Maybe it’s the passage of time, or merely the three tequilas on an empty stomach, but I admit this episode wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered it.
Oh don’t get me wrong – it’s still full-on craptastic, but only in the way it was intended to be. It’s always nicer to laugh WITH the show than at it. (Yes, I’m looking at you,
Married With Fishsticks.)
The episode is essentially a daffy tribute to the tortured lot of the humble sidekick.
Enter Gabrielle – and exit Xena. This was a Lucy-light episode, and we can see why – she manages to look exhausted in the barely two minutes she appears in the ep. Hopefully she got her Zzzzs while Renee got her A-game on.
Gabrielle is suffering from what the sidekicks call irrelevantitis. The fear of being utterly useless, ignored, taken for granted and overshadowed by one’s all-star hero companion. After all, no one ever basks in the shadows.
As any good sidekick knows, there’s only two cures for this depressing condition – one is for the hero to stop being patronising and acknowledge their sidekick’s actual value… not likely any time soon with Xena. Even if she might think it, she rarely says it. Or, two, find someone even more unappreciated and irrelevant than you to hang out with. (And hope they stay that way.)
This episode kicks off a bit of a Xena tradition, teaming Renee O’Connor and Ted Raimi up in a two-hander, whenever they want to give Lucy a break. The duo have that know-it-all big brother vs annoyed little sister chemistry that makes you want to strangle Joxer, Bart Simpson-style, on a fairly regular basis.
They also have excellent comic timing together, which one must begrudgingly admire even if you’re busily hurling objects at the TV whenever Joxer is belittling Gabrielle in the guise of a compliment.
Could there be anything more demeaning than having a bumbling oaf declare you are his perfect sidekick material? Ouch.
Poor Gabrielle – first Xena condescends to her while ditching her and now Joxer does a comedic replay. And, to make matters worse, the fool suddenly morphs into a hero and takes (and actually deserves) the credit for saving all the girls that she boldly leapt into the fray to rescue. Double ouch. (By the way, when she sees the girls in jeopardy, her dramatic ‘Oh no’ was surprisingly dark and distressed – as if she’s reliving the time she was captured by slavers in episode one. A little out of place in a comedy but seriously believable.)
So could it get any worse? Oh yeah – Super Sexy Joxer kisses her at one point, and Gabrielle realises, for all of about 1/10th of a second, that she’s actually into it. Oh the humanity.
We get a few other firsts in this episode. I believe this is the first time Joxer calls Gabrielle, Gabby (but correct me if I’m wrong) – which the fans then leapt on and began the further shortening to Gab.
There’s the ever-recycled Karl Urban as an intense and brooding Cupid with mamma issues. (I’d have mamma issues too if she walked around the entire neighbourhood wearing that.)
The barely-clad Aphrodite’s first incarnation in Xena is unlovable, to say the least. She boasts an over-the-top valley-girl vocab and a petulantly immature personality. Bring on her mellow, easy-going self with a soft spot for the bard, I say. Aphrodite might still be self-absorbed in later eps, but she’s waaay more amusing with it.
Oh by the way, there was a plot in all this. A couple of royal kids want to get married. They have their parents’ approval. Yet they plan to elope. Um… why?
Aphrodite wants it stopped because the two fathers will tear down her temples once the pair wed. Yet all she had to do was pop in on the kings and tell them to keep her temples or at least move them or she’d break the couple up. She is a GOD for heaven’s sake. It’s not like they’d just adjust their stick-on beards and mutter "Talk to the hand."
But had they bypassed all this Aphro-drama it wouldn’t be as funny as seeing Joxer the Mighty actually live up to his self-promoting hype.
With huge regret, and much scratching out of my eyeballs, I have to admit that Joxer didn’t look half bad as his swashbuckling better self, leaping about and showing off his Good Hair™. The great coiff is how you can tell them apart – well besides the stuck-out jaw and effete English accent. It just goes to show what a good hairdresser will do for you. (Note to self, get haircut.)
Meanwhile the funniest thing was seeing his stunt double’s work – that guy has a most pronounced square jaw, unlike Ted, and definitely value-adds Joxer’s looks from the side.
Speaking of stunts – holy cow, watch Renee go. Who needs a double when she can do all that in a fight. The overhead flips and so on, all clearly Ren. Massive kudos, girlfriend.
Meanwhile there were a few little plot stupidities. Gabrielle quickly works out the bell is probably what is transforming Joxer. She tells him this. But she never tests her theory even though the bell was right there and it would mean she could get a decent night’s sleep rather than playing wrestling coach/chaperone.
Then she decides, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, that it’s not just Aphrodite’s bell that transforms Joxer, but any bell. Which is convenient for the plot because it means she can hurl a rock at a bell during the attempted Joxer execution to de-Clark Kent him in an instant.
Nice throwing arm Gabs has there – after the third rock ricochet I decided all that bored chakram practice Xena was doing in ADITL obviously paid dividends for the ever-attentive bard.
Say, did anyone else think the penalty for "Threatening the peace" in this town was a trifle harsh? So if you have an argument at the pub you get executed too? You’d think everyone would be too terrified to leave their homes in case they had a ding-dong with their neighbour.
Anyway, somewhere around the almost-execution, the episode began dragging like a feral cat with butt fleas. How long would Joxer keep torturing Gabrielle with his smug heroifics? How long would Gabrielle have to repeatedly ask Aphrodite to cancel the spell? How many "new antiques" would die this day?
And then a miraculous thing happened. After Aphrodite unbewitches Joxer, he actually redeems himself in a way that I had completely forgotten.
He tells the truth. The whole truth. The harsh, unvarnished truth. About himself.
"I’m a big phoney," he confesses to Gabrielle. "You’re the hero here – even I know that."
So he knew it all along. All those times he tortured her with his delusions of grandeur, the put downs, the digs about her lowly status, he knew it was a big old lie. Well, well.
After the last few days Gabrielle’s had, those words would have been a welcome relief. It’s not the validation from Xena she’d have liked but it is validation. Even if she didn’t believe a word of Joxer’s earlier insults, it’d be draining, and now to have him promote her to hero, that had to be so nice.
Being the kind heart she is, she even gets the suddenly returned Xena to give a pep talk to Joxer so he feels better.
What Xena says is true – if Joxer really was the phoney he thinks he is, he couldn’t have handled himself as he did when under the spell. Maybe there’s a good warrior hiding under all that false bravado. All he needs is to take the time to find out – let his brain and body lead for once, ahead of his mouth.
Of course, what really lies beneath will never be known – because give Joxer an inch of self respect and he’ll take a mile. And within moments he’s back to his old deluded self, singing that accursedly addictive Joxer the Mighty song before you can say "Dude, don’t you know it’s uncool to sing about being tidy?"
In sum, For Him the Bell Tolls is certainly one passable option to while away 42 minutes of your life. But if I’ve learnt nothing else from this episode, it’s that a haircut is an even better use of your time.