emotionally involved with the protagonists in any more than a "hey, that was a good move! Isn't she great!" kind of way. This occurred more on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys than on Xena: Warrior Princess.

[07] However, in the opening nighttime fight against the Ninja- esque assassins who had pursued the messenger to Greece, it was immediately obvious that this was serious. Xena's arm-breaker move as part of an Irish whip was a surprise, and it warned the viewer subtly that this time it was the real thing. There was still a touch of stylization, Xena surviving more than one spinning back-kick to the face without so much as wincing, let alone bruising, or being incapacitated as any ordinary person would be, which perhaps helped ease the viewer into the new reality.

Hey!  I'm trying to get some shut-eye here!
Xena finds Gabrielle where she expected to find Ming Tien.

[08] In addition, following hard after this was a sense of un- reality. When the writers admitted to stacking the deck against Gabrielle, they really meant they had created a new character that behaved differently. The Gabrielle we knew at that point, though she may cherish life and be dedicated to finding the soft solution, also trusted Xena implicitly. If Xena had been driven beyond all dissuasion to perform an act of retribution, then the unspoken necessity would have been somewhat clearer to Gabrielle. Likewise, the Xena we knew would not have cut Gabrielle out of the equation. She would not have thrown up such a wall of silence. Xena has always been taciturn, in a take it or leave it way, but after so long together she had eased up where Gabrielle was concerned. There should have been a quicker discussion, a fuller meeting of the minds.

[09] The question may be posed that Xena was uncomfortable with introducing Gabrielle to both Lao Ma, and consequently what she had meant to Xena, and to further aspects of Xena's dark past. Perhaps Xena's tight-lipped approach at the beginning was indeed to protect Gabrielle from things she knew Gabrielle would find disturbing. This is fair, and would serve to allow Xena to keep some of the things she was ashamed of, as well as a past love, compartmentalized from her present situation.

[10] Another explanation of Xena's actions would embrace the introduction of Hope into the show's overall storyline. In the flow of the rift stories, it is inevitable that an argument can be made that the whole Hope business had undermined Xena and Gabrielle's trust in each other.

[11] However, the Rift, Dahak, Hope, and that whole thread of story were entirely absent from THE DEBT, apparently compartmentalized at a production level. Seeing THE DEBT minus that additional factor left the point open. It seemed to proceed comfortably in the apparent weight of her dark past making Xena more taciturn than usual, at least until she began to tell the story, and Gabrielle making a more pointed than usual moralistic stand. We know Gabrielle feels this way. She would not be Gabrielle if she did not. One of Gabrielle's strengths is that she has always endeavored to see both sides of a question. Yet in this episode, no matter how much explanation she coaxed out of Xena, she seemed unable to get past her own automatic pre-judgment. This was a major out-of-character aspect.

In a scene cut for time, Borias pleads unsuccessfully 
with Xena to give up her quest for vengeance, open up a taco stand with him, and 
settle down for good
Borias attempts to talk sense into Xena.

[12] The tale of Xena's early life unfolded very rapidly following the flashback to DESTINY (36/212) in which Caesar's betrayal turned Xena the Ambitious into Xena the Psychopath. It took away any belief she had preserved in natural justice or order, or the need to consider others. She reverted quickly to a state of barbarism in which her impulses were lust and the morbid enjoyment of killing for its own sake. There was no army and she was not a great leader at this point. She seemed to have lost the following she had at the time of DESTINY, and had taken up with Borias and a rag-tag assortment of bandits.

[13] The route to the east as shown on the map during the episode was a little puzzling, crossing Anatolia toward Themiscyra, Colchis, and the ancient lands of the Medes and the Urarti, then north into what became the old Soviet Union. This avoided passing through western Scythia or the lands of the Sauromatii. In the first century BCE, although the Romans had taken parts of Asia Minor, independent kingdoms still held out, therefore it was not an unusual route. However, I would have expected, given Xena's state of psychosis, that she would have gravitated to the Scythian lands as fast as she could. The costume for her Asian adventure has metal, probably gold, with plaques stitched into the shirt almost like a mailshirt in a Scythian style.

[14] What is another reason for Xena to go through Scythia? Borias. He is Caucasian and seems East European or Balkan in some ways. His tattoos are patterns of spirals and waves, and these designs are archetypal Celtic forms, but the very nature of having pure black tattoos is a trait recorded as typical of Thracians. Thrace extended from the Aegean north to the Danube, and in the second to first centuries BCE, butted in the west against the Dacian tribes, which had drawn together into an amalgam of considerable power in defiance of Rome. Technologically they were equivalent to the La Tene-era Celts further west. Borias would seem a Thracian, as Xena herself is, at least by geography of birth. Therefore, a route to the east-running north to skirt the Black Sea may have been the more natural path for Xena to take.

[15] The background locations were remarkable. Repeatedly the grasslands and mountains they found to represent the Steppes were stunning, and the photography of riders against the endless plains was incredible. In the scene where Xena and Borias' raiders clashed with imperial soldiers Joe LoDuca borrowed wholeheartedly the spirit of the score from Conan The Barbarian (John Milius, 1982), not in theme but in feeling, and the effect was superb. Xena's taking of the heads as a warning, while grisly, was archetypal. The fight was realistic, that is all that need be said.

[16] It is not immediately clear whereabouts they were, but when they see the Great Wall, that fixed it in both time and space. Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor, built the wall. He was a prominent figure in history, the King of the fierce Ch'in people from a mountain-encircled land on the Wei River, close to the Mongolian frontier. He united by conquest all the warring states that had characterized China for some two centuries since the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. Despite his many great works and notable reforms, Shi Huangdi was also an absolutist, and he decided, essentially, that Chinese history would begin with him. He had all written records of prior history, with the exception of certain records of the Ch'in and the philosophies of Confucius, destroyed, to the anguish and frustration of the modern historian. The process was not complete, however, and enough documents escaped his book burnings for us to still have first-hand knowledge of pre-Ch'in China.

[17] Shi Huangdi created the imperial throne in 221 BCE. At this time China was beset by two similar races of Indo-European-speaking pseudo- Scythian horse tribes that roamed the deserts of Mongolia. These were the Hsiung-Nu and the Yueh-Xi, and they defied the might of the Imperial Army for centuries. The wall was raised against their depredations. Though some sections were already in existence, the whole 4200 km structure, stretching from the Yellow Sea to Turkestan, is said to have been built in only seven years by a labor force of over a million men, under the control of a general named, Meng Tian. What a familiar name! It may have been a nation-sized bastion, but it was essentially ineffective. Though Shi Huangdi's army exacted defeats in the deserts, the Hsiung-Nu chiefs continued to raid with impunity, at last extracting a vast toll in gold from China just to leave them alone.

[18] Xena came into this world. A line of severed heads facing the forts of the Great Wall was a predictable enough Hsiung-Nu message. The Ch'in themselves were said to have decapitated 100,000 defeated Zhao soldiers in 234 BCE. The Chinese noble houses, with their essentially private armies, would doubtless have done their best to do deals with the chiefs of the desert, so the power struggle was historically reasonable.

First runner-up, Ghengis Khan lookalike contest
Borias was depicted often as much peacemaker as warrior.

[19] Borias had a streak of good in him, seen several times both here and in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402). Xena feared Lao Ma would turn him to good, and she, or rather Ares' darkness, would lose him. This was a powerful motivating factor. An emotion-based willfulness that Xena was showed to embody at this stage.

[20] The triad of characters, Lao Ma, Ming Tzu and Ming Tien, were an interesting contrast. As the head of a noble house, Ming Tzu was appropriately detached, superior, and cultured. There seemed a certain good in him, but it was difficult to define, and may have been an artifact of culture. Certainly he cared for Ming Tien, but was it, as the boy asserted, merely because he represented an heir? Ming Tzu cared nothing for Lao Ma as a person. She was his concubine and gave him his son. Then he sold her.

[21] Lao Ma. What a character. What an actor. Jacqueline Kim was brilliant. In the space of the minutes of airtime she was allowed, she built a character of complexity, wisdom, grace, and capacity. She took the words on the scripted page and expressed them so that the viewer believed almost instantly in the verity of that character.

[22] In addition, La Mao represents a conflict of ideology. Her powers are strong, and she uses her skill to keep Lao Tzu, a degenerate tyrant, in a semi-coma. Meanwhile, she writes her wisdom in a book bearing his name that will come down to us as the thoughts of one of the world's greatest sages. "Wisdom comes from heaven. What matter if it bear the name of Lao Ma or Lao Tzu?" Note 02

[23] Whether the Chinese or historians of China find it offensive that history should be given a twist like this, it is nonetheless a scene with punch. This cultured and wise woman keeps a man helpless in a form of pseudo- passive retreat, and does her country a favor in the process. We can only wonder what Gabrielle would have thought of it!

[24] The injury to Xena's legs was unclear in the unfolding of the story. It seemed for a moment that it may be an injury sustained during the fight with Ming Tzu's cavalry, or when Borias heaved her off the horse. However, it was of course a throwback to Caesar's order to break her legs. Yet that injury *must* have been effectively healed for her to ride and fight, without which skills she would never have crossed the world. That her legs had set incorrectly is a reasonable assumption, as is the fact she would live in pain, this latter fact possibly driving at least some of her wildness, as well as explaining her apparent fondness for smoking dope: opium pipes were long used for pain control.

[25] Speaking of the lust-in-the-saddle scene, it offended many. It was raunchy, too raunchy for a family timeslot, but when that aspect is put aside and the whole is viewed as an adult product, there is no difficulty. It was coarse and uncivilized, which is what it was meant to be.

[26] It is hard to be in any way sympathetic with the old Xena. We were not supposed to be, except perhaps to be sorry for what the twists of her life had made her. She was a wild animal, imbued with latent skill and a heart burning up with a fury that by itself would kill an ordinary person. She smokes some form of narcotic in the scene where Lao Ma dines with Borias, and when Lao Ma puts out a hand and Xena throws her dagger, her line "That's my piece of meat you're reaching for" has unmistakable implications. Nevertheless, Lao Ma understands her, reads her like a book, and recognizes Xena's lustful expression on their first meeting. Xena feels threatened by Lao Ma, hates her for everything she represents, envies her power, and is obviously attracted to her. This is a lethal mix, and were she an ordinary person Xena would have killed her, which would seem the outcome to most casual relationships Xena had in those days. However, Lao Ma's powers are superbly developed and she handles Xena's primitive force with consummate ease.

[27] The story comes out a piece at a time. Xena has been summoned to, shall we say, handle, Ming Tien, the Green Dragon. This is the problem that sets her and Gabrielle at odds, sets the stage for what has been seen as everything from the ultimate mistake to the breath of fresh air the show needed. No show needs fresh air of this sort, but it is time to separate out the subject from the object. Some scenes were perhaps too powerful or explicit for viewers, and would seem to have left disproportionate memories that block other nuances.

[28] The scenes in which Xena and Gabrielle traveled to the port were elegantly filmed against fresh locations. This kind of subtle grandeur probably slipped by many. There was no problem with the editing or logical run of material, as tended to be the case some of the time in ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE.

[29] The time interval between leaving Greece and reaching Chin was, of course, understated. How else could it have been done? For a ship to sail to the Far East, and not allowing for unknown perils, would have probably taken far longer in those days than for horsemen to have ridden it by a land route across Central Asia. Bear in mind that the Sea of Grass was well known to its peoples. In addition, the explorations of the Middle Ages were just that, explorations, not rapid transit. Xena would then need to travel from her landing point to the appropriate point on the Great Wall, on the Mongolian border, itself a considerable journey, especially when the whole trip was traveled in stealth!

Sooner or later you'll break down and join triple-A!
Not content to remain behind, Gabrielle later makes a deal with Ares to get to Chin ahead of Xena.

[30] That is almost certainly how Gabrielle got there first. She likely hitched up with Amazon cavalry from Thrace, perhaps on some envoy mission to the tribes of the Altai Mountains, and thus passed through the domain of the Scythians, Sarmatians, Saka, and other nomadic peoples. In later centuries, a rider from the Hunnish homelands in Asia could carry dispatches to the armies warring in Europe in just one month! Ares' intervention was unnecessary. Gabrielle would have been sleeping with Ming Tien for six months before Xena got there, had Ares teleported her there before Xena's ship was out of the harbor, which is the impression FORGET ME NOT (63/317) gave.

[31] By rights, and in keeping with her own life experiences, Xena would more likely have chosen the land route, but that would not have provided the device by which Gabrielle could have reached Chin first.

[32] Xena's entry to the palace has often been likened to Rambo (Max Moswitzer, 1987), and indeed the smearing of the mud camouflage is a carry- over, as is the lightning flash illuminating a guard during the stalking/entry. However, the mud also applies equally to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Predator (John McTiernan, 1987). In addition, the photography is a homage to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). The shot where she rises out of the moat was staged and photographed to evoke the climax of Coppola's epic, in which Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally gets his act together and resolves to carry out his mission, terminate with extreme prejudice one Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Not with a gun, though. He hacked him to death with a big two- handed Malay knife. It was fitting that the twentieth century should be cast off with an act of barbarism, and Willard reverted to the primitive when a primitive act was required of him.

[33] That is what Xena was doing when she cast off her clothes and went naked, smeared with mud, to perform a blade killing. She put aside the civilization she had learned, returned to an elemental state to do something as old as the world. It is a philosophic condition into which, somewhat, any executioner must move if the act is to be possible, and not constitute murder. This latter was what Gabrielle had no grasp of, and why it was she, not Ming Tien, in the bed.

[34] The tragedy is that Gabrielle believed with all her being that she was acting for the good. Her motives were white as snow, FORGET ME NOT (63/317) notwithstanding. However, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

[35] This was hell for them both.


THE DEBT II

[36] The second part of this story has been said to be even more violent, enlarging on things the audience had already likely had enough of. There is little difference in theme or content, merely in degree. Gabrielle's betrayal of Xena was a hammer blow to a huge part of the audience, as the producers meant it to be. Perhaps the producers' underestimation was that they thought the audience they would inevitably lose was a replaceable commodity. Clearly, it was not.

[37] This is where it becomes especially complicated. Concerning the finished product, all the relevant information lies between the main and end titles, not in what Renaissance representatives said six months later. So, where to begin?

[38] When Ming Tien orders Xena locked up, we sense even then that he is playing with Gabrielle. Xena is subjected to kang torture and cast into a sewer-pit with the rejects of the Ming court, other political prisoners. The drop was far too great to be survivable. The impact of the kang with the water would have broken her neck. However, she could summon the directed life force to leap from the moat to the top of the wall at the end of Part 1, and if we are to excuse one then we can simply accept the other. It would have been perhaps preferable to see her climb the wall, as she did in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303) and fall a realistic distance. Historically, the kang was circular. One cannot fathom why the producers needed to make it square, unless it was somehow dynamic to concealing the fact Xena was still naked up until the other prisoners gave her their rags in appreciation of her attempt to eliminate the tyrant who had put them there.

[39] Gabrielle states that Ming Tien gave her an assurance of banishment. This is naive of her to consider, given that Xena had entered Chin surreptitiously, but it was what she most wanted to hear. Apparently, Gabrielle is performing an ideological balancing act between the extreme that each protagonist will go to. She wants to keep Xena and Ming Tien from killing each other, and she thinks physical separation may be a solution. However, this quickly becomes as unrealistic to her as it is to the audience. Ming Tien's quiet and courteously stated refusals of her repeated attempts to be allowed to see Xena, are the bureaucratic facade to a vicious regime in whose power this Greek girl has placed herself and her best friend.

[40] For some, Xena's beating was too much, an emotional kick that made them sick to their stomachs and turned them off the show. However, with the separation of time, this can be reconsidered. Gabrielle was now desperate because she had realized that her strategy, well meaning as its motivation was, had mis-fired. She had betrayed Xena on the behalf of another that had now betrayed the wisp of trust she had shown in him. In effect, it was out of her hands. When Xena was brought before Ming Tien in a show-trial it was Gabrielle's agonizing duty to try to extract a promise from Xena that she would simply go away, abandon her vow of retribution, and thus validate Ming Tien's promised leniency in a sentence of banishment.

[41] However, we are still seeing the difference in the relative levels of experience of Xena and Gabrielle. Gabrielle is desperate. Xena is as stonily taciturn as ever, withdrawn into herself and not even interacting with her surroundings. The slaps were unthinkable, but the circumstances—yes, the circumstances—warranted them. Gabrielle really believes it is Xena's last hope of survival, or perhaps even that is a fading hope by this point, and she tries the hardest way she knew how to extract that promise: and she hates herself as she does so. Xena knows the trial is a sham, so she will say nothing. The poignancy of the tears rolling down her face, while her expression betrays nothing, is overwhelming, and the viewer feels the anguish in them both, the unspoken communication, everything that needs to be said, but cannot be.

I'm the ruler, not a waiter!
Ming Tien is not a man of his word.

[42] Sentence of death is passed and Ming Tien reveals to Gabrielle that he had always intended execution. The little drama they had just suffered through had in fact only been for his entertainment.

[43] Moreover, this is the person whose life Gabrielle prized so highly she would betray her best friend to save. However, when she embarked on this nightmare he was a faceless name, a stranger, and a blank canvas on which she could paint any ideal she chose. She is a good person and believes the best of others, and it is easy to grant the benefit of the doubt to those we have never met. Anything else is cynicism, and eventually it rots the soul, as Xena is the living proof. What fails to ring true is that she would defy Xena's first-hand experience at the outset.

[44] Gabrielle is in hell now, a living hell in which her choices have been taken away. Ming Tien solicitously grants her a meeting with Xena. Thus unfolds a reunion that many neither believed would happen, or could not accept when they saw. That is not fair. The scene was played so intensely, with so much feeling. Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor must look at their award-devoid mantles and wonder where justice can be found in this world.

[45] If Xena was a barbarian intent on murder, then betrayal would demand instant punishment. Nevertheless, Xena's act is as together as it has been ever since she achieved a synthesis of Lao Ma's teaching, through the mediation of Hercules, and of Gabrielle herself. She knows Gabrielle's motives were pure, she recognizes the agony her friend is going through, and there is no room in her heart for hate. She visibly puts aside her anger, conquers the perplexity and hurt that must have boiled through her since she found the last face in the world she expected to see, looking at her from Ming Tien's bed, and extends an unconditional forgiveness. Gabrielle has not asked for this, she has come to try to explain, and to apologize, believing all they had is gone.

[46] We earlier saw Xena trying to work a hand through the gap in the kang, but as she slides off the pedestal hip-deep into the water once more, the last thing we expect to hear as her first words to Gabrielle are "scratch my nose, will you?" It was a "hello", an "I'm sorry for all this", a "help me", and an "I love you anyway", all in one, and when Gabrielle burst into tears it was difficult not to weep with her. O'Connor did it so well, so very, very well. She scratched her nose, took the weight of the kang for her, and there was little enough time to say anything more than to convey the assurance that though their predicament was the worst, there was no hate.

[47] This was the lesson Xena had learned from Lao Ma, releasing hate was the key that put her ruined life back together, though at the time she was unable to grasp the meaning. Yet acting without hate does not mean refraining from violence, it means being able to kill with the detached dispassion of a butcher, entering into the state of mind in which the act can be divorced from the overriding implication of murder. Murder is often defined as unlawful termination, which clearly implies the existence of lawful termination. The latter bears no such stigma, or does it? Yes, for many it does.

[48] Lao Ma taught her more in a shorter time than was reasonable. It is an accepted fact that it takes a lifetime of mental discipline for the majority to achieve even a tiny fraction of the physically-manifesting powers commonly called Taoist magic. Yet, it was told in the minutes available and filmed with sensitivity and grace. Lao Ma's lessons in channeling the chi to achieve levitation, to strike without touching, were elegant and filmed with such beauty they were breathtaking. The breaking of Xena's concentration when Borias walked in, resulting in her falling out of the air, was correct.

[49] To strike without touching is the mechanism by which a karateka breaks boards and tiles that seem impossible. The act is manifestly impossible by crude force or mechanical means. The will of the martial artist precedes contact and breaks the object, not the hand. The esoteric statement of any karate master will attest to it. Lao Ma, it seems, has attenuated this a thousandfold until only the will is involved, though many times she amplifies this through non-contact gesture.

Yeah, you have better hair than me, but I can still 
kick your butt!
Lao Ma has several lessons in store for Xena.

[50] The lesson in humility, that Xena should act as servant to Ming Tzu, was also from the ancient ways. Xena looked so uncomfortable in civilized clothes! The kiss in the bath? Make what you will of it. She needed air and she got it. If they enjoyed the process, that is their personal business. Of course, they were attracted to each other! There is not much doubt of that.

[51] A big question that burns in many a mind is the ethic of Xena returning a decade later to take the life of a tyrant she had created by her own treatment of him. If this was the case, it is another example of the reformed Xena cleaning her own house of the various messes her former self created. But did she create him? There is strong case that she did not.

[52] Ming Tien as a boy seemed appropriately cold, distant, and superior, as a Chinese noble would be. Was he also inbred? Perhaps to some degree since insanity flows from line breeding. But Xena's treatment of the boy during the three days she had him, while what we saw was crude, did not compare to what boys equally young received traditionally in boarding schools in merry olde England a hundred years ago, and they did not emerge as dictators. Well, most of them did not. No, Xena did not create that monster. He was surely bad to the bone long before she ever got there. She focused or fostered his latent capacity of evil. He freely admitted as a man that she taught him to be like her. That is probably the scope of her offense, along with serving to suppress his probable equal latent capacity for good. She walled him up, a cruel act, but it was not for long. It was a wicked age when people learned hard lessons. Spartan boys in the fifth century BCE learned to be soldiers or died from the mistreatment their society inflicted upon them in the process. This makes none of it right. It merely offers a perspective.

[53] The conclusion of Part 2 is one of the most contentious sequences of events any episode has ever featured. Why did Gabrielle stand back passively and watch as Xena was readied for execution in the manner of Lao Ma? In a silk garment down to the ground, she would have been clumsy. She was unarmed and she was surrounded with guards. She may have been seeking the correct moment, but it looked to me as if she had accepted her own helplessness. She may well have chosen to die with Xena then and there.

[54] Were psychic fireballs an appropriate move, or sheer overkill on the part of the producers? Use of this method was, it would appear, the culmination of the cycle of learning, as Xena found the philosophic orientation, there on her deathbed, to bring into phase the essence of Lao Ma's teaching. So to resist her torturers with Lao Ma's weapons was to close the circle. In that sense, it would seem appropriate, if uncharacteristic of Xena's normal fighting skills.

[55] This brings us to the climax, the Lie. People have long expressed a grave difficulty with this. It was probably edited for Australian consumption, most of Season 3 was cut in some way, but the cuts were certainly not apparent at a contextual level, and in the flow of the final scene nothing critical was missing.

[56] Xena sent Gabrielle to see others out of the collapsing throne room while she dealt with Ming Tien. "As far as I'm concerned, this is over", were her words to Gabrielle. We learned then from Ming Tien, as he rose gloatingly from his throne, that shortly after Lao Ma had dispatched the messenger to find Xena, he had had her executed in that very room. That he had always been aware that she was his mother, and had performed the mutilation himself, specifically because he knew she would not strike out at her own son. She would have done the world a favor if she had, not to mention Xena and Gabrielle.

[57] There is a tradition in Asia that when rulers become irretrievably dissolute, they are put down for the good of the nation. This youth was wickedness incarnate and it did not take supernatural forces to make him so. The rulers of the Assyrian and Persian Empires would have nodded their heads and rubbed their hands with approval, as would Periander of Corinth or the Emperor Constantine. The Chinese, whether deservedly or not, have long been branded with the identity of being amongst the world's most brutal torturers. It looked rather like Ming Tien enjoyed inflicting the Death of a Thousand Cuts, flaying in other words.

The hazards of cleaning your hairpin while it's still 
loaded
However one may choose to describe the motivation, Ming Tien ends up dead.

[58] The drama was absolute. He rose from the throne to give to Xena the hair pin that had been Lao Ma's, the one Lao Ma once showed Xena how to use as a weapon. When Gabrielle returned, Ming Tien was seated arrogantly in his throne, staring unblinking from those cold, shark-like eyes, and Xena's line, "I didn't murder him," was not a lie.

[59] She executed him, and in our culture there is a difference. She let Gabrielle believe what would make her happy, or at least what would make her life bearable, and got the job done neatly, with a minimum of contention. The final closing pass around the tyrant's head, to the handle of the pin imbedded in his temple, was perfect, simple, and explicit. Poetic justice, Lao Ma's will reaching from the Other Side to remove her aberrant offspring, in this much Xena was her willing instrument, and Gabrielle was simply an incidental casualty of a much bigger drama.

[60] It makes one wonder what Gabrielle would have achieved if she had known Lao Ma, spent years studying all she had to offer. The synthesis of wisdom, humanity, and defensive force would have been remarkable. In the end, Lao Ma probably did not suffer. She would have been able to step outside her physicality as it was destroyed and thus confound her son's lust for the sick gratification of torture. In that, we as viewers can take comfort.


Conclusion

[61] Therefore, what conclusions can be drawn from THE DEBT?

[62] THE DEBT is not suitable for children and it is not family viewing. Renaissance Pictures earns a black mark for pretending that it is. It is historically sufficiently accurate, not completely by any means, to serve its purpose within a compelling framework.

[63] Though flawed by fundamentally inconsistent or weak motivations mainly but not exclusively on the part of the re-vamped Gabrielle, the character interactions were drawn together with a subtlety and feeling that shines through the brutality as the heart we always knew they had.

[64] The violence was extreme and often quite realistic, perhaps because of many fans expressing a long held desire for more honest realism. The flashbacks were well handled, the production values sky-high, and the pacing right on the money. Scattered throughout the script were aphorisms and axioms that made their points with an economy of words.

[65] Die-hard fans have often said that Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the rift with their relationship strengthened. I have not viewed the rest of these episodes, but taking THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) as a distinct entity, relative to the series as a whole and not as a Rift Arc component, I find myself in tentative agreement. Yes, their relationship was tested, they each learned something about the other, and about themselves, and it is my honest impression that they are even more devoted by the end of the story then they were at the beginning. To my perception, a resolution was in fact reached, though perhaps too subtly for many viewers in the difficulty of their own grief. The characters were completely devoted beforehand. The audience could have done without suffering through all this with them simply to, supposedly, enhance that condition. But that might be interpreted as dismissing the validity of drama, so the argument continues to cycle.

[66] There is no hint at this stage of Gabrielle betraying Xena because she is jealous of Xena's relationship with Lao Ma. That is an uncharacteristic and highly implausible reason, and FORGET ME NOT, its own (few) internal high points notwithstanding, is, to me at least, an irrelevant episode.

[67] I enjoyed THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) as I enjoyed ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402). THE DEBT was something out of the ordinary and made to a very high standard. It is unfortunate that both of these remarkable films failed to please a large part of their audience.


Notes

Note 01
The Dahak stories are:
THE DELIVER (50/304)
GABRIELLE'S HOPE (51/305)
MATERNAL INSTINCTS (57/311)
THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)
After these episodes, the theme moves to Hope, Gabrielle's and Dahak's child.
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Note 02
Did Lao Ma write her book from right to left and back to front? The way Xena is holding the book is the automatic western way, open edge to the right!
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Articles

J. J. Adamson, "The Genesis And Deconstruction Of A Hero" WHOOSH #58 (July 2001)


Biography

a woman of mystery jammer@senet.com.au

A woman of mystery.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110)
Favorite line: There are so many to choose from...
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101)
Least favorite episode: LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN (75/407)

 

 

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