Whoosh! Issue 64 - January 2002

WORKING THROUGH A FRIEND IN NEED:
A STUDY IN PERPLEXITY

By Vivian Sheffield
Content copyright © 2002 held by author
WHOOSH! edition copyright © 2002 held by Whoosh!
4825 words


Introduction (01-02)
A Third Opinion (03-05)
Japan (06-09)
A Reasonable Argument (10-11)
Assumption 1 (12-14)
Assumption 2 (15)
State of Grace (16-19)
Vengeance (20-25)
Akemi and Yodoshi, Two Peas in a Pod (26-27)
Justice? (28-35)
Guilt Wins Over All (36-37)
So Much for the Big Finish (38-40)
Notes
Biography



WORKING THROUGH A FRIEND IN NEED: A STUDY IN PERPLEXITY



Introduction

[01] Few television series' finales in the past few years have been as stunning as the Xena finale, nor as polarizing. In my own case, I have been trying to reconcile the views of the fans that approve of Xena's decision to stay dead and I am afraid that viewpoint and mine are irreconcilable. I have written this paper in order to understand my own objections and perhaps, work them out so that others may see another opinion.

[02] There is no discussion of The Director's Cut in this commentary, in part because of the unavailability of this episode to a substantial number of viewers. Therefore, the following discussion is based on the version that aired on June 23, 2001.



A Third Opinion

[03] It is easy to forget that not all people who watch Xena are diehard fans and so may not have had the same reaction that many others, or I had. I found it instructive to ask two other people, both who are more than what Robert Tapert has characterized as casual viewers, but less than what are considered hard core fans. I would call both regular viewers: people who watch more that six episodes per season but less than 22. They do not participate in fandom, i.e., are online, go to Xena conventions or read fan fiction, for example. I asked one of my friends his opinion of the finale. I am including his comments with his permission:

"Mostly it was confusing. Xena got herself killed so she could go to the Japanese land of the dead (& the usual question about people going to their own lands of the dead), but Gabrielle was able to follow her there without being dead. Dead Xena can't touch the chakram, but can touch Gabrielle & everything else. Xena drinks the magic water & pops up like Popeye on spinach in her usual outfit (I know she buried it -- is it dead, too?) & how is her staying dead supposed to be linked to the released souls? Of course, it doesn't matter because she's still there anyway."
I cannot say that I disagree with his confusion.

[04] We also discussed the rather brutal display of Xena's decapitated body, and the outrage of many fans, the subject of which eventually reached the media. His view was that the violence done to Xena's body was pointless because "she didn't have to do it that way" (die as she did, by decapitation) and the fact that she would still be with Gabrielle. That made it gratuitous. He added in a post to me:

"As for the gratuitous violence, maybe they were trying to make it obvious she was "deader" than all the other times she died (a problem when you've already played that card a number of times). If so, it was thoroughly undermined by her being able to maintain contact with Gabrielle."

[05] Actually, she was "deader" by succumbing to the wacky logic of the dead souls needing to be avenged or they would be lost. Death, then, becomes real because it is enforced by the souls' jeopardy of being lost. Nevertheless, his point is well taken about death being made meaningless during the series.



Japan

Make sure you board at least 3 days early due to 
increased security checks
Getting to Japa is half the fun.

[06] Setting the finale in Japan seems an odd choice, but makes a certain amount of sense. The show itself used many Asian influences, including those from Hong Kong films. Another and more basic reason is the strong warrior code of the samurai. Almost everyone has heard of it and appears to make sense to take Xena, the warrior, to a land where the warrior and his code are glorified. Most other cultures had a warrior caste and its code, but none institutionalized them more than the Japanese did. Bushido (Way of the Warrior) is well known globally. Furthermore, a pertinent fact is that Japan's warrior code includes ritualized suicide and this is a crucial part of the plot to A FRIEND IN NEED.

[07] Yes, Xena died an honorable death and that was the way she wanted to die - in battle. However, by placing her in Japan, with the suggestion of bushido and ritual suicide, there is another meaning. Ritual suicide was considered an 'honorable' death. In a Witchblade episode, the Roger Daltrey character told Sara Pezzini that, "Only the Japanese could raise the act of apology to a high art." This makes enormous sense. The following is from a book about the samurai:

"One of the most widely known - and probably also the most misunderstood - aspects of the samurai way of life is that of ritual suicide, seppuko. At its most basic, the reason for such an act was that of the overriding factor in a samurai's life was his military reputation and if he, in any way or on any occasion, failed to act in such a way as to enhance it, especially in battle, then his life was, quite literally, not worth living...

"However, there were many other methods of committing ritual suicide, including starving oneself to death, burial alive, jumping headfirst from a horse with a sword in one's mouth, jumping off a cliff and deliberately making a solo foray into the midst of the enemy lines...

"In other situations, the samurai made the decision himself, particularly in battle to expiate personal failure. This was known as sokotsu-shi...."[Note 01]

[08] Xena's personal failure was inadvertently allowing the 40,000 villagers to die. Her actions of burying her armor, of choosing to "deliberately make (ing) [sic] a solo foray into the midst of the enemy lines", meant that she intended to die in the battle. Her decapitation clearly shows she was performing an act of ritual suicide. Cutting the head off was usually done by a comrade or, as in the case of going into battle alone, done by a peer. Xena was offering an 'apology' for her failure. As my friend pointed out, Xena did not have to do it this way. She has already entered the spirit world by other methods than dying by decapitation.

[09] Further roiling the waters, Xena's intent is obscured by her verbal thoughts: "Akemi, I know what I must do. But I am afraid that this day, what's done may not be undone", spoken as she prepares for battle. Is she concerned about coming back to life and if she is, why would she think it was possible? She appears surprised when Gabrielle finds her, no doubt thinking once she died, Gabrielle should not have been able to locate her, much less see her. This is odd, given that Gabrielle stops at nothing to find Xena - see THE RHEINGOLD. Yet, Xena readily acquiesces to Gabrielle's intention to bring her back to life. Who knows whether Xena was lying to Gabrielle regarding her intent to be brought back to life or if she was she truly having second thoughts? Did Xena even consider Gabrielle's reaction when she determined she would have to die and in battle? She may have been undecided (she should have been), but executive producers/writers/director Robert Tapert and R.J. Stewart led the audience, as well as Gabrielle, to believe Xena planned to return. Perhaps it was another, final test for Gabrielle, since returning Xena to life was Gabrielle's task in the episode.



A Reasonable Argument

[10] There is reasonable argument that Xena was not simply following the Japanese warrior code, but a Greek code as well. Britannica Online points out that suicide in other cultures was an approved option for certain categories of people. "In ancient Greece, convicted criminals were permitted to take their own lives..."[Note 02]. Certainly, Xena saw herself as a criminal, whether she was convicted in a court of law or not. Yet, most criminals do not spend several years reforming themselves. Suicide, ritual or otherwise, is directed toward the living. Who else will notice or care? Xena's speech to Gabrielle about her victims' "state of grace" suggested as much. Nevertheless, ultimately it made no sense. This is the complete set of lines: "But for those souls to be able to enter a state of grace, they must be avenged. I must stay dead." The initial interpretation of the first line appears to be that those dead souls are full of revenge toward Xena. Often avenging an injustice is seen as revenge.

[11] Why must Xena stay dead? This is one of the mysteries of this episode and is part of the reason Xena's decision to stay dead seems not only unpalatable but also odd. Who is the person or persons to carry out this vengeance? Consider the following.



Assumption 1

Until she changed her makeup, Xena constantly 
wondered why she kept being mistaken for a panda bear
Xena is about to be attacked by villagers as she seeks to take care of Akemi's ashes.

[12] Assume the souls are vengeful and that Xena must stay dead to receive retribution for their deaths. Where does this concept come from? It is supported nowhere in the two episodes. In part 1, Akemi tells Xena about the kami and how she thinks they might help Xena find peace. Kami are spirits or deities from Shinto. Some believe the kami can inhabit people. Are the dead souls really the kami? Shinto is an animistic religion and a very positive one.

"A second important feature of the mythology is the close link among the gods, the world they created, and human beings. The tensions present in Western religion between the Creator and the created, and the human and natural realms, are conspicuously absent. In the Shinto view, the natural state of the cosmos is one of harmony in which divine, natural, and human elements are all intimately related. Moreover, human nature is seen as inherently good, and evil is thought to stem from the individual's contact with external forces or agents that pollute our pure nature and cause us to act in ways disruptive of the primordial harmony.."
From Shinto & Buddhism,
http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000009.htm

[13] The 40,000 may be kami, but they cannot be vengeful. That view would turn Shinto belief on its head and I do not think Rob Tapert or RJ Stewart would want a repeat of THE WAY, since Shinto is still a living religion and is practiced today.

[14] Terminology, such as 'state of grace' suggests a Christianity influence, and such an influence in Japa was never established either. Even if it is there, vengeance is reserved to God and not to the victims of murder, in Christian theology. The concept of the dead victims having right of vengeance over the murderer thus seems contrary to precepts in Christianity.



Assumption 2

[15] Assume that the souls are not vengeful. Xena's overwhelming guilt then, which was obvious when she said she was "guilty of an even greater evil", is the driving force, which causes her to ignore questioning the loopy idea of the fate of her victims. This is one of the saddest things about Xena in her remorse: she loses her skeptical and suspicious nature.



State of Grace

[16] Let us ignore whether the dead souls are vengeful or not for the moment. What does 'state of grace' mean? Britannica Online discussed the phrase in terms of Christian theology. It was also under the subject heading of 'justification'.

(See justify - 2. To declare free of blame; absolve. 3. To free (a human) of the guilt and penalty attached to grievous sin. Used of God. )[Note 03].

[17] Justification or justify leads to 'absolve', and thus absolution.

avenge (1: to take vengeance for or on behalf of 2 : to exact satisfaction for (a wrong) by punishing the wrongdoer).

[18] By substitution of 'absolution' for 'grace' and 'avenge' for number two of the meaning of justify, one gets the following:

"But for those souls to enter into a state of absolution, they must exact satisfaction by punishing the wrongdoer."

[19] So Xena is saying she must stay dead to be punished for killing all those 40,000 people so the very same victims can absolve (or forgive) her of her crime.



Vengeance

[20] One of the themes of the show has been that vengeance is bad for the person(s) who wish to inflict it on a wrongdoer. Does this mean that vengeance now is good because it permits the dead souls to forgive her as long as she stays dead? Xena is willing to succumb to it. Why was not this vengeance good as well for Melus in CALLISTO? Or for Belach in the LAST OF THE CENTAURS?

[21] If the souls are not vengeful, then it must be a rule of this particular Land of the Dead that a criminal must stay or be dead to be punished. Does that make vengeance right? For that matter, why is death the only path to absolution? Lest Xena realize the arbitrariness of the situation, there is the matter that if she is returned to life, "Their souls will be lost forever." Lost how? Would they dissipate into the ether? Be trapped on a different plane of existence? Vaporized? Placed in a different land of the dead or underworld? It is not clear what was meant other than there is some threat to some undefined state of being and the story makes no allowance for explaining what could happen to the souls.

[22] I discussed this with a friend who liked the finale and was happy that Xena obtained her redemption. She saw the 'state of grace' and 'lost' phrases in terms of the souls heading for damnation if Xena did not stay dead, and this may be what Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart intended. However, she also believes that just one good act a person does redeems them. Xena has never believed that, apparently, or she would not have spent six years of her life looking for her redemption.

[23] If the state of the 40,000 souls depends on some sort of retribution or punishment inflicted on their killer, is this part of an existing belief system or religious faith? I turned to someone who has a degree in religious studies and, to her knowledge, no such requirement is an element of any known belief system. A case might be made for suicide and the Catholic belief that one is doomed to damnation if one kills him or herself. Suicide is an exception to the rule given above; i.e., that the killer is not the determiner of the fate of the killed in the afterlife.

[24] Suicide thus may be grist for the practice of the producers who take one facet of a culture and twist it into a device that fits their current needs. If so, then this fracturing of a belief is fraught with complications. For example, one custom that was reinvented was the use of mendhi. In normal life, mendhi is used on special occasions, especially weddings, to signify good fortune. In BETWEEN THE LINES, mendhi became an instrument of power, of magic, to save Xena and Gabrielle's lives. Overall, it was a harmless reworking of the use of the custom.

[25] In contrast, the reworking of suicide to create a rule that the perpetrator of a killing becomes the instrument of the outcome of those he or she killed is more problematic. Everyone has some sort of belief about life after death. This is an individual, personal decision or opinion, but is often taught in relation to some sort of religious tradition. In a large proportion of belief systems, the fate of each individual in the afterlife depends upon the person's faith or how each individual lives his or her life. If a rule is presented that violates the expected rules of the afterlife, then the device becomes unrecognizable and potentially unbelievable. This is what happened to the plot device that Xena had to stay dead to save the lost souls. It turned the reasoning so much on its head that it made the logic unbelievable. Getting into the afterlife is determined by how one lives, not how one dies or who killed him or her. Tie that to Xena inadvertently causing the deaths of the entire inhabitants of the village and the force of her sacrifice is diluted, even lost.



Akemi and Yodoshi, Two Peas in a Pod

Would you mind turning around so I can stab you in 
the back with this?
Akemi had a plan right from the start.

[26] As a test, let us apply the rule to Akemi and Yodoshi. Akemi killed her father just as Xena killed those 40,000 souls. Yodoshi ought to have avenged himself to forgive Akemi for killing him. However, it appears he did not, trapping the souls, including Akemi and thereby not entering a state of grace. However, we know he was not "lost", based on the usage of the term in the episode. Was this because he was drinking from the Fountain of Strength? We have been led to believe there is only one way for souls to continue in some sort of state of being. What if there is a choice? Do the 40,000 souls have a choice? What if only some of them decide not to enter that state of grace? What would happen to them? Could any or all of them drink from the Fountain of Strength? Would it make any difference as to whether they remained "lost" or not?

[27] There are too many questions and not enough answers. While the questions may seem petty and hair-splitting, they arise from a real failure to properly establish the nature of Xena's two or three lines regarding the dead souls' state of grace and the jeopardy of being lost. Based on the information we were given, Xena's explanation is so shaky that it is unbelievable. However, Xena accepted the explanation without her usual suspicion, probably because she was overwhelmed with remorse and guilt. Assume Xena committed ritual suicide and therefore made an apology for her personal failure of killing those 40,000 people. What is the point of such an act of contrition if she takes it back by returning to life? This is more sensible and would explain Xena offering to stay dead as her punishment, just as she offered herself for punishment in LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN. Guilt and remorse drove her to accept prison just as guilt and remorse drove her to stay dead.



Justice?

[28] Is there justice in this any of this? Perhaps there is for the 40,000 villagers, but not for Xena. The show discussed at length vengeance, retribution, redemption, and forgiveness but said little about justice. The ideal of justice includes the concept of clemency or forgiveness.

[29] SINS OF THE PAST and CALLISTO were aired before FRIEND IN NEED and the fans were told that they would have special significance to the series-ender. Consider the following dialog from SINS OF THE PAST, where Xena meets her mother the second time after being thrown out of Cyrene's tavern:

Cyrene: I don't think anything'll ever take away the shame and sorrow you've brought on your kinsmen. Xena: Probably not. But I'm gonna spend the rest of my life trying.

[30] The lines indicate that Xena has done many evil deeds, but she plans to overcome what she had done and what she was. The search for atonement is also inferred by Xena's statement that she would "spend her life trying" to remove the effects of her past deeds. The premise of the show was that the process of seeking redemption was equally as important as reaching atonement. The dialog suggests this was true.

[31] Contrast the above lines with the following ones from an unknown version of the script (courtesy of Whoosh):

Cyrene: Oh, I suppose you're a fighter for justice now. Xena: Yes. Cyrene: Well, you could prove your new interest in justice one way. Kill yourself.

[32] The dialog from the draft script above is indicative of Rob Tapert and RJ Stewart's thinking at that stage of the series, before deciding to soft-pedal the scene. If those lines had been left in, it would have been more appropriate to say the series had come "full circle". Despite the fact that the scene in which Cyrene advises Xena to kill herself was never aired, it appears that it was the original conception, because Xena's decision to stay dead in the finale is suicide and is thus full circle.

[33] Cyrene forgives Xena, while the villagers do not in this earlier version, but the result is generally the same as the aired version. However, this earlier version is merciless and far less hopeful. Justice thus includes committing suicide to pay for her crimes. In contrast, by the end of the version that aired, both Cyrene and the villagers had forgiven Xena. Redemption was an open-ended state where Xena could find it by living and doing good. Suicide was never made an option, although it could be inferred to be one. Unfortunately, FRIEND IN NEED's ending negates the hopeful message that was established in SINS OF THE PAST and throughout the series. Does Xena deserve justice as well as redemption? Should redemption include justice for the wrongdoer?

[34] Since Cyrene brought it up, justice means:

(2 a: the quality of being just, impartial, or fair b (1): the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2): conformity to this principle or ideal: RIGHTEOUSNESS [Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online]).

[35] Is Xena's punishment just? The punishment should fit the crime and irrespective of the number of people killed, Xena's punishment is harsh. RJ Stewart called Xena a war criminal, but even war criminals are judged on their intent[Note 04]. Xena certainly did not intend to kill anybody, but she is being punished as if she had. Since Xena is imposing the punishment on herself, she will not give herself justice; neither will she forgive herself. The way things have been ordered in the episode, the only thing the 40,000 victims can give Xena is forgiveness. They cannot give her justice. As Gabrielle said, that is not right.



Guilt Wins Over All

[36] The message appears to be that Xena tried the way she first discussed with Cyrene, of righting wrongs, of serving the Greater Good she described to Gabrielle and, in the end, decided it could not overcome her personal failures and guilt. She could not forgive herself while she was seeking atonement, therefore the only way to find it is to be dead. Thus, it makes all those years Xena spent searching for her redemption pointless. After all she has done, if she can only find her redemption in death then she could have spared herself (and us) those six years and died in the beginning, when the villagers of Amphipolis stoned her. She could certainly have had her redemption then and not have been perceived as any kind of hero. It is not much of a leap to conclude that it does not matter how much one does in the present to atone, to attempt to correct those wrongs, or how much good one does. None of it can be taken into account. There are no mitigating circumstances or clemency. This is why so many people have had a sense of hopelessness in Xena's death. It does not matter how hard a person struggles to reach that goal, to rehabilitate oneself, the result is the same as what you should have done in the beginning.

[37] Given the way the story was structured, no other possible conclusion could be reached. Gabrielle framed her objections in the terms of the sixth season, which emphasized the women's relationship as opposed to discussing the issue in terms of the first through fourth seasons, the greater good. How can their relationship measure up to the good of those souls, which are thought to be "lost"? If she had had more time, Gabrielle might have been able to persuade Xena to look beyond her remorse, but Gabrielle was diverted from persuasion by the issue of the state of the 40,000 souls should Xena not stay dead. Then the time ran out.



So Much for the Big Finish

Um, perhaps if you grabbed it instead of the air 
next to it?
Many people found the finale as difficult to grasp as 'ghost-Xena' did her chakram.

[38] Compounding the story structure was the use of misdirection in FRIEND IN NEED II, but that was presumably because Robert Tapert and RJ Stewart wanted a big finish, by surprising the viewer. It was big, but it also blindsided many people. It is no wonder there were feelings of anger and betrayal. The result was the opposite of what many desired and expected, since the only barrier to restoring Xena to life was Gabrielle's physical struggle to fulfill all parts of the task and to reach the Fountain Of Strength. Such an ending is not an outgrowth of what we had seen during the two parts. In IDES OF MARCH, Gabrielle's explosion into violence made sense following her pacifistic way, which had been established beginning with THE WAY. However, the level of fury was not a total surprise, because we had seen it before whenever she thought Xena was dead, such as in THE GREATER GOOD. When Xena's back was broken, Gabrielle went over the top to protect her. The level of violence may be debated, but it was well established that Gabrielle would do whatever was necessary to save Xena. In FRIEND OF NEED II, Xena's explanation came out of nowhere and we have very little to rely on to say, "Yes, this makes sense even if it was unexpected", because no groundwork was laid for it. Perhaps this is the reason so many had such a problem with the ending and can make little sense of Xena's sacrifice.

[39] Xena's solution, staying dead, was wasteful. She could have done so much more. She had a duty to the living after voluntarily serving them as a protector and problem solver, as well as having a duty to those she has killed. She could have found another way. Gabrielle did what she was asked to do. There was a fine bit of tension built up in her race to reunite Xena's spirit with her body. Yet, Gabrielle's reward was to sacrifice her life with Xena for Xena's redemption. Gabrielle, bless her, loves Xena enough to let her have what she seems to want most, redemption through punishment (death); thus Gabrielle accepts Xena's decision. However, Gabrielle now must take up Xena's duty, irrespective of whether that might destroy her. Passing the mantle on to Gabrielle was implicit in the scene where Xena shows her how to put the pinch on, telling her "I want you to know everything I know." Therefore, Gabrielle has to feel an obligation to continue doing the Greater Good by taking up Xena's burden, with only the ghostly presence of Xena for help.

[40] For all the reasons and questions I have given above I doubt I shall ever be reconciled to the finale. It may be I am taking the uncharitable view. As a ghost, Xena no longer has to worry about making the wrong choices or bumping up against any more of her past evil deeds. She has no more concerns about dying, either. She gets to hang with Gabrielle. She has the bliss of her redemption. What is not to like? Unfortunately, I am not able to find the ending glorious or poignant. Rather, I find it tainting the pleasure of watching all the previous episodes, and frankly, there is no joy in that.



Notes

Note 01:
Miller, David, Samurai Warriors, p. 45, 2000, Pegasus Publishing Ltd.
Return to article

Note 02:
Britannica Online,
http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=72027&tocid=0
Return to article

Note 03:
American Heritage Dictionary Online,
http://www.bartleby.com/61/83/J0088300.html
Return to article

Note 04:

crimes against peace-i.e., the planning, initiating, and waging of wars of aggression in violation of international treaties and agreements; (2) crimes against humanity-i.e., exterminations, deportations, and genocide; (3) war crimes-i.e., violations of the laws of war; and (4) "a common plan or conspiracy to commit" the criminal acts listed in the first three counts.
From Nuremberg Trials, Britannica Online.
http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=57944&tocid=0&query=nure mberg%20trials
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Biography

Vivian Sheffield Vivian Sheffield
I was born and raised in Michigan and attended Michigan State University. I am, I think, two degrees of separation away from Lucy Lawless, since I was on campus at least one of the years Rob Tapert was also attending, although in a different degree program. My current occupation is as an information technology analyst.
Favorite episode:THE PRICE, THE DEBT I AND II, A GOOD DAY, AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SEIGE, THE RING TRILOGY and YOU ARE THERE, to name a few
Favorite line:No single line, but "Yeah, but with a really big sword" comes close
First episode seen:CALLISTO
Least favorite episode:A FRIEND IN NEED II, the last five or ten minutes only




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