Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our series on 18 “Honorable Mentions,” that were not included in my list of the 60 best episodes. But first, if you’re unfamiliar with Xena: Warrior Princess, the series 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.
03. Season 1, Episode 17: “The Royal Couple Of Thieves” (Aired: 02/19/96 | Filmed: 01/08 – 01/16/96)
Xena’s asked to steal back a pilfered chest containing the world’s most powerful weapon, so she enlists the help of Autolycus, the self-proclaimed King of Thieves.
Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by John Cameron | Production No. 876922
This is the first episode of the series to feature Autolycus, the King of Thieves, as played by Bruce Campbell, who had previously made his debut in the second season of Hercules. Though a funny guy whose sense of humor works well on Hercules, I think the character is a much better fit on Xena — especially when the series decides to examine some of the darker parts of his personality. Thanks to Campbell and a nice adventuresome plot, “The Royal Couple Of Thieves,” is one of the most solid episodes from the first season. He and Lawless work well together, and the scenes with them in the castle are probably the best from the episode. Meanwhile, the villain is both amusing and menacing, with his use of pressure points providing a dangerous threat.
I’m not so crazy about the story’s trajectory, as it steers from an entertaining Xena adventure to reverent Raiders Of The Lost Ark rip-off. The twist here is, instead of looking away from the chest, the only way to survive its power is to look directly at it. Still, it’s an obvious “homage,” shall we say, and it feels very unlike the series. I’m not opposed to the inclusion of some elements of Christianity in the storylines — Old Testament, that is — but it just robs the series of its mythological charm.
However, one of the things I like about this episode is that it’s a simple self-contianed action adventure, common to the series in Season One. Thus, it’s easy viewing for new fans. The dialogue is sharp — classic Xena — and by now the chemistry between Lawless and O’Connor is steadily improving. So though this isn’t a superb episode of the series, it’s a strong entry from the middle of the first season. And with Bruce Campbell, it’s made a little bit better.
04. Season 1, Episode 23: “Death Mask” (Aired: 06/03/96 | Filmed: 01/26 – 02/05/96)
After being reunited with her estranged older brother, Toris, Xena decides to join him in his plans to kill the raider who destroyed their village years before.
Written by Peter Allan Fields | Directed by Stewart Main | Production No. 876917
Many fans hate this episode because of the casting. It’s a shame because this episode introduces two important people from Xena’s past. One is her older brother Toris, who ran away when their village was attacked years ago. The other is Cortese, the warlord who attacked their village and indirectly launched Xena’s life of violence. While Toris is charmless and annoyingly committed to what the story requires of him, Cortese is portrayed as a slimy buffoon — he reminds me of the king in Disney’s Robin Hood. Neither are as effective as they should be, and as a result, the entire episode suffers.
In fact, it seems like everyone knew this was a bad episode because it was held until late in the season. Furthermore, the series later downplayed the importance of the characters by barely mentioning them. While Cortese’s name came up a few times later in the series, he was essentially replaced by Caesar, who assumed the role of “Xena’s creator” in a more dramatic and entertaining way. And Toris is never mentioned again, save one brief moment in Season Six where Xena mentions her “brothers” — plural.
But “Death Mask” is an imperative episode, reuniting Xena with her older brother, and allowing her to take on the warlord that led her to violence — a solid plot (with a lousy execution). And by “lousy execution,” I don’t just mean the two casting mistakes above, I mean the general look and tone of the episode. (One good thing though — Gabrielle’s growth as a fighter.) Still, the story’s dramatic importance makes this episode essential viewing, and I’m disappointed that the story was never revisited. “Death Mask” is not a good episode, but it is necessary. I like what it tries to do, even if it doesn’t quite work.
Come back next Thursday for two more honorable mentions! And tune in tomorrow for another Mae West Film Friday!