Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger dons a leather bustier, picks up a sword, and hacks his way through Xena Season Three.
Our reviews of Xena: The 10th Anniversary Collection (published September 21st, 2005), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season One (published May 26th, 2003), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Two (published May 3rd, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Four (published September 29th, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Five (published October 27th, 2004), Xena: Warrior Princess, Season Six (published June 15th, 2005), and Xena: Warrior Princess Multipath Adventure (published October 19th, 2000) are also available.
"Mother! I am a lunatic with lethal combat skills."—Xena
I've reviewed two seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess and enjoyed them, while not being fully drawn in. I thought the show had some great moments of humor, but was chained by its ludicrous premise. Season Three has brought me off the fence.
Facts of the Case
Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) continue their journeys through myth. Their relationship comes under strain once Gabrielle gives birth to a very peculiar little girl. Xena is distracted by enemies and gods while Gabrielle searches herself for truth about herself and Xena. Prepare for a somewhat darker turn.
No matter what else happens with the series, the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess have given us "The Furies." "The Furies" is the controversial opening episode of Season Three, remarkable because it combines darkness, smut, and nihilism with Three Stooges antics. The opening sequence presents three scarcely-clad Furies dancing in fine strip-club form for the disdainful Ares. Angry red sashes whirl around milky-white breasts and taut buttocks in a splendid display of eroticism and menace.
Through whims of fate and the machinations of foes, Xena becomes mad. At first her insanity is amusing, with Xena's superheroic abilities twisted into slapstick (beyond the usual level of slapstick, mind you). Then things turn utterly dark as we are plunged into a classic Greek tragedy. Xena rants about life as a cruel joke; we exist for the sport of the gods and the nourishment of the worms. This juxtaposition of tones is startling and creates a third level of subtext.
To be more specific would rob you of the experience. I sat—stunned, breathless, and engrossed—and realized that for the first time, Xena had unequivocally drawn me in. No shred of disdain or bemusement intruded upon the viewing. The secret highbrow shame that has been a constant impediment to my endorsement of Xena was absent. I reveled in the nuances and tragic undertones of the episode as I marveled at Lucy Lawless's effortless portrayal of a warrior princess turned mad. Season Two's stellar-yet-breezy slate of comedic gems had been supplanted by a world of potential; a world laced with mean-spirited gods, vulnerable humanity, and acts of real heroism. It may sound strange that an episode with some of the most god-awful "antics" of the entire series (Xena's eye-poking, nose-flubbing, eyeball-screwing, non-cool slapstick) was responsible for this epiphany. I appreciate the sickening, rapid deterioration from over-exaggerated antics to pitch black. The former silliness is a perfect setup for what later arrives. In The Three Stooges, there was never a fear of death or dismemberment. Xena's shtick forces you to hold your breath, wondering what she'll do in this state of ludicrous madness. If you take the slapstick literally, you will cringe.
To be completely forthcoming, two gray areas shaped my wholehearted enjoyment of this opening salvo by Season Three. The first is that the writers and producers borrowed heavily from other writers (such as Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Conrad) to achieve the darkly philosophical bent of "The Furies." The appropriation of signature lines is acknowledged up front in the commentary, even coyly referenced within the episode. Xena sniffs her armpit and declares that she loves the smell of princess sweat in the morning. This line references Apocalypse Now, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's seminal work "Heart of Darkness," which posits the existential crisis that Xena finds herself mired within in "The Furies." Does the etymology of the episode's philosophical and literary roots really matter? The amalgamation is pulled off with panache; we are left with a fundamentally borrowed yet completely entertaining episode. After all, most of Xena: Warrior Princess is a rehash of myth anyway. The stark incorporation of modern themes creates a synergy that expands Xena's boundaries.
Which brings us to the second gray area. "The Furies" tends to provoke a large subset of Xena fans, because it casts Xena's fundamental nature in a different light. It is this new spin that captivates me while sending some fans into a rage. Thus, my newfound enthusiasm for Xena comes at a time when some fans feel her character has been impugned. I will give my interpretation in this paragraph, but watch the episode first; this is an epic-sized spoiler. Xena finds a way out of her quagmire by casting suspicion on Ares's paternal stake in her life. If Ares is indeed Xena's father, it immediately attributes Xena's abilities to divinity. This means that Xena isn't just a particularly gifted mortal, but is a demi-god. It also means that Xena's mother killed her father needlessly at Ares's behest. It further means that Xena has slept with Daddy. Eww! Well, I not only believe that Ares is Xena's father, I embrace such an interpretation. It has always bothered me that Xena so readily copes with gods and mythical creatures. She has stood down Ares, Hades, the undead, and giants. Ares is the freaking God of War! How could any mortal withstand a god with millennia of military knowledge? It simply makes no sense, and has always tainted the believability of Xena's actions. I never understood why M'Lila sacrificed herself for Xena in "Destiny," either. The explanation of partial godhood clicks a lot of tumblers into place. As for the incest angle? Greek myth is full of the stuff.
Amid all of this newfound gravity and gloom, I had time to notice the improvement in video quality. Season Two looked much better than the wretched Season One; "The Furies" demonstrates an incremental step up in quality over Season Two. Flesh tones, which are ubiquitous and varied, look natural and smooth. Xena's dark hair has highlights and shadows, inviting you to touch it. I could sense the texture of her leather bustier and metal weapons. The transfer is so clean that I could tell what kind of blanket Xena was sleeping on. Contrast is strong, black levels mostly stable, and the image is free of noise or grain. Of course, this massive cleanup is the result of digital manipulation, and there are telltale signs. The best example is when Xena is looking past her mother's heavily edge-enhanced face in the background. Overall, I'd say the tradeoff is pleasing.
The 5.1 remix is employed in creative ways, particularly in Xena's "mad scene." As she runs through the woods, spectres haunt her from every direction. The bass drum from the opening theme song rumbles ominously. I still prefer a 2.0 downmix, because dialogue is hard to hear in the 5.1 remix. Fortunately, there are closed captioning subtitles to assist you in these times.
The episode comes with an interview featurette where Robert Tapert, R.J. Stewart, Liz Friedman, Lucy Lawless, and Renee O'Connor discuss the making of the episode. Stewart delves into some of the literary and philosophical backbone, while Tapert and Friedman focus on production decisions. Lawless and O'Connor contribute infectious enthusiasm. The interview is supplemented by a full-length audio commentary, with a briefer version of video commentary. These extras provide as thorough a look into the episode as you could possibly ask for. If the interview featurette gives the impression that they all take the show too seriously, the commentary provides balance when Liz and Rob discuss the 100,000 cleavage push-ups used in the creation of the series. It is particularly interesting to hear them discuss the fan reactions to the episode and explain their thinking behind the story.
That covers the first episode. If you think about it, a TV series boxed set is like 22 little movies. "The Furies" is rife with comedy, darkness, philosophy, and controversy. It features several shots that push the bounds of acceptable smut (such as one scene with Lucy Lawless standing in front of a village in the buff). As a season opener, it is a resounding success. How does the rest of the season stack up?
Forgive me if I don't go into as much detail with the rest of the episodes, but the season follows the lead of "The Furies." You can pour as much analysis and discussion into each episode as I did above, because the openings are there. The episodes are darker, more involved, and more complex than previous seasons, with a healthy dose of lesbian undertones, mean-spirited gods, and dissension between Xena and Gabrielle. The special effects are more ambitious. It is as though the entire cast and crew gelled into production of one of the most popular television series in the world. Wait a second…that is what happened.
"Been There, Done That" is a riotous riff on Groundhog Day, where Xena gets trapped in the same day over and over. Watching what she does to her compatriots Gabrielle and Joxer is precious. There is also some of the most subtle-yet-outrageous sexual innuendo I've yet seen in the series; the hickey thing was absolutely hilarious. (You'll see what I mean when you watch it.) After the controversial lead of "The Furies," it is good to see that Xena can get back to her comedic roots. Though I appreciated "The Furies" more, "Been There, Done That" is more likely to become a fan favorite. Another funny episode, although not precisely favorite material, is the return of Meg in "Warrior…Priestess…Tramp." Lucy Lawless gets to have so much fun in these episodes (playing different people) that it is amusing for that reason alone. Episodes such as these prove that Xena can still do flat-out comedy.
Season Three also has its fair share of filler-ish episodes, such as "The Dirty Half Dozen." This misfire lacks the spark of most Xena episodes. An unconvincing weasel of a bad guy takes on Xena's ragtag band of misfits. The basic premise isn't bad, but the execution was run of the mill. "The King of Assassins." despite the presence of Bruce Campbell, is another weaker episode. They can't win every time. On the other hand, episodes such as "The Deliverer," "Gabrielle's Hope," and "Sacrifice" (Parts One and Two) are turning points in the life of the series.
In general, Season Three is remarkable for its intensity. The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is twisted and stretched in many directions. Season Three is quite dark at times, excruciating and emotional. This season is my favorite because of the risks; the darkness and misery; the journeys into farce, musicals, time warping, and other strangeness.
The boxed set continues Season Two's strong offering of extras. We get eight episode commentaries (Hudson Leick, meow), a boatload of interviews, and lots of additional footage. The conventional extras are here as well, such as photos and CD-ROM content. There are also a couple of featurettes: bloopers (there are some serious bloopers) and a retrospective on "Sacrifice" (which is great but maybe is getting too much fanfare?). For a television series boxed set, you cannot ask for more than this.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The downside is the same as always: a campy story with faux violence and no hint of plausibility. This season, more than any other, is all over the map both literally and figuratively. If you can't unclench a little and enjoy campy stuff, this is not for you.
Many of the episodes derive their plots from other works. This is periodically amusing, but it can only go so far before we question Xena's originality. They skirted the line this season.
Though it had weak spots, Season Three was my favorite by far. The creators introduce a note of dissention and emotional discomfort that does wonders for the show's complexity. For the first time, I am not afraid to say it: "I dig Xena: Warrior Princess!"
Xena, the court agrees that you are a lunatic with lethal combat skills. Thank you for that.
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