Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our chronological coverage of every single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess — both the episodes that I have previously highlighted AND the episodes I’ve yet to feature. Complementing my thoughts are the thoughts of those who worked on the series: mostly actors, writers, directors, and producers. I have done months of research for the acquisition of the quotes you’ll see over these next 67 weeks (as there are 134 episodes and I’ll be covering two episodes per week). They come from a variety of sources, including the original special feature-laden DVD releases, The Chakram Official Newsletters, both the Topps and Titans Official Xena Magazines, the fan kits, and other assorted print and video interviews. So in addition to sharing my thoughts, these posts will also contain information and musings from the Xenites that matter most — the ones who brought this exciting series to the small screen.
53. 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
I featured this two-part episode as numbers 5 & 6 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts on this episode (and the prior) here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “One of the things that made Xena interesting was that she was a character with a past, and she carried that past with her in everything she did. And [these episodes] were a great way of showing some of the defining moments that had affected Xena.” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “They wanted to challenge the friendship [with these two episodes]. To see if it is stronger than the circumstances around it. They normally tell me when things are coming up. I knew about the birth of the child long before I received a script. And I’d heard about the China episodes, but I didn’t realize to what extreme she betrayed her best friend. So I was a bit shocked by it all and then I thought, ‘Okay, now, wait a minute. This is Gabrielle, it’s not me.’ I had to remind myself of that. And I saw that, surely enough, she had just killed someone for the first time and she went to the other extreme saying that nobody should die for whatever reason. That’s why it’s justified at all. For Gabrielle, the killing was truly one of the most traumatic times in her life… [But] I wouldn’t [have betrayed Xena]. That’s where I disagreed with Gabrielle. She has such high moral beliefs and she had just killed someone and all she could think about was the good of mankind. That no one (including Ming T’ien) should be executed against their will. Her friendship came second to that. If it had been my mother and something tragic like that were to happen, I would try to rationalize into her thinking and justify what she had to do. Whereas Gabrielle just couldn’t do that because her morals are so strong. And she’s become this independent thinker because of being with Xena – to Xena’s detriment. Xena’s created this person who’s an individual thinker. I was trying to warn everyone to keep an open mind and look at Gabrielle thinking, ‘Well this is not what you would do.’ Including myself – I wouldn’t do this either. But you have to believe that this is Gabrielle and she’s not like us who are jaded by seeing death on the news all the time. She sees it but she doesn’t believe it’s right and she’s still affected by every single person who dies in her world… [But] I would like to get across to people that we love what the writers are doing because they’re challenging us as actresses. And they’re challenging the characters, too. Gabrielle can’t be the same Gabrielle forever. She’s going to be affected by the world around her and she’s going to change and become a strong woman. They have to accept that. Whatever decisions she makes are hers… She understands Xena more than anyone. She knows that Xena has this evil side that she’s still struggling with and she can forgive her. And she believes that Xena can rise above all the violence. And I think she’s more disappointed that Xena lets them both down when she gives in to her darker side, but she still respects her. She knows that there’s a goodness in her and there’s a purpose for Xena in the world. She’s still fighting with her darker side, but she is the strong woman who’s fighting for the greater good.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #2)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “I thought [Gabrielle’s betrayal of Xena] was the weak point in the story, actually. Renee had a really tough part in [this] show. She had to play the little whiner and only Renee can play that kind of part and give the character some integrity.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #2)
Eric Gruendemann (Producer): “Lucy and Renee were terrific… and what their relationship went through in [these] two [episodes] and culminating in “The Bitter Suite” was probably the most extreme arc we had throughout the entire journey of Xena… Jacqueline Kim was terrific as Lao Ma – very, very strong, powerful, good actor, who was also very sublime. One of the things that I was always struck by is that she was able to deliver her lines with effortlessness and still be a very commanding presence onscreen… Xena was at a point in her life where she needed something desperately and just like people find God or find any other kind of spiritual awakening, I think Lao Ma played that role for Xena at that point in her life. So, I think it was probably the seminal person that she would meet in her life prior to meeting Gabrielle.” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Jacqueline Kim (Actor, Lao Ma): “When I first read the script, I sensed very clearly that they wanted a character who would be really close to Xena – close spiritually but also close romantically. R.J. [Stewart] – who[m] I think is a lovely writer – and I had a conversation right away because there were some segments where they were dancing together and doing all kinds of stuff that I thought were not as subtle as they could be. The thing that struck me about Lao Ma the most, and the thing that I loved about her, was that she was sort of a neutral voice. She wasn’t one of those people who would ever be commanding, but she might be the voice that, if you’re quiet enough, you can hear.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #10 – September 2000)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “I think Xena kinda likes those Asian girls, don’t you? I think she was very intrigued by Lao Ma, who was so graceful, and I think everything that Xena wasn’t.” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Jacqueline Kim (Actor, Lao Ma): “The fascinating thing about Lao Ma is that she keeps telling Xena, ‘Don’t show it, don’t exert your power on anything.’ Lao Ma always has to be careful about everything because of her situation. But yes, she has a really quiet code of behavior because of the men: she has to please them and make them think she has less power than she does. She has to be that traditional, quiet person. However, she tells Xena that if Xena gains control of herself, she has the key. This was something hard for Lao Ma to do herself. As R.J. [Stewart] wrote it, Lao Ma was bought, she was traded. Then she had this child that she had to give up. Then she fought so hard for peace. She was a great character. Everything I did was inspired by what he wrote. He writes very well.” (Whoosh! Interview – February 1998)
R. J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “The thing I loved most about writing the Lao Ma character [is that] we were able to discover from Gabrielle’s scrolls that it was actually Lao Ma who wrote the Dao De Ching and not her husband, Lao Tsu. And so to explore that was probably the most fun I had the whole time doing Xena. Love [these] two China episodes…” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Rob Gillies (Production Designer): “I’d seen in a book of early photographs from China, if you were a criminal, your sentence was to wear this [pillory] for maybe a month [or] a year, and I think the purpose of it also was that you couldn’t feed yourself. And I can remember where we actually did the set – and flooded it – it wasn’t a nice place to be in.” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Oley Sassone (Director): “The prison water scene was a really brilliant design by Rob Gilles. To have to be thrown in a prison, in a dungeon, is one thing, but then to be thrown into a watery dungeon with Lucy’s pillory around her neck, which was in fact… historically accurate…There’s a very big emotional moment for Gabrielle with Xena when Xena’s in the pillory in the prison – in the watery prison… it was very important for me to get that emotional beat just right, and I told Renee, ‘Hold every emotion. Hold everything you’ve got in your soul and your heart, and [with] this begging for forgiveness, hold it for this one line. Gabrielle looks at Xena and Xena looks at her and that’s it, and the dam broke, and I said, ‘That’s the moment. Right there.’ … The scene where Lao Ma wraps Xena in a piece of cloth and unravels her and spins her like a top, and causes her to float in the air, one thing that I saw that really added to the sensuality of the piece and the beauty of it, once I saw that they were going to be off the ground, I talked to Ngila Dickson, the costumer, and I said, ‘Gosh, I just see a lot of flowing material in slow-motion.’ And… she designed these beautiful costumes that if you stood on the ground with them, they would be, you know, trains of material all over the place, but once we lifted them up on wire, and shot them in slow-motion and hit them with big fans, then the material just flowed all around them and just added that much more sensuality and beauty to the scene. It was really great… You know, once again, Lucy was so in tune with what was happening in these stories. She was so well prepared that, you know, even in that temple fight scene, she grasped it. I mean, she knew, and I think that was sort of like the feeling that we all thought should happen, but Lucy really knew what was going on with this character at that point. The ambiguity of Ming T’ien’s death at the end, whether … Gabrielle thinks he’s dead or not…. Well, Gabrielle never knew he was dead. She walked out of that room thinking that Xena had learned the lessons and played by the rules now that Lao Ma had set forth.” (“The Debt (II)” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Here is a scan of an interview that writer R.J. Stewart gave on both parts of “The Debt” for The Chakram Newsletter: #2.
Check out last week’s post to read more about this legendary two-parter!
54. Season 3, Episode 8: “The King Of Assassins” (Aired: 11/17/97 | Filmed: 06/30 – 07/08/97)
Gabrielle, Joxer and Autolycus sneak into a palace to thwart an assassination attempt by Joxer’s evil lookalike brother, Jett. The intended victim: Cleopatra.
Written by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. V0410
As a Lucy-lite episode, this installment (as with all of the episodes that feature Xena in only the teaser and the final act) is in no danger of ever becoming one of my favorite episodes. And that’s okay — because “The King Of Assassins” has no ambitions to further story arcs or say something powerful about the characters; all it wants to do is entertain. And if you let it, it will do just that.
Also, as the first pairing of Joxer and Autolycus, comedy lovers should rejoice in this episode, which gives both men (and the episode was directed by Campbell) the opportunity for great shtick. Additionally, Raimi does double duty as his evil twin brother Jett. Thus, if you are a fan of Joxer, you’re more likely to enjoy this episode. Meanwhile, with Lawless only appearing in four scenes, much of the heavy lifting goes to O’Connor, who does an even better job than she did last season at keeping the story focused and enjoyable. Speaking of enjoyable, Gina Torres is an unbeatable Cleopatra (and I wish she could have been in Season Five’s “Antony And Cleopatra,” but there are several reasons why that would not have worked out), and she imbues the episode with a sense of glamorous excitement. I mean, Cleopatra is a natural Xena fit — if only Xena was around to enjoy it!
This is a solid, light-weight Xena episode with new sets, new costumes, new actors, and it’s a lot of fun for fans of Joxer and Autolycus (or Raimi and Campbell). Not a great episode, but certainly an entertaining one.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Ted Raimi (Actor, Joxer): “[This] was such a bear of an episode that it took me two-and-a-half weeks. I play my own brother, Jett, the success of the family and the world’s best assassin. Jett is an evil psychopath, and if you look at him wrong, he would kill you in the parking lot. My old buddy Bruce Campbell directed it, and that was really fun. We’ve known each other for years, and it was great seeing him in the director’s chair… I had one three-and-a-half-page scene with myself that took a day to shoot, and at the day’s end, I didn’t know whose lines I was saying anymore. As it happens, they wrote it very cleverly, so that both characters are wearing the same costume, so that was easy. The difference was in the makeup, because Jett has a big nasty scar down his eye, he’s dirtier and healthier-looking, and Joxer is a six-Twinkies-a-day kind of guy.” (Starlog Magazine Yearbook – August 1998)
Bruce Campbell (Director/Actor, Autolycus): “I had never directed myself as an actor before. [This] episode…provided that first opportunity and I was excited to work with Sam Raimi’s younger brother Ted again. I’d known Ted since he was nine and even took him to cello lessons – he still owes me five bucks for an impromptu stop at Dairy Queen. Ted was in many of our early Super-8 films and several of the features, but I never paid much attention to his overall game plan. Nothing made me happier than to see him wind up on Xena as the recurring character of Joxer – King of Idiots. Directing Ted was great, because I didn’t have to go into lengthy explanations about what I hoped to accomplish – I could use old Super-8 jargon and he was unfazed. BRUCE: ‘Okay, Ted, after Gabrielle leaves, keep Shemping like you did in Uncivil Warbirds until I call noise.’ TED: ‘Right.’ BRUCE: ‘When you react, do that Larry thing, like in A Plumbing We Will Go.’ TED: ‘Yep.’ BRUCE: ‘Then, I need you to vaso-glide left to reveal Xena behind you.’ TED: ‘Gotcha.’ [Also] during [this episode], I realized that the Raimi Insanity Gene had successfully transferred through to Ted. He was an in-front-of-the-camera version of his brother Sam – always full of ideas and ready to share a heightened sense of absurdity with the world. Ted’s greatest asset is the ability to make a complete ass of himself on camera.” (If Chins Could Kill by Bruce Campbell)
Ted Raimi (Actor, Joxer): “The relationship between Bruce and I is quite different than Joxer and Autolycus… For one, I’m much smarter than Bruce… you know, I’m more graceful… I drive a nicer car… I’m just better at everything mostly… I’ve known him since I was ten, so I always sort of remember him as this taller older guy until I grew up and [became] the same size as him…. Because of that relationship when I was ten and he was 16, him going ‘Get outta here, we’re trying to do something, you brat,” that tone of voice – taking that on the set is fine for me, ‘cause, you know, he kinda yells and it’s sort of like sense memory… He’s an actor first and foremost, and so all of his direction comes from that viewpoint with a real love of actors, you know. He loves to, you know, see what he can get out of this guy and that guy… Better be sharp on your lines with Bruce, because if you’re not, he’ll let you know… [But] this episode was great. I loved to do all of the episodes where I got to play more than one character. It’s a character actor’s dream. Everybody on that show in its six-year run probably played no less than three or four different people. I played even more than that. Probably like six maybe. So it was really cool.” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “[Bruce] and Ted had always wanted to work together… They loved doing the Hope and Crosby routine and all of those things… Bruce gets comedy and gets Ted… we thought it was a natural pairing at the time to bring them in to do [this episode… and] we thought it was an interesting idea to have Joxer have the brother who was everything he wanted to be – assassin and killer and all that.” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Nora Kay Foster (Writer): “I’m not sure who came up with [the idea of Jett]. I know we came up with the name. We thought he would be a tough guy and we thought that the story would be, it was going to be a Xena-lite episode anyhow, so we thought it would be interesting to explore if Joxer’s father was a warlord, who was his brother?” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Adam Armus (Writer): “A lot of it I think came from, I had an older brother who tortured me… [Nora] Kay [had one] too… and so we decided that, look, if Joxer’s dad was a warlord, maybe there was one son in the brood who came to follow in the dad’s footsteps, [like] in a lot of ways, my brother followed in my dad’s footsteps. Jett turned out to be the character who gave the wedgies to, you know, his minute younger brother, Joxer.” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Nora Kay Foster (Writer): “But also it’s sort of the Raimi brothers. Ted is the youngest, I think, of the four siblings and there was a lot of that kind of stuff going on in their house.” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Adam Armus (Writer): “So Ted really embraced the role and I think he really enjoyed playing both parts too because he could experience both sides of the coin too.” (“The King Of Assassins” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Ted Raimi (Actor, Joxer): “This [episode has] all interior stuff that [in some scenes] looks exterior, but it’s an interior actually – all of this is. It’s all studio. It’s done in the old fashioned kinda studio way. That’s what I think people like about this [episode] too is that it really looked like a classic movie set. Like one of those old MGM sets. That’s what I really dug about this one too. It’s really, really elaborate set design and lighting for a TV show… Bruce is very good too. He’s very good at moving the camera to places where you wouldn’t think of moving it on a regular TV show. He’s very creative that way as a director and he gives the actors a lot of latitude too. I mean, he lets actors do things that I think most directors would have a heart attack if they saw the actors do, but Bruce is very good at that sort of stuff… Lucy… has a smaller part in this episode. She only appears in maybe three scenes because she was away at NAPTE… an organization to sell television shows, sort of like a big convention for TV shows to be sold. She had to go. She didn’t want to be away, but she had to – her duties took her away…” (“The King Of Assassins” Commentary– Season Three DVD Set)
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Garbo film!