Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Now that we’ve covered my 60 favorite episodes and my eight least favorite episodes, there are 66 episodes left for us to talk about. Today, we’re kicking off our series on 18 “Honorable Mentions.” But first, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, Xena: Warrior Princess 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.
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. So, newbies, 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’s discuss two underrated Xena episodes that nearly made my “best of” list. (They will be presented over these next nine weeks in chronological order.)
01. Season 1, Episode 5: “The Path Not Taken” (Aired: 10/02/95 | Filmed: 08/14 – 08/21/95)
Xena faces ghosts from the past when she visits one of her old haunts and ingratiates herself with murderous former “colleagues” in order to locate a kidnapped princess who is being hidden there.
Written by Julie Sherman | Directed by Stephen L. Posey | Production No. 876907
One of the working titles for this early episode was “Going Home,” which is quite fitting, as Xena reconnects with former outlaw friends in an attempt to rescue a princess from an arms dealer who’s hoping to profit by starting a war between two kingdoms. What makes this episode most memorable is the connection between Xena and Marcus, her former flame (Xena liked the chocolate boys in Season One — first Draco, now Marcus!). Though their reunion is brief — Marcus bites the dust before the episode ends — it’s dramatically brilliant how Xena must pretend that rumors of her reform are facetious. It’s so early in the series that, although we know the show doesn’t yet have the balls to even consider having Xena go bad again, the threat of Xena’s return to evil is viable — especially since it hasn’t even been six months since Hercules officially converted her. The added bonus of throwing a love interest into the mix allows for some potential inner conflict, and that’s what makes the Xena series so special.
The real conflict, however, is not centered around Xena’s possible conversion to her old ways, but the possibility that she and Marcus will clash when he learns that she has deceived him. Indeed, this is the most satisfying part of the episode. And when he does finally come around to protect the princess, it’s wonderful that he dies. Not only is this great drama, but it allows for a little melting of the Xena character, whom Lawless is still playing as tight and stoic. The final funeral sequence with Lawless singing the “Burial” song she wrote is quite haunting.
This episode didn’t quite make my top selections because in addition to the still wooden portrayal of Xena, the series is unsure of the best way to utilize Gabrielle, and she’s largely ignored and separated from Xena for most of the episode. Thus, it’s not a good representation of the series and its storytelling. And while I think the conflict is solid and fundamentally based on the series’ central premise, it’s a very talky episode with not a lot of the typical Xena action or flair. But as an early outing, this one is particularly strong. Good for beginners who don’t want to watch chronologically, but are too weary to begin later on in the series.
02. Season 1, Episode 12: “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts” (Aired: 01/15/96 | Filmed: 11/20 – 11/28/95)
At the behest of Helen of Troy, Xena goes to the embattled city to help end a 10-year war with the Greeks. But while trying to rein in the hostilities, she discovers a Trojan horse who’s working with the enemy.
Story by Roy Thomas & Janis Hendler | Teleplay by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. 876914
This episode automatically gains points because it has such a universally fascinating premise — the Trojan War. Specifically, Xena is already tapping into its reputation for “Girl Power” by introducing a friendship between Xena and Helen of Troy. Interestingly, that’s one of the things that works about this episode — the depiction of Helen of Troy, both physically and dramatically. She’s not presented as a flaxen-haired bimbo, but rather as an earthy Mediterranean type. Furthermore, she’s not a vapid nympho, but a concerned princess with some presumed inner demons. While the episode doesn’t specifically explore those, it’s a subtle and refreshing three-dimensionalizing of a character that has long fascinated the world.
Meanwhile, the episode is MOST important because it serves to reunite Gabrielle with Perdicus, the fiancé she left behind in Potadeia. Though he’s played by a different actor here than he was in “Sins Of The Past,” this is the same man who will play his swan song next season in “Return Of Callisto.” Most significantly, this is the first time the series really presents Gabrielle with something from the life she gave up. (Of course, we could argue that the only reason she’s now attracted to Perdicus is the fact that he’s since become a soldier.) It’s an essential moment in Gabrielle’s arc about traveling with Xena, building to the moment when she actually does return home in the “The Prodigal” later in the season.
Though, of course, it’s really all about Xena, especially at this point in the series. It’s no surprise that she’s consistently correct in her accusations here, since the show hasn’t yet decided that having Xena be WRONG is sometimes much more dramatically satisfying. So while Xena’s heroic forewarnings are welcome and comfortable, it is also a little bit stifling, especially in an episode that ALREADY has a guaranteed ending. Essentially, that’s why this episode didn’t appear in my top 60. There’s little suspense — we know how the war is going to end. Xena’s predicting the outcome almost deflates any tension that still exists. Meanwhile, the villain is predictable and somewhat laughable, making this a typical first season installment. So while there are some fresh cool things about this historically fascinating episode, it’s not solid enough to compete with the BEST of the best from Season One.
Come back next Thursday for two more excellent and undervalued Xena episodes that just missed making it into my top 60! And tune in tomorrow for a new Film Friday post!