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, today’s post features a special two-part episode. So I’m going to format today’s entry a little differently: first the summary for each individual episode and then a combined commentary covering both. So here are numbers five and six on the countdown!
05. Season 3, Episode 6: “The Debt (I)” (Aired: 11/03/97 | Filmed: 07/16 – 07/25/97)
As Xena and Gabrielle travel toward the Eastern kingdom of Chin, Xena recalls a kidnapping episode from her dark past involving two rival Chin clans.
Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0406
The episode opens as Xena and Gabrielle’s pensive evening is interrupted by a wounded Chinese messenger and a handful of assassins. After Xena defeats the attackers, the dying man gives a cryptic message: the Green Dragon has gotten too large and must be made small. The words strike a chord in Xena, and Gabrielle tries to figure out why. Xena reveals that the Green Dragon is a person… a person that she’s going to kill. She doesn’t want Gabrielle to join her on the journey to Chin, and the bard demands to know why Xena is going on this mission of murder.
Through flashbacks, Xena reveals details about the time she spent in Chin. After Caesar broke her legs, Xena joined up with Borias, a Hungarian thief, who planned to get rich by exploiting two rival Chinese dynasties: the House of Ming and the House of Lao. After meeting with Ming Tzu and his shy son, Ming T’ien, Borias and Ming Tzu strike a deal. Then Borias and Xena meet to strike a deal with the mysteriously alluring Lao Ma, the wife of Ming’s rival, Lao Tzu, who has apparently fallen ill. Later that evening, Xena becomes jealous of Lao Ma’s flirtations with Borias and tries to kill her. But Lao Ma uses a special power to deflect Xena, and tells Borias that their deal is off. Angry, Borias kicks Xena out of the camp. So Xena decides to get rich on her own. She kidnaps Ming T’ien for ransom, offering Borias a 5% share in the profits. But Borias betrays Xena and hands her over to Ming Tzu, who has since allied with the House of Lao.
Back in the present, Xena and Gabrielle reach the dock where Xena must catch a boat to Chin. Gabrielle decides, after hearing how awful and ruthless Xena once was, that she isn’t going to join her friend on her quest to kill the Green Dragon. But Gab is still bothered; “You owe someone so much that you would just throw away these last few years?” she asks. Xena nods and the two part ways.
Xena journeys on and relives more of the past in her mind. After being captured by Ming Tzu, Xena is taken to Lao territory, where Ming plans to hunt the still crippled Xena for sport. Before releasing Xena, Ming Tzu and Ming T’ien meet Lao Ma, who grants them permission to use her husband’s land, and gives Ming T’ien a handmade cloth with a Green Dragon on it. Soon the hunt begins. As Xena runs, she is saved by Lao Ma, who promises the warrior her freedom. Lao Ma takes Xena back to her palace, hiding her in the bathtub when Ming Tzu comes to ask about his property’s whereabouts. After Ming leaves, Lao Ma cleans and dresses Xena, gifting her with a hairpin.
Back in the present, Xena arrives at Ming T’ien’s palace. Naked and covered in mud for camouflage, Xena is besieged by memories of her past few years with Gabrielle. Shaking them aside, Xena arrives in the emperor’s chambers. But as she raises her knife to strike, the covers pull back to reveal Gabrielle. “I’m sorry, Xena. I couldn’t let you do this.” Soldiers bust in, followed by Ming T’ien, who sends Xena to the dungeon.
06. Season 3, Episode 7: “The Debt (II)” (Aired: 11/10/97 | Filmed: 07/28 – 08/06/97)
Flashbacks recall Xena’s spiritual reawakening at the hands of her mentor. But in the present, the “Green Dragon” has captured Xena, and is breathing fire at her.
Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0407
The second part opens as Gabrielle pleads with Ming T’ien to see Xena, who has been thrown into a watery dungeon and forced to wear a wooden block around her neck. A fellow prisoner asks Xena if she was indeed betrayed by a friend. “Not by a friend,” she responds. Xena learns from her fellow captives that Lao Ma has been executed and her mind flashes back to all the things she learned from her wise mentor.
In flashback, we see Lao Ma showing Xena her incredible telekinetic powers — which, among other things, enable her to break a vase without laying a finger on it. Xena tries it herself (in vain), but Lao Ma insists that the only way to harness this power is to conquer her will: stop desiring and stop hating. Furthermore, Lao Ma tells Xena that she must be able to serve — not someone she loves, but someone she hates. Lao Ma invites Ming Tzu and his son over, and Xena, unrecognized by Ming Tzu, fights her urge to kill him. Pleased that Xena was able to silence her will, Lao Ma takes Xena to the bedside of her husband, whom the former has been keeping in a comatose state so that she can rule in his stead. He was a tyrant — and she doesn’t want him to be remembered that way. Lao Ma also reveals that, as a former courtesan, she is Ming T’ien’s real mother.
Back in the present, Gabrielle smacks Xena on the face, demanding that she promise never to attempt assassinating the emperor again. Angry, Xena returns to her memories, specifically the time that Lao Ma used her powers to heal Xena’s broken legs. As Xena and Lao Ma embrace in joy, we return to the present where Ming T’ien sentences Xena to death. Since Xena will be executed the next day, Ming T’ien allows Gabrielle to visit her in the dungeon, where she apologizes to Xena and bursts into tears. The women reconcile and Xena resumes her story, telling Gabrielle why she must honor Lao Ma’s last request to make the Green Dragon small: Lao Ma saved more than Xena’s life; she also saved her soul.
Xena tells of the happiness she and Lao Ma shared. Of course, that wasn’t long lasting. In the past, Lao Ma arranges for a reconciliation between Xena and Borias. Her goal to is form a three-way alliance with herself, Ming Tzu, and Borias, with Xena ruling alongside Lao Ma as her “Warrior Princess.” But Xena, at first consumed by hatred for Borias, is then overtaken by desire, and the two “make up.” Lao Ma then invites Ming Tzu and his son over, where Lao Ma asks him to forgive Xena. Furious, Ming Tzu declines. Xena proposes that, since Ming Tzu feels like he has ownership of her, they should gamble to see who gets possession. Borias and Lao Ma, also believing they have claim to Xena, enter the game, but the latter is displeased, especially when the ruthless Xena decides that the winner should not only get ownership of her, but a body part from each of the losers as well. They each roll the dice and Xena wins. Borias offers Xena his heart and she gladly accepts. Then she and Borias try to collect from Ming Tzu, killing him in front of Ming T’ien. But when they go after Ming T’ien too, Lao Ma uses her powers to defeat them.
Back in the prison, Xena tells Gabrielle that, although she was too ignorant to listen to Lao Ma’s words then, the wise woman’s teachings were part of what eventually allowed Xena to be spiritually reborn — from warlord to hero. “That’s the debt.” The next day, during her execution, Xena recalls Lao Ma’s advice and harnesses the power to break free and destroy the palace. As Gabrielle escorts people to safety, Ming T’ien confronts Xena. He reveals that he personally executed Lao Ma, knowing that she was too soft to kill her own son. He tells Xena that Lao Ma’s last request was that Xena receive her old hairpin. Gabrielle returns and sees Xena holding Lao Ma’s book of wisdom. Xena tells Gabrielle that she could repay the debt — making the Green Dragon small — without killing him. Gabrielle is pleased and they exchange loving words. But the camera reveals that Xena did, in fact, kill Ming T’ien — the hairpin Lao Ma gifted Xena is sticking out of his temple.
This incredibly ambitious 90-minute saga was initially conceived as a potential television movie. While I do think the story could have benefited from a few additional scenes, I’m very glad both episodes of “The Debt” were included as part of the series, since the motivations and implications of our characters’ actions are too important to be contained.
Again, we must first look at the episodes’ chronological position in the series. The previous two episodes began “The Rift” storyline. Xena went to Britannia to face off with Caesar. While there, Gabrielle was tricked into killing for the first time by the leader of the cult of Dahak. The next episode, Gabrielle gave birth to the daughter of Dahak, Xena instructed her to kill the child, and Gabrielle lied — telling Xena the child was dead, when really, Gab placed it in a basket along the river. So the pensive opening sequence of “The Debt (I)” is, I think, about two things: Gab’s guilt for both abandoning her child and also lying to Xena, and Xena’s guilt for both her responsibility in Gabrielle’s loss of blood innocence and for her insistence that Gab murder her own baby. I think understanding our two heroines’ mindsets is essential to understanding why the things in “The Debt” happen.
Xena doesn’t want Gabrielle to join her on the quest, not only because of the disaster that befell the sidekick the last time they traveled to face one of Xena’s old foes, but also because she believes Gabrielle could never understand the dark place that Xena was in prior to meeting her. (Remember, this is the first time we actually see Xena telling Gabrielle a story from her past. The first flashback show, “Destiny,” was all in Xena’s delirious mind.) At this point in the series, Xena still considers herself the Protector of Gabrielle’s Light. She wants to keep her separate from the darkness, and going across the world to assassinate an emperor is dark — no matter how much justification Xena has.
Similarly, Gabrielle feels like she’s the Protector of Xena’s Light. She knows firsthand the consequences of Xena’s rage, and Gab desperately doesn’t want the Warrior Princess to return to that way of life. Also, Gabrielle still hasn’t been convinced that the child she abandoned last week was evil, so I think there’s some questioning about Xena’s judgement — is everything Xena does in the interest of the Greater Good? But one of the nitpicky flaws I have with “The Debt (I)” is the portrayal of Gabrielle. I think O’Connor was definitely struggling to make her character’s actions look organic, since understanding Gabrielle’s plight would be essential to forgiving the character in Part II. From the very unsubtle “I hope I don’t disappoint you, Xena,” to the totally out-of-character way that Gabrielle leaves Xena WITHOUT learning the identity of the Green Dragon, her behavior is very strange.
Yes, it’s clear she’s worried that the assassination might spark Xena to return to her dark roots, but why would Gabrielle go to Chin and betray Xena without getting the full story? Surely she must trust that Xena has solid motives. AHA! This is where the events of last week help us fill in some blanks — as I mentioned above, Gab is still shaken and perhaps questioning, even subconsciously, Xena’s decision making. Though Gab doesn’t get the full story from Xena, somehow she’s smart enough to figure out that Xena is going to kill Ming T’ien. (Sassone’s direction DOES make it fairly obvious though.) So without the full knowledge of Lao Ma’s role in Xena’s life, there’s obviously no way for her to know who Ming T’ien is, besides the child that Xena kidnapped and held for ransom.
Of course, as we find out in “Forget Me Not,” Gabrielle’s real reason for going to Chin was jealousy that there once was somebody in Xena’s life that would make her travel across the world and commit a murder — abandoning her principles and the current “love” of her life. While that motivation is, I think, definitely readable in Part I, it doesn’t come across as the primary factor for Gab’s decision. Knowing that it is, however, makes Gabrielle looks deliciously complex. But being that she is such a complex character, I go back to: why didn’t Gabrielle demand the full story before Xena left?
That story beat and grown-up Ming T’ien’s acting are my only complaints about this extraordinary episode. I didn’t hate Gabrielle for betraying Xena; I thought it was juicy and dramatic and brilliant. I think she was given proper motivation (though O’Connor didn’t do the BEST job of selling it) and it was great for Part II to address that Gabrielle only betrayed Xena thinking that both would walk out unharmed. It also brought about some incredibly powerful moments — Gabrielle’s vicious smack across Xena’s face as the former demands the latter promise to leave Ming T’ien unharmed, and the scene in the dungeon where the ladies reconcile.
Speaking of powerful moments, let’s talk about the flashbacks. I think these are, without a doubt, the best flashback scenes of the entire series. Not only are they some of the most beautiful Xena images ever captured, but the characters of Borias and Lao Ma are incredibly rich and excellent foils, in very different ways, to Xena. The dinner scene where a high Xena essentially tells Lao Ma to lay off her man is dark and hilarious. This is the Xena that I adore. But the Lao Ma character is of particular interest — possibly the strongest female of the entire series. In Seasons One and Two, the lesbian subtext was handled almost exclusively for comedic gain. This is the first time that I think the subtext is handled with real gravitas — and SURPRISE — it’s not between Xena and Gabrielle, but between Xena and Lao Ma.
Yes, there’s the bathtub “kissing” scene (a.k.a. Lao Ma trying to breathe air in the hidden Xena’s lungs) in Part I, but the scenes between them in Part II are some of the most romantic that this series has ever done. I’m speaking specifically of the scene in which Lao Ma heals Xena’s legs and the two embrace. The cutting between Gabrielle’s walloping and Xena’s happiness with Lao Ma hits to the crux of this episode — Gab will never understand Xena’s debt to Lao Ma or to the responsibilities she has to her wicked past as a whole. The later scene of Xena and Lao Ma floating through the air is beautiful (albeit, a touch campy — but with total genuineness), but the love in Xena’s voice when speaking about it is truly breathtaking.
The final sequence, where Xena transcends her will and harnesses Lao Ma’s wisdom to break free from the executioner and destroy the Green Dragon’s temple, is very cathartic. It’s the moment to which this episode has, essentially, been building. It’s Xena’s physical acknowledgment of Lao Ma’s importance on her life — Xena has taken Lao Ma’s teachings and finally been able to connect with them. Of course this jubilant victory doesn’t last long. Xena’s anger takes over and she returns to her roots — she kills Ming T’ien. (“I happen to like a good kill,” she said in flashbacks. Present Xena does too, methinks.) YES! This is the dark morally gray Xena that makes the series worthwhile. Her past is a part of her; she’ll never escape it. There will always be an anger inside of her that she can’t ever fully control. What she can do, however, is use it to help others.
But Xena still fancies herself the Protector of Gabrielle’s Light, so she lies to her about the fate of Ming T’ien. In some ways, this is almost worse than Gabrielle’s betrayal of Xena, because Xena has not only betrayed Gabrielle, but perhaps Lao Ma as well. It’s brilliant. Excellent way to end the episode and lead us into a three episode break from “The Rift.” (Just enough time for things to cool off a little bit before the stories return to bite both ladies in the behind.)
List of other things I loved in these two episodes:
– “That’s my piece of meat you’re reaching for.”
– The clips shown while Xena makes her way to Ming T’ien’s chamber
– Xena’s face when Lao Ma reveals that Ming T’ien is her son
– “Scratch my nose, will ya?”
– Gambling over the “worthless whore”
I’m sure you can gather by the size of today’s post that this is a ginormous episode. It’s of incredible importance to the series and truly epic in scope — the story, the visuals, the theme, everything. “The Debt” shows why Xena was unlike anything else on television. Sure there are some campy things (heads on sticks, for instance), but that’s part of the Xena package. There’s also some unbelievable dramatic fodder — unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s simultaneously entertaining, thought-provoking, and passionate. However, I do not recommend this two-parter for first-time viewers. It’s too daunting of a prospect, and though brilliant, is not indicative of a typical Xena episode. You’d be best to begin with any one of the other eight episodes in the top ten. You have to earn these two episodes, and they can only be appreciated if you’ve spent some time getting to know Xena and Gab.
Come back next Thursday as the countdown reaches number four! And tune in tomorrow for another Film Friday!