RETURN OF THE VALKYRIE
Season 6, episode 9
Reviewed by Sheryl-Lee Kerr
RATING: 7.5 chakrams
SCROLLS & SCRIBES: Written by Emily Skopov; directed by John Fawcett
PASSING PARADE: Renato Bartolomei (Beowulf); Dean O'Gorman (Wiglaf); Brittney Powell (Brunhilda); Roger Morrissey (Monster Grinhilda); Renato Bartolomei (Beowulf); Alexander Petersons (Odin); Victoria Hill (Waltraute); Luanne Gordon (Grinhilda); John Leigh (Hrothgar) Brittney Powell (Brunhilda).
DISCLAIMER: Any similarity between our story and the classic childrens fairytale is purely coincidental.
STORY SO FAR: Beowulf rescues an amnesiac Xena on her wedding day and takes her to Gabrielle so she can awaken her sleeping soulmate with a kiss, and restore her lost memories.
The cow that went clang in the night... Its probably a good idea if youre going to ritually sacrifice the fatted cow for a wedding feast, not to get one thats made out of metal. This one makes a distinct, telling clang when Rothgar beheads it. Maybe hes a vegetarian?
Is she or isnt she? Some Valkyries havent been keeping up on the latest news... Quoth the frizzy-headed one at the start of this episode: "Xena seems to care a great deal for her (Gabrielle), too." (Note the present tense.)
Her friend replies: "Thank the gods shes dead."
Um, make up your minds, gals. I guess it must be an occupational hazard when living with the dead.
The look on Althea/Xenas face when shes brushing her hair awaiting her new husband on their wedding night. Now thats conflicted. Could it be shes sensing somethings not quite right with this picture? Hmm, what could that be? Ill give her a small hint -- blondes have more fun...
Have a laugh at Althea/Xena seeming to skilfully dodge the question when King Rothgar asks/states shes "overcome with joy". Her reply, "yes, Im overcome". With what exactly, she doesnt quite specify... Nausea?
And given she pointedly evaded his kiss after the ceremony, maybe her subconscious is trying to tell her something.
Gotta love the vision of Xena in furs -- whoooeee. Is there any climate that woman looks plain ugly in? Following this scene, the tortured eyes into the sword moment is a fine bit of direction.
Check out the moment where Xena/Althea first slaps eyes on the sleeping beauty Gabrielle -- she has the most hypnotic, unspoken "wow" look on her face.
A kiss is just a kiss... but not if its Xena kissing Gabrielle. Question is -- why did that dark haired woman look nothing like Lucy Lawless? Most baffling. Who was that rogue kisser!! I demand a rekiss... and another one to be doubly sure, and while were at it... ;-)
Nitpick alert: Xena says at the end "35 years ago, the shame of it makes it feel like yesterday." Um, okay, some basic maths -- 10 seasons ago bad Xena used to kick ass, plus 25 years on ice; plus one year without her memories while Gabs lay sleeping. Its now 36 years ago. But hell, was maths even invented back then, let alone calendars?
The aw-shucks final scene of the episode as Xena makes gooey eyes at Gabrielle. I hope they brushed their teeth after swallowing all that sugar. *g*
Note how Xena goes to all this painstakingly very wet effort of swimming dramatically into their cove. The bard just walks around. Eh. Naturally.
"Call your men off, this is suicide." Beowulf to Lord Eric who, as if to illustrate the point, promptly ups and tosses himself into the ring of fire.
"I would have loved you to the end of my lifetime. Now it seems it will only be to the end of yours." And whos fault is that Rothgar? Strangled threats have never been considered the most endearing form of foreplay and not to mention, not even asking the bride if she actually has a clue who the man on her bed is.
"Im lost without you, Xena." and "I am the truth of who you are. Our souls are united, Xena." Ahh, the last piece of the puzzle thunks into place as to why Xena thinks shes "different" from other women... Yes, thats right, she has weird visions of short blonde sidekicks dancing in her head. As you do...
"I am feeling uneasy. I was betrothed for life and condemned to death on the same day by the same man." Only uneasy, Xena? Talk about the mistress of understatement.
"I thought he loved me." Yeah and I thought warm buckets of beer didnt go with clanging cow at weddings, but there ya go.
"Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me." -- Xena. Now theres something you dont hear every day.
"What magic has made Xena such a noble creature that she would give up the power of the ring?" And what Rhein Maiden is such a cloying Pollyanna that you wonder why she cant just drown elegantly and be done with it?
Xena/Althea: Fighting gives your life meaning? Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds?
Beowulf: Yeah, well, it didnt sound so stupid when it came from you.
Xena/Althea: This Gabrielle must truly love Xena
Beowulf: Yes and will till the end of time.
Xena/Althea: I have no quarrel with you. Im here only for Gabrielle.
Valkyrie: You sound like one those pathetic lovesick boys who burn themselves to a crisp.
Valkyrie, with sword at Xenas throat: Ive waited a long time for this...
Xena: Wait longer.
Well, you dont get a better sense that youre dealing with myth, legend and folk lore than when it all ends with a kiss for sleeping beauty from her princess charming. Awww. The third instalment of this credible Norse trilogy did justice to its preceding parts, wrapping up all the loose ends with a big fat ole bow, and giving us a severe case of warm fuzzies. I just hope Gabs was getting properly fed, watered, and exercised on her other plane of existence or her first step up from the rock bed would be her last as her wasted muscles screamed in protest and plopped her on her butt. And why did her hair grow but not her nails? Methinks Brunhilda was playing a secret manicurist inside that ring.
Looking back, I now wonder if this trilogy mightnt have been better as a two-parter. Certainly itd be tighter, given we perhaps didnt need a full episode (The Rheingold) to establish Grindl. Or maybe we did -- its easy in hindsight to forget how scary that critter was when first introduced and it certainly set the tone for the rest of the episodes -- this mighty of all adversaries. But it was slightly unsettling how Grindl progressed from the central character and the point of the tale, to a foreboding background walk-on menace as the trilogy continued, to finally another loose end to finish off with. Nonetheless, it was equally satisfying to see Grindl destroyed by words and not force as, aside from it not being the obvious exit, it showed how much Xena had changed, that she might intuitively grasp how to defeat the creature. More on this later.
Part three was about the reunification of soul mates and everything else in it was to reinforce or challenge this. We begin with the Vikings, ever hopeful of awaking the sleeping princess. I do love this concept, for its the sort of myth you can imagine being created around these times -- a beautiful maiden in the deepest darkest forest awaiting only the truest of hearts to bring her to life. So in this regard I can buy all those warriors traipsing into deadly Grindl territory, on a one-way mission to see Gabrielle.
It is pretty important to note that none of them loved her -- at best they fancied her -- but they were doing this to prove something to others -- that they had the truest hearts. It was the ultimate prize, which could only be reached through the ultimate gamble. So whilst at least one Valkyrie regarded them derisively as "love-sick" fools, she missed the point. And note that none of the men cited the ring as reason to get to Gabrielle, so it wasnt about that, either.
See, what is there left to prove once you are the mighty Eric the Red who has conquered all before you and risen to be the greatest of your kind? Why, you conquer what no other man has... the circle of fire. Of course, every half baked warrior in three neighbouring countries would beat a path to Gabrielle when thats the prize -- to be thought the truest of them all and worthy of the beautiful sleeping princess. So in short, theyre doing it for their ego. It aint about love at all. Unlike Beowulf -- who clearly loved Gabrielle (for reasons not yet even slightly established given the minimal time spent with her). But at least the big B had enough smarts to test the fire first and see whether hed be up for rejection or not. One burned hand later, I am still left to ponder incredulously the size of even his pea-brain. Why not use a pinky finger? Your big toe even? Some body part that you would not, as a working warrior, have some strong attachment to. (Like your head maybe. *g*)
At this point I have to give yet another thumbs down to the gross-out moment of the episode -- flying severed limbs. Just charming... Yeah, yeah I know Im a wimp, but its soooo not necessary to see amputations in order to grasp that, ooh, thats a bad monster there.... Got it already, guys. The primordial screams were a pretty big clue, okay?
Beowulf, whom this episode I dub Felix for his nine lives, then decrees its off to Denmark for him to see his pal King Rothgar whom he informs us "if any mortal can defeat the demons in this cursed bog its Rothgar."
Um... why? Did I miss something about the big old fuzzy-faced ruler of Denmark? Sure hes probably had his share of dealing with demons given what his sisters like, but puh-lease...
Beowulf, by now having soulmate-tested his own hand and come up wanting, and noting that Gabrielle has had only two devoted people around her in the entire (short) time he knew her (one of whom is now making like a barbecue) would plainly deduce: Um, if its not me, and Brunhildas the foot warmer, then, gee, I guess Xena is almost certainly her soul mate.
This being the case, thered be nothing King Rothgar could do to change that situation, even if Beowulf does believe Xena is dead. So why is he going there, again? Mmm. I just wish theyd come up with something a little more convincing than the "demon-defeater" silliness to get him to Rothgar.
In Beowulfs defence, he is a loyal and true friend to Gabrielle. He might have packed up his bags a long time ago and headed home with his tail between his legs. Or he might have returned to his initial mission -- conveniently forgotten in the comatose Gabrielle chaos -- being to kill Grindl.
But, no, thats one loyal, lovestruck dude there and for a full year it seems hes been leading men to slaughter in the hopes of finding her soul mate (no matter how stupid it should seem to him, given none of the others even know her); and then, later, when he does find Xena, makes every effort to reunite her with Gabrielle. So, thats love. And hes one of the better quality male characters weve come across in the Xenaverse, so its a bit of a refreshing change.
It would be novel if, a little more regularly, the occasional man in Xena was written as good and moral because its what hes like, rather than because hes madly in love with one of the key characters. The good men roster, off the top of my head, currently includes: Perdicus (in love with Gabrielle); Joxer (in love with Gabrielle); the Chin dude and other assorted cute boys (all in love with Gabrielle); Marcus (in love with Xena); Hower (in love with Xena); Ulysses (in love with Xena). And Brutus, initially portrayed as a good guy, also fell for Gabrielle. Hell, even the goodest of them all, Hercules and Iolaus, were both in love/lust with Xena at one point. And now we have Beowulf...
Is it too much to ask for, once every 20-30 episodes or so, if theyre going to have a noble guy, make him just noble and not also lovestruck?!
Anyone would think they have such a low opinion of men at Xena that they wont buy any man being good without a really huge incentive!
But I digress. Its off to Demark we go, and da-da... right in time to see King Rothgar getting married to Xena. Or Althea. I will take my hat off to the Xenabods for giving me the surprise of my life when the wedding wasnt miraculously called off due to stampeding mountain goats or something, just when the vows were about to be said. Nope, they went through with it.
Gee, Id love to be there when Gabrielle later asks Xena: "Soooo, whatd you get up to while I was asleep?"
Xena: Er, I, uh, got married... yknow how it is.
We thought Gabs was understanding when Xena was mysteriously pregnant. But this one might be pushing it... Chuckle.
I have heard a lot of Xena fans argue ferociously that Xena marrying Rothgar was completely out of character and even without her memories she wouldnt have done it and wouldnt have been so wussy and girly.
I have often argued that we are all the sum of our experiences. Xena turned bad initially when her brother died and became the creature she was. She was not bad prior to that. Callisto turned bad when her family was burned to death in front of her eyes. She was a product of her experience and, when she got to Heaven, and was cleansed of her sins, a saccharine sweet Callisto greeted us, whom, we were informed, was the woman she would have become had these awful tragedies not perverted her.
So I cant argue the opposing view now, tempted as I was to see the amnesiac Xena tougher than she is portrayed as Althea. Xena, wiped clean of any memories of pain, suffering, anguish, tragedy, death, malice, hatred, bitterness and revenge, would be a tough ass-kicking chick, why exactly? Cos she just is? Its in her nature? The same way Eve was always somehow destined to become a violent massacring killer?
I dont buy this. Although, tantalisingly, we do get a sense that Althea knows she is not like everyone else, when she tells Rothgar "youve always known my priorities are different from other womens..." And at this point she hasnt even seen her own untapped skills; like those lightning-fast reflexes Beowulf will later demonstrate to her.
So she just knows, instinctively, in some vague old way, shes different, somehow... Subtexters will probably be giving a knowing wink and speculate like mad what that means, the way they did when Gabrielle admitted she wasnt the little girl her parents wanted her to be (interestingly this quote was a part of the montage shown this episode). But I do actually think Id like to have heard a fuller hint from Althea as to how/why she feels different.
Beyond that, was it believable for Xena to have married Rothgar? Hell no. But was it believable for Althea? Yeah, maybe. I wouldnt have wanted it plotted that way, but its possible. And weve got to remember: Its not Xena there in her frock on the cow that goes clang (see Rewind For...) but someone who looks like her but has none of her experiences or memories. So its not her. And if this stranger with Xenas face but none of her motivations wants to marry her rescuer because she is easily wooed and manipulated, thats not Xena either... Its Althea. Yeah, Id have wanted her tougher -- heck, I may yet lose my lunch over "Oh I am the luckiest woman in Denmark"... but it helps to know this woman aint the warrior princess we know her as. She is Xena without a scrap of baggage or emotional hangups or any of lifes tough lessons drummed into her, to make her less naive and gullible. If she seems childlike in some ways, of course she is -- she has no memory of growing up, maturing and learning from the school of hard knocks. She once again sees the world with wonder, and is more easily led.
Hence also the shock when she discovers her husband is a domineering brute, for she had nothing inside of her that she could call upon to let her know this was even a possibility. And nothing to show her how to deal with it, either. Her Xena instincts and memories which, for the first time, rose to the surface at the wedding when she clapped eyes on the ring, had not yet fully re-asserted themselves. So she is at a loss. This is how we find her when she is slowly brushing her hair, waiting for Rothgar to join her in the bedroom on her wedding night: she has lost her beatific innocence and is in a state of profound misery, uncertainty and shock.
You can see all sorts of internal wars being fought behind her eyes and it is clear, when Beowulf enters dressed as Rothgar, she has still not sorted any of them out. She is prepared to go ahead with her duty.
Making it worse, and more confusing, would be these hallucinations of Gabrielle, a woman she doesnt even know but whose words and touch actually make her physically recoil as though burnt.
Its for this reason I think it was believable Althea went so docilely and unquestioningly back to Norway with Beowulf, despite knowing even less about him than her husband (not that life with Rothgar would have been peachy after Beowulfs little cooked-up bedroom scene, thanks to Rothgars sisters help).
The point is, Althea wanted answers. She might well have fled the palace with Beowulf, but once free could easily have ditched him and gone in search of her past elsewhere. She went with him because he held answers to the woman in her powerful dreams, and he seemed to hold the clues to her former life. Without the Gabrielle visions, however, it would have been a far less convincing plot -- making us believe shed just run away with some man she met at her wedding because he claimed to know her. (Although Althea seems so naive, she may well have done just that.)
Before I depart Denmarks shores, two points: One, I adored the look of Rothgars sister -- she had a real touch of the haughty Angelica Houstons to her and absolutely could have been a wicked villain in her own right if they ever needed a proper conniving bitch. She was terrifically cast -- one of those rare cases where someones small acting deficits are more than made up for by having exactly the right look. Her deficits, incidentally, were in simply trying to keep the American accent fixed, which seemed to occupy a lot of her focus.
Point two -- Bad King Rothgar vs Good... A regular Jekyll and Hyde character to my way of thinking. But a history buff friend informs me that he was well in keeping with a man of his post in that time period and his treatment of women. In fact hed have been considered a very good man back then -- rescuing this woman with no name, money or title, making her his queen, and the "discipline" matters, no matter how distasteful and boorish today, would have been considered fair at the time.
My question is this: how would this have played out if King Rothgar has been portrayed as good through and through by todays standards? Althea would have broken his heart by doing a runner, and without her husband essentially nulling their marriage by ordering her execution, she would to this day still be married to him. It would have cast Xena/Althea in a very poor light indeed, and one could imagine the people of Denmark looking on in horror and loathing as their new queen of less than a day, exits stage left, with a scruffy Norseman through the window....
So I am guessing great pains were taken to make Rothgar appear both good (so we would see why Althea agreed to marry him) and bad (so we would not feel guilty about Althea deserting him on the wedding night). Very clever....
But conversely now well never know whether she was running away from him or to someone else.
I note Althea never said she loved the king but only referred to "I thought he loved me" and her duties to the people of Denmark. So one presumes the reason she consented at all was out of gratitude to him for giving her life back.
From here its back to Norway to rescue Gabrielle, with a few small, pointless stops along the way to see Odin, the Valkyries and Beowulfs fighting men. Yeah, yeah,
I was thinking ... cut to the chase, already. The chase being Gabrielle, of course.
Fast forward to the fire ring and we see the ambitious little missy Valkyrie, who breaks the longest record for a sneer when she says her line: "On my life, Xena will die before she gets close enough to those flames to singe an eyebrow".
Interestingly, she has earlier confessed to wanting the ring for herself when Odin expresses his desire for it (his motivations are still not really strong enough in this). So she wants the ring and whats the FIRST thing she tries to do? Kill the one person she knows can get Brunhilda to drop the flames protecting it. Why? Shes stupid, obviously. LOL.
From here the subtext hits warp speed... the aforementioned Valkyrie accuses Xena of being exactly like one of the "lovesick boys" after Gabrielle. Xena doesnt disagree...
And then we get the sleeping beauty ending of all good fairytales. I have never heard of any ending to any fairy story involving a sleeping princess that has not involved her true love doing the kissing. Note: true love, not best friend, not closer than sister/brother types. True love.
So if "soul mate" is used here as a simile for true love, and I have the weight of historys fairy tales behind me on that one (*g*), then Xena is categorically once and for all proving she is Gabrielles one and only true love.
Which makes the subtext considerably more maintext than you can get without them both donning flashing neon signs saying "I love her, and not like a best friend either..."
Toss in the sappy ending of Xena making eyes at Gabrielle while the Rhein Maidens look on, and well, I think as they say in the books, they all lived happily ever after.
It was a sweet way to finish the trilogy. Which reminds me, one informant tells me this may was originally written for the Hercules show with the big lug himself in love with a mysterious woman in the ring of fire. It was allegedly rewritten for Xena:WP when Hercules was axed. If this is true, and I have no way of knowing either way, more kudos to them all for boldly not changing any of the standard fairystory ending and finishing it with Xena kissing Gabrielle, as though obviously thats what should happen at the end, no rewrites needed just because theyre both women.
In summary, I liked this episode, even if borderline-simpering, "no fights please, its not right" Althea got up my nose. But I guess a Xena wiped clean of it all, would be a completely new creature -- and thats hard to get used to. I thought they might have done a better job with that huge issue of Xenas loss of self. Total amnesia must be horrific to have to recover from, and her fight to find this sense of self is just completely ignored. Shes simply presented to us like some too-good-to-be-true twin in a dodgy B-grade movie matinee, all wrapped up in a ribbon and ready to be re-educated. But I guess they were trying to avoid a four-parter. *g*
That aside, the story tended to have a nice pace, was engrossing, supported by exemplary music and built well to the inevitable climax of Gabrielle being freed by Xena.
The second climax was therefore overshadowed -- Grindls humanity being restored. I did, as I said earlier, like the way they chose to do this, instead of resorting to the unkillable monster dying in some new and creative way. It was always the case that this was Xenas mess to clean up and, in the final analysis, she did just that. It took her years of mellowing and finding love with Gabrielle to truly understand the nuances of the curse on Grindl and how she might reverse it. Bad Xena could never have found this key without love. Bad Xena, also, would never have been able to swallow her pride and say -- and mean -- those immortal words: Forgive me...
This, incidentally is the first and I guess the last time, we will ever hear her say those words, too (excluding her singing it for Gabrielle in Bitter Suite). For, while Xena is eternally sorry for her crimes, she has never ever thought she deserved to be forgiven for them, and so never asks for it. And even if someone tried to forgive her in any other circumstance, its highly doubtful shed accept it -- for shes unable to forgive herself.
Thus its an absolutely unforgettable moment when she asks for forgiveness, because well never see it again.
Lastly, long-haired Gabrielle. I missed it when she first cut her hair, but now, at the risk of reigniting that ole debate I have to say -- CUT YOUR HAIR!
That blonde wig didnt do Renee justice. Bring back the short look, and fast!
And this really is...
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