Welcome to another Xena Thursday! We’re continuing with my 60 favorite episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. I’ve been a fan of this series since I was about three years old and believe me–this list was tough to make! If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it was a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and aired in first-run syndication from 1995 to 2001. Taking place primarily in Ancient Greece, the show focused on Xena (Lucy Lawless), a reformed warlord seeking redemption for her evil past by helping others. She traveled with her best friend, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor), an aspiring bard and the chronicler of Xena’s adventures.
I have chosen the best 60 of the 134 produced episodes. Of course, these are all subjective. For those who are familiar with the series, I hope my points-of-view will prove fascinating and perhaps inspire you to reexamine your favorite, or perhaps least favorite, episodes. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this list might spark your interest and give you some places to start. Because the series did so many different things over the 134 episodes, Xena is the type of show that requires multiple viewings to be properly assessed. Though we are starting at the end of the list, the ranking is subjective. If a particular story strikes your fancy, I encourage you to give it a try! In fact, contact me and I will be able to hook you up.
With all that said, let us resume with episodes 15 and 16 on the list.
15. Season 5, Episode 18: “Antony And Cleopatra” (Aired: 04/24/00 | Filmed: 02/10 – 02/17 & 03/01-03/03/00)
When Cleopatra is murdered, Xena assumes her identity to uncover the assassin and protect Egypt.
Written by Carl Ellsworth | Revision by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0904
“Antony and Cleopatra” is sexy, violent, and pushes the series’ overall arc forward. After a season of few hits and many misses, this episode is a breath of fresh (albeit, bloody) air. For the first time since the crucifixion in “The Ides of March,” Xena feels like Xena. Part of the reason for the episode’s success is that it ditches the baby. (Hallelujah!) But if this script feels stronger than most of the earlier Season Five entries, it’s because this one was written BEFORE any of the episodes involving Xena’s pregnancy. (Note the production number — V0904!) When the decision was made to incorporate Lawless’ pregnancy into the series, this episode was pushed back and saved for when she was up to the physical demands. A large and complicated episode, “Antony and Cleopatra” is an A+ Xena spectacle.
Cleopatra is murdered in her bathtub and summons Xena with her dying breath. The two main suspects are Brutus and Marc Antony, both angling for use of Cleopatra’s navy in their war against each other. So the Warrior Princess masquerades as the Queen of the Nile until she can get to the bottom of things. As Xena attempts to seduce Marc Antony, Gabrielle keeps Brutus from finding out that Xena is playing Cleopatra. When another assassination attempt is made, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavius, who was sneaking around the palace, is thrown into prison. Later, as Xena and Marc Antony begin to fall for each other, the pair are attacked by some of Brutus’ men. Back in the dungeon, Gabrielle visits Octavius and learns he’s a well-intentioned man with visions of a Pax Romana. Meanwhile, despite her love for Marc Antony, Xena realizes that he is too power-hungry to be a good ruler. So she promises both Antony and Brutus, who had Cleopatra murdered and has been just power-hungry since Caesar’s death, reinforcements from the Egyptian navy. Gabrielle agrees to go with Brutus as a sign of good faith and the two discuss how much he’s changed. There’s a bloody sea battle in which Xena’s forced to kill Antony when he attacks her for deceiving him about her identity, and Gabrielle finally kills the violent and vengeful Brutus, who realizes that Xena manipulated him too. The episode ends as a still heartbroken Xena gives control to Octavius, who promises to make good for both Rome and Egypt.
“Antony and Cleopatra” launches the series into the final string of Season Five episodes that would forever change the course of the series. (Yes, I’m talking the 25-year leap!) The episode’s emphasis on sex, violence, and beautiful imagery anticipates many of the scripts that were later produced in Season Six. Furthermore, “Antony and Cleopatra” is one of the highlights of the misguided fifth season, excluding the baby and presenting mature characters and themes. This episode is visually amazing from start to finish. (Minus the cheesy Sphinx blue screen shot.) And the story, combing elements of history, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Xena, is excellent. Yes, the Warrior Princess falls in love with a boy, but the heavily sensualized script manages to pull it off without insulting the audience’s intelligence. Antony is handsome, likable, and complicated. Furthermore, it’s a treat to watch Gabrielle literally squirm with jealousy in the bizarre Natalie Merchant scene. Meanwhile, Brutus has hardened and become richly villainous. This is the first time we’ve seen him since the end of Season Four, and the return of that arc is invigorating. (On a side note: You’ll notice that there’s a new Cleopatra here. The actress who played her in “King of Assassins” was then starring in Cleopatra 2525 and was unavailable.)
The dynamic characters and exotic locations make for many standout moments in this episode: Cleopatra’s death in a milk bath, Xena presenting herself to Antony wearing nothing but chains, Gabrielle’s initial confrontation with Brutus, and the latter’s explanation to Xena about crossing “the Rubicon of blood,” are but a few. The epic battle in which Xena and Gab both kill the men they wish they didn’t have to is very powerful and the rage on Gabrielle’s bloody face is particularly unforgettable. But this is Xena’s episode and she rocks it — from lover to killer to Queen and back! The whole episode has a very cinematic feel, and was directed by the extravagant Michael Hurst, who played Hercules’ sidekick, Iolaus. “Antony and Cleopatra” will appeal to seasoned fans who enjoy the characters and their histories, and to new fans who are swept away by the glorious spectacle. It’s a big, beautiful, dramatic episode — a later-season Xena classic.
16. Season 4, Episode 8: “Crusader” (Aired: 11/16/98 | Filmed: 07/27 – 08/06/98)
Xena and Gabrielle are attacked and then befriended by a radiant young woman who preaches about the light, but their budding friendship ends when she later competes with Xena for Gabrielle’s heart and soul.
Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Paul Lynch | Production No. V0613
Season Four is about Xena and Gabrielle’s individual quests for answers to validate and vindicate the choices they’ve made. For Gabrielle, this manifests itself into a renouncement of violence. For Xena, this means spending most of the season questioning her responsibility in the collateral damage done to Gabrielle since they’ve been traveling together. This guilt is amplified by the vision of their deaths that Alti shows Xena in “Adventures In The Sin Trade (II).” “Crusader” does two major things: it reintroduces the vision and its effect on Xena’s conscience, and it introduces Gabrielle to someone who could be better for her than Xena. The only trouble is the woman’s a zealot with a contradictory moral code. Yes, I’m talking about Najara, an expertly designed villainess who not only challenges Xena in matters of good and evil, but also in matters of the heart.
In “Crusader,” Xena and Gabrielle meet Najara, a female crusader whose mission is to eradicate darkness by turning evildoers to the light with the help of the Djinn, an internal voice that guides her along the way. Gabrielle and a reluctant Xena agree to accompany Najara and her men on their quest against Marat, a slave trader. Meanwhile, Xena is haunted by the vision of her and Gabrielle’s death, a detail that the Djinn have shared with Najara. After overhearing a conversation between Najara and Gabrielle, in which the latter admits to questioning her path with Xena, and both express mutual desires in opening a hospice, the Warrior Princess plots to leave Gabrielle with Najara, hoping to spare the bard from a violent death by her side. After Xena tells Najara of her plans, says goodbye to a sleeping Gabrielle, and heads off to capture Marat herself, Gabrielle is initiated into “The Light.” But Xena learns from Marat that Najara’s idea of justice is executing evildoers if they don’t convert to “the Light.” She comes back and confronts Najara, who confirms the claims but refuses to let Gabrielle go back with Xena. The two fight and Najara whoops Xena’s ass. Gabrielle agrees to follow Najara if she spares Xena’s life. Xena tracks them down, reunites with Gabrielle, and turns Najara into the local authorities.
A lot has been said about Najara and the questions she raises about good and evil. But after four seasons of understanding Xena’s moral code, the audience accepts little justification for Najara’s executing unarmed men without a fair trial. Though Najara only “liberate[s] their souls,” we’re still on board with Xena throughout. Especially after Najara defeats Xena — which is both exhilarating and difficult to watch. Meanwhile Xena, though dark and violent, is incredibly selfless in this episode — walking away from Gabrielle upon recognizing that she may be better off with Najara. (YES, Xena dumps Gabby!) Of course, after learning that Najara is not all she appears to be, Xena returns to claim her friend. So while some fans argue that this episode presents Najara as no more morally gray than Xena, the truth is we’re never going to take her side over Xena’s. Najara is a fascinating foe, but only villainous in her strict adherence to the Djinn and “The Light.” My attraction to her as a character doesn’t come from interest in her complicated morality, but rather in how dangerous she is to both our characters.
Though much can be said about both Xena and Najara, I think Gabrielle makes this episode vital. She struggles all season with her path, but refuses to leave Xena, making for some great conflict. This episode deals with that rather bluntly. Gabby, who admits to doubting her current lifestyle and craving “something” else, is taken with Najara and “The Light.” Still, she is unaware of the vision and has no intentions of leaving Xena. The subtle hurt when Gabrielle learns that Xena was going to leave is interesting, because although she and Xena both know that this life isn’t for her, Gabrielle refuses to even entertain the notion of REALLY walking away. (Though when Gabrielle not only converted to “The Light,” but walked away with Najara, many fans were outraged. But I think when Gabrielle realized that Najara was misguided, she only went with her to protect Xena. And I think she expected Xena to come after her. So Gabrielle never intends to leave for good.) Thus the conflict is delicious. And though I love Najara, and think the stuff between her and Xena is excellent, the explicit continuation of the Gabrielle arc is what makes “Crusader” one of the best episodes of Season Four. However, I do not recommend this one for first time viewers; “Crusader” is best appreciated by fans who have followed the series chronologically.
Come back next Thursday for numbers 13-14! And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for another Film Friday post!