A rancid cabbage double chocolate sandwich. Well, that pretty much sums up Altared States, which goes from marvelous, pure joy to turgid rhinoceros droppings and back again, over and over, for 41 head-spinning minutes.
But let’s face it, no one watches Altared States for the A-plot. No one even remembers anything beyond a drama queen Karl Urban barely at shaving age and the invention of the ancient megaphone, right? Oh sure, Biblical scholars might mutter something deeply profound about Mael really being named after Ishmael and the Jewish/Islamic/Christian historic roots of this reimagined classic theological morality tale.
Biblical scholars need to get out more.
Everyone else watching signed up for the fish catching, rock-choir commanding, well-climbing escapades. Oh yeah, and nekkid Xena and Gabrielle, the latter of whom was bouncing about more enthusiastically than a Masai warrior and leaving verrry little to the imagination. Oh please, like you didn’t hit rewind, too.
(* For the record, I had a plausible excuse. I’ll get back to you with that later.)
I have learnt the following very important information about fishing lessons with Xena, Warrior Princess:
1) You must be naked
2) You must fish with a friend who is equally naked
3) Fishing terminology must sound like excerpts from The Joy of Sex or you’re just not doing it right
4) Did I mention everyone must be naked?
Now the reason for this skinscapade was to showcase another of Xena’s many skills. That is, the power to overcome a murderous warrior with a raised eyebrow and nothing else. Literally nothing else. Follow it up with a well-targeted wet fist and he surely would have been wishing he’d listened to his mother on that "it’s rude to stare" advice.
And that wasn’t even the highlight for me. Frankly whacking a clod with a cod in the cods was sublime artistry.
Which reminds me - the award for the most awesome delivery of a fairly lame line goes to Lucy: "The way I see it, half a dozen men going after one small defenseless boy makes it my business. Call it my maternal instinct." How that woman makes maternal instincts sound both sexy – and deadly – defies description.
But I digress, as this is all B-plot - the sweetener to make the medicine of the A-plot go down.
Now I know what you’re thinking: I would really love to learn much, much more about that compelling A-plot, particularly its theological parallels pertaining to the story of Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael, cross-checked with the major religions that each refer to it in their holy books (despite their glaring omissions of a certain Warrior Princess).
To all three of you now nodding, please see above: re you really need to get out more.
Everyone else, slice off some nutbread, separate your altos from your sopranos, and hunker down with your favourite naked fisher-bard while I spare you the need to relive the inglorious main tale, by getting it out of the way at the speed of fast-forward:
A jealous and petulant Caesar, er Cupid, er, Mael, drugs his father and tricks the old man into believing God wants Mael’s cute little brother with the diabolically bad Kiwerican accent sacrificed. (Given the accent, we don’t blame him.)
Xena, clearly possessing a less discerning ear, saves the boy, loses the boy, finds a drugged choir-mistress bard, finds the boy, loses the boy, gets an upper-body workout climbing out of a well with a Gabrielle-sized lump appended to her, finds the boy, provides a free scenic New Zealand tourism ad, and witnesses God and/or Gabrielle save the boy one last time.
They all live happily ever after, except Mael, who decides he’d rather die than be unmasked as a villainous heretic with a god complex - although frankly anyone with eyeballs could see he desperately needs a Dr Phil intervention.
That would go something like this: "Mael, son, look it’s time to get REAL… I have you booked in to the Psychopathic Warrior No More Intervention Center – I have the horse standing by RIGHT NOW. But you have to WANT to stop killing your brother. How can his accent possibly be THAT bad?"
Okily, a couple of passing observations on this main story: Mael, (whose name coincidentally is also an anagram of male) has a few strong-women issues as well as merely sibling jealousies, which may account for his chauvinistic rant deriding Xena for having the strength of 10 men. The vitriol included a jab at her traveling companion and the lines: "All you have to do is look at her to see she’s unnatural, an affront to god. Out in the world alone… a complete abomination. To think this freak of nature has my brother…"
Unnatural? Freak of nature? Affront to God? Abomination? My, my, he has certainly been rummaging through someone’s Right-Wing Hate Speeches For Dummies handbook. Anyone would think the powers that be were hinting Xena might be a little more than just, er, strong…
It’s a real backhanded subtext moment. And if you think I am on the nuttiest of nutbread trips to see subtext in that diatribe, ask yourself when was the last time anyone ever made comment about Hercules being unnatural, a freak or an abomination, while pointing to the fact he travels with Ioalus as proof of all of the above. Yep, it’s there for a reason although it’s certainly one of the weirder subtext hints on this show.
By the way, there is evidence provided that drugged out Daddy really did have a conversation (at least in his mind) with a god who wasn’t just his older son. His wife mentions to Xena that God had told him to skip tradition and make Ikus his heir. There’s no way Mael would ever think that was a good idea, so whether Dad was barking mad or devoutly divine, he did actually have "god" in his head at some point. (Which would explain the ending, for those so inclined to believe.)
The most unintentionally funny part of the A-plot was young Ikus earnestly explaining to his father: "I couldn’t let others die protecting me, father." Yes, this immortal line was delivered bare seconds after Xena and Gabrielle had been tossed down the well.
And speaking of stupidity, please note the awful assemblage of BUGs in this episode. I am torn between the men who don’t even notice Xena lassoing the boy and hauling him directly from their midst and also looking everywhere else except where the pair were so obviously "hiding" in plain sight.
And then there were the mental midgets who put the sharpened stick barrier across the path to stop Xena, riding full tilt on Argo, from passing them. Xena does a somersault and lands on the other side. One BUG actually says "What’ll we do now?!" Um, here’s a clue morons, YOU HAVE HER HORSE!
Sigh, one just can’t get good thugs these days.
Frankly Argo should be having severe abandonment issues after this episode, because in that scene Xena simply deserts her supposedly beloved horse to the band of rogues and never bothers to fetch it again until miraculously reappearing with it in the last scene.
Finally on the A-plot, note that this episode appears to mark the first and only time Xena’s chakram misses its target – in the scene where Anteus, is about to stab Ikus, but God tells him to stop just in the nick of time. I would actually defend that chakram toss though because, had "God" not ordered a halt, watch the chakram – it whistles through at exactly the spot the knife would have been if dear old dad hadn’t stopped. So, massive points for Xena – the boy was never in any danger, whether it had been Anteus or Xena’s chakram preventing the stabbing.
OK enough rambling about the dodgy end of town. Let’s go upmarket to the B-plot you have when you’re not having a B-plot – aka Xena and Gabs get happy. (Insert Partridge Family theme here.)
I am not one to endorse drugs ordinarily, but then your ordinary, garden variety pick-me-ups don’t generally make the cute sidekick on your favourite show drop to the ground and declare her best female friend forever "be-yoo-tiful" either. And not one of those "my, isn’t plaid beautiful when paired with these new boots" observations. More it was a really appreciative "ohh, I could just eat you up, you gorgeous thing" adoring compliment.
All I can say is I hope Gabrielle sees the many varied and wonderful dietary possibilities in henbane as an essential ingredient for all her porridge, brownies, soups, smoothies, stews…
Right, it’s back to the cave with the superb comic stylings of Renee. We discover the bard of Poteidea also has many skills. Choir organization is under-rated to be sure, but one must give her extra points for getting rocks in tune. Of course the big question is: who gets Gabrielle in tune? *grin*
I can’t remember ever laughing so hard as when an incredulous Xena deadpans and rolls her eyes like a ventriloquist’s dummy and Gabrielle alternately cries, sways, swoons and leads an invisible musical charge.
As an aside, Gabrielle’s tearful turn on discovering she’s lost Ikus marks, I believe, the first real hug for Xena and Gabs. But never one to be sappy, the very next moment the bard has hit the dirt in a fabulous Wily E. Coyote splat and the formerly cooing Warrior Princess’s empathy has already deserted her – Xena’s indifference is hilarious as she turns to stride off and take care of more pressing business.
And before you can get too worried for the bedraggled bard, in one super-fast Xena whoosh, Gabrielle is up and at ’em again, dry-eyed and re-arranging altos.
Xena, in yet another hilarious "uh-oh" eye-dart, rapidly clocks that her faithful companion is not up for going anywhere involving self-powered locomotion.
The interaction and comedy is just pure genius and joy. These two are made to perform together. Seriously. When apart it’s like they lose something; yet together they gain something magical. And it’s just wonderful to have that all captured forever – that first moment where it all came together.
But Renee isn’t close to done yet. No, siree. When Xena delivers the father and son back home (clearly she hasn’t thought through how easy it will be for the boy to be captured there yet again), there’s a banging on the door. It’s a drugged bard announcing: "You don’t know me - I’m looking for Xena, the warrior princess." Ho yeah, girlfriend, if you’ve got friends in high places, use them.
The funniest part of the scene is what Renee then does in the background while the exposition continues in the foreground. She grabs her staff and whacks a cushion with it. And then she carefully peers under the cushion to identify whatever it is she thinks she’s killed.
Next, the well scene – much beloved by fans because our favourite gals spend a fair bit of time hanging on to each other and cracking a few more one-liners and double entendres.
Of course everyone’s highlight is the moment Gabrielle clambers up Xena’s body and stops just below cleavage level, clamping her legs vice-like around Xena’s torso like a cat up a tree trunk. And right then, with Gabs’s bemused eyeballs lined up with her shapely breasts, Xena declares innocently: "Now for the fun part."
You mean all that other stuff wasn’t fun?
Unfortunately the stunt doubles were fairly obvious right throughout this episode, and the well scene was a particularly bad switch. One shot clearly has Gab’s double hanging off Lucy – had Ren had too many doughnuts that day?
Alas, all too soon, and after one bardic boot to a mashed Xena head later, Gabrielle is out of the well and subtexters’ heart rates could start to slow once more. But was that the end of it? Oh please. As if…
The very final scene is so great with Xena ruffling Gabrielle’s hair playfully and the bard replying with a mock outraged whack to the stomach, then Xena holding up her dukes in response with a big old sloppy grin from the big WP. Aww. Can you feel the love?
So why do we adore this all so much?
This episode finally brought together all the elements that had been merely hinted at or touched on briefly in earlier episodes with Xena and Gabrielle’s characters – such as Xena’s deadpan humour and her goofy side; Renee’s stunning comic ability, and of course their double entendres and subtext moments.
This was truly the first episode to ever combine all of them in one hit, in scene after scene, like a delightfully sumptuous smorgasbord you never want to end. You can see all their abilities laid out all together and you also instantly understand why this show became such a huge hit.
These sweet interactions, where you really can see how much fun the two women have together, are what made the show so popular. All the dodgy A-plot aside, Altared States encapsulated completely, perfectly, and probably quite accidentally, the greatness, fun and friendship that was trademark Xena.
So is it rewatchable? Well sure the episode may be a rancid cabbage double chocolate sandwich – but please note, the chocolate is a double serve. And Altared States is truly worth a second bite.
*Footnote: Plausible explanation for hitting pause during the fishing scene. Someone had to take careful note that Gabrielle’s fish still had fishing line stuck in it. Yes, I did it for you. The greater good, if you will… You’re welcome.