Whoosh! Issue 67 - April 2002


By Cathy Young
Content © 2002 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2002 held by Whoosh!
13461 words


Introduction (01-03)
The Beginning (04-22)
Digression: Were They or Weren't They? (23-32)
He's Back! (33-35)
He Loves Her ... He Loves Her Not ... He Loves Her ... (36-47)
Abuse or Dark Romance? (48-56)
Unconditional Love and Redemption (57-70)
Digression on Love, Death, and Genetic Immortality (71-75)
After the Twilight: Ares and Xena in Season 6 (76-87)
Digression on Ares and Xena's Dark Side (88-94)
So ... How Does She Feel? (95-103)
What Went Right and Wrong with the Ares/Xena Storyline (104-108)



The weird thing is there's sympathy for the character ... because he's done terrible, terrible things, and yet at the bottom of it all, the only way this works is if you believe he truly loves Xena. Rather than simply wanting to get an acquisition back that slipped through his fingers, he does actually deeply love her. -- Kevin Smith on Ares [Note 01]

[01] Of all the storylines on Xena: Warrior Princess, with the exception of the series finale, few have been as controversial as the relationship between the Warrior Princess and Ares, the God of War. The decision by "The Powers That Be" (TPTB) in Season 5 to turn Ares from Xena's adversary into a potential love interest became a cause of much division and rancor within fandom. [Note 02]

[02] Many fans who saw Xena and Gabrielle as a couple viewed this move as part of an effort to "heterosexualize" the show and de-emphasize not only the lesbian subtext but also the bond between the heroes. The controversy was heightened by the fact that the God of War had done awful things to Xena in his quest to bring her back to his fold, from framing her for murder in THE RECKONING (06/106) to having her driven mad in THE FURIES (47/301). In Season 5, he appeared to careen between romantic devotion and sexual extortion. This led to claims that favoring an Ares-Xena romance was tantamount to condoning male abuse of women and betraying the show's feminist message. Meanwhile, Ares-Xena "shippers" saw Ares as redeemed by his love for Xena and many blamed subtexters for the show's failure to take the relationship further in Season 6. [Note 03]

[03] In this essay, I will largely stay away from "subber" versus "shipper" sexual politics. Rather, I shall analyze various aspects of the Xena-Ares story over the course of the series, sometimes within the context of other famous romantic storylines in literature and art.

The Beginning

Hey, I said raise your hand if you're *sure*, not 'fairly certain'!

Ares gets Xena into awkward positions right from the start.

[04] The chemistry between Lucy Lawless as Xena and Kevin Smith as Ares was evident as early in Ares' very first appearance on Xena: Warrior Princess in the Season 1, episode 6, THE RECKONING. The scenes in which Ares tries to lure Xena back into his service were strongly suggestive of sexual seduction. After whisking Xena out of her jail cell into a luxurious room, Ares invites her to change into a dress that he puts on her after she slips out of her shift. Later, he joins her on a bed. In this episode, however, the sexual dynamic seemed to be primarily symbolic of the seductiveness of the dark side of which Ares was an abstract personification. [Note 04] His line, "It burns inside you. I burn inside you. You can feel me there, like a fever" refers to lust for "action and power" more than to plain lust.

[05] Thus, despite the sensual overtones, the War God's interest in the Warrior Princess initially seemed to be mainly professional: he wanted his star employee back on the job. This was even more evident in TIES THAT BIND (20/120), where Ares posed as Xena is missing father and there was no hint of sexual tension. TIES did introduce what would become the recurrent theme of Ares' unwillingness to end Xena's life. When she dares him to kill her, he spares her at the last moment.

[06] In the Season 2 episode INTIMATE STRANGER (31/207), the sexual aspect of Ares' pursuit of Xena is made explicit when, having transferred the dead Callisto's soul into Xena's body, he proceeds to have a passionate encounter with his intended Warrior Queen. However, there is no suggestion of any emotional attachment. In fact, he plans to leave the actual Xena stranded in Callisto's body in Tartarus.

[07] Things take a dramatic turn in the next episode, TEN LITTLE WARLORDS (32/208). Ares loses his godhood when, during his adventure with Xena and Callisto in the underworld, Tartarus escapee King Sisyphus steals his sword. Sisyphus then holds a contest among a group of warlords, ostensibly for the job of God of War, but actually to have them kill each other and supply Hades with their souls in exchange for his release. Xena, still trapped in Callisto's body, runs into a scruffy-looking mortal Ares in a tavern and agrees to help him get his sword back when she learns that without a sitting God of War, ordinary people are unable to control their aggression.

[08] Although Xena's decision to help Ares is certainly not motivated by personal liking but by the Greater Good (and in part by the desire to get her body back), some level of bonding clearly takes place between them in Sisyphus' castle. She finds herself feeling protective toward the vulnerable ex-god while he begins to show unexpectedly appealing qualities. True, the mortal Ares is a bit of a drunken bum when we first meet him. Later on, however, he deals rather nobly with the prospect of his own demise, begging Xena to take over the godhood of war if he does not survive so the job does not fall to one of "those animals". Ares also develops some awareness of the human condition and the costs of violence. He tells Xena that things may be different once he regains his godhood.

[09] Furthermore, Ares in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS may be realizing that he wants the real Xena, not just her physical shell. When she bandages his wounds sustained in a fight with the warlords, he remarks that even in Callisto's body, she still has her touch -- "warm, firm, passionate, yet, at the same time, gentle" -- in contrast to Callisto, who is either a cold fish or wild animal.

[10] At first, Xena's response to Ares' overtures is decidedly cool. She jerks her hand away from his kiss, and after he rather smugly informs her of his romp with her Callisto-inhabited body, Xena states her intent to "take a long bath" once she is back in her own skin. Alas, the kinder, gentler mortal Ares is still no gentleman. She is skeptical about his ability to change: "As much as I'd like to believe you, even if you believe it, all bets will be off once you get your godhood back." However, when Ares replies, "I think you might be surprised by the change you can inspire in a man, or a god", Xena appears to be moved. The two exchange a tender look that could be a prelude to a kiss, but are interrupted by a warlord who bursts in and then drops dead with an axe in his back.

[11] In retrospect, this scene may be regarded as the series' first "shipper" moment, and the entire episode, perhaps, as the genesis of the Ares-Xena relationship in Seasons 5 and 6. For the first time, we see a "humanized" Ares with some potential for goodness brought out by mortality, but also, maybe, by his feelings for Xena.

[12] In the end, however, Xena's skepticism seems to be justified. Upon regaining his godhood, Ares reverts to his cold and cruel self, and he allows Xena to twist in the wind a little before switching her back into her body as promised. The next time they meet, in the Season 3 premiere, THE FURIES (47/301), (THE XENA SCROLLS (34/210) will not be discussed in this paper [Note 05]), the God of War repays her kindness with another dastardly plot to win her back. This time, Ares turns the Furies on Xena for failing to avenge her father's death, and goads Xena to murder her mother Cyrene, who, it turns out, killed Xena's father to stop him from killing little Xena.

[13] But does Ares really remain unchanged? While there is no doubt that he is a nasty piece of work in THE FURIES, and his actions are horrendous, there seems to be a new element of (absurd though this may sound) affection in his manner toward Xena. When he stops her from hurling herself off a cliff, one senses that he is not merely protecting his investment in his favorite warrior but, in his own twisted way, actually cares about her. The interaction between them appears much more human than it was before TEN LITTLE WARLORDS.

[14] In the opening scene of THE FURIES, we get our first hint that Ares' interest in Xena has become a fixation: "You're obsessed with her," the Fury Alecto purrs somewhat jealously. "Call it what you will", he replies tensely, a flicker of emotion in his face suggesting that Alecto has hit a sore spot.

[15] One cannot discuss THE FURIES without mentioning the question of whether Xena may be Ares' daughter. The Warrior Princess wriggles out of her predicament by telling the Furies that she has no obligation to kill Mom because her real father is alive, and is none other than the War God himself. To prove it, she fights Ares and beats him, convincing her tormentors that she must be half-god.

[16] The Daddy Ares theory has its proponents and some critics of the Xena/Ares relationship in Season 5 have accused TPTB of ignoring the incestuous implications created by their earlier storylines. [Note 06] However, the ending of THE FURIES absolves Ares of Xena's paternity about as conclusively as a DNA test. After the miffed Furies depart, Ares asks, "You don't really think I'm your father, do you?" and Xena replies, "It doesn't matter. The Furies think you are, that's all that counts." In the mother-daughter chat in the final scene, both assume that Xena's father is Cyrene's dead husband:

Cyrene: Xena, your father... I took him away from you.
Xena: I kept hoping that maybe I'd run into him, somewhere. Understand -- understand myself. I know that will never be. [Note 07]

[17] Another interesting question arising from THE FURIES is whether Ares allows Xena to beat him in the contest in front of the Furies. If Xena is not a demigod, she should not have been able to win. Does Ares decide to reward her brilliant stratagem of claiming him as Daddy? Does he, deep down, have a soft spot for her? Is he worried about the damage he could do to her if he used his full power? Perhaps that is why Ares gets such a nervous look when Xena challenges him, prompting Alecto to ask what he is afraid of. Or could it be all of the above?

[18] The possibility that Ares may be looking out for Xena comes up explicitly in THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN (49/303), which also first mentions Xena's uncanny ability to sense his presence. When the god warns his new protege Agathon not to underestimate Xena as others have, the brash young warlord retorts, "No, no, no, no, War God, nobody underestimates Xena. They underestimate you. You've got a hot spot for the killer babe, and when push comes to shove, you follow your, uh, lower instincts, know what I mean?" Ares laughs and says, "You are smarter than you look." He does promise not to intervene on Xena's behalf, but when Agathon replies, "Good ... 'cause I'm gonna kill her," the God of War does not look pleased. Later, he visits the Warrior Princess to deliver a warning: "Give this up, Xena. I'm not gonna make any deals this time. I promised Agathon I would not interfere. If you attack, he's gonna kill you." Furthermore, note the implication that he has made "deals" in Xena's favor before -- in the business with the Furies, perhaps?

[19] Throughout THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN, Ares' behavior is ambiguous. We do not know if he is trying to stop Xena from messing up his plans or from getting hurt. When push does come to shove, he does not intervene as promised, and thereby allows Xena to kill Agathon. Maybe he is simply swayed by her argument that a warrior whom he has to bail out is not worthy of his patronage, which would mean that his earlier warning to Xena was indeed for her benefit, and not Agathon's. Perhaps there is something more going on as well.

[20] In Season 3, these tantalizing hints never developed into anything substantial. While the War God appeared in eight episodes, including another turn as a rather likable, if somewhat gutless, mortal in THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER (56/310), he was often reduced to a plot device. From Gabrielle's betrayal of Xena in THE DEBT (52/306) to Xena's murderous attack on Gabrielle in THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), Ares became the whipping boy who took part of the blame for the heroes' offenses against each other. The only sensuous interaction between Xena and Ares that year occurred in THE BITTER SUITE with Ares as a fantasy figure in Illusia.

[21] The two-part season finale, SACRIFICE (67/321, 68/322), rankled many Ares fans by having the God of War ally himself with the evil god Dahak and his daughter Hope after failing to persuade Xena to join him in fighting the pair. But as always, ambiguities abound. Ares emerges here as the ultimate survivor, an opportunist who is willing to kneel before Dahak to save his hide but may well be playing his own game. When Ares tells Gabrielle that if she does not stop Xena from killing Hope, Xena will die under a deal he has made with the Fates, is he protecting Hope or making sure Gabrielle is the one who kills her? When he brags to Xena and Gabrielle about having sired Hope's demon child, is he genuinely gloating, or putting on a show for Dahak while priming Gabrielle for the kill? The suppressed emotion in his voice as he bids Xena good-bye and says, "It's been fun" is unmistakable. Yet, by the end of SACRIFICE, with Gabrielle seemingly dead, the gulf between the Warrior Princess and the God of War seems wider than ever.

[22] In Season 4, Ares virtually disappeared altogether, and probably for reasons no more complex than Kevin Smith's numerous engagements on Hercules and Young Hercules. Ares only appears for a few throwaway minutes in the undistinguished uber, DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN (90/422).

Digression: Were They or Weren't They?

[23] Before moving on to Season 5, I would like to address a question that has perplexed many viewers. How well did Ares and Xena know each other before the Warrior Princess turned away from the dark side?

[24] When the God of War appears in Xena's jail cell in THE RECKONING, both seem to act as if it were their first meeting, aside from the earlier sword fight when she caught him attacking the villagers. "You're probably wondering who I am," he says. True, he has been wearing a hood, but Xena does not seem to recognize his voice either, though she does figure out who he is. Her remark, "I used to wonder what you looked like," further suggests that she has never laid eyes on him before. While Ares says that he wants her back and that he has "missed" her, he may be talking about her having been "with him" in a symbolic sense when she served War. In support of this theory, it should be noted that none of the "Evil Xena" flashbacks show her with Ares.

[25] Numerous subsequent episodes, however, refer to direct contact between them in her warlord days. In THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN, Ares tells Xena that Agathon is very much like "the young Xena I took under my wing".

Xena: That can't be good for you. I wasn't the easiest warrior you ever dealt with.
Ares: No, no, you never let me get away with anything. You had the nerve to question me and you never took what I said at face value.

[26] In the same episode, Agathon calls Xena "the former number one Ares femme". CHAKRAM (92/502) leaves no doubt that Xena's trademark weapon was a gift from Ares, who admits stealing it from the Eastern War God, Kal. In SUCCESSION (93/503), Xena makes a rather unambiguous reference to her old days with Ares. After tricking her adversary Mavican, the War God's right-hand woman wannabe, into asking for Ares' help and ensuring that he gives up on her, she explains to Gabrielle, "Years ago, Ares said to me that anyone who asked for his help doesn't deserve it."

[27] There are also hints that the past relationship between Ares and Xena may have been more than professional. In SUCCESSION, he refers to her as his "old girlfriend". When wooing her in ETERNAL BONDS (103/513), he says that he wants "to have things the way they were before". Then there is the somewhat cryptic comment made by Xena in LIVIA (110/520), after she catches Ares almost in flagrante with her long-lost daughter. When Ares tells her that he did not know who Livia was and "it wasn't personal", Xena replies, "It doesn't get more personal than when you corrupt my daughter the way you did me". It is not clear if she is referring to sexual corruption or to the fact that Livia/Eve has become a vicious killer under Ares' tutelage just as Xena did.

[28] AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE (104/514) suggests another scenario. Evil Xena and Ares did know each other, and he pursued her sexually, but without success. When Xena, ostensibly, offers herself to Ares, he says, "I have desired you from the very first time I saw you in battle. And now, after all these years, after all these games, the cat and the mouse, will I, won't I - 'Ares, I'm yours, take me'?" Since the "Good Xena" has never given Ares any reason to believe she would, unless one counts the moment in THE RECKONING when she pretends to accept his offer, the game-playing he talks about must have taken place when she was his protegee.

[29] Another fascinating possible clue to Xena's past with Ares can be found in the Hercules/Xena crossover episode, ARMAGEDDON NOW II (H73/414), which aired during Xena's third season. After Iolaus follows Callisto back in time but fails to stop her from killing Alcmene and preventing Hercules' birth, he tracks her to her next stop, just before Evil Xena's troops ravage Cirra. We see Xena in her tent, abusing a groveling king who has come to pay her tribute and chatting with the God of War, who sits behind her. While this scene takes place in an alternate time-line in which Hercules was never born, it happens at a point in time when Xena was still a vicious warlord in the "real" world as well, before she would have met Hercules and seen the light. Until then, her life in the alternate universe should have been no different than it "really" was, and if so, the scene can be regarded as an Evil Xena flashback showing her with Ares. The only possible counter-argument is that in a Herc-less universe, Ares would have had more time and energy to play with his "number one femme". Yet surely, his skirmishes with Hercules could not have kept him that busy.

[30] ARMAGEDDON NOW II originally was to have featured another scene between Ares and Warlord Xena that was left on the cutting-room floor, much to the chagrin of Xena/Ares fans. A Creation Entertainment photo from this scene shows Ares, evidently wearing nothing but a dreamy expression on his face, with his legs draped around Xena, who is adjusting her leathers and smiling a catlike smile. Obviously, a scene cut from an episode cannot be considered a part of "canon", but it still raises the question of whether Xena and Ares were almost shown to have been lovers.

[31] Maybe not quite. Later in ARMAGEDDON NOW II, when Iolaus comes to see Ares in an alternate present in which Xena the Conqueror rules the entire known world, his mention of Xena elicits a curious reaction from the War God: "Xena! Xena, Xena, Xena, Xena, Xena, Xena, Xena -- the sound of her name excites me! Cruel, heartless, merciless -- Xena!" he roars in what sounds like frustrated passion. So maybe Evil Xena did, as Ares' words in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE imply, torment her patron with cat-and-mouse games -- possibly, as they said in the 19th Century, allowing him some liberties while withholding the ultimate favor. After all, we do not know exactly what went on in that cut scene. It could have been Ares saying, "So, when are we going to actually do it?" and Xena replying, "Let me think... maybe Saturday, if you help me conquer that next town?"

[32] For the record, I find the "heavy petting" theory of the past relationship between Xena and Ares to be the most convincing. As for the dialogue in THE RECKONING that suggests that they had never met before, it certainly would not be the first or last Xena inconsistency.

He's Back!

Hey!  I'm up here!

Ares and Xena turn up the heat in CHAKRAM.

[33] In the second episode of Season 5, CHAKRAM, Ares returns as a suave, charming manipulator. Xena, crucified by the Romans, has been resurrected by the Eastern mystic Eli with her "dark side" missing. This makes her a perfect tool to get the "light chakram", a god-killing weapon coveted by both Ares and Kal that can only be taken from an altar by a completely pure soul. However, Ares is clearly interested in Xena for more than her chakram-retrieving abilities. "It's all about you and me, Xena. Not Kal, not even Zeus", he says in the famous scene in which the innocent Xena stuns him by unselfconsciously standing up in her bath. At the end, when Xena fuses the light chakram with her old dark one, neutralizing its god-slaying power and coincidentally restoring her former self, Ares seems far less upset by the foiling of his plans than pleased by the return of the "real" Xena - "Smart move. Brought you back".

[34] Before long, however, things between Xena and Ares get much less friendly. In SEEDS OF FAITH (99/509), Ares, worried about the prophecy of the Twilight of the Gods, seeks to squelch a movement led by Eli that encourages people to stop worshiping the Olympians, and finally kills the prophet of love. Xena goes after Ares with yet another god-slaying weapon, the Dagger of Helios, but finally lets him live, realizing that to avenge Eli's death with violence would undercut his message of peace. Ares then turns the dagger on Xena but spares her after she tells him that, by making her a martyr to Eli's cause, he will only strengthen it.

[35] If there is any affection between Xena and Ares in SEEDS OF FAITH, it is deeply buried. Even their mutual inability or unwillingness to kill each other seems based mainly on practical considerations. Who would have thought a mere two episodes later, we would be seeing the seeds of romance?

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