HEART OF DARKNESS
Season 6, episode 3
Reviewed by Sheryl-Lee Kerr
Rating: 7 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Story by Emily Skopov. Directed by Mark Beesley.
Edited by Tim Batt.
PASSING PARADE: Alex Mendoza (Lucifer); Adrienne Wilkinson (Eve);
Greg Lee (Virgil); Charles Mesure (Michael); Tamati Rice (Raphael)
Kara Douglas (Aliyah).
DISCLAIMER: All Hell broke loose during the filming of this motion picture.
STORY SO FAR: Xena tries to make an archangel take her place as King of Hell. Meanwhile, everyone starts turning to their darker sides, as an unaffected Eve tries to intervene.
REWIND FOR: Lucifer staggering under the weight of his virtue. Or more precisely his angelic wings. As he stands in the town square, have a look at his approach to camera as he delivers the line: "Well, I'm more than an angel, I'm an archangel." The actor almost topples forward as he moves in for his close-up. *snicker*
The dance scene between Xena and Gabrielle. Subtext fans will no doubt have already worn a hole in their tape rewinding this scene (all the while pleading on their knees - "why wasn't there *more*?!") A lusty Virgil turned up to continue his father's legacy of being a major butt-inski, serving no obvious purpose at that moment except perhaps to remind us of the existence of his gender (lest we were forgetful). Warms the heart to see a son continuing his father's work...
Favourite gesture: Xena flicking her hair with her sword as she flirts with Lucifer. Miss Piggy is not dead!
Gabrielle 'throwing in the towel' thereby interrupting Xena's lip lock with Lucifer. Xena's slow turn and semi-indignant drawled, "Yessss?" as Gabrielle gives her The Look is classic Oh baby, those two were adoring this episode. Gotta love Gabrielle's altogether unconvincing explanation that she was merely refocusing Xena's attention to the task at hand.
"Xena will never go down to Hell voluntary." Not true, Michael, she went there to save Gabrielle in the season five opener Fallen Angel. She also went down there in the last episode to tackle Mephistophaeles head on. Pay attention, wooden lad.
"I'm sure of both my faith and my devotion. Which has fuelled my speedy ascent up the hierarchy. A climb that will continue with a promotion to Seraphin." Lucifer opens his Seven Deadly Sins Bonus Saver account with a large deposit of sinful Pride.
"A great evil is coming Gabrielle, I can feel it." Eve gets wind of the death knell memo from StudioUSA cancelling 'Mother's' syndicated TV show.
"I've come to offer my services. After everything you've done for the city and our people." Aliyah, presumably a native of Amphipolis(?) appears from nowhere to pet Xena's horse. All in thanks for saving a long deserted town. *Where* did that girl spring from?
"You don't mind if I call you Lucy do you?" Lucy aka Xena lets us in on a little in-joke, while at the same time inferring Xena thinks Lucifer is a bit of a girl.
"It's not called corruption if you just peel away the layers to expose the rotten core. That is, unless you *want* Mommy to go to Hell." Xena proves she's a fast learner, in becoming a dab hand at the ol' maternal guilt trip angle. The witless Eve never stood a chance.
"You look tastier than I remember." Virgil shows an unhealthy interest in 'Aunty' Gabrielle. Thereby ensuring his imminent and painful death at the hands of Xena. To quote the Warrior Princess: "You're new around here right?"
"....you're a mortal female with a lying tongue, savage tendencies and a blond girlfriend. I'm a celibate archangel in the service of the lord." Lucifer shows off his powers of observation. And he finally settled the blonde/redhead debate. *g*
"Mother! Your purpose will not be served by subjecting this temple or this town to further desecration." Spoilsport. Eve gets the, er, *best* lines. It's also beyond me how she kept a straight face when her mother was carried into the temple wearing a sieve on her face. But mothers are sent to embarrass us...
Michael: "You dare talk of dirty work, when you besmirch so many souls with your nefarious filth."
Xena: "Besmirch? Is that even a word?"
Gabrielle: "Xena, no one is ready to got to Hell. That's the point."
Xena: "Really? Well, you and Virgil were looking ready to burn not long ago."
Ive seen some pretty trippy Xenas in my time, but this show takes the cake for the episode most likely to mess with your head.
Everything is off-centre by about 20 degrees and everyone is not quite acting themselves -- yet acting just enough like themselves for you to wonder where the real them ends and the darkened heart version starts.
Sometimes its blatantly obvious which part is in charge -- such as Gabrielle, armed with a metal temple fish, conking out Eve in the most out-of-character moment (absurdly so) of the show.
But other times ... well, now, just who was seducing Lucifer anyway? Xena or her darkened-heart , all I-need-is-a-whip Madam Lash?
Or was it a team effort? Xena provided the motivation and planning, Madam Lash the outfits, firetruck red lippy and the bored, mommy-will-kill-you-now attitude?
This is why it was hard to settle back and get comfortable with the episode because no one is entirely themselves. Its not the Xena were used to, and the people we know or thought we did, are acting like strangers. Thats not to say its necessarily a bad thing... (I for one am still a little undecided). Just very... different. And incredibly unsettling.
At the end youre still left with many questions. Like Virgil, for instance. Does he really fancy Gabrielle or was that his ole black heart talking?
Did Xena find Lucifer attractive in some way, or was it all just business to her?
When Xena was dancing with Gabrielle, was it all for show to get the winged wonder going, or was she merely doing what shes always wanted to do? And vice versa for Gabs...
Well never know on some of these points for sure. But it does give us all a great deal of leeway to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Ill come back to that point in a moment.
First, to the beginning...
It seems Archangel Michael and Xena both came to the same conclusion, independently ... that it wasnt a good idea for the Warrior Princess to become head honcho in hell, and that a more suitable candidate should be found: Lucifer.
This seems, in the case of Michael, to be taking office rivalries a bit far. One would have thought thered be another solution available to him rather than just picking the ambitious angel on the rise he doesnt like too much. It seems a little, well, unheavenly.
And as for Xena, how she came to the same conclusion about Lucifers fate based on little more than the notion that he seemed quite prideful for an archangel, is a biiig stretch. We, the viewers, have the advantage of knowing with a name like Lucifer, theres only one place youre headed. Xena had no such advantage. She just went, "Eenie meanie, miney, mo, Archangel Lucifer, to hell you go..."
Meanwhile, both Michael and Xena, still independently, also work out that getting Lucifer into hell is probably what the other had in mind all along, too.
So what gets me is: if both Michael and Xena are, in effect, working for the same cause, why in heavens name were they squaring off, fighting each other mid-episode? I am not talking about when Lucifer popped by to choose sides, but before that, it was just Xena, Michael and Raphael clashing swords. If ever there was a moment for the three to say: "Look, we all want the same thing here, lets work out how to achieve it while Lucifer isnt here." Instead, wham, insult, bam, pow... insult insult... wham bam... it was all a little odd.
Back to the beginning once more. Eve, I think, has discovered the fountain of youth and is de-evolving in reverse to how Gabrielle evolved. She has gone from a powerful, strong, sexual warrior who kicked ass big time to a slightly irritating, almost virginal ingenue pacifist who makes grand speeches that everyone wrinkles their noses at due to the cavity-inducing saccharine content.
Throw in that Unique-to-Eve, Whiny-When-She-Gets-Going Voice (tm) and you get a serious dose of idealistic12-year-old. (No offence to any and all cynical 12-year-olds.)
I think I saw even the been-there-done-that Gabrielle wince a little when Eve was doing her soapbox speech for the villagers and her voice became so stridently preachy at the zenith. Shudder. Delivery is everything, as any pizza company will tell you, and Eve hasnt quite got the hang of working those crowds...
I am wondering what the director/writers are thinking by sending the actor down this increasingly whiny, vapid, holier-than-thou route. Not only is it annoying but, as Xena so drolly observes, hyp-o-critical of her to take the high moral ground, as though butter wouldnt melt in her mouth. The problem is Eve is being played as a completely different character who has no bearing on or even relation to Livia. How can that be? They are the same woman! You dont just forget what you were, especially as it shapes who and what you become, even if you do change sides.
And I thought Xenas multiple personalities were infuriating...
On to Xena... hmm, she takes an immediate shine to the deadly Lucifer, it seems, even giving him a pet name -- Lucy -- (ho ho) which was delivered like an incarnation of Meg. I will say this: the dialogue in this episode was definitely a notch above normal, the lines between Lucifer and Xena fast and snappy to give the appearance of a verbal sparring which continued long after their sword hands had stilled.
Case in point:
Lucifer: "You twist my words."
Xena: "No, I straighten them out."
Xena: "The more you drink, the better it looks."
Lucifer: "No ones that thirsty."
Notice that the "ba boom" punchline often alternates between the two characters. This is deliberate to give the sense neither character is getting the upper hand, although both keep trying. Its a very clever way of establishing they are a very evenly matched pair, dancing, circling ever slowly, escalating the stakes until the ultimate showdown.
The cast too, all seemed to "get" that this was what it was all about, and the line deliveries (occasional Meg-isms from Lucy aside) were exceptional. They had the precision timing, they were all sparking off each other... it was a case of good acting meets good, snappy writing. And it was finished off by some most delicious directing, with camera angles keeping it all the more interesting. For instance, the sword-eye view in the first Xena v Lucifer fight when Xena is on the ground facing the angels sword-tip. Nice.
There were some unintentional funnies with the otherwise good effects -- the first time Lucifer does a fly-by and greets Gabrielle and Eve, I had to fight back the laugh as he seemed to be treading air. And dont start me on what the heck Xena was doing plaiting Argos mane!!
Now we get down to the serious questions like: what is corruption, and can you corrupt an already corrupt soul?
Xena doesnt think its corruption to peel back the layers and show whats underneath. Nice theory -- but by that theory she herself would be corrupt.
Underneath her layers are a great many disturbed and angry forces she constantly keeps at bay. The Warrior Princess once likened herself to a pond, calm on the surface but underneath...
In essence, she may do good now, but inside she also has the potential to do great evil.
And so here she is judging anothers soul. Hmmm. Shes got some noive...
Then she goes further and chooses virtually a random stranger, for the job of King of Hell. Based on ... er... a hunch?
At this point Id say she needed reasoning a little less tenuous than that for it to be considered a fair selection process. And the only reason the viewers mentally let that glaring flaw slide is because we know his name and his implied inherent evilness...
Imagine if he was called Archangel Tommy or Dave, instead?!
But back to Xenas statement ... are you corrupting someone if you just show that they are corrupt underneath?
Well shes doing a little more than showing. They way she puts it implies she was just some innocent bystander who threw off Lucifers cloak and revealed he was hiding the stolen family silverware all along.
However shes basically giving him the silverware, whispering in his ear that he really needs the silverware, and then making sure the getaway cloak fits!
And then shes unveiling him as a crook...like she was just happening by!
Well if thats not corruption, its certainly entrapment.
And yes, Xena is indeed guilty of turning an archangel to the dark side.
Which brings us to the subject of dark sides. First time I saw this episode I figured the safest person to be hanging around with would have to be Xena, because she was the most experienced at dealing with and quashing rogue dastardly forces from within. In contrast, Gabrielle would be the least experienced at it, easy pickings and thus I figured shed be the gal to stay faaaaaar away from.
Pity they didnt pursue it like that. Imagine if it was Gabrielle the one up on the stretcher doing the erotic leg pumping movements as the temple orgy-goers brought her in, chanting her name! Laugh...
Still maybe it doesnt work this way. Maybe its all about tapping into a pre-existing dark side. In which case, the person with strongest dark side would be making the biggest impression, as Xena did.
And the biggest impression was of course that dance.
I remain a bit in two minds about the up-close and personal body sway between Gabrielle and Xena.
I had always considered the shows most powerful subtext as a moment shared between Xena and Gabrielle that makes the rest of the world seem to fall away -- as though they only have eyes for each other. Emphasis on the word eyes.
If youre not looking at their eyes, the dance was a provocative one and, at the start, unquestionably subtexty in nature. But if you look at their eyes, theyre both surprisingly devoid of any emotion, in particular Gabrielles. The bard really did look like she was going through the motions and little more. So you get the immediate feeling that theyre not doing it for each other, but instead its all an act to get Lucifer to break another of the seven deadly sins, ie lust. He may call Gabrielle Xenas "blonde girlfriend" but, based on the dance, youd come away thinking she was just the fluffer. As in, her job was helping to get Lucifer, er, charge up and primed for his encounter with Xena. A most unsubtexty concept, indeed.
Throw in Virgil running up to grab Gabrielle, mid dance, and Lucifer taking off with Xena, and well, as a subtext moment, it leaves a lot to be desired. Thats if it was ever intended that way, as I presume it was.
Thats not to say I didnt like the dance, I did....mostly. Its just, well, the Xenalords giveth and (immediately) taketh away. And thats how it was for the subtexters out there. There was some pleasant surprise mingled with major disappointment.
Still on the dance, I have heard some talk that because everyone was going over to their dark side, that it subtly implied that lesbianism was "evil" as it was taking place in a setting of "nefarious filth" as Michael so eloquently put it.
I did wonder if this was the unintended (or even intended) lesson for us kiddies today. But instead I note that if lesbianism is evil because those with blackened hearts were indulging in it, then heterosexuality was too, given the amount of rampant straight lust also in the room! I would argue instead that the scene was about fantasy. Every fantasy was on display in the room, from straight, gay, to even the Madam Lash dominatrix thing Lucy was projecting. It was saying that, when let loose, people do indulge in their fantasies, whatever they are. And in that sense, I feel the scene does not judge anyone, or any sexuality. It just shows unfettered people being ... themselves.
Which leads to a question I posed earlier on... how much of what people were getting up to was being inspired by their dark hearts; how much was it really them?
On the Virgil issue, I argue hes always had a soft spot for Gabrielle based on certain looks he gave her when first they met. The black heart pushed that emotion, and his lust, to the fore. I was, however, stunned to hear him say at the end of the episode he was grateful Xena had saved the day when she did for it "saved me from making the worst mistake of my life".
Since when would seducing a beautiful, unmarried woman be the worst mistake of any mans life?!
Then it dawned on me: You seen the possessive looks from Gabrielles dark-haired "girlfriend" lately? *g* Well Virgil has...
Good call, Virg -- it aint nice to be looking at your own intestines through black eyes. Actually, as if to reinforce that point, Xena gives him a thin-lipped "RIGHT" after his "worst mistake" line, as if to say, "lucky for you that you kept it in your pants, buddy". Chuckle. Point made.
Back to our dark-hearted friends. By the Virgil theory, Gabrielle might also feel something for him, too. But apart from her interest in licking him from navel to jaw in this episode, she hasnt shown much interest in him elsewhere, at any other time. So this remains one of those unanswered questions of the eps.
Still on Gabrielle, if the dark heart does indeed bring out ones own darker feelings and magnifies them, like a megaphone, then what does that say about her thoughts on Eve? That every time Xenas daughter speaks, Gabs has a secret desire to thump her unconscious? Teehee... Unresolved issues there, perhaps!
As for Xenas darkness, well, she doesnt seem to need much excuse any more to seduce men for the sake of the outcome she wants. She did it appallingly in Antony & Cleopatra with Antony. She seems no different here. In Antony she made it obvious to Gabrielle that she had a weakness for "bad boys", which seems to imply that seduction for her is more than just an act. I wont again go into the dodgy moral issues of her nowadays leaping in to use her body and promising sex every time she wants to get her way.
But I will ask, was it more than just an act in Heart of Darkness? Based on that earlier Egypt episode, Id say who knows with her any more? Maybe she likes him. She does seem to have about 10 different personalities rattling around inside her, so its a bit of a toss up. However, based on what she said at the end of this episode to Gabrielle "every time I felt myself start to lose control, I just thought of you and that led me back home"... it seems she was just working. Although working hard, by the sound of things.
You know, if Gabrielle really is Xenas girlfriend, she has a lot more patience at what her partner gets up to in the line of work than most people would. Howd you like it if your love kept pretending/attempting to seduce someone to land a contract at work? And then they just added, like salt to the wound: "Oh dont worry dear, I was thinking of you the whole time and that kept me in check...."
Hmmm. Xena is a lucky woman that Gabrielle didnt snot her one after that line. Instead she says: "Dont go getting emotional on me, Xena"! Er, ri-ight. As you do.
Xenas relationship with Eve is interesting when the dark side kicks in and some of the best ever lines are uttered here -- not for how they were written but how they were said. Examples: "Where did I go wrong?", "Youve gotten in mommys way for the last time", "Nice run Eve, you make your mom proud..."
I sort of feel for Adrienne Wilkinson, being forced to play the straight woman to some of Lucys crackling good lines. Eves character was begging for a few witty retorts - ala Amarice. But no ... they seem determined to make her as dull as they possibly can.
And by having her not engage her mother in verbal witticism, in order to show she is pure and above all that, they do her the disservice of making her appear slower witted in contrast. It is no accident that Joxer was never ever allowed to one-up Xena or Gabrielle in verbal warfare because they needed the character to appear stupid.
To have Eve rarely verbally besting either of them, the unintended side effect does appear to be the same -- that she is not as fast of wit as her mother.
A pity. And a wasted opportunity to give Eve some spirit of her own -- to show she is no simpering pushover. They tried, at the end of the episode when everyone seems to turn on her, and it was better and considerably more entertaining, but Xena still always had the last word.
Interestingly, Xena certainly owes her daughter an apology for not taking her aside early on as all this was going down, and saying, this is the plan: We get Lucifer to commit all the deadly sins and he goes to hell... and everything I do is part of that, including a scam at the end where I pretend to kill you.
Of course that would ruin the intended surprise for us, and besides, Xena probably liked aiming for realism and so didnt let Eve in on it. The down side is she scared her daughter half to death. So, a big hug should be forthcoming there, Mother....
Still in that scene, I notice Xena dangled the stick of her partnership with Gabrielle in front of Lucifer to incur his rage. She says she has shared things with Gabrielle that hed never understand. Not just these suggestive words, but the mere fact she is using their partnership to wind him up, by its very nature implies they are more than just friends. And the oh-so-smug look on Gabrielles face said about 10,000 words!
Hey, did Xena just remember Gabrielle existed while a male object of her attention was still in the room?! What is the world coming to...
Quibble time. I may be over-sensitive, but I had a problem with the cavalier way Xena was verbally running down her mothers tavern just to get a laugh from the archangel at the bar. She has known about her mothers death for only days at this point. She theoretically should still be in mourning, and certainly still very touchy on the subject given how her mother died. But she comes off indifferent, doesnt care that the bar, the place her mother spent her entire life, and the place she died in, is now the place Xenas slagging off about with a stranger. It seemed, well, disrespectful. Tacky. And a little mean. Just a thought.
Major plot point.... Lucifer had ample time and opportunity at the bar, then at the picnic with Xena to kill her. For some reason he is content to play her games, when his mission has always been clear. Why? At these points, hes not even been wound up and teased mercilessly by her yet. He only seems to remember why hes there when they end up in the bedroom, he with a dagger under his pillow.
Where was his dagger in the bar and at the picnic? And given he knows Xena can kill angels, and this might be the chance she takes to do it, he seems to take a huge gamble by being there, apparently unarmed. It made little sense, especially given the character Lucifer was. Anyone that ambitious would like to kill Xena with a flourish and very fast to prove a point. He is obviously easily distracted from his task -- a thing not often associated with ambitious people. It didnt add up.
In summary, a nice bit of work -- from the effects, to the music, writing and direction. If it didnt sit quite well, it was because it wasnt exactly meant to. Yes it was off-centre, as was everyone in it. That does, as I said at the start, leave some questions unanswered -- like Gabrielles reactions to Virgil and vice versa etc -- but that can sometimes be far better than spelling out everything, too. I do wish theyd shut that door down the track, though -- subtext aside, there still seems something inherently wrong with Gabrielle fooling around with Joxers son.
As for the Xena/Gabrielle relationship, Heart of Darkness was a straight mans paradise akin to Basic Instinct, far more than it was a subtexters delight -- but it was still nice to see a bit of subtext back in the show once more. Of course I shall never look at Gabrielle again without thinking "Hey look, the blonde girlfriend!"
Meanwhile, I have now had it to the hind teeth with Eves role merely as Elis do-gooder messenger and the supernatural heaven/hell theme. Time to move on, boys and girls, as the angel wings are losing their flap.
But on the plus side, and in conclusion -- Hey look, Ma, someones making an effort with Xena again! It really shows and it gladdens the heart. Woohoo -- thank the stars and pass the Amphipolis ale.
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