He Loves Her ... He Loves Her Not... He Loves Her...
Initially distracting Xena, Ares later gives up his immortality to save Gabrielle and Eve.
 The episodes from GOD FEARING CHILD (105/512) to MOTHERHOOD (112/522) form the Twilight of the Gods arc on Xena: Warrior Princess. In this arc, we follow the birth of Xena's immaculately conceived child that is prophesied to herald the end of the Olympian Gods' reign, the gods' attempts to kill the child and shatter the prophecy, and finally their defeat. The storyline of Ares' love for Xena develops at the same time and is interwoven with that of Xena versus the gods.
 Throughout this arc, Ares' behavior and motives are riddled with ambiguity. In GOD FEARING CHILD, he first speaks of his love for Xena to Zeus, who wants him to distract Hercules while he destroys Xena and her about-to-be-born child. Ares refuses, even after being told that the child would bring about his own demise: "You intend to murder a woman I'm rather fond of". A few moments later, however, he agrees to take the job, and presumably, to allow or at least risk Xena's death, if Zeus gives him license to kill his hated half-brother. Only when Ares' attempt to kill Hercules is thwarted by Hera and he realizes Hera and Hercules have teamed up to stop Zeus, does Ares goes to Xena and offer his help, telling her that he could live out the rest of his life as a mortal with her.
 The viewer could regard this as a typical opportunistic ploy by Ares, the > ultimate survivor. Does he want to throw in his lot with Xena now that the gods are probably doomed? Or does he wish to lull her into complacency and turn against her? Ironically, the strongest evidence of Ares' sincerity -- for the viewer, not Xena -- comes from how badly he bungles his declaration. After he blurts out, "I have feelings for you, okay? I care about you, d*mm*t... I see your face everywhere!", Xena scornfully challenges him to actually say that he loves her, and he cannot. Worse, as she starts to walk away, he seems to concede it was a trick: "I thought in your present condition you might be a little more gullible". Yet, when she is gone, Ares says wistfully, "I love you, Xena." One would think that if the God of War had been playing a game, he would not have had much trouble saying "I love you" to Xena's face, and would have hardly bothered to say it without an audience.
 The ambiguities continue in ETERNAL BONDS, where Ares appears to be helping Xena one moment and leading her into a trap the next. With three armies of temple warriors on Xena's heels, intent on killing her daughter, Ares again offers his protection -- if he and Xena can be together and have a child. This introduces a new twist to Ares' pursuit of Xena, and another possible ulterior motive: to ensure his genetic immortality now that he faces the prospect of death. Yet, during Xena's battle with the temple armies, Ares literally has baby Eve's life in his hands and releases her unharmed, although killing her would have stopped the Twilight. The expression in his face as he looks back and forth from Eve to Xena clearly says that he is considering it.
 In AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE, Ares does take on his fellow Olympians to defend Xena. "They say blood is thicker than water, but blood runs hardest where love is involved," he tells his sister Athena as he interferes, yet again, to defend a child that he believes heralds his death. But he also continues to insist on a "deal" that includes a sexual relationship with Xena and is eager to take her up on an offer that he himself believes is made out of desperation: "You think she'd really give herself to me to save Eve?" he says to Gabrielle. So complex are the shades of grey in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE that some viewers blame Xena for playing with Ares' feelings to trick him into helping her, while others see Ares as a sexual extortionist smartly foiled by Xena.
 At the end of LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE (109/519), when Ares grieves over Xena's faked death and puts her in a makeshift shrine in an ice cave with Gabrielle at her side, the sincerity of his feelings does not seem to be in doubt. Then comes EVE (111/521), and the tender romantic turns into a snarling bully, demanding that Xena bear him a child as the price of his silence about her now-grown daughter's identity: "You give me what I want or I'll bring down all of Olympus on your daughter's head!" To top it off, he then goads Eve/Livia to kill Xena!
 All this prompted one Whoosh! reviewer, Virginia Kelly, to gloat, "Well, Ares loves Xena my a** and he proves it once and for all here." [Note 08] Yet, the roller-coaster ride is not over.
 In the Season 5 finale, MOTHERHOOD, Ares spends most of the episode working with his fellow Olympians to eliminate Eve. Then, in the final minutes, does prove his love with a stunning sacrifice. As Xena battles Athena on Olympus, the God of War heals the dying Eve at the cost of his godhood, thus restoring Xena's power to kill gods and saving her from death at Athena's hands, and throwing in Gabrielle as a bonus. Thus, Ares finally makes good on the offer he made to Xena in GOD FEARING CHILD and ETERNAL BONDS: to give up his immortality for her. Moreover, he does it without any promise that he will get to spend the remainder of his mortal life with his beloved.
 For some, this was an absurd conclusion to a bad story: "Ares gives a new level of meaning to the phrase: 'I love her. I love her not. I love her...'" sneered reviewer Virginia Kelly, dismissing the "Ares loves Xena plot line" as "completely unbelievable, ludicrous and demeaning". [Note 09] Like some other critics, she found Ares' rescue of Eve particularly implausible given that, minutes earlier, he was about to dispatch her himself and was stopped only by Xena's chakram knocking the sword out of his hand. Yet, it is precisely the ambiguity of Ares' feelings, and the twists and turns in his actions that make this plot line not only fascinating but also completely believable.
 Ares is, after all, the God of War. He is a character established as cruel, manipulative, power-hungry and selfish, which, as he noted back in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS, suits his job perfectly. Love is an alien emotion to him and initially an unwelcome one. "I'm having urges I'm not real proud of", he tells Xena in GOD FEARING CHILD, presumably referring to urges located above the waist. What is more, it is an emotion he has no idea how to handle. Even while showing genuine tenderness, he tries to get what he wants by his "normal" methods of manipulation and coercion. Ares evolves slowly and fitfully toward the capacity for true love, stumbling badly along the way, particularly when Xena's stinging rejection in EVE ("the thought of being with you, having your child ... it sickens me") sends him into a more familiar War God mode of vindictive rage. That this rage comes from pain -- "How does it feel, Xena, to know that the person you love despises you? Trying to reach her, but knowing that in the end, it'll be either her or you?" -- hardly excuses Ares' atrocious conduct here but does make it, to some extent, humanly understandable.
 When Ares joins forces with the other gods to destroy Xena's daughter, he is doing what the entire logic of his being dictates -- he is trying to save his power and immortality. Even so, when he readies himself to deliver the deathblow to Eve, it is with visible regret and hesitation, almost as if some part of him was hoping to be stopped. Finally, when Xena battles Athena as Eve is expiring, Ares faces his moment of truth. If he does not act now, Xena is dead. His love for her, as it were, wages war against the rest of him, and wins.
 This is probably the only way the evolution of Ares could have happened. If, upon realizing that he was in love with Xena, Ares was instantly transformed into a nice sensitive guy, that would have been preposterous indeed.
Abuse or Dark Romance?
 One common critique of the "Ares loves Xena" storyline is that it romanticizes abusive behavior. Some have argued that Ares' actions in LIVIA and EVE, the subtle and then overt threat to put Xena's daughter in mortal peril unless Xena complied with his sexual demands, amounts to attempted rape, and that a man who did that in real life would be a candidate for prison. Interestingly, some viewers who loathed Season 5 Ares accused TPTB ('the powers that be') of turning a "great villain" into "a sexual predator led by his nether regions". They seemed to forget that the clearest example of sexually predatory behavior by Ares occurred in Season 2, when he had sex with Xena's Callisto-occupied body in INTIMATE STRANGER. The anti-Ares backlash seemed driven less by sexual predation than by the portrayal of Ares as having genuine feelings for Xena.
 Of course, if we started to apply the penal code to Xena: Warrior Princess, few characters, starting with the heroes, would be off the hook. [Note 10] But we do not judge fictional characters, particularly in fantasy and myth, by real-life standards. Consider the Norse tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, from the real Ring epic, not the Xena rip-off. After swearing his love to Brunhilde, a Valkyrie-turned-mortal, Siegfried forgets her while under a magical spell, marries a friend's sister, and helps his brother-in-law win Brunhilde in marriage. When the spell wears off, his love for Brunhilde returns but he refuses to betray his wife and his friend. Enraged by Siegfried's rejection, the ex-Valkyrie accuses him of rape and persuades her husband to have him murdered. Then, in mortal grief, she throws herself upon her beloved's funeral pyre and is reunited with him in death. In real life, this would be a sordid tabloid tale of a scorned woman who has her ex-lover killed and commits suicide. In myth, it is an epic romance. In Richard Wagner's operatic version, Gotterdammerung, Brunhilde's self-immolation not only redeems her, but also in a curious similarity to Ares' sacrifice, completes the Twilight of the Gods and brings about a new, redeemed universe.
 Plenty of other classic love stories feature levels of moral ambiguity or darkness at least matching those of the Ares-Xena storyline. In Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare's version), Cleopatra vacillates between love for Antony and political self-interest and often seems ready to betray her lover. Her manipulations contribute to his death, yet the ending still affirms their mutual passion. In Emily Bronte's 19th-century novel Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff reacts to the loss of his beloved Cathy, who marries another man largely for social reasons, by wreaking vengeance on everyone around her. He drives Cathy's brother to financial ruin and a premature death, and has his son raised in ignorance and squalor. He marries her sister-in-law to use her as an instrument of revenge. After Cathy's death, he turns his vengeance on her widowed husband and on her daughter Catherine, whom he forces into a marriage with his son, robs of her property, and physically abuses her. He does not even have a redemptive moment like Ares' self-sacrifice. However, at the end of the novel, Heathcliff does abandon his revenge and chooses not to break up the widowed Catherine's romance with her cousin. Apparently, he does this because it reminds him of his own young love, and because he believes he senses Cathy's presence near him.[Note 11]
 Bronte does not shy away from Heathcliff's fiendishness, yet she makes his love and grief compelling enough to capture the hearts and minds of generations. Some readers have undoubtedly over-romanticized Heathcliff, as did the classic film version that sanitized the character, just as "shipper" fan fiction often sanitizes Ares. But there is little doubt that Bronte, who gave the doomed couple an unforgettable farewell at Cathy's deathbed and an ending which suggests that their bond is resumed in death, intended for Wuthering Heights to be seen as a story of genuine if warped love. It was meant to move and fascinate, though surely not to inspire imitation.
 In many ways, the Ares-Xena storyline fits squarely into this tradition of the dark, morally ambiguous love story. The foreword to one edition of Wuthering Heights, by literary critic Geoffrey Moore, says, "there are few more convincing, less sentimental accounts of passionate love". Without comparing XENA to Wuthering Heights or the Xenastaff to Bronte, it can be said that the show has given us a remarkably convincing and unsentimental account of love awakening in a dark soul. "No man who loves as he loves can be thoroughly evil", Moore writes of Heathcliff. [note 11] Kevin Smith echoes this in his comments about his character: "I think that was the challenge, to say, 'How can someone who is capable of such love be capable of such appalling acts as well?'" [Note 12]
 As befits a dark love story, the Ares/Xena storyline is rich in tragic ironies, perhaps best symbolized by the fact that Ares never properly tells Xena he loves her. He says it when she is out of earshot in GOD FEARING CHILD. In LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE and COMING HOME (113/601), he says it when she is unconscious and he believes her to be dead. The only time he does say it to her face is in MOTHERHOOD, outside the tavern in the rain, when he is apparently working for the gods to distract Xena so the Furies-driven Gabrielle can kill Eve. While some shippers regard this "I love you" as genuine, it comes across as forced -- "I love you. Yeah... I love you," Ares says, as if trying to convince himself of his own sincerity -- and Xena quickly smells a rat. At best, he might be subconsciously trying to tip her off to danger. In any case, this is not a declaration of love for its own sake.
 The exchange in GOD FEARING CHILD where Xena scoffs at Ares' attempt to declare his love and he, out of injured pride, pretends that he was trying to trick her, sets in motion a vicious cycle in which her mistrust provokes him to justify her worst suspicions. In ETERNAL BONDS, Ares mentions his desire to "be a father to Eve ... and to a child of our own". It sounds like a rather sweet romantic/domestic fantasy, but Xena instantly puts a cynical spin on it -- "That's your game! Now that you fear you're checking out, you want a child to carry on your line" -- and Ares seems to confirm her supposition: "I know it's not real immortality, but it's better than nothing". Is Xena on to him, or is he willing to play into the most cynical interpretation of his motives rather than admit to tender feelings?
 In this and other ways, Ares continually reinforces Xena's mistrust of him at those very times when, in his words, he is "trying to be sincere". Consider Xena's Ares-induced dream in ETERNAL BONDS, which can be seen not only as a seduction trick, but also as a way for the God of War to show his more vulnerable side under the protection of a dreamscape. While the real Ares tends to mask his feelings in flippancy, the dream Ares, who, as confirmed by ETERNAL BONDS writer Chris Manheim, in an interview in Chakram #12, is the real Ares insinuating himself into Xena's dream, can say things like "I would sooner die in your arms than live without you in mine". He can also, for the first and only time, ask Xena's forgiveness for what he has done to her. Then, in "real life", he lets on that he has manipulated her dreams, which does not, to quote the Warrior Princess, "help the trust factor."
 In a final irony, Ares' noblest act prior to the end of MOTHERHOOD -- putting the "dead" Xena and Gabrielle in the ice cave -- ends up, arguably, causing his beloved greater harm than his earlier malignant efforts to win her back. Instead of waking up in a few hours when the effect of Death's tears wore off, Xena ends up on ice for 25 years, which robs her of her daughter's childhood and allows Eve to turn into the murderous Livia. Worse for Ares, it allows him to have an affair with Xena's daughter, as if there was not enough baggage between them already. Of course, had Xena been able to trust Ares enough to let him in on her plan, none of it would have happened. However, by then, the cycle of pride and prejudice has gone too far. Yet, out of this vicious circle, something good eventually manages to emerge.
Unconditional Love and Redemption
 Perhaps the essential theme of the "Ares loves Xena" storyline is the triumph of unconditional love. Intentionally or not, CHAKRAM introduces this motif when Joxer asks the dark-side-challenged Xena for advice on courting Gabrielle. The problem, Xena tells him, is his expectation of a response: "If you love her, why don't you just tell her? Don't attach any strings to it. Make it unconditional." For what it is worth, it is highly likely that the God of War overheard this conversation, for he makes his appearance right after Joxer departs.
Ares jumps on and off the fence in GOD FEARING CHILD.
 Starting with GOD FEARING CHILD - "If I'm gonna be mortal ... I could live out the rest of my life ... with you" -- Ares is prepared not only to fight for Xena but also to give up his immortality to be with her. However, his offers always come with a string attached. He will help Xena only if she becomes his lover. The other condition -- a child -- is, in my view, incidental. This attitude is most explicit in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE, when Xena comes to Ares for help as Athena's troops besiege her hometown to make her surrender her baby, and his first question is "What's in it for me?"
 It is not that Ares no longer loves Xena. In their scenes together, his feelings come across as genuine and strong, both because of Kevin Smith's performance and because of the script. Ares seems sincerely concerned for Xena's safety. He clearly wants more than sex and sees them having a future together. He plays no tricks and, as Xena concedes, intends to keep their bargain -- protecting Xena and Eve if he and Xena can be together. He is even willing to intervene on Xena's side before the "deal" is in place. Yet he remains blind to the fact that love cannot be given as part of a bargain, particularly under duress. In my view, both Xena and Ares are behaving badly here, each using his or her advantage to get what they want from the other.
 In LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE, Xena pretends to commit suicide, and Ares watches in horror as his beloved appears to die in his arms. This experience seems to shock him into some remorse and some self-critical introspection. "I handled you all wrong, I know that," he says over Xena's ice coffin. "She [Gabrielle] knew what you needed: unconditional and unselfish love and I couldn't give that to you."
 Upon Xena's return, in LIVIA, Ares has another chance to demonstrate unselfish love and fails again. When he first tells Xena that he knows Livia is Eve, she finally tries to approach him with an honest plea: "Let me take her away. Ares, the other gods don't need to know." Ares responds by reiterating his "deal": "You and me together, a child, and I take Livia's secret with me to the grave."
 Note that Ares is still willing to make a major sacrifice. As his reference to "the grave" shows, he assumes that if Eve lives, he becomes mortal. Nevertheless, there are still strings attached. Worse, he regresses from bargaining, offering to help but on his terms, to threatening. If Xena does not accept his offer, he will give Livia/Eve away to the other Olympians.
 Then, at the end of MOTHERHOOD, the miracle happens. Ares transcends his own nature, his self-confessed inability to love unconditionally and unselfishly, and gives up the two things he cherishes most, survival and power, to save his beloved. Indeed, his sacrifice is arguably far greater than that of a mortal who dies to save his or her beloved. The mortal would have had to face death eventually, while Ares, presumably, would not.
 In the numerous debates about the Ares-Xena relationship, the nobility of Ares' sacrifice has been called into question on two scores:
 (1) Ares expects a "reward". It is certainly true that he hopes to win Xena's love, and his act not only keeps her alive but also presumably improves his standing. However, there is a big difference between hope and expectation. This time, Ares does not ask "What's in it for me". Instead, he saves Xena at tremendous cost to himself, with no strings attached. Nor does he even hint at asking for a reward at any later point. In COMING HOME, he expresses the hope that, as a mortal, he may finally get a chance to be with Xena, but he knows that the chances are small, and that the decision is hers to make.
 (2) Ares should not get much credit for saving Xena because he put her in danger in the first place by leading the Olympians to Eve, so all he did was fix a problem of his own making. Given that the gods in Season 5 were a quart low on brainpower, it is possible that they would not have figured out the identity of Livia/Eve themselves. However, while Ares' share of blame in Xena's predicament may arguably diminish her debt to him, a view Xena herself clearly does not take in COMING HOME, when she says, "We owe everything to him", it hardly diminishes his sacrifice. In seeking Eve's death, Ares acts out of his habitual motives of self-interest. In saving her at a moment when the gods' victory, and thus his immortality, seems assured, he throws away everything he always valued most.
 Ares' healing of Gabrielle -- which, with typically wry cynicism about his own motives, he dismisses as "an afterthought" in OLD ARES HAD A FARM (122/610) -- can be seen as particularly unselfish. However one interprets the Xena-Gabrielle relationship, Ares could surmise that he would have a better chance with Xena if the bard was not around, but he also knows that her death would break Xena's heart. Arguably, of course, he would not have earned Xena's gratitude if he had let Gabrielle die. However, he could have easily told her that his first concern was to save Eve and that by the time Eve was healed, he had no powers left to save Gabrielle.
 If there is one "reward" that Ares does want from Xena at that moment, it is redemption in her eyes. That he gets it, in a touching scene, counts among the series' most beautiful moments. After hugging Eve and Gabrielle, Xena whirls around and looks at Ares with an utterly stunned expression. While the newly mortal and vulnerable Ares stares at her almost fearfully, awaiting her judgment, her look changes to one of tenderness and anguished sympathy. While interpreting facial expressions can be tricky, I believe Xena finally realizes not only how much Ares loves her, but also how much he has suffered. As she warmly thanks him and he acknowledges her "Thank you" with a nod, his face lights up quietly with love and subdued joy. It seems clear that both actors play this as a redemptive moment. Chris Manheim, the Xena: Warrior Princess producer who wrote and produced many of the Xena/Ares episodes in Season 5, has indirectly confirmed that this was how it was meant to be seen. [Note 13]
 One might view Ares' at least partial redemption not only as the culmination of a path first suggested in TEN LITTLE WARLORDS -- "you might be surprised about the change you can inspire" -- but as a continuation of a central Xena theme, a heart consumed by darkness and unchained by love. It is also the series' most credible redemption, next to Xena's own. No instantaneous deus ex machina conversion here, a la Callisto or Eve. Instead, Ares is gradually transformed by a particle of light that lodges inside him -- the capacity to care for another -- and that has to wage a long, hard struggle against the darkness of the God of War.
 Interestingly, a popular subject in Renaissance and classical art anticipates this theme. While Mars and Venus, the Roman versions of Ares and Aphrodite (who were lovers, not siblings, in the ancient myth), embrace or rest after lovemaking, her handmaidens or little cupids steal away with the armor, weapons, and other symbols of war of which Mars has divested himself. It is an allegory called "War Disarmed by Love."