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.
91. Season 5, Episode 1: “Fallen Angel” (Aired: 09/27/99 | Filmed: 05/10 – 05/24/99)
Xena and Gabrielle, now released from their mortal coils, join forces with the Archangel Michael to battle Callisto and the infernal forces of Hell.
Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by John Fawcett | Production No. V0903
I featured this episode as #43 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “Rob pitched me [the] idea for [this] episode and [this] was the first thing I said, ‘Oh, cool. We’re doing Milton’s [Heaven and Hell].’ And it was a mythology we really hadn’t dealt with that much – the idea of a Heaven and angels. And we ended up dealing with it more as the series went on, but [this] was the first time we went into that particular mythology… and the other thing I wanted to do, I ultimately wanted to resolve the Callisto issue, [be]cause I did think that… [Xena] had done much good, but she could never really take the pain away from the people whose lives she ruined in her dark past. The one case we dramatized throughout the series was Callisto. She created the monster… by burning her village down. So this was an opportunity to give closure to that for both Xena and Callisto. And I like Callisto, ultimately, losing that dark side. I know some people didn’t… I was on set when those actresses were in their demon outfits. It was so strange to talk to them. It was so bizarre… it was like I was talking to a demon… [But] Xena had such strength. She had such inner strength [in] who she was that no matter what… there’s still Xena inside of her. There’s still a trace of Xena there. Gabrielle perhaps being a little more passionate… when she’s a demon, she’s totally a demon. But Xena does have always—once in the pilot that she decided to be a hero, there’s a little of that hero in her, no matter when she’s being driven by the Furies or when she’s a demon in Hell…” (“Fallen Angel” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “The thing I liked best about [this episode] was Xena being willing to give up her humanity to redeem Callisto. We struggled a great deal to get into a situation, an environment that allowed us to have that action take place, that Xena was willing to trade places with Callisto, so to speak. Therefore, I guess it did embrace aspects of Christianity, but I am certainly not banging the drum for Christianity… I don’t feel we embraced Christianity any more than we embraced Hinduism… or anything else.” (Whoosh! Interview – January 2001)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “[This] was a challenging episode, physically challenging. Flying in the harness with prosthetic wings [that] must have weighed about 100 kilos. I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but those wings were enormous devices that were an obstacle we had to overcome in all the scenes… There would be a person on each side who would maneuver the wings during the shots and they would take the weight off you in between setups… That was one of the first moments that I realized how challenging this season was going to be for me. It became a practice of self-preservation each day as you go to set and you give everything you can to make it through the whole day and, when it’s over, you realize you didn’t have a single conversation with anyone else all day! That’s not like me. I think I was just trying so hard to keep my energy up for [this] episode. John Fawcett, the director, is quite challenging. I love working with him because he pushes you in ways you think you can’t go because you’re physically exhausted trying to lift the wings or doing a fight again and again. But it brought out an aspect of me that I haven’t used in a long time… [Also] I realized I was going to be mostly working off a body double and had to stop relying on Lucy so much to react off of in a scene. I had to start relying on the history of our relationship and treat each scene independently. But I give so much credit to Polly, who was Lucy’s double at the time, because she had worked on the show since the very beginning and she knows Lucy’s mannerisms. She did a pretty damn good job in her own performance of what she thought Lucy would do, which was very helpful to me. It’s quite a challenge for them trying to interpret a scene without invading the character that Lucy has established. Because it’s Lucy’s character and they’re very conscientious of trying not to interpret the character in a different way… The scene where I’m being force-fed was a great excuse for all the stuntmen to get back at me for when I’ve accidentally hit them. It was very amusing. They had a ball… stuffing bananas in my face. They’re the ones who take the hits and the beatings and they were just laughing and enjoying themselves…. I really enjoyed working with Hudson in [this] episode. She was very generous. Hudson is definitely involved in a scene when she’s on set working with you. And then scene when I’m shaking her was one of my favorite moments of that episode. You can give her anything and she just takes it and works with it. I remember really shaking her when it was time to film her close-up. It was very interesting to see her face when I did that. I think it was John who urged me to try to wake her up. It was funny to see her reaction… I [got] a sense after working with Hudson that she’s had more experience since the last time we worked together. She’s changed as an actor. There’s another level to her that I discovered this time… I don’t believe Gabrielle would ever be able to chop Xena up into many pieces. I just tried to believe that Gabrielle would do what was appropriate at the time. If Xena really had to be destroyed, it would probably have been up to Michael to do it… [She’d] always [be] thinking they will be able to change Xena. What I found interesting was that, obviously, we didn’t chop her up, but when it came down to the fight between Xena and Gabrielle, how it was truly a fight of good versus evil. One person was going to win. That’s the feeling I had in the fight. The love between the two characters was secondary to the greater good. I don’t think I felt that before in any episode until then. The fight between them was greater than their own relationship.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #10)
Hudson Leick (Actor, Callisto): “It was great to be a demon. I really liked it. I wasn’t crazy about getting up at four in the morning to put make-up on for three hours. That part is really fun the first time you do it and see what you can turn into, and then after that it’s really not so much fun. Then you just kind of want it to be over. Plus [there’s] the hour that it takes for them to remove the make-up from you… The fingernails… would fall off, actually. They weren’t glued on really tight… but I loved all of it… It was well done. I was not CGI’d for the wings. The wings were real. They were heavy and two people, one on each end, would have to hold them. And it was hard because I couldn’t move them myself. But I had my own ideas [because] this is an extension of my character. So I would want them to do certain things. Like when I scratched, I’d be like, ‘Okay, you have to, you know like a dog… move really quickly and rapidly.’ And it was really hard to get two people to follow my movements of what I wanted. That part I remember being frustrating for me because I wanted to have the freedom… and you couldn’t walk without these [two] people. And they were heavy. They were very heavy… When Xena took away Callisto’s pain… I thought that was beautiful. I thought that was an absolutely beautiful moment. And I believe Lucy was pregnant at the time and she looked so beautiful. Like she looked stunning. And she cried, she had tears running down her face when she touched my chest, because of the empathy and the compassion that her character felt for the pain that my character was in to become that ugly. And I don’t know who wrote that. Did R.J. [Stewart] write that? Yeah, see that makes sense. That makes total sense that he would right that… It was difficult to play an angel. I would do it very differently now if I could re-do it. At the time my idea of an angel was something perfect… It was so foreign to play such a good character. It was a bigger challenge. Callisto came easy. Callisto was play. There was not a lot of play for me playing the angel. It felt flat and it made me feel that my character was not intelligent… and that wasn’t the writing, that was just how I felt playing it. All said… the premise of being able to be redeemed, I love. I love the idea of from anywhere we go as human beings, we can forgive ourselves and find our own love. I like that. I mean, I more than like that. I think that’s brilliantly done.” (“Fallen Angel” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “[Shooting this episode was] much better for me than for everybody else because I wasn’t in a real harness as I was pregnant at the time. I was rubbing my hands with glee [because] I didn’t have to wear that harness. The stunt people were incredible. My stunt double wore that makeup every day for over three weeks and it’s just a killer. She was also in the heavy wings and the high-heeled shoes, the cloven hooves… [which are] high shoes with the hells painted out. I gave her and her partner a vacation trip for doing all that work for me. I owed her a great debt. And Renee, poor Renee! I only had to wear the upper harness to hold on my wings, but she wore the lower one that is used for flying and hanging by wires. They’re just the most miserable things. Renee really tolerated a lot… [But] wearing that demon makeup, they could do a full frontal shot of Zoe, my wonderful stuntwoman, without too much trouble. And my double, Polly, was also wearing the makeup, but nobody more than Zoe… [With Demon Xena, there] was a little bit of Daisy [my daughter] or Meg in there. Something childlike or mischievous. Except, it wasn’t Xena being wistful. I think, at that point, there was next to zero of Xena left. It was the demon thinking, ‘Ayy, what is this cute little creature?’ We actually dubbed some lines for the part where Demon Xena is carryng Gabrielle to the cliff edge and saying things like, ‘Heavy birdy.’ Wicked things about the little broken butterfly, the little broken bird on the ground. But they weren’t used… [But] Xena wanted her. She was going to throw her over the abyss own to Hell… [and] toy with her, the old cat. I think she belonged to the devil then. Yeah, she’d have her forever… one way or the other.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #10)
Jane Holland (Costume Designer): “[This] was… the second… episode I had to design… and it was quite a big costuming episode… and there were a lot of practical requirements… that I had to start with… and build a costume around [those]… So we had the wings, which were on a body harness. The wings were really heavy so they had to have a substantial harness to hold them on. And also a lot of those characters were flying as well, so they had flying harnesses. The challenge was to provide a form-fitting costume that incorporated the bulk of the harnesses. So I first looked at medieval paintings and from there we sort of evolved the look of the angels, which were gold and white…” (“Fallen Angel” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Eric Gruendemann (Producer): “This was one of the first times in television that we created digital sets… almost everything was shot in front of a blue screen with just a little bit of flooring… so it really made it hard for the actors… I remember reading the script for this and thinking, ‘Well, okay, in the teaser… we’ll be spending more money trying to create this situation than we would in a whole episode otherwise.’ So by [that] point, I’m already crying and hemorrhaging money, but it [was] worth it…” (“Fallen Angel” Commentary – Season Five DVD Set)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “We went back and shot for half a day the Callisto and Michael moment that infers how [Xena’s] pregnancy came about… We knew that we had to tip our hands. So if you go back and watch it, that virgin birth, so to speak, was inseminated at the end of [this] episode.” (Best Buy Exclusive – Season Five DVD Set)
Here are scans of an interview that writer R.J. Stewart gave on “Fallen Angel” for The Chakram Newsletter: #10.
Here are scans of an article on the making of “Fallen Angel” from Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #2.
92. Season 5, Episode 2: “Chakram” (Aired: 10/04/99 | Filmed: 04/19 – 04/28/99; 06/11/99)
Xena has no recollection of being a warrior after she and Gabrielle are resurrected from the dead, seemingly, by Eli.
Written by Chris Manheim | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. V0901
This ambitious episode doesn’t completely work and its shortcomings are inescapable. The premise requires Xena to be inactive for 90% of the story, and because this is an action show called Xena, it’s disappointing not to see our favorite heroine beating up some baddies. However, because the script seemingly has something to say about the necessity of Xena’s dark side, the shock of Xena being so helplessly innocent is powerful. It’s not fun to watch, but it’s fascinating. (Also, Lawless is clearly pregnant, so we have to forgive the series for keeping her load light, as difficult as that may be.) The theme is well-rendered and reinforced with the introduction of the “super chakram” which symbolizes the literal and figurative joining of the light and the dark. While I’m not opposed to its new design (it certainly works for this episode), it also represents a break away from the show’s golden era. So it’s very bittersweet.
But while the theme is crafted supremely, there’s still a lot that this episode wants to do. In addition to commenting on Xena’s raison d’être, the series must reconcile Gabrielle’s abandonment of the “Way of Love.” She’s going to follow Xena’s path: the Way of the Warrior. This is both a natural evolution of the character, given what we saw at the end of “The Ides Of March,” and also a necessity for the series during Xena’s pregnancy. So Gabrielle gets her sais and immediately starts defending Xena and the gang. Meanwhile, the episode introduces the upcoming Twilight of the Gods saga as Eli, who’s shocked at his ability to bring his friends back to life, is clearly presented as a major threat to Ares and the other gods. If all of this wasn’t enough, Joxer’s crush on Gabrielle goes from joke to substance as he finally decides to confess his love (he wants to catch her in between deaths). There’s a lot of great threads that are, for the most part, handled well.
So why doesn’t it work then? Well, the episode’s logic, though understandable, is clearly of the “make it up as you go along” variety. It’s never completely explained why Xena lost her dark side. If it’s because the chakram broke, why didn’t it begin in “The Ides Of March”? If it’s because of Eli and Callisto’s powers, why did Gabrielle come out normal? It’s pure plot device, and it’s a difficult one to navigate around, since it’s imbedded in the story. Meanwhile, the whole idea of doing an episode called “Chakram” about Xena’s chakram without fully explaining how and when and why Xena got the chakram is ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Ares gave it to her, we know nothing. No flashbacks, no backstory. It’s a glaring deficit to the story and the episode. I think if things were clearer and there was more context, the episode would come across better. As of now, its fundamentally weaker than… well, all of the episodes that made my ‘best of’ list.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Doug Lefler (Director): “The most difficult thing about [this] episode was the fact that Xena was inactive… until the very end. And it was a strange thing. It was very strange to conceive scenes with Xena where she was a bystander. It was a real challenge though. You really wanted Xena to be in the thick of it. Instead you had to rely on Gabrielle and Amarice and occasionally on Joxer. But Joxer could only sort of stumble through fight scenes. Eli and Xena in this episode are passive characters. You can’t really engage them in fisticuffs. Of the course the other challenge of filming this episode was that Lucy was pregnant at the time and it was showing. So we had to disguise that. And we had a limited number of hours that we could work with her. Because she was pregnant, we had to release her earlier. So we had to design scenes around getting her coverage and being able to send her home, and then shooing everyone else’s coverage… A lot of what we did to keep her character alive in this episode was to play it off the other characters—how they responded to her being different. And in some ways, how they responded differently than they would have thought. Gabrielle I think was the most surprised. She didn’t like Xena not being proactive, aggressive, and potentially violent…The balcony scene when Gabrielle makes her plea to Xena to return to the way she was, why it’s important for her to have her dark side, her violent side back in order to be whole… was not shot originally as part of the episode. They flew me back to New Zealand… I was there for 24 hours. I flew in, shot the day, and left that night and came back. I was exhausted, but I was really glad that we shot that scene. I think it was a really critical scene for this particular episode in that it was putting forth the whole argument, the idea of this episode, why does Xena need to be who she is…[Also] Ares [touching] Eli and [backing] off was not in the script. I have to say that was my addition to it. Part of it was just looking for something active for all of the characters to do, but we wanted to say that there was some kind of a power in Eli that even Ares feared. And he wasn’t aware of it until he actually touched Eli. At that point, I just said to Kevin Smith, ‘When you put your hand on him, you feel he’s got a gun under there. And you’re wondering what it is he’s packing at that point. But you know there’s something there that you didn’t see before.’ … It was just something that I felt was important at the time… “ (“Chakram” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “I think the problem with… Xena [in this episode] was that she had no judgment. She had no light and shade. She had no memory, she had no history. She had nothing informing her decisions. So it’s a problem. [Gabrielle] wanted her friend back – her whole friend back.” (“Chakram” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Ted Raimi (Actor, Joxer): “Renee and I were pretty excited to finally get a scene like [the one in this episode]. Renee gets lots of good emotional scenes with Lucy, but she doesn’t get too many to do with me, so I think that might have been fun for her. It was certainly fun for me.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #12 – November 2000)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “I think Gabrielle became more of a fighter because Xena was pregnant… I don’t think there was ever supposed to be a violent Gabrielle, but there was a conscientious effort to make Gabrielle start fighting again. So they gave me a weapon and it was just a matter of letting her be a little bit more of an equal in the fighting… [This] was the first time in a while that Gabrielle had had a weapon… Rob was trying to figure out what weapon. He was thinking about going back to the staff. And then I think I mentioned a whip—just kidding—no, actually, I did mention nunchuks. And he said, ‘I think that’s a little violent for Gabrielle.’ So I got the sais, and it was funny, because out of nowhere, Gabrielle knew how to use these weapons… [But] I had fun with those…” (“Chakram” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Chris Manheim (Writer/Producer): “With Lucy’s advancing pregnancy, it forced us to… push [Gabrielle] forward as a warrior more than anything else. I mean, it really forced our hands, so that her Way that she was searching for all through the fourth season, became parallel and in a way emulated Xena’s… and it was important to us, so that we remained an action show. With Lucy unable to take part in all of the action, we needed somebody to do it… We were looking for an instrument for Gabrielle, the way Xena had her chakram, something signature. And [we] went through tons of weapon books and… [the sais]… fit her as a person. You know, she’s not big like Xena. She’s a little fireplug of a fighter and sais fit her arm… so she could whirl them around… and she got so good with them. .. For Xena to come back only partially herself, only half herself so to speak, with all remembrance of violence and evil and darkness gone, it nicely interwove with the story we wanted to tell about the chakram… Xena got her memory back when [the chakrams] were joined because it’s the joining of the light and the dark. I mean, that’s what was happening visually when the two chakrams were put together, and that’s what happened to Xena emotionally and physically… she became a whole person, just as the light and the dark chakram became one balanced chakram… I liked what the look of the [new] chakram said, again, about balance, with that yin-yang thing going through it. Plus it was a super-duper chakram. I mean, you’ve got two for the price of one there… and I think it helped having a chakram that was more useful to her as a weapon as her pregnancy increased, you know. She was able to fight as hard without fighting as hard.” (“Chakram” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Five DVD Set)
Doug Lefler (Director): “[This] was a creative challenge, finding ways of staging Lucy to hide her pregnancy, which was highly visible at the time. But for whatever difficulties I had to go through as a director, it was noting compared to what she had to go through. It’s very difficult to be an action hero when you’re pregnant! There were times when we were going fight scenes and I would go up to her and say, ‘Would you like to stop now?’ and she’d say, ‘No, I think we should do it again.’ She was quite a trouper.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #13 – December 2000)
Here are scans of an interview that writer Chris Manheim gave on “Chakram” for The Chakram Newsletter: #10.
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Film Friday!