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. 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 episode #10 on the list.
10. Season 2, Episode 5: “Return Of Callisto” (Aired: 10/28/96 | Filmed: 07/05 – 07/16/96)
Gabrielle’s consumed by hatred and a desire for vengeance after an escaped Callisto murders her beloved, Perdicus, in an attempt to punish Xena.
Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. V0210
In this powerful follow-up to last season’s brilliant “Callisto,” our favorite vengeful Warrior Queen returns and, as it’s already been spoiled in the TVGuide summary above, kills Gabrielle’s new husband! So this episode not only gives Gabrielle a lot of juicy material to play, but also allows Xena the opportunity to do something that no hero would ever do — execute a villain without a fair trial. (The ramifications for this will, of course, return in “Intimate Stranger,” the episode that was supposed to conclude Callisto’s storyline for good.) In many ways, “Return Of Callisto,” is the bravest episode that Xena produced pre-Rift.
The episode opens with Callisto escaping from her jail cell, and more specifically, the torture chair into which she had been strapped. She kills a bunch of the guards and frees the other inmates. Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle run into Perdicus, Gabrielle’s old fiancé, who they’d last seen at Troy in “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” He tells Gabrielle that he’s through with violence and proposes marriage to her once again. She tells him she’ll think about it. As Perdicus travels with Xena and Gabrielle, Joxer brings news of Callisto’s escape. They hunt down Callisto’s army while she is sacking a village. Before retreating, Callisto vows to kill Xena’s soul. As the battle ends, Perdicus kills a man and throws down his sword — renouncing violence for good. Moved, Gabrielle accepts his proposal and the two are married. Xena continues her pursuit of Callisto while the newlyweds enjoy their honeymoon. But Xena soon learns that Callisto has gone after Gabrielle, and she returns just in time to stop Callisto from killing Gabrielle. However, Callisto surprises them both by killing the unarmed Perdicus. “That’ll do,” she coos as she gallops away.
At Perdicus’s funeral, Gabrielle vows to kill Callisto herself. She demands that Xena give her lessons in swordplay. After many protests, Xena agrees. Later that evening, they come upon Callisto’s lair and make plans to strike in the morning. In private, Xena prays to the gods that Gabrielle doesn’t lose the “light that shines on her face.” Gabrielle hears this and tells Xena that she’s decided to go home and mourn with her family. But while Xena sleeps, Gab sneaks off to Callisto’s lair and holds a sword to Callisto’s throat. However, Gabrielle decides that she can’t take a life, and is captured by Callisto, who plans to burn Gab at the stake while Xena watches. Upon Xena’s arrival, Callisto and her men capture the Warrior Princess and chain her to the torture chair. But when Joxer charges in and distracts the men, Xena escapes and frees Gabrielle. Xena and Callisto duel and their fight continues outside on chariots. They both crash and land in a heap of quicksand. Xena uses her chakram and whip to crawl out, but watches while Callisto begs for Xena’s help until the Warrior Queen ultimately dies. That evening, Xena comforts the grieving Gabrielle.
Even for Xena, this is an action-packed episode. In fact, I rarely say this — but I think this one should have been a two-parter. At least, I wish that Gabrielle didn’t have to get married, have a honeymoon, and become widowed all in the span of ten minutes! Fortunately, the producers wisely have Gabrielle marry Perdicus, someone with whom she already has a history. Not only were they engaged to be married in “Sins Of The Past” before Gabrielle left to travel with Xena, but the two also reconnected last season in Troy. The psychological effect that the Trojan War induced upon the soldiers is an interesting beat — and the actor does a good job of playing it. However, it still is a bit of a stretch for Gabrielle to suddenly decide to give up her life of adventure with Xena. Another conversation between Gabrielle and Perdicus, and another between Gabrielle and Xena would definitely have benefited the story. But since each script is pressed for time, I can accept that perhaps the conversations did occur, and Gabrielle was properly motivated.
So one of the series’ most interesting scenes has Gabrielle, overcome with bloodlust, poking Xena with a sword and demanding that Xena teach her how to kill Callisto. Of course, good little Gabby can’t go through with it, and her blood innocence remains in tact. This is important because it reaffirms where Gabrielle is at this point in the series. Even when her husband is killed, Gabrielle can’t take another life. Though Gabrielle’s grief is addressed explicitly later this season in Callisto’s next two appearances, there is also an implicit shift brought about by Perdicus’s death that sets the stage for The Rift and Gabby’s loss of blood innocence in Season Three. Gabrielle is now, more than ever, totally committed to the idea of NOT killing. Furthermore, Xena takes on even more guilt — as Perdicus’s death is the most tangible effect that traveling with Xena has had on Gabrielle. Xena now feels responsible for keeping Gab’s “light” shining. This perfectly sets up the great fall from grace that both characters are going to go through next season!
But the reason this episode makes it in my Top Ten is for its portrayal of Xena as the brilliantly flawed hero. As most fans know, there are a set of moral rules in X:WP about killing. Normally the rule is: only kill when your life is in danger — defense/second degree murder (i.e. if the bad guy is armed and likely to kill you). In “Return Of Callisto,” if Gabrielle kills Callisto, even though it will tarnish her innocence, it’s understood that it still is justifiable — Callisto killed Gabrielle’s husband and plans to kill Gab next. Gabrielle wouldn’t be condemned by anyone other than herself. But it’s only morally acceptable for Xena to kill Callisto if they’re in the heat of battle. It would be wrong for Xena to come to Callisto’s lair and assassinate her — that’d be first degree murder. So when Xena watches as Callisto dies, it’s practically akin to murder. Callisto’s screams are undeniably chilling. (They shot a version where Xena tried to save Callisto, but this way is much more effective — and vital for the events of “Intimate Stranger.”) Xena makes such a big deal about putting bad guys on trial and killing only when necessary, but here she makes the decision herself: Callisto deserves to die. Is she wrong?
Callisto had been on trial once before and she busted out of prison. Also, now that Callisto hits close to home — Gabrielle’s betrothed — Xena feels like it’s her own duty to seek vengeance for Gabrielle. But is that in the interest of the greater good? This episode lets audiences make their own conclusions, but “Intimate Stranger” uses this moral ambiguity as a plot point. But in “Return Of Callisto,” Xena’s arguably unhero-like behavior is thrilling in its brazen challenging of our understood principles of right and wrong. Such a brilliantly complex character! This episode is incredibly well done with many powerful moments from all involved. Truly one of Xena’s finest hours.
Come back next Thursday for number nine! And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for another Film Friday post!