Originally a villainess on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena (Lucy Lawless) saw the error of her ways, renounced her past, and tried to do right. She was supported in these efforts by the love of her flaxen-haired, pro-peace “partner,” Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor).
Their relationship drew lesbian fans to the show, encouraged by openly lesbian producer Liz Friedman. Cleverly, the show consistently implied an intimate relationship without the “general public” seeming to notice. By Season Three, Xena’s popularity was firmly established and the show’s creators began to experiment. Fans celebrate the season for its brave delving into complicated Freudian themes amid lush New Zealand scenery, tanned and toned T&A, and jarringly broad slapstick. The mix of action, wit, and myth recalls Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, whereas Buffy was a suburban girl saddled with supernatural burdens, Xena is troubled: gay, violent, and abused.
The DVD release is another boon for Xena’s fans, with all 22 episodes packed onto nine discs, along with audio commentaries by stars, writers, and producers, documentaries and a hilarious blooper reel. The wealth of extras provides valuable insight into the show, revealing just how much effort, creativity, and care went into each episode.
The series’ blend of myth, sex, violence, and camp is exemplified in the season’s first episode, “The Furies.” It opens with the titular, scantily clothed trio giving Aries (Kevin O’Connor), the God of War (and Xena’s unofficial father-figure/animus) a lap dance. In turn, he recruits them to drive Xena mad as punishment for not avenging the death of her father. Once mad, Xena, accompanied by cartoonish sound effects, bounces through the requisite early fight scenes, spinning around like a post-Spinach Popeye, much to Gabrielle’s horror. When Xena’s mother (Darien Takle) reveals who killed her husband, the ensuing realizations would be almost unbearably heavy (including incest, spousal abuse, and attempted infanticide, matricide and patricide), except that they are presented by way of action and comedy aimed at younger viewers.
One instance of such comedy is Joxer (Ted Raimi), whose farcical flailings divided fans of the show. Straggling along with the two women as a sort of weak-kneed sidekick, Joxer is a clown for the kiddies. “Joxer” episodes are typically stand-alone adventures that provide lighthearted contrast with the season’s dramatic arc. Like Jerry Lewis, you either love him or hate him. Fortunately, Season Three leaves Joxer out as often as it includes him, leaving more time for delving into the relationship between Gabrielle and Xena.
With the introduction of an evil child for Gabrielle and a sublimated death complex for Xena, the show becomes an anti-Christian, pro-Sapphic allegory of infantile development and aggression. In “The Deliverer,” they rescue some prisoners from Roman soldiers, the encounter revealing the love/hate relationship between Julius Caesar (Karl Urban) and Xena. The prisoners have been persecuted for their love of “the one God” who will unite all peoples. Gabrielle is drawn to them, particularly their handsome leader, Khrafstar (Marton Csokas). This seeming Christianity, however, arises within a benevolent polytheistic culture that will be destroyed by such a belief system.
Khrafstar exploits Gabrielle’s innate goodness, and the following episode, “Gabrielle’s Hope,” finds her giving birth. When Xena denounces the child as the “spawn of Dahak,” Gabrielle declares, “She is my daughter. Don’t come between us.” Like a child competing for her mother’s attention, Xena sees this newborn as the apocalypse, the end of her world, which is totally dependent on Gabrielle’s unconditional love. Xena’s urge to kill Hope indicates the return of her shame and guilt over past misdeeds. If her idolization of Gabrielle was a route to transcendence, Gabrielle’s fallibility is disenchanting.
“The Debt” shows Xena’s early years: she’s a victim of Caesar’s cruelty (he has her legs broken on the cross), and a vicious nomad who shacks up with bandit chief Borais (Marton Csokas again) and kidnaps Ming Tien (Daniel Sing), the future emperor. She also finds her first love in the form of Lao Ma (Jacqueline Kim). The strongest in the series, this two-part episode features political intrigue, tragedy, steamy eroticism, and Asian mysticism.
Again, Xena tries to kill the child of the woman she loves. Though they are both legitimately evil, Xena’s bloodlust can be read as jealousy and fanaticism. Meanwhile, Gabrielle’s moral superiority has devolved into a deluded piety (her anti-murder stance almost gets Xena killed numerous times.) Similar to Gabrielle, Lin Mao allows her son to execute her, even though she could easily escape. Her lovers’ abandonment causes Xena terrible pain. Her psychic “healing” by women (Gabrielle and Lao Ma) depends on the absence of patriarchy.
But this “absence” is complicated by the fact that Xena — surprise — has a son, Solan (David Taylor), reintroduced this season in “Maternal Instincts.” Raised by centaurs (signifying the sort of nonspecific masculinity that’s acceptable to Xena), Solan is doomed never to know his mother well. Almost as soon as he reappears, he’s killed by Hope (Amy Morrison). Following his murder, Xena becomes a vengeful mother, pressuring Gabrielle into killing Hope as retribution. The couple’s rift seems insurmountable, until the popular all-singing episode, “The Bitter Suite,” where Xena and Gabrielle are thrown into an alternate reality and reevaluate their commitments to one another.
As these storylines suggest, the season is all about women. The men in Xena are reduced to types: Gods, klutzes, centaurs, sadistic princes, brutalizing ex-lovers. On the rare occasion that a genuinely nice “hunk” wanders through, Xena or Gabrielle cringes as the other falls for him, and we pray for his quick dispatch. In a fantasyland free of homophobia and sexism, their lesbian relationship develops in ways rarely seen in popular media.
Following their mutual bereavement over the death of their children, the pair become addicted to danger and self-sacrifice. In the episodes following “The Bitter Suite,” the warrior princesses become drama queens. In “One Against an Army” and “Tsunami,” they repeatedly profess their love for one another, as they are threatened, first by the entire Syrian Army and then a flood. One is always trying to die to save the other, or the world, or a village. When the action slows, they remember their heartbreak. In “Forget Me Not,” Gabrielle debates whether to have all her memories wiped clean to spare herself the mourning over Hope’s death.
And they learn from their hardships. It’s a major moral step for Gabrielle in “When in Rome,” she dooms a Roman general to death after learning he ordered the crucifixion of women and children. Though she’s able to beat down dozens of bad guys on a regular basis, before now, Gabrielle couldn’t see death as appropriate punishment for any crime. By the end of the season, she accepts the realities of her world. Though Xena is saddened by her lover’s loss of innocence, she has also grown less dependent on Gabrielle as a moral and emotional compass. In the episode, “Forgiven,” Xena meets young Tara (Shiri Appleby), a scrappy punkette with a mean left hook and no self-esteem whatsoever. Xena takes her on as a protégée, though Gabrielle hates her, suggesting Xena’s first step in overcoming her own self-loathing.
The two-part season finale, “Sacrifice,” pulls together most all of these themes in a diverting blend of kid-friendly slapstick, lush scenery, eroticism, colorful costumes, digital animation, and rousing action. It reminds us that, through all the season’s uproar, the two women form a loving, complex center. In its “hidden in plain sight” way, Xena depicts the most fully realized and evolving lesbian relationship on television.