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 number two on the list.
02. Season 3, Episode 12: “The Bitter Suite” (Aired: 02/02/98 | Filmed: 11/05 – 11/19/97)
Xena and Gabrielle’s bitter conflict reaches its climax when both are transported to the dream world of Illusia to settle their mutual differences.
Written by Steven L. Sears and Chris Manheim | Lyrics by Joseph LoDuca, Pamela Phillips Oland, and Dennis Spiegel | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0409
The most ambitious episode of the entire series, “The Bitter Suite” literally took Xena, Gabrielle, and the series to a place it had never been: the realm of musical drama, a land referred to in the episode as Illusia. Filled with all our favorite guest stars — Joxer, Callisto, and Ares — the Xena musical episode is one of the most creative and gripping hours of television ever produced for first-run syndication. Story wise, it’s also one of the most important — bringing The Rift between Xena and Gab to a tangible conclusion. (The effects of The Rift are never fully resolved, but as an explicit story, “The Bitter Suite” puts an end to the arc.)
The story begins where the previous episode ended — Xena and Gabrielle have parted ways after Gabrielle’s daughter killed Xena’s son, and Gabrielle poisoned her daughter. Gabrielle is with the Amazons, undergoing a purification ritual. Joxer converses with Ephiny about Gabrielle’s state of mind. Meanwhile, on a snow-covered mountain, Xena wails in agony. Ares appears and the two talk about revenge. Back in the purification hut, Gabrielle hallucinates a conversation with Callisto, and screams. Then Xena approaches the Amazon village, beats up a couple of Amazons, and kidnaps Gabrielle, wrapping her whip around Gab’s ankles and dragging her behind the horse. Xena arrives at a cliff and plans to throw Gabrielle into the water below. But Gabrielle kicks Xena in the face and the two go charging at each other, losing their balance and falling into the ocean.
Xena is rescued from a stream by Callisto, who sings to Xena about the musical world of Illusia, the place in which Xena has landed. Callisto is Xena’s guide and encourages Xena to spin the Wheel of Fate; she does. Meanwhile, Gabrielle is recused by her guide, Joxer. As Callisto takes Xena to Ares and a legion of soldiers, anxiously awaiting their Warrior Princess’s return, Joxer takes Gabrielle to her hometown of Potadeia, where she’s welcomed by her sister and the cheerful townsfolk. Through song, both groups push the ladies to confrontation. Xena quickly kills Gabrielle — stabbing her in the gut. Ares is pleased, and the two dance. But soon everyone disappears, including the dead Gabrielle. In walks a live Gabrielle, who sees that Xena has killed an illusion of her. They resume their arguing and find themselves in this room that echoes every time either one of them says something about the past. To stop the echoing, they sing about the pain they’re each currently going through. But it escalates into another argument and the Wheel of Fate bursts into flames, and the “arms” of Dahak enrapture Gabrielle. Xena tries to save her, but the two are sucked into the Wheel.
They find themselves back at Dahak’s temple in “The Deliverer.” The two resolve to go through this together, and they are confronted by past villains — Ares, Callisto, Caesar, and Khrafstar. Xena is crucified and Gabrielle is chained to the altar. Demon alter egos for the ladies appear, as a mysteriously cloaked demon sings about hatred. Xena and Gabrielle once again sing about their pain, their commitment to each other, and their commitment to fight hatred with love. The demons (save the cloaked one) explode and Xena and Gabrielle are both freed. They see Solan through a curtain of rain and they realize that he’s the one who brought them to Illusia. Gabrielle runs over to meet him, but when Xena tries to cross over, she’s burned by the water. Xena realizes the demon in the cloak is Ming T’ien, and she reveals to Gabrielle that she lied about sparing his life. Xena gets her 11 o’clock number and begs forgiveness of both Gabrielle and Solan. Gabrielle reaches out her hand and pulls Xena through. Ming T’ien explodes. As Xena embraces Solan, she and Gabrielle suddenly find themselves safe on a beach.
Okay — to fans who have never seen this episode, I’m sure the above synopsis sounds totally bonkers. The truth of the matter is: you’re right; it is crazy. But that’s precisely why “The Bitter Suite” works as well as it does. With so much ground to cover, so many overblown emotions, and a plethora of gnawing issues to address, the only logical way to resolve The Rift is to resolve it illogically. Except on some levels, “The Bitter Suite” isn’t illogical at all; for centuries, humans have turned to music to express their deepest joys and sorrows. When handling the incredibly dramatic issues that have been brewing between Xena and Gabrielle, exploring the ideas through music makes perfect sense. Music speaks to us in ways that dialogue can’t. And that’s the key to understanding this episode.
Additionally, so much of this episode is about illusion vs. reality. So without seeing the action as it occurs, a synopsis like the one above serves little purpose. Incidentally, the entire design for “The Bitter Suite” is based on Tarot cards, and in each scene, each character represents a different image. I’m not an expert on Tarot, but if that’s you’re thing — this episode should provide some fascinating watching. I’d like nothing more than to be able to illustrate my commentary with video and audio clips, but NBC Universal is really strict on Copyright when it comes to this series, so I’m not going to risk it. Here’s a clip another user uploaded to Dailymotion. This should at least give potential new fans a taste of the look and sound of the episode:
Volumes can be written about the symbolism, but I want to focus primarily on the characters. Part of what makes this episode so gripping is the ripe hatred that both Xena and Gabrielle have for each other before stumbling into Illusia. As you all know, it’s thrilling to see Xena get angry, and I’d venture that this episode features Xena at her most pissed, most crazy, most unheroic. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous “Gab drag.” I’m referring to what fans eventually labeled the sequence in which Xena ties Gabrielle to the back of her horse and drags the bard for miles and miles across rocky terrain and even through fire. Many fans took umbrage at this scene upon its initial airing. It doesn’t really bother me because, in general, I thought the series did a much better job of justifying Xena’s anger than justifying Gabrielle’s.
Now, I say this because, even though, on paper, Gabrielle has some legitimate reasons for feeling that Xena has done HER wrong, the focal point of the series has always been Xena. So we’ve always seen things from that point-of-view. Furthermore, the argument that Hope could have turned out good had Gabrielle been allowed to raise her is moot because the whole atmosphere of the birth in “Gabrielle’s Hope” sets the child up for evil. Thus, it’s difficult for me, as a viewer, to imagine that Xena was incorrect for asking Gabrielle to initially kill the child. Then when she popped back up and killed Solan, it was just further validation. But, hindsight is 20/20. And while Gabrielle lied to Xena about the child’s whereabouts, I could understand that Gabrielle would be hurt by Xena’s refusal to acknowledge Gabrielle at the end of “Maternal Instincts.”
But their issues go beyond the Hope/Solan stuff; it’s about the characters alternating perceptions of each other. Essentially, they both put each other on pedestals — never wanting to see the bad. But they BOTH made awful decisions. Xena’s hatred put Gabrielle in jeopardy. Xena felt like she had to protect the emotionally weak Gabrielle, but Xena asked Gabrielle to kill her own child — something the latter just couldn’t do. So Gabrielle lied to Xena. The lie ended up costing Xena her son’s life. And Gabrielle, realizing the inevitability of the situation, had to finally poison her own daughter. Meanwhile, in between there were both parts of “The Debt,” in which Gabrielle betrayed Xena out of both jealousy and a regard for Xena’s integrity, and Xena, ultimately, felt like she had to lie to Gabrielle about her killing of Ming T’ien. Lots of bad decisions and lots of lying.
The Ming T’ien lie is what motivates Xena’s final apology here. This indicates that once the characters move pass the blame game that resulted in their children’s deaths, what they really have to overcome is a larger issue: is traveling with Xena the best for Gabrielle? This will get explored throughout following two seasons, but in “The Bitter Suite,” it comes down to Xena’s prior inability to accept that Gabrielle had changed. Both characters needed to accept culpability in their mutual evolution, and establish a truer partnership. Neither is always right, neither is always wrong, and sometimes good and bad aren’t so clearly defined. They needed to forgive each other and themselves. By the end of “The Bitter Suite,” they have, but there still exists issues that would eventually need to be addressed.
Meanwhile, the score for this episode is surprisingly excellent, serving its dramatic function supremely. Lawless and Smith have nice voices and the woman who dubbed for Leick was a dead-ringer. I WISH I could say the same about the woman who dubbed O’Connor, but I can’t. I’m glad they didn’t try to force her to sing when she couldn’t, but the dubbed voice is a minor distraction. The only other quibble I have about “The Bitter Suite” is the lack of a concrete explanation for how Solan brought Xena and Gab together. A few lines of exposition would have been welcomed. Otherwise, the entire 43 minutes are an exercise in brilliance and a constant reminder of Xena‘s unique way of taking risks and making this fantasy action show SO much more than anyone could ever dream of it.
This is a superb installment. Unquestionably exemplary. I don’t throw “masterpiece” around a lot, but the word is definitely applicable to this episode. It’s so bold, so original, and so entertaining. New fans will be dazzled by the spectacle, but might have a difficult time reconciling the events transpired prior, so I would recommend that new fans save this episode until they’ve seen other previous Rift episodes from Season Three. As usual, contact me for access to the episode, and I’m also willing to hook you up with the soundtrack. If you haven’t seen it, this episode will blow you away. If you have seen it, watch it again — there’s always something new to be appreciated.
Come back next Thursday as we finally reach the number one spot! And tune in tomorrow as Film Friday continues with another early Vivien Leigh film!