Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today we’re highlighting the infamous Norse trilogy, which, though popular among many fans, has remained decidedly absent from my “best of” list. I’ve decided to organize this post differently; introducing the episodes together upfront and then providing a collective commentary on the trio.
01. Season 6, Episode 7: “The Rheingold” (Aired: 11/13/00 | Filmed: 07/10 – 07/18 & 07/31 – 08/01/00)
Xena embarks on a deadly mission involving her dark past when the Norse warrior Beowulf approaches her for help.
Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by John Fawcett | Production No. V1408
02. Season 6, Episode 8: “The Ring” (Aired: 11/20/00 | Filmed: 07/19 – 07/28/00)
Xena must battle a monster of her own making to recover the destructive Rheingold ring she forged in her days as an evil warrior.
Written by Joel Metzger | Directed by Rick Jacobson | Production No. V1409
03. Season 6, Episode 9: “Return Of The Valkyrie” (Aired: 11/27/00 | Filmed: 08/02 – 08/11/00)
Xena battles to regain her memory and reverse the curse of the Rheingold ring.
Written by Emily Skopov | Directed by John Fawcett | Production No. V1410
I’ll try to be brief. I think, like many sixth season installments, these episodes are flashy, they’re sparkly, they’re pretty, but they’re fundamentally flawed in their storytelling. The overarching problem with this trilogy, as I see it, is that instead of crafting a Xena story in which mythology/history are factored into the plot and influence the characters’ motivations (see “The Ides Of March” and “Antony And Cleopatra,” for instance), this episode takes Norse mythology — or rather, Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and the Beowulf epic — mashes it all together, and then tries to shoehorn in Xena. As a result, the entire trilogy seems like story for story’s sake, rather than an organic premise that arises naturally from the characters and their actions.
Additionally, (and I’m unsure if I’ve discussed this here or not), but I do not like that this series introduced the concept of soulmates into the narrative. Now, I don’t consider myself a “shipper” nor a “subtexter” because, simply, the series (for the most part) didn’t consider itself one or the other. Since the series refused to label itself, I refuse to do the same. There’s evidence within the series to support whatever you like — and that’s part of what makes the storytelling so rich. But when the idea of soulmates is introduced, it almost completely wrecks the conflict between Xena and Gabrielle. If they — and the universe, apparently — seem to think that Xena and Gab are destined to be together, then there’s no opportunity for drama between the two that sees either character walking away. And without that — the fear that Gabrielle might suddenly decide to go back home or that Xena may feel that the violence is too much for Gabrielle and leave her — there’s little tension.
Now, I know that many of you might think this is a good thing. After Season Four, Xena and Gabrielle should be at a place where they have both determined to stay together. Or perhaps you’re thinking that the series has outgrown this conflict and no longer needs it. I’m in agreement with you, albeit with one caveat: why does the series itself tell us this? If the characters showed us through their actions, that’s one thing. But when the series tells us, it’s a deliberate removal of suspense. And, truthfully, it removes the human element of the series: the great coincidence that saw Xena and Gabrielle meeting and beginning their travels. If it was ALWAYS meant to happen, than why watch? Soulmates are boring. Real, flawed people who decide to stick together are interesting.
Individually, the three episodes each have their strengths and their weaknesses. The first episode is excellent in setting up a great mystery surrounding another chapter of Xena’s past and the creation of that spiky monster that we saw in the teaser. One thing I found a little incongruous with the rest of the series is that Xena (once again) just leaves Gabrielle behind. It seemed like their relationship was at a point where Xena could just be honest with Gabrielle in regard to her past. The whole thing seems like a story point — get Xena to go with Beowulf (who throughout these episodes is PAINFULLY, and I mean PAINFULLY underdeveloped) while Gabrielle trails them with the help of another hot blonde, Brunnhilda. Still, with R.J. writing this episode, I would say that it’s the most Xena of the three installments. If I WERE to include one episode of the trilogy among my favorites (and I would only do so because of its style and because of some of the finely crafted sequences), it would be “The Rheingold.”
The second episode is basically just a stewing ground until we can get to the final few scenes that set up the conclusion. Like the prior episode, “The Ring” is individually entertaining, but I do have many qualms. My biggest issue is that the rules of the ring are convoluted: the ring bestows its wearer magical powers IF that person has forsaken love. If the wearer hasn’t, the powers last for a very brief time, and then the ring destroys what he/she values most. (It’s the powers lasting for a very short time thing that makes little sense — a.k.a. contrived plot point.) Meanwhile, both Beowulf and Brunnhilda have fallen in love with Gabrielle. Okay… more set-up just to get us to the place where Brunnhilda decides to turn herself into a ring of fire and protect Gabrielle. Yes. Cool concept, but it just feels like a total story manipulation. Meanwhile, Odin and the Valkyries are on hand for more conflict, but I have mixed feelings about his character. He has no redeeming qualities, and his distrust of Xena isn’t as justified as others: Odin, it’s been 35 years; haven’t you heard about her redemption? I wish he was developed more — I’m afraid he’s rather one-dimensional. Fortunately, the episode ends on a nice powerful, dramatic moment that promises an interesting conclusion.
I used to love the third episode when I was younger because of its unique premise. The ring has destroyed Xena’s “sense of self” and now she’s memory-less and about to marry a member of Danish royalty. Beowulf visits her and says that, as Gabrielle’s one true soulmate, only she can pass through Brunnhilda’s fire and wake up the bard with a kiss. One of the things that really takes me out of this episode (and the other two a little bit as well) is how tired Lawless seems — both physically and vocally. Coming right after the grueling “The Abyss,” Xena’s voice is now raspy and breathy. This will continue throughout the entire last season, but it’s especially noticeable and distracting here. Meanwhile, Odin and the Valkyries are after Xena again because, well, they’re still mad about the whole 36-year-old Rheingold affair, (and the episode is in desperate need of villains). So while the episode is more plot-driven than the other two, it’s an effective conclusion to the trilogy — most notably with the Grindl and Grinhilda story, in which the latter makes peace with Xena and with herself.
Now that I’ve shared some of my freeform thoughts about the trilogy and the individual episodes, I hope it’s apparent why these episodes have not captured my favor in the way that many other installments have. They’re entertaining (at times), but they’re incredibly flawed, and it’s impossible for me to overlook these episodes’ shortcomings. Essentially, the strengths aren’t quite strong enough to mute the weaknesses. As creative storytelling goes, however, this one is tops.
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for one more 1935 Film Friday post!