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 13 and 14 on the list.
13. Season 3, Episode 11: “Maternal Instincts” (Aired: 01/26/98 | Filmed: 06/18 – 06/27/97)
Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship is strained after Callisto manipulates Gabrielle’s daughter into killing Xena’s son.
Written by Chris Manheim | Directed by Mark Beesley | Production No. V0405
There were spoilers in the above TVGuide synopsis, so if you’ve read this far, you’ve already been spoiled. Might as well stick around as I spoil some more! This is probably Xena at its most tragic. Xena’s screaming over the body of her dead son is probably the most heart-wrenching moment of the entire series. However, there are so many delicious moments in “Maternal Instincts,” which is actually a quieter episode (at least in the beginning) than most, despite the horrendous events that soon follow. Though some major shit goes down, the episode is ALL about the relationships between our main characters. And that always makes for good storytelling.
Xena and Gabrielle return to the Land of the Centaurs where Xena reunites with her son, Solan, and Gabrielle reunites with Amazon Queen Ephiny. Meanwhile, Hope, who has grown into a tween since Gabrielle left her in the basket, frees Callisto from the lava pit. Hope visits Gabrielle pretending to be the innocent “Fayla” and tells her that Callisto is free and knows Xena’s secret. Xena recognizes that Solan is in danger, and tries to get him to hide. Gabrielle soon discovers that Fayla is Hope but doesn’t let on. As Xena and Gabrielle stall Callisto from getting to Solan, Hope murders his adopted father, Kaleipus. Xena agrees to let a grieving Solan travel with her, while Callisto reluctantly agrees to let Hope kill Solan while she focuses on the other children. “Fayla” returns to Gabrielle and confesses Callisto’s plans to kill the kids. Gabrielle reveals to Hope that she’s her mother, sending her to Kaleipus’s hut with Solan, where Gabby thinks the two will be safe. Xena and Gabrielle fight when Xena learns the identity of the little girl. She rushes to the hut and finds Solan dead. Hope tells Gabrielle that Solan was already dead when she entered, but Gabrielle catches her in a lie. As an angry Xena fights Callisto and traps her in a cave, Gabrielle poisons her daughter. At the joint funeral for Solan and Hope, Xena refuses to speak to Gabrielle, and the two walk away from each other.
With many casualties, the Rift between Xena and Gabrielle climaxes here. We’re supposed to be torn between Xena and Gabrielle’s contrasting sides, but this episode makes it so difficult to forgive Gabrielle, who not only lied to Xena about saving Hope, but could have at multiple times revealed the child’s identity and spared Solan’s life. Yes, Gabrielle doesn’t believe Hope should be considered evil until proven evil, but the deception makes her an accomplice to Solan’s murder. However, Renée does a good job here of making the audience buy and understand the character’s point-of-view. Unfortunately, her best moments come after it’s too late: when Gabrielle secretly realizes that Hope must die, and when Gabrielle briefly considers killing herself after she has killed her child. That last moment alone almost excuses Gabrielle’s betrayal, as we see just how much pain she’s really in. Your heart breaks at the end when Gabrielle knows that she’s not only responsible for all THREE deaths, but that she’s lost her best friend as well. (Interesting to note that Gabrielle doesn’t become angry until the next episode, a point which is necessary for Illusia and the events that transpire in “The Bitter Suite.”)
But Xena’s pain is shown so devastatingly here that, and I’m sure there are fans who will disagree with me, it makes Gabrielle’s pale in comparison. Her screams are chilling, as is Callisto’s initial joy and then sudden emptiness. Callisto has finally gotten her revenge on Xena and now feels nothing, essentially completing the character’s arc. What’s great about this script and Hudson’s performance is that we even feel bad for Callisto, whom we really shouldn’t sympathize with! And Xena’s rage is brilliant — angry Warrior Princes is always a highlight for me and watching her viciously impale Callisto with arrows is thrilling. I love the drama between Xena and Gabrielle in the last two acts, but I think this episode’s finest facet is the resolution between Xena and Callisto, which is one of the series’ most dynamic relationships. “Maternal Instincts” is wonderfully melodramatic, but not for new fans. Newbies, if you’re really interested in this one, I’d at least suggest watching “The Deliverer” and “Gabrielle’s Hope” first.
14. Season 5, Episode 14: “Amphipolis Undier Siege” (Aired: 02/14/00 | Filmed: 1/10 – 1/20/00)
Athena wages war on Xena’s hometown of Amphipolis in an effort to kill Eve and stop the Twilight of the Gods.
Written by Chris Black | Directed by Mark Beesley | Production No. V0919
Last week I covered “Antony and Cleopatra,” which was written before Xena’s pregnancy, but re-written and produced after Lawless had returned from maternity leave. This episode, which unlike “Antony” incorporates elements of Season Five directly into the story, takes everything we’ve loved about the series pre-baby and presents it in a way that doesn’t have to ditch the baby, but instead uses it as an asset to the storytelling. For that reason — the episode’s ability to make lemonade out of lemons — “Amphipolis Under Siege” is the strongest episode of the entire fifth season!
On the road to Amphipolis, Xena fends off some of Athena’s warriors, including Ilainus, the goddess’s right hand woman, and learns from Ares that Athena is now on the hunt for Eve. (Her birth was prophesied to bring the end of the Olympian order and now all the gods are after her.) Athena’s armies have surrounded Amphipolis, but the townspeople are committed to protecting the child and fostering the message of Eli. When they refuse to give the child to Athena, she wages war on the city. A battle leaves many townspeople dead and Xena learns that Athena has poisoned the water. Desperate, Xena goes to Ares’ temple and hopes to make a deal — if he protects Eve, he’ll get Xena’s “sword and the body that wields it” — essentially offering him the child he wanted in the previous episode. As Gabrielle gives a passionate speech to the disillusioned farmers, Ares visits Athena and tries to get her to comprise. She refuses, and Ares returns to seal the deal with Xena. But their lovemaking is interrupted by the sounds of battle. Xena enters the battlefield prepared to sacrifice Eve. However, before Athena can kill the child, Ares pops in and stops his sister. The battle resumes and Xena kills Ilainus. Athena retreats and Ares wants to collect on his bargain with Xena. But the Warrior Princess reveals that he didn’t save Eve, just a doll wrapped in Eve’s clothing, so the transaction wasn’t valid.
Part of what makes this episode so invigorating is that both its story and its look are more mature than what had been seen all season. In regards to the episode’s look, Xena returns to wearing her iconic leathers, FINALLY shedding that darn maternity outfit. (Although, we’ll see it once more in “Married With Fishsticks,” because that was filmed right before Lawless returned from leave.) Funnily enough, this is a bigger deal than it seems, as the costume change is almost the series’ way of saying, “Yes, we’re back on track and things are going to get better.” Furthermore, we haven’t seen action like this since the season premiere when Xena and Gabrielle were literally caught between Heaven and Hell. Not surprisingly, many shots from this episode ended up in the Season Six opening credits. This episode also boasts an excellent supporting cast. In addition to another welcome appearance by Xena’s quirky mother, Cyrene, we have a HOT and DANGEROUS new villain in Athena — whose three-episode arc makes for one of the few worthwhile things about Season Five.
I think this episode is most extraordinary in the way it handles the relationship between Xena and Ares. In Season One, Ares was presented strictly as a villain. Season Two and Three deepened his character, stripping him of danger and making him more of an obstacle. Season Five decidedly set out to shift things. Ares is used more frequently and his label as a “bad boy” is challenged, as he becomes a *sort of* love interest for the Warrior Princess. This episode takes it farther than any other episode before or after. After confessing his love to Xena in “God Fearing Child,” she decides to sexually manipulate him into betraying his sister by protecting Xena and her child. As Tapert noted, this episode and “Antony and Cleopatra” set the tone for a lot of Season Six episodes, where Xena not only uses sex as a weapon, but is more frequently shown doing things that are “morally ambiguous.” Here, we’re still on board with Xena’s motives and the story works well. For fans of the Xena and Ares relationship, this episode is a must. But even for those (like myself) that don’t “ship” that couple, this is an excellent episode with mature storytelling, fresh characters, and stunning action!
Come back next Thursday for numbers 11-12! And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for another Film Friday post!