R. J. STEWART:
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Special to WHOOSH!
By Deb E McGhee
Copyright © 1997 held by author
A Waste of Film or Did I Miss Something The Last 4 Times?
Gabrielle: One-dimensional Thematic Symbol or Multi-faceted Character?
Joxer and Callisto or "The Ridiculous and The Sublime"
The Subtext vs. "Xena and Gabrielle Like Men"
Gabrielle and Xena in a touching moment
in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39)
 R. J. Stewart is a man of endless contradictions. His writing for XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS has been lauded as best-of-the-best and as the absolute worst. At the time of this writing, A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39) is ranked #1 at Beth Gaynor's Rate-A-Xena website while THE TITANS (#07) is ranked lowest. Stewart created both the adulation-garnering Callisto and the character who launched a thousand arguments, Joxer. He married Gabrielle and Perdicus and he killed Perdicus. He gave birth to what is arguably the strongest female friendship in television history and has threatened to annihilate it on several occasions.
 We may love R. J. Stewart one moment and we may hate him the next but this much is clear: As Stewart is the co-executive producer of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS and has a credited writing hand in 13 of the 46 (28%) episodes that have aired to date, it is important to take a closer look at Stewart's work in order to understand his influence on the show. To give in to the urge to dismiss the man as an agent of evil when his work does not suit our desires is to deny Stewart's very real and very powerful position and, ultimately, is unproductive. This article is an attempt to explore both sides of Stewart's work -- the positive and the negative aspects -- in hopes that we might achieve a more-balanced view.
A Waste of Film or Did I Miss Something The Last 4 Times?
Gabrielle and Argo in a touching moment
in THE TITANS (#07)
 Despite the overwhelming negative reaction of web-surfing Xenites to THE TITANS (Stewart's first solo effort for XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS), this episode has been aired four times over a 14 month period, more times than any other. Perhaps it deserves a closer look. On the face of it, THE TITANS (#07) is pretty standard stuff: Xena gets annoyed by Gabrielle's incompetence; Gabrielle gets left behind by Xena; Gabrielle gets into trouble and creates a big mess; Gabrielle and Xena get scapegoated by ungrateful villagers; the baddies are defeated; the end. As any reader of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS fan fiction knows, these elements are well-ingrained into the Xenite psyche. Ironically then, it seems that Xenites overtly are rejecting the very images that they implicitly accept.
 At a deeper level, THE TITANS (#07) introduces and explores some of the over-arching thematic issues that continue to be developed in later episodes. First, there is Xena's code regarding killing and justice. In the pursuit of the villain, Hesiod, Xena makes a show of dropping her weapons and making it clear that she means to see Hesiod jailed. We thus have an early glimpse of Xena's commitment to bringing criminals to justice, rather than simply killing them outright. The only time we see Xena make a move to actually kill someone is when she raises her sword to Hyperion after it seems clear, at least in Xena's mind, that no other option exists for containing him. This code, seek legal recourse first and kill only when absolutely necessary, has been revisited time and time again over the course of the series and was given its most dramatic treatment by Stewart in CALLISTO (#22) and RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29).
 Next, there is the theme of Gabrielle's hope, optimism, and faith in humanity. Gabrielle dreams of saving the world with the Titans. She evinces a more positive outlook about the goodness of people than her cynical warrior friend and continues to have faith that things will work out well until the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming that it cannot be denied reasonably. Notice that Xena and Hesiod detect Hyperion's treacherousness after only one interaction but Gabrielle has to see Hyperion rip the village apart before she is swayed. Gabrielle is hopeful and optimistic but also a bit on the naive side -- unused to the vagaries of wielding power.
 Other thematic and character issues that are highlighted in THE TITANS are: Xena and Gabrielle's complementarity -- Gabrielle wields the words and Xena wields the sword; Gabrielle's doubt of her worth and consequent striving to prove herself; Xena's difficulties with emotional display; and Gabrielle's use of passive-aggressive means for getting her way.
 The more one thinks about it, the more curious it becomes that fan reaction to THE TITANS (#07) has been so negative -- for Stewart deftly handled a variety of important thematic issues and managed to work in the sly, subtle humor that so many Xenites prefer. Maybe it was because the red-robed acolyte, Philius, did not die? Or because we in the States keep getting this as a repeat when we would really like another chance to catch other first season episode like DREAMWORKER (#03) or THE RECKONING (#06)?
 Or perhaps the negative reactions are because of something even larger than either of those. Perhaps it is hard for us to deal with Xena and Gabrielle not being very nice to one another for most of this episode. Xena can come across as gruff and arrogant and cold and, especially in the first season, impatient with Gabrielle. For her part, Gabrielle has the surprising habit of resorting to less than honest means for getting her way. She is also given to petulance and impulsive retaliation. All of these character traits rear their ugly heads in THE TITANS (#07). For those of us who see Gabrielle and Xena as among the greatest heroes ever, such human frailties are hard to accept. What is more, Stewart gets a great deal of criticism for highlighting these flaws and foibles -- criticism that other writers, for the most part, do not receive. This is most likely because other writers do not highlight Gabrielle's quirks as much, and that is their prerogative. Still, Stewart did create Gabrielle and, though many may not like some of her character traits, as to the television show, they have no choice but to accept his vision of her. Truth be told, I personally prefer a vivid Gabrielle to a flat one that I do not see for a good portion of the episode.
Gabrielle: One-dimensional Thematic Symbol or Multi-faceted Character?
Gabrielle and that guy who knew of Oedipus
in SINS OF THE PAST (#01)
 Lest earlier remarks be misunderstood, let's be clear: Accepting an artist's vision does not necessarily imply agreeing with everything that artist does. Stewart "makes mistakes". That is, he does things that could be seen by his audience as undermining the integrity of his characters, thereby alienating the audience and diminishing the power of his message. Writers who are not fearful of experimenting with and fully exploring their characters have these moments along the way: It is an expected part of the creative process.
 One place where Stewart runs into trouble is in his handling of the symbolic undertones of the Gabrielle character. When viewing Stewart's work, one might ask the question: Is Gabrielle little more than a symbol of hope or is she a full-fledged human being with real human desires and frailties? To be sure, a character can be both symbolic and three-dimensional -- the problem is when a character who was just recently three-dimensional suddenly collapses into one dimension (without the aid of spatial anomalies).
 In THE TITANS (#07), Gabrielle is so full of hope and optimism that she becomes blind to danger and nearly gets everyone killed. It could be my jaded outlook which causes Gabrielle's behavior to look pathetically ignorant and almost unbelievable. Yet, one should give her the benefit of the doubt because she was just fresh out of Poteidaia at that point. On the other hand, Stewart's drive to have Gabrielle be the holder of hope for the future has lead to some unfortunate character turns.
 Let's establish first of all that Gabrielle is a symbol of hope and faith in humanity. The first suggestion of this came in SINS OF THE PAST (#01) when Xena is inspired to take up arms for the cause of Good once she catches a glimpse of the sunlight-haired Gabrielle fighting Draco's men. In addition, near the end of the episode Gabrielle steps into the light just outside Lyceus' tomb and tells Xena that she will not be alone on her path toward redemption. In MORTAL BELOVED (#16), we twice see Gabrielle sitting on the shores of the Alconian Lake, holding a torch, as it were, for Xena. Indeed, it is Gabrielle for whom Xena first searches when she returns from the Underworld -- not her armor or her weapons. Finally, in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29), Stewart has Xena deliver the memorable "Don't let the light that shines out of her face go out" monologue. Clearly, Gabrielle is meant to be both a general symbol and a talisman for Xena.
 Those were the positive portrayals of Gabrielle- the-symbol. As those were moving in a positive, uplifting way, the negative portrayals were just as moving but in a more "someone call a medic!" way. The two most glaring examples of a device-gone-wrong came in A FISTFUL OF DINARS (#14) and RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29). In the former, Xena and Gabrielle argued because Xena believed her former fiance, Petracles, was a low-down dirty dog, but Gabrielle thought Xena was wrong, that Petracles had changed, and that he was a nice guy deep down inside. The resuscitation- necessitating event came when Sears [Steven L. Sears, who co-wrote FISTFUL with Stewart] and Stewart disregarded the relationship that had been built up between Xena and Gabrielle thus far and proceeded to have Gabrielle express her "faith in humanity" by pursuing her best friend's ex-lover behind that friend's back and at the complete expense of Xena's feelings. Many saw Gabrielle's behavior as repulsive and reprehensible. Sears and Stewart almost succeeded in less than 20 minutes in completely dismantling the bond of friendship and trust -- or at least many viewer's belief in it -- that had been so painstakingly developed over the previous 13 episodes.
Gabrielle about to "do" Callisto (but not THAT KIND of "do") in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29)
 A similar, but not identical, event occurred in Stewart's RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29). In this episode, Stewart sought to explore the question: "What happens when Gabrielle's Light starts to dim?". It is an important question and, in the second half of the episode, it could be argued that Stewart accomplished his mission well. The end, however, was not justified by the means and in RETURN OF CALLISTO, Stewart made the unfortunate error of not recognizing the consequences of placing more importance on Gabrielle's symbolic role at the expense of her role in a very deep, pre-existing relationship. To put it plainly, the necessity to have something really bad happen to Gabrielle and to explore how that impacted both her and Xena was a critical step in both the development of the series and the two main characters. To have Gabrielle announce suddenly to Xena that she is taking off for greener pastures while in the middle of a fight with their arch-enemy (and, thus, imply that Xena is on her own from there on out) was neither necessary nor comprehensible from what we knew of Gabrielle's character.
 It is these sort of characterization problems that cause many Xenites to cry out in anger and frustration -- and rightfully so. Unfortunately, the most vivid instances of these character assassinations seem to occur in the context of a heterosexual love interest B-story. This then leads to all sorts of misunderstanding between pro- and anti-subtexters [subtext being the euphemism to refer to scenes and dialogue intimating that Xena and Gabrielle have possibly a more intimate relationship than is presented on screen, i.e. in the maintext], as well as derision of Stewart himself, because of the tendency to impute specific motives to the other side. I would rather leave motives aside and stick to the hard facts of the storylines. Nonetheless, we see not infrequent missteps when it comes to Gabrielle's integrity as a three- dimensional character. Gabrielle need not display her faith in the goodness of humanity by simultaneously recklessly damaging the partnership with Xena. After all, who wants to identify with a person who appears to be so fickle?
Joxer and Callisto or "The Ridiculous and The Sublime"
 If one of Stewart's main concerns has been the tension between the Light and the Darkness (a.k.a. The Good vs. The Bad, The Hopeful vs. The Cynical, the Promise of the Future vs. the Failings of the Past), nowhere has this opposition been so apparent than the contrast between his two creations Callisto and Joxer. Indeed, Callisto is so dark (how dark is she?) that she makes Hades look like a poster child for Euphoria. Joxer, by contrast, is so light and airy that early first season Gabrielle looks like a dour intellectual in comparison.
 The contrasts do not end there. The characters also differ with regard to having direction and purpose in life. Callisto's major goal is to torment and destroy Xena. She has trained hard, raised an army, and possibly spent long hours following Xena all over Greece. True, it is an evil, warped, twisted, and sick goal -- but, nobody's perfect, right? At least Callisto has some sense of direction. Joxer, on the other hand, seems content to be an opportunistic warrior wannabe who has made not one effort to gain the requisite skills. Perhaps Stewart is preparing to tell us in the third season that Joxer is blessed by some god or another because the idea that such a dim-witted braggart could still be alive at his age in fight- every-15-minutes Greece is otherwise unbelievable. How has he survived this long, especially without a Xena protecting him?
 Speaking of intellect and savvy, this is another place where Stewart's characters diverge. Callisto is the Compleat Psychopath: She is cunning, determined, gifted in the art of manipulation, knows all the right emotional buttons to push, and is great with weapons. As depicted in the two stories that Stewart has written, Joxer is the Compleat Idiot. He is misguided, annoying, and insensitive. He barges into situations where he has no business being, acting like a circus clown. If we were to understand that Joxer just does not know any better, perhaps many of the audience would have more sympathy, but the characterization of Joxer is uneven -- it is not clear whether he is supposed to be cognitively diminished or just an insensitive buffoon. In RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29), Joxer tells Xena that he knows she does not think much of him, and he says this with a depth of emotion and sincerity that did not seem possible only brief moments before. Shortly thereafter, however, he slips right back into braggadocio mode. For myself, I do not find insensitive, sexist buffoons funny: That is one of the reasons I watch XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS and not shows like MARTIN.
 Of course, not everyone can be a Xena. Perhaps we should just evaluate Joxer for who he is. That might have been possible had it been clear how it is that Joxer is integral to the plot of the stories in which he appears, as well as to the over-arching themes of the series. Callisto is understandable. She represents not only the diametric opposition to Gabrielle's worldview, but she also challenges Xena's belief in her code and in herself on many levels. In short, Callisto makes us think. She is scary and morally bankrupt but, by the gods, you cannot dismiss her.
Callisto and Joxer during a moment of repose
 I, personally, have yet to come to such understanding and respect for Joxer. I see his place in most of the plots as the convenient, but unnecessary, noisemaker and/or sidekick to Gabrielle. The problem is that Stewart and other writers have done so much better. In CALLISTO (#22), for example, would it not have been potent to see an extra scene with Gabrielle and Melas in which they explored Melas' emotional state and expounded upon Gabrielle's code? (Especially in light of the fact that Melas' experience foreshadows Gabrielle's own in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29).) Instead we were treated to Joxer getting his face bashed in -- repeatedly. I understand the desire to have comic relief, but I have got to say that I found Melas' "She likes to see me helpless in my rage" infinitely more amusing than seeing Joxer getting the stuffing beaten out of him -- even if he is a sexist jerk. Similarly, in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29), Joxer's antics when Callisto confronts him in the barn greatly weaken the impact of Callisto's message. Her words are supposed to heighten a sense of foreboding and danger, but it is hard to feel that at all when what I see is Joxer making a goofy face.
 In short, Stewart has created a masterpiece in the character of Callisto -- a multi-layered, multi-faceted villain who goes straight to the heart on many of the show's themes. Joxer has yet to capture my attention in such a way. I see the character as a worn-out device that clashes severely with the tone of the series. I can only hope that more attention is given to developing the Joxer character in season 3.
The Subtext vs. "Xena and Gabrielle Like Men"
 Xenites use the term subtext to refer to any suggestion that Xena and Gabrielle's love for one another has romantic overtones. There are two types of subtext in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. There is the Monty Python-esque "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" subtext (exemplified by the fishing scene in ALTARED STATES, #19) and there is the if it looks like a Harpy and it screams like a Harpy subtext that is harder to describe but raises your eyebrow nonetheless. Subtextual readings of the latter type come from the viewer's willingness to interpret Xena and Gabrielle's actions through the filter of thousands of other real-life events and artistic depictions which specify that when Person A does Action Y with regard to Person B, nine times out of ten Person A is in love with Person B.
 With regard to the first type of subtext in Stewart's scripts, this appears only in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39), and even there it is relatively subtle (e.g. the hottub scene). The second type runs like a sturdy thread through all of his episodes. A few examples should suffice. In SINS OF THE PAST (#01), one could interpret Gabrielle's latching onto Xena as wanderlust and hero worship, or one could interpret it as love at first sight (c.f., "My hero!" as sighed by the prototypical, swooning fair maiden). In A FISTFUL OF DINARS (#14), one cannot help but wonder, because of the ambiguity of the dialogue, who it is that Petracles thinks Xena is jealous of. Then in MORTAL BELOVED (#16) there is the ever-faithful Gabrielle pining by the Alconian. Callisto gives one the impression that she knows something we do not when she talks about Xena's "precious little Gabrielle" and Gabrielle as Xena's "soul". Then there are those suspicious similarities between Perdicus and Xena that the psychologist in me just cannot help but interpret. To wit, guess who the following describes: Dark warrior who is committed to protecting Gabrielle and whose soul is troubled by all the fighting and killing. When considering DESTINY (#36) and THE QUEST (#37), one wonders which writer's idea it was for Gabrielle to tromp all around ancient New Greeceland dragging Xena's body across rivers and up and down mountains while nursing a leg wound. And which writer's idea was it to include that kiss (you know the one), accompanied by sweeping romantic music? Next there's A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39), in which we find such eye-popping hints as frequent use of the statue of Demeter (goddess of agriculture and marriage) and Gabrielle saying that Xena's not going to get married because "she likes what [Gabrielle does]". Finally, there's ULYSSES (#43) and the scene of Gabrielle in the hammock looking like she just had her heart ripped out by a dull, rusty spade after she hears Xena considering hanging out in Ithaca with Ulysses. Yes, there is gold in Stewart's scripts, believe it or not.
 In his interview with WHOOSH [this issue], Stewart asserts that there are more important issues than sex -- implying to some that to wonder about Xena and Gabrielle's sexuality is to belabor a trivial point. His point may be valid, but it is nonetheless belied by the fact that a heterosexual love interest has been overtly depicted or strongly implied in almost one-third of all episodes and in 54% of the episodes for which Stewart has received writing credit. The only other plot element that has been used more often than "Xena and/or Gabrielle get attracted to a man" is "Xena and/or Gabrielle encounter an evil or misguided person" (occurring in all episodes).
What can we say? She gets around.
 It is interesting to note the progression in intensity of these love interests in the Stewart-penned episodes. Gabrielle kisses Iolaus and Xena kisses Hercules in PROMETHEUS (#08) but Xena and Gabrielle still ride off together at the end. So the bar gets raised a little bit and Gabrielle jumps over it by disregarding Xena's feelings and going after Petracles in FISTFUL OF DINARS (#14) (i.e., by choosing the guy she just met a few hours ago over her best friend). And in case we needed a reminder about Xena's liking of men, what better way to demonstrate it than have her swim to the Underworld at the behest of her "one true love" Marcus? Not to be outdone, Gabrielle marries Perdicus in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29). But Petracles, Marcus, and Perdicus all end up seriously dead at the end of their respective episodes and Xena and Gabrielle go on with their lives. We have a good idea what literature teachers would say about the implicit message therein! Thus, it was understandable and completely predictable that for Xena's next romantic interest (1) she considered giving up her Life's Quest in order to tarry with the guy and (2) the guy did not end up dead at the end of the story. Expect that the next male love interest Stewart pens for Gabrielle will not only not die but that he will stick around for a few episodes.
 In any case, the bottom line is that Xena and Gabrielle's dalliances with men negate only the idea that the two are in a committed, monogamous relationship. They do not, as some would argue, negate the possibility that they have romantic feelings for one another. Hundreds of selections in the romance and romantic comedy sections of one's local video store should suffice to support this assertion: the "love was right under their noses all the time" story has been done to death.
Callisto discussing Xena's soul
in RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29)
 R. J. Stewart has had hits and misses but his message has been consistent. When he is good, he is really really good; when he is not so good, it is painful. Sometimes it is painful because he presents things that we do not want to see. Stewart has consistently come back to the question of Xena's code and her path to redemption and has presented ever- increasing challenges for her to deal with. CALLISTO (#22) and RETURN OF CALLISTO (#29) are masterworks in that regard. Although I remain troubled by Joxer and by Xena's "passive" killing of Callisto -- which seemed vaguely out of character -- those feelings are far outweighed by the unease I have with the "Return of Perdicus" premise and its handling. If nothing else, expanding RETURN into two episodes would have alleviated many of the problems audience members had with that story and curbed the negativity aimed at its writer.
 Stewart also has been consistent in his portrayal of Xena and Gabrielle's basic character traits. The Xena and Gabrielle interactions we saw in A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39) mirror those depicted in SINS OF THE PAST (#01) and THE TITANS (#07). Importantly, though, Stewart has grown and developed his characters along the way. The Xena of SINS never would have played "guess the antagonist" because she was too absorbed in self-recrimination, and Gabrielle would not have been comfortable enough with herself and with Xena to challenge Xena's insensitivity.
 All in all, despite the serious misgivings I have had with some of R. J. Stewart's characters and plotlines, I retain my overall positive regard for his work. Would that every episode were a SINS OF THE PAST (#01), a CALLISTO (#22), or A DAY IN THE LIFE #39). Life is not perfect but, from where I am sitting, XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS is closer to perfection than most. R. J. Stewart has had, and will continue to have, a large part in that.