Welcome to a new Xena Thursday! Today’s post continues our 11-week series on the show from which our beloved Xena: Warrior Princess was spawned. While these posts aren’t set up like the Opinionated Episode Guides with quotes and articles about the making of the show, I’m covering my thoughts on every episode — some of which I’m watching for only the second or third time for these entries. Thus, they are designed as a starting point for Xena fans, like myself, who are interested in FINALLY taking the time to get into the “big brother” series, and I’ve personally invited all my Xena readers to join me in this 11-week marathon! Most every episode is on Netflix, and for anyone who doesn’t have access to the series, contact me and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction. If a marathon is too much of a commitment, these posts can be used to help you choose which episodes to watch, because as a Xena fan, although I will do my best to appreciate Hercules: The Legendary Journeys for the unique show that it is, my allegiance is still to Xena — and I know what the Xenites (particularly this Xenite) like!
Today we’re covering the first half of the second season, which began airing concurrently with the first season of Xena. Season Two is a very transitional year, as the series does a lot of different types of stories — comedies, dramas, romance, adventure. There’s still a freshness to the proceedings and most everything works to varying degrees. We begin with…
14. Season 2, Episode 1: “The King Of Thieves” (Aired: 09/04/95 | Filmed: 04/24 – 05/03/95)
While Iolaus is about to be beheaded for a robbery he didn’t commit, Herc and the real culprit are playing cat-and-mouse with each other– and a gigantic serpent is playing cat-and-mouse with them.
Written by Doug Lefler | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. 876807
On the same evening that TV audiences saw Xena meet Gabrielle, the Herc/Xenaverse was also introduced to another of its most ingenious of characters, Bruce Campbell’s Autolycus, the King of Thieves. This episode, in which Auto is cast as our titular hero’s foe, is a fast-paced swashbuckling adventure, and an especially entertaining one at that. Although the principal threat is human-based, we also have another of the series’ classic CGI monsters, and the co-existence of these two conflicts is an exceedingly appropriate representation of the second season’s implicit behind-the-scenes arc: is Hercules a kids’ show (with cool-looking monsters) or an adults’ show (with mankind as a more formidable evil)? Because of Auto’s debut, and an engaging narrative, this episode is a good one for Xenites.
15. Season 2, Episode 2: “All That Glitters” (Aired: 09/11/95 | Filmed: 07/04 – 07/13/95)
Hercules helps out his friend King Midas whose gambling palace has gotton out of control with sadistic entertainment.
Written by Craig Volk | Directed by Garth Maxwell | Production No. 876805
As one of the cleverest stories of the second season, this episode stands as an example of what early Hercules does best: reinterpreting ancient myths for a 20th century audience. The story of King Midas has long been a parable for the evils of greed, and what better way to revamp the story than to make him the frontman of a crooked casino? The premise alone, which is one of the most original thus far in the series, makes the episode worthwhile, but a strong script and an excellent guest appearance by Michael Hurst’s wife, Jennifer Ward-Leland (Xenites, you may remember her as Boadicea from “The Deliverer” or Zehra, Queen of Cons from “The Play’s The Thing”), are equally appealing draws. A really tight, solid episode — well told and entertaining.
16. Season 2, Episode 3: “What’s In A Name?” (Aired: 09/18/95 | Filmed: 05/16 – 05/23/95)
A not-so-heroic Hercules imposter, Herc’s mortal half-brother Iphicles, is about to wed the stepdaughter of an evil warlord.
Written by Michael Marks | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. 876803
Similar to the introduction of Autolycus in the season premiere, this episode will most appeal to Xena fans for Renaissance’s first use of Kevin Smith. No, not as Ares — but Iphicles, Hercules’ moody half-brother, who’s been masquerading as Hercules to win the heart of his true love. As you can tell from the premise, the thrust of this episode is also among the “mortal dilemma” variety, although Hera, as she often is in these still-early installments, remains the “head b**ch in charge” — motivating the behaviors of the human villain. So the story alone gears this episode to an older bunch, but there’s some good eye-catching action as well. Meanwhile, because Hercules is personally invested in the proceedings, the episode packs more of a welcome emotional punch.
17. Season 2, Episode 4: “Siege At Naxos” (Aired: 09/25/95 | Filmed: 07/26 – 08/04/95)
Barbarians set out to rescue their grotesque colleague Goth are at the gate of an abandoned fort manned only by Hercules and Iolaus.
Written by Darrell Fetty | Directed by Stephen L. Posey | Production No. 876810
Here we have a really dark story without any of the flash or CGI-fun that would appeal to the growing number of young audience members. It’s a really compact, well-shot, interesting episode, but it remains most fascinating for me due to the guest appearance by Brian Thompson, who was the Hercules runner-up when the role was being cast in 1993, as Goth. According to Rob Tapert in an interview on the Best Buy bonus disc released with the second season DVD set, there was palpable tension and some kind of bad blood between Sorbo and the apparently bitter Thompson. Whenever I watch the episode now, that’s a lot of what I think about. That anecdote aside, it’s a mature, non-gimmicky episode — a type of which the series probably wouldn’t produce after the season.
18. Season 2, Episode 5: “Outcast” (Aired: 10/02/95 | Filmed: 05/04 – 05/15/95)
Hercules helps a centaur and his family combat the prejudice of a fanatical group of townspeople seeking ethnic purity.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 876801
Again, this episode will have an automatic appeal to Xenites due to one of its guest stars: Lucy Lawless. But, she’s not playing Xena, she’s once again playing Lyla, the centaur-loving chick from last season’s excellent “As Darkness Falls.” (Of course, with her darker hair, she looks more like Xena than Lyla, and there’s even an amusing ad lib thrown in about how much resemblance the two share.) Unfortunately, while this darker more slow-moving episode seems poised to a comparatively mature crowd, the unbearable moralizing and overly preachy tone feels worse than a middle school lecture on bullying. Furthermore, the “Zeus ex machina” that brings Lyla back to life lessens the dramatic weight and makes the episode entirely irrelevant. (And once again begs the question: why didn’t Zeus save Herc’s family?)
19. Season 2, Episode 6: “Under The Broken Sky” (Aired: 10/09/95 | Filmed: 06/22 – 07/03/95)
Hercules plays Cupid to a forlorn farmer and his alluring wife, who ran away to work in a “sin bin” after the death of their two children.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Jim Contner | Production No. 876811
Another installment with some behind-the-scenes tension, this episode, which Tapert speaks about in the aforementioned Best Buy Bonus interview, became referred to by cast and crew as “Under The Broken Script.” (Sorbo first revealed this clever nickname in passing in Weisbrot’s book, but for Tapert to remember it almost a decade later means that the issues were pretty severe.) Truthfully, there’s nothing so obviously awful about this episode that makes it seem inferior to any of the other middling — or forgettable — installments of the second season. It’s got some fine laughs and genuine emotion, but the simple fact that it is unremarkable may make it an even worse offense than if it was as truly bad as the cast and crew seem to remember. (However, both shows have certainly done worse!)
20. Season 2, Episode 7: “The Mother Of All Monsters” (Aired: 10/16/95 | Filmed: 05/25 – 06/03/95)
Echidna, the “mother of all monsters,” is out to get Hercules for killing “all my children.” Her unwitting ally: Herc’s mother.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 876806
I think this is one of the few episodes in today’s post that can truly be called superb. Everything about the installment is classic Hercules, including the premise, which combines Hera, monsters, and humans in a delicious package that poses legitimate danger and surprisingly complex storytelling. Echidna, though a bit cartoonish in display, is a villain like Callisto — we can’t blame her for being mad at the hero. Hercules DID kill all of her children. But the inclusion of Hercules’ poor underserving mother, as she’s seduced and tricked by an evil power-hungry warlord who takes her to Echidna, is a smart decision because it raises the stakes. From start to finish, a fabulous episode with memorable action and strong character moments (thanks to that oft-discussed personal draw for Hercules). One of my favorites!
21. Season 2, Episode 8: “The Other Side” (Aired: 10/30/95 | Filmed: 06/12 – 06/21/95)
The abduction of a goddess’s daughter leads Hercules to the underworld– and a family reunion.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by George Mendeluk | Production No. 876802
Finally, we’re on a roll with another excellent episode that, like Hercules In The Underworld (the fourth TV movie, which we covered here two weeks ago), combines emotional trauma for Hercules with a quest to the Underworld. But this episode actually does it better than the movie, for like the best scripts, the story is predicated on a well-known myth (Demeter’s agony at Hades’ capture of her daughter Persephone) and then ties in the series’ central premise: Hercules challenging the gods because of the murder of his family. It’s no surprise that the scenes with the most power here are those in which Hercules visits them in the Elysian Fields, as the ability to tap into heavier themes without irony asserts itself as a desirable characteristic — putting the series on a level playing field with the grandiose myths that the scripts engage. Brilliantly done.
22. Season 2, Episode 9: “The Fire Down Below” (Aired: 11/06/95 | Filmed: 07/14 – 07/25/95)
Salmoneus is cashing in on a treasure trove he found. Too bad for him—and for Hercules—that it belongs to Hera.
Story by John Schulian | Teleplay by Scott Smith Miller | Directed by Timothy Bond | Production No. 876804
The streak of high quality storytelling continues with this installment, which returns its focus back to Hera and her quest to make Hercules and all of his loved ones suffer. But this episode is also strong for its use of both Salmoenus and Nemesis, the Goddess or Retribution and Hercules’ ex-girlfriend (whom we met once last season — when she was played by a different actress). For his greed, Salmoneus seems an appropriate target for Nemesis’ fatal arrows, but of course, Hera is masterminding the operation with an evil emissary who hopes to snare Hercules in the process. When Nemesis realizes the truth and fails to do her bidding, Hera bestows her warrior with Pyro, the godlike flame which she used to take out Herc’s family — leading to the best fight of the entire season. Great action in this one, folks!
23. Season 2, Episode 10: “Cast A Giant Shadow” (Aired: 11/13/95 | Filmed: 09/06 – 09/15/95)
Herc rescues a gentle giant named Typhon from Hera’s clutches, then discovers that the big guy is “the father of all monsters.” Yes, Typhon is Echidna’s husband.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by John T. Kretchmer | Production No. 876813
Our string of marvelous second season installments comes to a conclusion in this equally comedic and genuine sequel to “The Mother Of All Monsters.” In this episode, Hercules rescues and befriends a gentle, but clumsy, giant who turns out to be Echidna’s husband, whom Hera has kept separated from his wife. What will he do when he finds out that Hercules killed his kids AND his wife? And what will Hercules do when he learns that Echidna has been brought back to life? This episode answers those questions satisfyingly, and gives us a joyously happy ending as the lovers reconcile a la Ralph and Alice Kramden to the strains of The Honeymooners theme! It’s a great story with fun action, and for the first time in this brief string of hits, that iconically H:TLJ sense of kooky childlike charm. Another worthwhile episode.
24. Season 2, Episode 11: “Highway To Hades” (Aired: 11/20/95 | Filmed: 09/18 – 09/27/95)
Hades summons Hercules to save the spirit of a young man who has been tricked into trading places with King Sisyphus.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. 876814
This installment effectively ends the streak of high quality storytelling with a narrative that’s delightfully mythical and original, but plays rather listless and unspectacularly. It’s a lofty episode with big themes, and thus, an overwhelming sentimentality that pretty much engulfs any sense of truth. However, the story is notable for Xena fans because it picks up after the events of “Death In Chains,” which aired the week before, in which Xena was called upon (also by Hades) to release Celeste from Sisyphus’ chains. Here, once again, the crafty king is doing everything in his power to evade death. Interestingly, I believe that that Xena episode would have worked better as a Hercules, while this episode just feels like an an inferior and unnecessary follow-up. Not a bad episode, just an average one.
25. Season 2, Episode 12: “The Sword Of Veracity” (Aired: 01/08/96 | Filmed: 10/24 – 11/01/95)
A former warrior is framed for murder, and Hercules must wield a “Sword of Veracity” against the bad guys to save him.
Written by Steven Baum | Directed by Garth Maxwell | Production No. 876817
Although the story seems mythical, I can find no indication that this episode was based on an actual Greek myth. Perhaps that accounts for some of its unspectacular plotting. (And I must admit to not remembering much about the episode, even though I’m positive I had seen every episode before watching them for these posts. So it’s a rather forgettable entry.) Additionally, the attempt to blend humor in with the action doesn’t work as well as it has in the past, giving the episode a rather off-kilter vibe and a tone that seems unsure of what it wants to be. I also attribute some of this to the guest casting, particularly Kim Michalis as the faux Hestian Virgin, whose inclusion allows for some comedy, but lacks the honest gravitas that could have helped the story. The battle between kids show and adults show continues…
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “The Mother Of All Monsters” and “The Other Side”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!