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 second half of the third season, which features some of the show’s best episodes and includes two installments previously covered in our crossover posts. Herc is a darker show in most of the below episodes, and many of the stories try to give our hero a vested emotional interest to raise the stakes. Thus, we have a lot of winners. (Also, note that two more episodes were produced for this season, but carried over for Season Four when both shows decided to only broadcast 22 per season instead of 24.)
49. Season 3, Episode 12: “Surprise” (Aired: 01/27/97 | Filmed: 11/18 – 11/26/96)
Xena’s old enemy Callisto returns from the afterlife when she makes a deal with Hera to kill Hercules in exchange for immortality.
Written by Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0117
As Callisto’s first appearance on Hercules, I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) While this episode is imperative viewing for Xenites because it fills in the dots of what happened to Callisto between “Ten Little Warlords” and “A Necessary Evil,” this installment is essential to Hercules as well, for it’s among the best of the series. Not only are we treated to the dark playful relationship between Herc and Callisto, but the script has a real and imminent sense of danger, as Herc’s poisoned family is slowly driven insane. Furthermore, the premise is a welcome return to the basics, as Hera’s scheme to get rid of Hercules remains the overarching conflict. With a fresh story, electric cinematography, and alive performances, “Surprise” is a classic.
50. Season 3, Episode 13: “Encounter” (Aired: 02/03/97 | Filmed: 11/27 – 12/06/96)
Saving a beautiful creature that is part woman and part deer pits Hercules against his half brother Ares and the vengeful Prince Nestor.
Written by Jerry Patrick Brown | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. V0119
Yes, this is the episode that introduces the Golden Hind trilogy, which features the future Mrs. Kevin Sorbo, played by an actress whose face is already familiar. But this episode is notable for other reasons — not only is it the first credited script of new head writer Jerry Patrick Brown, but the installment also features this series’ first appearance of Kevin Smith as Ares (he’d been on Xena about five times before). Seeing Herc fall in love makes for an exhilarating arc, and his conflict with Ares is, next to the primary antagonism of Hera, among the most potent of the entire series. So this is a really fascinating episode, setting Hercules up for exactly the kind of emotional investment that allows his character to reveal flaws, thus engendering better and higher stakes stories. Strong offering.
51. Season 3, Episode 14: “When A Man Loves A Woman” (Aired: 02/10/97 | Filmed: 11/07 – 11/15/96)
When Hercules proposes to Serena, he must deal with Iolaus’s disapproval, Deianeira’s hurt feelings and Ares’ plot to destroy the relationship.
Written by Gene O’Neill & Noreen Tobin | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. V0116
Having seen this installment several times, this is one about which I waver. It is a gorgeous episode, culminating in a beautiful wedding ceremony that is maybe the best photographed moment of the series. The offering also incorporates Joxer and features an interesting story point in which Hercules goes back to the Elysian Fields to tell Deianeira about Serena. What bothers me is that this last beat feels like a cheap source of drama, filling time in this otherwise functional middle episode, principally designed to see Hercules married and stripped of his godlike strength. Meanwhile, Sorbo and Hurst had issue with the fallout between Herc and Iolaus, but I actually thought it made sense — after all, Hercules is giving up his commitment to fight evil. So there’s interesting ground covered; I’m just unsure if it’s as good as it could be. (But I may change my mind again next month…)
52. Season 3, Episode 15: “Judgment Day” (Aired: 02/17/97 | Filmed: 12/09 – 12/18/96)
Xena and Gabrielle intervene when Ares and Strife frame Hercules for the murder of his new wife, Serena.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Gus Trikonis | Production No. V0120
This is Xena and Gabrielle’s only mutual appearance on Hercules together as their own characters in the proper timeline, and I featured this episode in a series of posts on the crossovers. (You can read that here.) I was admittedly pretty harsh on the episode when I critiqued it; but that’s simply because, in comparison to the superior scripting on Xena, “Judgment Day” falls flat — especially in the presentation of the crossed over characters. As a Hercules episode, it actually manages to be quite powerful, as the Golden Hind trilogy is brought to an end when Strife and Ares manipulate Hercules into believing he’s killed Serena. It’s a tragic story, rooted in the horrific myths, and it allows both Hercules and Iolaus to explore a depth of feeling that the series doesn’t often allow them to reach. (Also, it’s notable for Zeus’ first appearance on the series.) It’s not a perfect script, but it’s essential viewing and one of the series’ most memorable.
53. Season 3, Episode 16: “The Lost City” (Aired: 02/24/ 97 | Filmed: 10/30 – 11/06/96)
Iolaus’s search for his missing cousin Regina takes him to a commune where everyone has been brainwashed by a seemingly benevolent leader.
Story by Robert Bielak and Liz Friedman | Teleplay by Robert Bielak | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. V0109
Kevin Sorbo does not appear at all in this episode, and it would be difficult to deny that his absence does not hamper the installment’s ability to become a classic Hercules episode. It’s disappointing, really, for this is actually an impressive original story about an underground (literally underground) brainwashing hippie cult that’s snared one of our hero’s cousins and snookered in Salmoneus as well. Interestingly, the excursion was originally written for the Hercules character, and Hurst has expressed frustration in having to make sense of dialogue that wasn’t even intended for Iolaus. However, the disconnect isn’t glaringly noticeable, and given the appreciated premise and action-packed edge-of-your-seat plotting, “The Lost City” becomes a very entertaining installment.
54. Season 3, Episode 17: “Les Contemptibles” (Aired: 04/07/97 | Filmed: 01/20 – 01/24/97)
Brave Marie de Valle inspires thieves, who bear uncanny resemblances to Hercules, Iolaus and Salmoneus, to fight for the French Revolution.
Written by Brian Herskowitz | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. V0123
Taking a cue from the success of Xena‘s second season clip show, “The Xena Scrolls,” also directed by Charlie Haskell (with whom Lawless actually admits clashing), this series’ clip show is set in an entirely different time period: the French revolution. It’s undoubtedly the campiest episode of the season, as Sorbo, Hurst, Trebor, and Danielle Cormack (Ephiny, who’s yet to appear on Hercules) don purposely exaggerated French accents and romp around in period costumes on decadent sets. It’s a lot of fun, especially for fans who have a working knowledge of both series. As a Hercules episode by itself, while it is lightyears better than last season’s miserably dull “The Cave Of Echoes,” this one runs no risk of being a classic; but it doesn’t try to be one, and that’s what makes it enjoyable.
55. Season 3, Episode 18: “Reign Of Terror” (Aired: 04/14/97 | Filmed: 02/19 – 02/27/97)
Hera plays up to Augeas’s delusion that he is Zeus by giving him a taste of godly power, which he can keep if he kills Hercules.
Written by John Kirk | Directed by Rodney Charters | Production No. V0112
In addition to the always appreciated set-up of having Hera manipulate a mortal into taking down her loathed step-son, this installment earns its merit for a fantastic (and dark) story that allows for a more complicated rendering of Aphrodite, whom I thought, before rediscovering this episode, only appeared in lighthearted comedies. This is a full-fledged drama, and she’s an important part of the story, acting at times like a sidekick to Hercules. Her affection for the story’s honest mortal is breathtaking, and although the logistics of her keeping his soul from leaving his body seems like a convenient rule (established for the purposes of this episode only), the narrative is one of my favorites. It’s classic Hercules, utilizing a lot of what we love about the series, but keeping it fresh and new. Another candidate for the season’s best.
56. Season 3, Episode 19: “The End Of The Beginning” (Aired: 04/21/97 | Filmed: 01/27 – 02/05/97)
Autolycus steals a powerful stone which causes Hercules to travel back in time where he meets up with his beloved Serena and the ruthless Ares.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by James Whitmore, Jr. | Production No. V0124
Time travel episodes are inherently exciting, for they rely on an audience’s understanding of the characters and their backstories. Originally a story that Coyle pitched for Xena, this installment marks the return of Autolycus, played by Bruce Campbell, whose shtick makes for some of the episode’s most memorable moments. (The Evil Dead gags when Autolycus meets up with his self from five years before are very funny.) Meanwhile, the story contends with the Golden Hind arc, as Hercules goes back and saves Serena, inexplicably played by a different actress (a slight detriment to the episode, unfortunately), from the fate that befell her when they got married. It’s a chance for Sorbo to do more emotional acting, and because it’s a powerful episode for the Hercules character, it becomes an important episode of the series. Yet another one of my absolute favorites.
57. Season 3, Episode 20: “War Bride” (Aired: 04/28/97 | Filmed: 03/05 – 03/13/97)
The daughter of a dying king brings about the destruction of a peace treaty, while Hercules, Iolaus, and her kidnapped sister try to prevent a war.
Written by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by Kevin Sorbo | Production No. V0126
The second and final episode directed by Kevin Sorbo, this installment doesn’t work nearly as well as last season’s “The Apple.” While that episode was able to incorporate the broad comedy with a narratively sound and otherwise well-plotted story, “War Bride” is inexplicably unable to find the right balance. As a result, the episode feels unsure of itself; does it want to be a comedy or a serious drama? It’s almost as if scenes waver back and forth between the two tones, which, while both should be incorporated into every episode, need to be contextualized in an overall vision that makes them work. However, I don’t blame Sorbo’s direction (or the fine guest performances by stalwarts Lisa Chappell and Josephine Davison), but the script — which is only adequate. With some tightening, it could have been a great one.
58. Season 3, Episode 21: “A Rock And A Hard Place” (Aired: 05/05/97 | Filmed: 03/14 – 03/21/97)
When a murder suspect escapes and flees into an old mine, only Hercules and Iolaus can keep a vengeful mob away until the crime is solved.
Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Robert Trebor | Production No. V0128
Robert Trebor (Salmoneus) directs this atypical episode that knowingly sets out to be an intense psychological drama about a murderer, who’s literally trapped under a rock and preparing to die, as Hercules tries to get him to make peace with himself and those he’s wronged. It’s a brilliant and original concept — one of the most mature of the season. And even though it’s limited to a few sets and there’s not a lot of action, the proceedings never grow dull or stagnant. Instead, the episode’s unique qualities are enhanced, making it a special and more valued offering. It isn’t the type of story I’d like to see done every week, but it’s complexly written and finely directed (which seems a surprise, right?). A favorite of the cast and crew, this is an underrated gem among the fandom.
59. Season 3, Episode 22: “Atlantis” (Aired: 05/12/97 | Filmed: 02/06 – 02/18/97)
Shipwrecked on Atlantis, Hercules offers to help a psychic convince her fellow citizens that the destruction of their island is imminent.
Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Gus Trikonis | Production No. V0121
I must cop to a personal affinity to the Atlantis myth that extends back into my childhood (when I first got into Xena, and to a lesser extent, Hercules). So this is an episode I enjoy immensely, for not only does it employ an obviously appropriate story, but it does so in an incredibly effective way. (In other words, it does the legend of Atlantis justice.) In addition to the fabulous design and superior graphics that help make the technologically advanced civilization come to life, this installment works most because of the casting of Claudia Black as a psychic who has foreseen the great catastrophe that we, the audience, knows is going to strike the island. It’s also smart to have the people of Atlantis be cast as villainous — an idea that’s not obvious and makes for some great drama. Good end to the season.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Surprise,” “Reign Of Terror,” and “The End Of The Beginning”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!