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 episodes are 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 part of the fifth season, which many fans agree contains the strongest episodes of the series, as the show becomes more serialized and goes infinitely darker with the introduction of the Dahak storyline and the death of Iolaus. After the mess that Sorbo’s illness inflicted upon Season Four, these episodes are a breath of exhilarating fresh air — filled with many of the series’ finest moments. In fact, Tapert believed that these 11 episodes were collectively better than the concurrent Xena episodes (the first 11 from Season Four). I may be inclined to agree…
82. Season 5, Episode 1: “Faith” (Aired: 09/28/98 | Filmed: 04/22 – 05/01/98)
Hercules and Iolaus head for Sumeria, where the local king says he’s under attack by his kingdom’s gods.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0708
Originally intended to begin during February sweeps in the fourth season, the Dahak arc, which starts in this episode, revitalizes the show with heretofore unseen gusto. “Faith” is among the show’s most seminal episodes, as Herc and Iolaus venture to Sumeria with Nebula, who reveals that her brother is King Gilgamesh, played by the always remarkable Tony Todd. (Xenites, you remember him as Cecrops in “Lost Mariner.”) While Iolaus and Nebula give into the attraction that has been brewing between them, Herc goes with Gilgamesh on a daringly cool mission that culminates in the latter’s betrayal, as he allows himself to be taken over by Dahak. Iolaus sacrifices himself for Nebula in the final fourth act fight, which launches our hero on a journey that will last until midseason — one that makes him more emotionally complex and elevates the show to Xena levels of darkness. Wonderful: action-packed and emotionally resonant.
83. Season 5, Episode 2: “Descent” (Aired: 10/05/98 | Filmed: 05/12 – 05/21/98)
Consumed by grief over the loss of Iolaus, Hercules attempts to bring his best friend back from the Underworld.
Written by Lisa Klink | Directed by Richard Compton | Production No. V0704
“Descent” resumes not too long after the premiere and contends mostly with Hercules’ brooding grief and initial shock over losing Iolaus to the machinations of the evil Dahak. In a mission that may have shades of the Walking Dead, Hercules travels with Nebula and her crew to the Sumerian land of the dead to find Iolaus. (In other words, there are zombies.) Without the sheer action of “Faith” this installment features a lot of internal struggle — especially between Herc and Nebula. Furthermore, the climax, while original and interesting, isn’t among the series’ most exciting, and that, coupled with the installment’s languid pace and melancholic elements, renders the episode as necessary, but not spectacular. (All that said, in comparison to some of the miserably bad shows produced in the years prior, this is clearly a narratively superior offering.) Solid continuation of the arc.
84. Season 5, Episode 3: “Resurrection” (Aired: 10/12/98 | Filmed: 05/22- 6/03/98)
Hercules faces the evil female demigod Morrigan, an assassin sent to destroy the Druids.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Philip Sgriccia | Production No. V0703
Hercules’ journey continues in Eire, when he’s summoned by the Celts to protect the Druids from Morrigan, the redheaded villainess who has been hunting them with her super-speed. As will all of the episodes set on foreign lands, the production design and musical score reach new heights, yielding a beautiful and highly evocative cinematic experience. Narratively, this episode is intriguing because it finds Hercules in a place where he is fully ready to abandon his commitment to being a hero and helping humanity. Also, we’re introduced to the aforementioned Morrigan, who will become a major player in the rest of the fifth season. Meanwhile, having a child play Mabon is an especially haunting choice, and even if some of his wisdom lacks the concrete simplicity of Lao Ma’s, he functions for Hercules in a similar way as she does to Xena, so the inner exploration of his character reaches a pinnacle (as Xena’s does in “The Debt”). One of the show’s finest hours; great writing, directing, and playing. A true classic.
85. Season 5, Episode 4: “Genies and Grecians and Geeks, Oh My” (Aired: 10/19/98 | Filmed: 07/09 – 07/17/98)
Salmoneus and Autolycus converge on a sultan’s magic lamp—and the genie inside it lets them share three wishes.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by John Cameron | Production No. V0711
In a total disruption to the serialized momentum that the fifth season had been building, this installment (also designed to give Kevin Sorbo a break), returns things to the Herc-less Season Four fare, as Autolycus and Salmoneus, in his last appearance on this series, conjure up a genie and get three wishes. Not surprisingly, hijinks ensue. It’s a mildly funny episode, with some fun performances, but it really has nothing to do with Hercules or his character, and thus, really isn’t worth much of our time. Weakest offering in today’s post.
86. Season 5, Episode 5: “Render Unto Caesar” (Aired: 10/26/98 | Filmed: 06/11 – 06/22/98)
As Julius Caesar prepares to attack the emerald isle of Eire, Hercules helps the demigod Morrigan find the good within her.
Written by Noreen Tobin & Gene O’Neill | Directed by John Laing | Production No. V0706
Tapert recalls this episode, which marks this series’ only appearance of Caesar — Julius Caesar — as an attempt to give Hercules (and, basically, Kevin Sorbo) the kind of ammunition that the actor had felt contributed to Xena‘s comparative success. Naturally, Caesar works best with Xena because of their history, but his inclusion here is fantastic, as it’s based on a real life incident in which the Romans attempted an unsuccessful attack on the Celts. But this episode also functions as the continuation of the Morrigan arc, as her transformation from evil to good (not unlike Xena’s) becomes perhaps the principal focus. Frankly, she’s never as frightening as Xena, as her affection for both her daughter and the baby daddy automatically makes her emotionally empathetic. But the blending of multiple stories into a cohesive script is a narrative trait we don’t see on this more simplistic series. It’s exciting — and it works.
87. Season 5, Episode 6: “Norse By Norsevest” (Aired: 11/02/98 | Filmed: 07/28 – 08/06/98)
A vision draws Herc to Norway, where he finds himself mixed up in events that, a prophecy says, will lead to “the end of all things.”
Story by Paul Robert Coyle | Teleplay by Gerry Conway | Directed by John Laing | Production No. V0707
My thoughts regarding the Norse two-parter are not dissimilar to my sentiments for the Norse trilogy on Xena: abundant style, shortage of substance. Part of the problem is that everything is so story-driven, based almost entirely on the Norse myths (which admittedly, are great fodder for both series). But Hercules, despite being a major player in the events that transpire, doesn’t exist with the same complexity that he does in the episodes prior. In other words, the premise for this episode and the one following have little to do with Hercules and his personal journey. This is a problem that plagued way too many shows in Seasons Two, Three, and Four, but in a season with an obvious mission to make Hercules more multi-dimensional, episodes that don’t fulfill this obligation stick out as inferior. Beautifully produced, but far from ever being a favorite.
88. Season 5, Episode 7: “Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bridge” (Aired: 11/09/98 | Filmed: 08/07 – 08/19/98)
The three tragedies of Norse prophecy have occurred, and Ragnarok, “the end of all things,” is a certainty.
Written by Gerry Conway | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0710
Although this episode is a continuation of the events that came in the episode prior, their visual tones are in stark contrast. While “Norse By Norsevest” was directed in a way that put emphasis on the story and the machinations of the plot, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow Bridge,” directed by Michael Hurst, is more concerned with the visual grandeur of the location and the characters. While Sorbo and Hurst cite this episode as among their favorites, Tapert really dislikes the final result, believing that the direction got in the way of the story they were trying to tell. I’m more inclined to agree with the producer, as the excessive “beauty” of the visuals becomes overblown, distracting, and achingly self-indulgent. Ultimately, however, my problems with the story would sustain regardless of the director, and while I know these two epodes are well regarded among the fandom, they don’t work as well (for me).
89. Season 5, Episode 8: “Darkness Rising” (Aired: 11/16/98 | Filmed: 06/23 – 07/02/98)
A dark vision sends Herc from Eire to Sumeria, where Nebulais in danger. Behind the trouble: Dahak—in an insidious disguise.
Written by Lisa Klink | Directed by Chris Long | Production No. V0709
After the brief detour to Norway, which was supposed to be tangentially connected to the main arc due to Dahak’s implied influence on Loki, the storyline finally resumes in full force as Hercules and Morrigan travel back to Sumeria on the hunch that Nebula is in danger. Naturally, she is; she’s been having hallucinations of Iolaus. But, of course, it’s not Iolaus: it’s Dahak in Iolaus’ body. The final battle, in which Hercules must face Dahak, who’s taken the form of his recently deceased best friend is the most stimulating of the entire series (and it really doesn’t comprise much of the installment either). This is because Hercules is facing a legitimate threat, and one in which he has an insurmountable emotional investment: his best friend. Hurst does a fantastic job in the playing, and as the last episode before the Winter hiatus, “Darkness Rising” sets up a great cliffhanger for the next few episodes — one that doesn’t quite match these heights.
90. Season 5, Episode 9: “For Those Of You Just Joining Us” (Aired: 01/04/99 | Filmed: 07/03 – 07/08/98)
The writers retreat to a camp and Kevin Sorbo must rescue them from a would-be murderer without revealing his true identity as Hercules.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. V0712
To reintroduce viewers to the events from the fall episodes, TPTB (the powers that be) once again parody themselves in this sequel to last season’s hysterical “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules.” While that episode was brilliant for its ingenious way of covering for Kevin Sorbo’s mandated reduced screen time, this episode is designed as more of a clip show. And yet, surprisingly enough, “For Those Of You Just Joining Us” manages to be just as funny (if not funnier). Once again, all of the performances — Sorbo, Campbell, Hurst, Leick, Smith, Chappell — are spectacular, and as comedies go, although it’s not technically set in the same universe as Hercules “proper,” it happens to be one of the series’ best turns in the genre. And, of course, as a clip show, we must give boundless credit for the bizarrely creative production team. Hilarious installment, and great recap of the season so far.
91. Season 5, Episode 10: “Let There Be Light” (Aired: 01/11/99 | Filmed: 08/19 – 08/28/98)
Hercules, Morrigan and Nebula return to Corinth to discover the people following the cult-like form of Iolaus, who is possessed by Dahak.
Written by Gene O’Neill & Noreen Tobin | Directed by Robert Radler | Production No. V0713
In the first part of an episode that was split into two during its early gestation, this installment is forced to contend with what a lot of middle parts of trilogies must: a lot of heavy story-lifting, for the show has to get from Dahak’s return in Sumeria to the exorcism of Iolaus in Greece. This episode finds the trio returning to their homeland, where Iolaus (Dahak) is being worshipped as a deity, which naturally complicates our hero’s ability to face him and defeat him. The proceedings are livened up by the inclusion of Zarathustra, who will help Herc defeat Dahak without harming Iolaus, But what keeps the episode from working as well as some others is the insecurity of tone, as the story tries to include comedic elements (like the Hallelujah chorus) that neither evoke laughs or heighten the drama. Instead, it just complicates an already muddied episode that has a lot to do, and only does them with mediocrity.
92. Season 5, Episode 11: “Redemption” (Aired: 01/18/99 | Filmed: 08/31 – 09/09/98)
Herc, Morrigan, Nebula and Zarathustra battle to rid the world of Dahak and free the spirit of Iolaus.
Written by Lisa Klink | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. V0714
This is the final episode of the Dahak arc — in both Hercules and Xena. The entire thrust of the story involves the exorcism of Iolaus, which must occur before the sun goes down that day. So there really isn’t as much action inherent in the episode as there are in some others, which include lots of physical fights. However, the writers attempt to bring in some conflict with Ares, who now wants to kill Dahak. Yet the strength of this installment, which was probably always the intention, is its ability to bring closure for both the character of Iolaus and for Hercules’ reaction to his death. Not only do we get to see exactly how Dahak was able to take control of Iolaus’ body, but Hercules and Iolaus also get to have a final goodbye conversation before the latter is pulled up to “the light” for good… well, maybe. It’s a satisfying end to the first half of the season that gave new life to the characters (even the dead Iolaus) and ushered in some of the series’ best episodes.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Faith,” “Resurrection,” “Darkness Rising,” and “For Those Of You Just Joining Us”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!