HAPPY 20th! The Best of XENA: Xena Edition

Welcome to another Xena Thursday! In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Xena: Warrior Princess, which premiered 20 years ago tomorrow (September 4, 1995), we’re dong a monthlong series of posts celebrating the best Xena episodes per character. While I’ve already voiced my thoughts on every single episode and chosen my picks for the best, I’ve long wanted to choose which installments best represented the characters, furthering their individual journeys and strengthening the audience’s understanding of them. Before we get to Gabrielle, who changed radically over the six years, and the other recurring allies and antagonists that we’ll cover in weeks three and four, we are starting today with Xena, whose quest for a redemption that was perhaps unattainable provided the main thrust of the series, particularly in its early days. (You’ll note that I didn’t choose any episodes after Season Four.) I have selected each installment due to the things they reveal about Xena and their importance in her character’s growth and development. They are listed in airing order.

 

01. Season 1, Episode 1: “Sins Of The Past” (Aired: 09/04/95 | Filmed: 06/26 – 07/05/95)

Xena journeys homeward determined to make amends for the sins of her past, but her efforts to begin a new life are challenged by the vengeful warlord Draco.

Story by Robert Tapert | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. 876901

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I featured this episode as #23 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

In the series premiere, Xena attempts to give up a life of fighting, only to be drawn back in when defending a group of innocent villagers from Draco’s army, launching the Warrior Princess on the series of good deeds that will last the entire show. Meanwhile, Xena meets her best friend, faces off against her old lover, mourns her deceased brother, and reunites with her ashamed mother.

 

02. Season 1, Episode 3: “Dreamworker” (Aired: 09/18/95 | Filmed: 07/19 – 07/28/95)

When Gabrielle is kidnapped by a mystic, Xena enters an altered state of consciousness and must face ghosts from her past in order to rescue her friend.

Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 876905

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I featured this episode as #24 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Important for both the Xena and Gabrielle characters, this episode is the first time that Xena faces off with her past self, the juicy inner conflict that will provide a lot of drama over the course of six years. Although she conquers the ghost of her former self in the dreamscape, recognizing its importance in shaping who she is will be more difficult in practice — but the seeds are planted here.

 

03. Season 1, Episode 6: “The Reckoning” (Aired: 10/16/95 | Filmed: 09/14 – 09/22/95)

Ares frames Xena with the murder of four innocent villagers in the hope that she will return to him and rule by his side.

Written by Peter Allan Fields | Directed by Charles Siebert | Production No. 876908

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I featured this episode as #37 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

We meet Ares, arguably the most important male in Xena’s life, for the first time in this episode that not only introduces the relationship between the two, but presents Xena’s conversion from evil to good as something that could reverse itself at any time. This potential danger makes the character infinitely more interesting, and her brutal instinctual smacking of Gabrielle is exhilarating.

 

04. Season 1, Episode 22: “Callisto” (Aired: 05/13/96 | Filmed: 02/06 – 02/16/96)

Xena is once again reminded of the sins of her past when a malicious female warrior, whose family was killed by Xena’s former army, exacts her revenge on the Warrior Princess by impersonating her.

Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. 876920

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I featured this episode as #3 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Although it’s arguable to call Callisto the series’ most important villain, she very well may be the show’s most memorable, for her character is the perfect embodiment of the person who has been wronged by Xena. In addition to a brilliant fireside scene between Xena and Gabrielle, the introduction of Callisto allows our heroine to confront the living consequences of her reckless evil doings.

 

05. Season 1, Episode 23: “Death Mask” (Aired: 06/03/96 | Filmed: 01/26 – 02/05/96)

After being reunited with her estranged older brother, Toris, Xena decides to join him in his plans to kill the raider who destroyed their village years before.

Written by Peter Allan Fields | Directed by Stewart Main | Production No. 876917

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I featured this episode as one of the 18 honorable mentions that narrowly missed inclusion on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

While this episode is considered by many to be a disappointment, I find it impossible to negate its importance. Not only does it give Xena the opportunity to exact revenge on the man who killed her younger brother and turned her into a fighter, but it also reunites Xena with her older brother, Toris. The two share a contentious relationship that certainly deserved further exploration on the series.

 

06. Season 1, Episode 24: “Is There A Doctor In The House?” (Aired: 07/29/96 | Filmed: 03/13 – 03/19/96)

Caught in the middle of a fierce war, Xena and Gabrielle aid the wounded inhabitants of a healing temple, then try to mediate talks between the warring factions.

Written by Patricia Manney | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. 876925

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I featured this episode as #11 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Lucy Lawless remembers this episode as one of the first times that the icy exterior that Xena put forward in Season One was thawed, as her teary-eyed meltdown at the possibility of losing Gabrielle confirms to viewers (and to the characters) the important esteem in which she holds their relationship. So, in addition to being a great capper to the season, it’s the solidification of their friendship.

 

07. Season 2, Episode 1: “Orphan Of War” (Aired: 09/30/96 | Filmed: 05/29 – 06/07/96)

Xena comes to the aid of a community of centaurs menaced by a member of her former band, and upon her arrival is reunited with the young son whom she left in their care nine years earlier.

Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by Charles Siebert | Production No. V0206

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I featured this episode as #42 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

The second season opens up with an emotional wallop as Xena reveals to Gabrielle that she had a son whom she gave up to the centaurs. This revelation, coupled with Lawless’ looser playing and the more polished scripting, develops the Xena character in a surprising, but not unbelievable manner. With more internal pain, Xena becomes an even more complex figure than she was before.

 

08. Season 2, Episode 2: “Remember Nothing” (Aired: 10/07/96 | Filmed: 05/08 – 05/16/96)

The Three Fates offer Xena the opportunity to erase her past — including her younger brother’s untimely death — but only if she vows to never shed blood in anger again.

Story by Steven L. Sears & Chris Manheim | Teleplay by Chris Manheim | Directed by Anson Williams | Production No. V0201

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I featured this episode as #30 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Admittedly, I find most “what if” episodes (on any series of any genre) to be gimmicky and self-indulgent on the part of the series, but the episode once again gives Xena the chance to see the good that her fighting for justice has done for the world, and allows her to say goodbye once and for all to her deceased brother, Lyceus, who makes his only appearance on the series in this installment.

 

09. Season 2, Episode 12: “Destiny” (Aired: 01/27/97 | Filmed: 06/17 – 06/27/96)

A fierce battle with Sitacles and his men leaves Xena lying near death and dreaming of the past encounters that have shaped her into a warrior princess, including her adventures with Julius Caesar and her relationship with a mysterious girl.

Story by Robert Tapert | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart & Steven L. Sears | Directed by Robert Tapert | Production No. V0207

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I featured this episode as #22 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

As the first flashback, viewers are given the first opportunity to see what Xena was like before she met Hercules, and in this case, the series refocuses the importance of Cortese onto Caesar, who’s charged with being the man REALLY responsible for Xena’s turning evil — and more specifically, her commitment to death. It’s a powerful offering, covering a defining moment in the Warrior Princess’ life.

 

10. Season 3, Episode 6: “The Debt (I)” (Aired: 11/03/97 | Filmed: 07/16 – 07/25/97)

As Xena and Gabrielle travel toward the Eastern kingdom of Chin, Xena recalls a kidnapping episode from her dark past involving two rival Chin clans.

Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0406

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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 next) here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Another flashback, these episodes are important for fleshing out what we know about Xena and why she is who she is at the start of the series. (But I think the flashbacks from the early years are much more revealing than those from the later ones.) This installment shows Xena’s introduction to Lao Ma, one of her most important mentors, and gives us the first glimpse of her baby daddy, Borias.

 

11. 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

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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. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

In addition to picking up where the first part finished, this episode features two spectacular moments. The first, in flashback, shows how Xena was first given the opportunity for redemption (by Lao Ma), only to prolong her conversion by returning to evil. And the second is the killing of Ming T’ien, which gives the character that delicious moral complexity that the series would routinely explore.

 

12. Season 3, Episode 14: “Forgiven” (Aired: 02/16/98 | Filmed: 12/11 – 12/18/97)

A brash teen tries to convince Xena that she would make a better partner than Gabrielle by leading the duo to the stolen Urn of Apollo.

Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Garth Maxwell | Production No. V0415

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Check out my thoughts on this episode, along with the opinions and recollections of the cast and crew here.

I’m sure this may seem a strange episode to include on today’s list. (It’s not even among my favorites.) However, in addition to the interesting parallels between Tara and a young Xena, this installment climaxes with a breathtaking moment in which Xena refuses any type of symbolic forgiveness, illustrating Xena’s own recognition that nothing she can ever do will ever fully redeem her sins.

 

13. Season 4, Episode 15: “Between The Lines” (Aired: 02/15/99 | Filmed: 11/23 – 12/02/98)

The power of Mehndi sends the souls of Xena and Gabrielle into the future to protect their good karmas from a reincarnated Alti.

Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by Rick Jacobson | Production No. V0616

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Check out my thoughts on this episode, along with the opinions and recollections of the cast and crew here.

My problems with this installment are covered at length in the link above, but it’s impossible to deny that this important episode alters Xena’s life and the course of the series. Given a taste of a future existence, Xena sees that her current karma has her destined to become a leader of peace, confirming that Xena’s good deeds have earned her a favorable spirituality. (And maybe some redemption?)

 

14. Season 4, Episode 16: “The Way” (Aired: 02/22/99 | Filmed: 12/03 – 12/15/98)

Still in India, Xena seeks the help of the god Krishna to rescue Gabrielle and Eli from the clutches of the King of the Demons.

Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by John Fawcett | Production No. V0617

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I featured this episode as #40 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

Like several of the shows in today’s list, this is an essential episode for Xena and Gabrielle, as they both question their spiritual paths. As Xena examines the violence inherent in “The Way of the Warrior”, she considers the possible abandonment of this path and the potential forsaking of her too-good-to-be-true karma. Meanwhile, her relationship with Gabrielle may be in for some changes too…

 

15. Season 4, Episode 21: “The Ides Of March” (Aired: 05/10/99 | Filmed: 03/09 – 03/18/99)

When Xena learns that Caesar has put a six-million-dinar price on her head, she decides to go to Rome and kill him. Meanwhile, Caesar sends Brutus to capture Gabrielle and Amarice. Complicating matters is Callisto, who has been released from Hell and put on a double mission.

Written by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Ken Girotti | Production No. V0624

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I featured this episode as #1 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here. Check out what the cast and crew had to say about the episode here.

I discussed the episode at length in the conclusion of my countdown posts, but for Xena, this brilliant installment contends with her maybe exacting a final vengeance on the man who ruined her life (Caesar), and gives her the opportunity to abandon her good karma in an offer from Callisto, whom Xena tells that she’s done paying for her past sins — she’s now just resigned to fight for good. Thus, Xena goes from tortured hero to just hero. (It’s not quite that simple, but the series does noticeably minimize this motif, picking it up again only at the very end.) Plus, the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is never as pure and beautiful as the scene they share in the prison. Wonderful episode of Xena for Xena and, in my opinion, the end of her growth as a protagonist.

 

Other notable episodes for the Xena character include: “The Path Not Taken,” in which she meets an old flame and we learn more about her warlord days, “Hooves And Harlots,” which introduces her history with the centaurs, “Ties That Bind,” in which Xena’s relationship with her father is explored and she momentarily returns to evil, “Return Of Callisto,” which shows Xena doing something that may not be morally upright, “The Price,” in which her lust for blood goes out of control, “One Against An Army,” in which Xena does her best fighting EVER, and “Locked Up And Tied Down,” in which Xena believes going to prison will make up for her past sins.

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Come back next Thursday for the best Gabrielle episodes! And tune in tomorrow for the start of a new Pre-Code series on Film Friday!

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4 thoughts on “HAPPY 20th! The Best of XENA: Xena Edition

  1. Interesting list.
    I agree with a lot of your choices. I would have been tempted to also include “Chakram” (although I guess that episode is more about Gabrielle finally, truly accepting Xena’s “dark” side as opposed to Xena accepting it herself), “Kindred Spirits” because it shows that Xena is unable to “settle down” even where it would be in the best interests of her partner and infant daughter, “Antony and Cleopatra” because it shows that, although a “hero”, Xena is willing to engage in outright emotional manipulation to further her personal idea of the “greater good”, “Eve” because it shows that, contrary to Gabrielle who was forced to “kill” her own daughter multiple times, Xena was unable to do the same when it came to her own “evil” daughter.

    Moving into season six, I would have been tempted to include “Heart of Darkness” because it further explores the fact that Xena is willing to achieve the “greater good” at a very high cost to others, “Legacy” because it clearly and unequivocally states that nothing is more important to Xena than Gabrielle (and Eve of course) and that Xena will abandon the “greater good” if necessary to save Gabrielle, “The God You Know” because it expands upon episodes like “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Heart of Darkness” to really show just how … “dirty” Xena is willing to fight in order to do what she believes is right, “Last of the Centaurs” because it shows how stubborn and selfish Xena can be when it comes to her own interests and her need to find “redemption” (or at least some kind of resolution) for her past acts and “Friend in Need” because it demonstrates that irrespective of her past statements, Xena has never really believed that she was worthy of redemption and can only find it at the ultimate cost being her own death and separation from Gabrielle.

    • Hi, Agent86! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      As I wrote above, I personally don’t think Xena developed beyond “The Ides Of March,” besides the sudden decision to return the character’s focus to possible “redemption” in the finale. I notice that most of your choices from the last two seasons deal with the “morally ambiguous” (Tapert’s words) storytelling with which the creative team enjoyed imbuing a lot of the flashier, better produced installments of the post-Eve era. Ultimately, I find that this direction has less to do with Xena’s evolution, and more to do with the show’s, which, again, I believe had stopped regularly exploring the arc established for her character. Yet it is arguable that because her characterization changed, we could call it growth, however I think this storytelling often yields pomp without circumstance, and is therefore not substantive. Don’t get me wrong: there’s much to enjoy in the last two seasons, but most of it is story or relationship based, and not inherently linked to Xena’s personal development.

      • Fair points upperco!
        I personally think it’s interesting that after the events of season 4, Xena seemed to play a little harder, faster and looser with the “rules” of fighting for the greater good and was seemingly more comfortable with emotionally and mentally manipulating others for her own purposes.
        I take your point that this seemed to be more about changing the direction of the show, as opposed to any inherent desire to continue developing Xena’s character, but I still find it interesting. To me, it was almost as if all of Gabrielle’s cheerleading had given Xena an over-inflated sense of heroism and self-worth to the extent that Xena seemed to be willing to do almost anything if it was in the interest of her own ideas about the “greater good”.

        • I agree that the graying of Xena’s morality and commitment to justice is great storytelling fodder, and I think that’s why several of the aforementioned episodes, as long as they aren’t crushed under the weight of their occasional self-importance (or the disruptive Judeo-Christian motifs, which I maintain diluted the show’s original charm), are some of the best of their respective seasons. But as it pertains to Xena’s character, I think a lot of these themes were already explored — albeit, more subtly — in the third season, which posed the topic of Xena’s motives with relation to Caesar, forcing Gabrielle into decisions and positions that could easily have been avoided had the “greater good” been Xena’s sole objective. The interesting thing about this season, in addition to the changing dynamics of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, is that both characters get knocked off their opposing pedestals. (I think Season Four is the aftermath, with “The Ides Of March” as an ideal summation and conclusion for Xena and their friendship.) But no argument from me about those Season Five and Season Six episodes, which utilize these anti-heroic ideas with more frequency and force, making for some of the meatier, and sometimes most pensive, installments of their era.

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