Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our series on 18 “Honorable Mentions” that were not included in my list of the 60 best episodes. But first, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, Xena: Warrior Princess was a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and aired in first-run syndication from 1995 to 2001. Taking place primarily in Ancient Greece, the show focused on Xena (Lucy Lawless), a reformed warlord seeking redemption for her evil past by helping others. She traveled with her best friend, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor), an aspiring bard and the chronicler of Xena’s adventures.
For those who are familiar with the series, I hope my points-of-view will prove fascinating and perhaps inspire you to reexamine your favorite, or perhaps least favorite, episodes. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this list might spark your interest and give you some places to start. Since Xena did so many different things over the 134 episodes, this is the type of show that requires multiple viewings to be properly assessed. So, newbies, if a particular story strikes your fancy, I encourage you to give it a try! In fact, contact me and I will be able to hook you up.With all that said, let’s discuss two more underrated Xena episodes that nearly made my “best of” list. (They are presented in chronological order.)
05. Season 2, Episode 7: “Intimate Stranger” (Aired: 11/11/96 | Filmed: 07/17 – 07/26 & 10/21/96)
Xena’s life takes a nightmarish turn when Callisto escapes from the Underworld by infiltrating her dreams.
Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by Gary Jones | Production No. V0211
Based on my experience, this seems to be a popular episode among the fandom. Not only does Callisto return (for what was initially supposed to be the conclusion of a three-part arc), but this episode also marks the first Season Two appearance of Ares. The premise is very cool, picking up where “Return Of Callisto” left off (disregard the fact that “Warrior… Princess… Tramp” aired in between — it was produced and intended to air BEFORE the two Callisto episodes). Further rounding out the guest list are Joxer, who has appeared in all three episodes from the original Callisto trilogy, and Cyrene, who makes her first appearance since “Sins Of The Past.”
The episode begins with Xena feeling guilty for letting Callisto die. From the Underworld, Callisto is able to infiltrate Xena’s nightmares. Through some miraculous story point that never gets adequately explained, Callisto manages to switch bodies with Xena. So now Callisto (in Xena’s body) is traveling with Gabrielle, and Xena (in Callisto’s body) is trapped in the Underworld. From there, the story becomes about Callisto’s plan to a) burn Xena’s village and murder Xena’s mother and b) convince Gabrielle that she should kill “Callisto” and avenge her late husband’s death. Ares is along for the ride as he and Callisto make plans to rule the world, only to be angered when Callisto seems more interested in taking revenge on Xena. (DUH!)
As most fans know, Lucy Lawless’s accident while shooting The Tonight Show necessitated a reshoot on this episode, as Xena would have to be out of commission for a few episodes. Originally, Callisto is sent back to the Underworld and Xena returns in her own body. The ending we have here features Xena returning — but still in Callisto’s body. (Xena would spend the whole next episode trapped in Callisto’s body, allowing the producers to do a show WITH Xena but WITHOUT Lawless.) I actually like this ending better because it forces Gabrielle to reconcile the hatred she feels for Callisto, the woman who has just murdered her husband. In fact, the residual elements from “Return Of Callisto” are what work best here: Xena’s guilt-caused parade of nightmares and Gabrielle’s grief over Perdicus.
While Leick does an admirable job playing Xena, Lawless never really gets a handle on the Callisto character, and it’s a major detriment to the episode. Couple that with the shoddy storytelling that makes up its own rules without explaining, and you have probably my least favorite Callisto episode of the series. Still, this is Season Two and things are just kicking into high gear. It’s a strong episode, but obviously not ideal for new fans.
06. Season 3, Episode 3: “The Dirty Half Dozen” (Aired: 10/13/97 Filmed: 08/07 – 08/15/97)
Xena rounds up a gang of cutthroats to battle the warlord Agathon, a protege of Ares who possesses weapons made of indestructible metal.
Written by Steven L. Sears | Directed by Rick Jacobson | Production No. V0411
Of the 22 aired episodes for Season Three, 15 of them made it onto my list for the 60 best episodes and none of them were included on my list of the eight worst episodes. That should be a strong indicator of the strength of the season. If an episode isn’t brilliantly and dramatically rendered (like “Maternal Instincts”), it’s a wild farcical romp (like “Fins, Femmes, And Gems”). Interestingly, most of the Season Three episodes that I’ve yet to feature here are dramas that are not connected to the season’s overall story arc. Essentially, they’re more akin to the episodic dramas that the show was producing in Seasons One and Two.
“The Dirty Half Dozen” is another episode with an interesting premise. Xena and Gab bring together four convicts to take on Ares’ new protege, who is equipped with the metal of Hephaestus. Again, this is a Season Three episode, so it is of a certain quality, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. My principle issue with the installment is the predictable rendering of the four convicts. They’re cheaply designed, lacking depth, and obviously presented in hopes of finding one or two that could recur later on. Sears wrote this script, and it’s honestly one of his less nuanced efforts.
Speaking of a lack of nuance, while I adore the question that Gabrielle asks Xena (“Am I who I am, or am I what you made me?”), both the simplicity of the dialogue and the overplaying by the actors contribute to an overwrought sentimentality that robs the issue of dramatic substance. Furthermore, it doesn’t quite get explored here as well as it should. Interestingly, “The Dirty Half Dozen” was produced right after “The Debt” two-parter and it is speculated that this episode was supposed to air in the interim between “The Debt (II)” and “Maternal Instincts.” But because the producers wanted to make “The Deliverer” the 50th episode, they needed to place one in at 49th. Since this was a standalone drama, it did the trick. (This also explains why in the following episode, Xena confronts Ares over his actions in the Season Premiere. If this was supposed to air first, why wouldn’t she confront him here?)
So the Xena/Gab subplot feels a little strange coming in before the Rift, but perhaps we can view it as early foreshadowing. Regardless of the episode’s placement, the conversation, like most things about the installment, comes up lacking. However, I like the episodic adventure plot, and there are some really nifty moments sprinkled throughout. Truth is, this episode just can’t compete with some of the more solid efforts of the phenomenal third season.
Come back next Thursday for two more honorable mentions! And tune in tomorrow for another Mae West Film Friday!