Well, well, well. Who knew that Xena – the character or the show – had *this* in it?
Thanks to Destiny, the potential for greatness in Xena is laid bare for the first time. No more is it just hinted at in episodes like Return of Callisto – no, this is pure undiluted power and heady potential all wrapped up in a sexy gold-plated bodice and some seriously bad attitude.
But first we had to eat our vegetables. There was a bog-awful start involving a bizarre painted jungle tribe in the depths of, er, Ancient Greece, (what the?) complete with specialized military training moves straight out of a modern army manual. They came off looking like the Lost Tribe of Al Qaida.
Xena, as peeved as the fans probably, actually does the unthinkable and thumps an unarmed jungle-man prostrating himself before her, when she could have just ordered him to do anything she wanted. She was probably more than a little cheesed off that Gabrielle had managed to get kidnapped by his zebra-stripe tribe in the time it took Xena to gallop into Callisto’s home town, re-live a few bad memories (oh the humanity, gasp, sob, etc) and gallop out again. (Our favourite redhead really should work on her anti-capture skills as well as just staff-sweep maneuvers and doe-eyed looks at Xena.)
Meanwhile our primitive lost tribe just happened to have ready a log set up in the attack position on the off-chance a marauding warrior might happen to be standing still *right there*. The only thing lamer about the attack of the killer log was that Xena, with all her many, many skills, got so easily collected by it.
I know, I know – she was saving the little girl with the M’Lila knock-off necklace, so reaction times were a little off the pace. But come on now, this is *Xena* - at least she could have jumped on it and surfed it for a few seconds or some other equally wicked send-off before inevitably reacquainting herself with the painful realities of gravity. It was a missed opportunity and a seriously lame maiming for one normally so skilled.
Next up, crumpled Xena. Bleeding Xena. Oh dear. But I love Gabrielle’s first reaction. Not "Xena, are you hurt", just "Open your eyes". Yep – Gabrielle also subscribes to the not unreasonable world view that the big X is indestructible, so one must merely wait for her to wake up after any and all boo-boos. Besides, last time Xena "died", she got over it, right?
Then Gabrielle starts to get a clue, and my heart was in my mouth along with the bardster’s. Well there’s nothing to do but call for the "ambulance". It’s probably wise they didn’t show a certain size-challenged bard attempting to get a certain strapping, armor-laden dead-weight warrior princess onto Argo.
By the by, in case you’re wondering about the point of the little girl with the necklace Xena saves – there is no meaning beyond her jewellery being the link to what M’Lila also wore and giving us a reason to head back into the misty past, to a time Xena saw a similar token and was also injured. It’s a really thin connection, bordering on ludicrous, but hell, I’ll take it if it means a meander through the days of Bad Xena.
Right: the crappola of the episode has now ended, so everyone hit Play. Oooh look, flashback time!
Enter… (insert giddy squeal) Bad Xena Mark 1.
To my mind there were at least three variations on Bad Xena – beginning with this first incarnation, who was a little power-trippy, "Hey, *I* know, let’s conquer the world after breakfast", but not fully evil (beyond looting and pillaging), and she was still trusting enough to be played by Caesar.
To this Xena’s mind, she was merely doing a community service for the good people of Amphipolis – and if things got a little out of hand in her highly lucrative creation of a "buffer zone", well, don’t come whining to her.
Bad Xena Mark 2 was what she became at the end of the episode – dangerous, disturbing and disturbed, enraged, wantonly wicked and loving every minute of it. Tingles down the spine girl. Be afraid. A "Do Not Feed The Animal" sign is required.
Bad Xena Mark 3 was by far the worst – at least from a fan’s viewpoint. She was the seductress with an army of about two and seriously dodgy fighting skills. We meet her when she hooks up with Iolaus and Herc in the Hercules trilogy. She has no rage, boasts a charisma bypass, has zero purpose and no mojo. All up, a pretty sad figure in need of a perky sidekick and a good tailor. No wonder her army gave her the flick.
But for now, delightfully, we get to see Bad Xena Mark 1 and just enough of Mark 2 to require a change of underwear for the more excitable fans. (Yes, I have mine ready.)
If the costume designers didn’t get a pay rise after Destiny then they were never going to get one … the outfits of Xena and Caesar were stunning. The coin vest – SO Xena. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. And Caesar’s equally magnificent vest when he returns, shouts pride and power.
This Xena, a mix of drive and seductress, is reminiscent of Alti. She wants a world of power and is not too fussed as to how she will get it. If that means rustling the sheets a little (or a lot), that’s fine too. And with Caesar she certainly doesn’t give the impression this is any great hardship for her – indeed when she spies his ship on the horizon she can barely contain her excitement at seeing him again.
Next, there’s M’Lila. Little did we know at the time that her introduction would start a popular trend that continued throughout the show’s run. Namely, in Xena’s every incarnation, past or present, she always has a woman at her side – be it Lao Ma, Alti’s bed-warmer, Akemi, or Gabrielle. Even when she has powerful men of conquest in her life at her right hand (Caesar, Borias), there, at her left hand, is also her female companion. What can ya say – she’s a people person. *grin*
I adored M’Lila and the incongruity that this little slip of a girl could best Xena’s entire ship crew, and the fabulously unexpected revelation that every move and trick we have come to expect from Xena actually originated from M’Lila. The twirling around the pole leg-kick, the neck and thigh pinches, the scampering vertically up surfaces… all acquired from another. Genius.
Which reminds me – this really is an episode seemingly dedicated to the ongoing worship of Xena’s thighs. Seriously - the thighliciousness scale is off the chart, It is a constant theme, from her fabulously butch pose on the deck watching a fleeing, fighting M’Lila when Xena’s leg is out of commission; to a completely bared expanse of limb when seducing Caesar, to using those long legs to convey how exposed she was while strung up on the cross – and finally, broken and battered, but not beaten at the end – to show how she can overcome agony and use those appendages to kill. It was such a conscious, clearly-worked theme, it had to be deliberate. Perhaps the alternate title of Destiny should be The Thighs Have It.
But back to M’Lila, She is integral to the best ever montage – accompanied by her song as the boats glides across the water, as lovely as it is haunting, and utterly captivating. At this point I was wondering – how can this possibly be just a TV show? Barely halfway through and it was so richly layered.
I loved the dynamic interplay between the two women – although Xena might attempt to treat her as captured property to be ordered about, M’Lila is having none of it. She is no one’s slave and reminds the warrior princess of that fact when she might have let her die during their Neck Thwap 101 lesson. She becomes the closest thing Xena has to an equal, a friend – in the truest sense, although Xena would have wrongly argued at the time that Caesar filled that role nicely.
We see later that she truly is Xena’s friend – where Caesar betrayed her, M’Lila not only freed her but dragged her broken body god knows how far up a mountain to see her nearest acupuncturist on the right health plan.
Which brings us back to Gabrielle – now I am no medical expert but for all the good the healer ended up doing for Xena in the present, the bard may as well have just hauled her friend to their local Thebes physician rather than undergoing her bizarre postman’s quest through sleet and snow while following directions of a fevered mind so vague as to be useless.
I did have to laugh when the guy gave her a diagnosis straight out of ER – I guess even mystery medicine men stuck halfway up mountains still get the latest medical journal scrolls.
By the time we see Caesar’s men in the flashback burst in on Xena (and let’s face it, the dragging trail of Xena’s stretcher would have been pretty easy to follow) the episode has become officially riveting. Forget the silliness of the hairflick to disable grown men – all anyone can remember is the sight of those ice-chip eyes, becoming enraged at the self-sacrificing M’Lila’s death. Yes, someone killed Xena’s only real friend. Uh oh. Wouldn’t want to be them.
It’s mind-blowing seeing this seething woman, drawing into herself, pulling herself up inch by agonizing inch, and managing to swing those splinted, shattered legs and turn them into weapons … then killing, killing, killing with them.
There’s her transformation – from power hungry to insanely maniacal. The chill skittering down the spine is just unbelievable. The wantonness of her wild side – the potential for greatness and cruelty. All that in one look. Now I know where the saying ‘If looks could kill’, comes from…
Does it matter that Xena should really be turning her rage directly on Caesar (a female-brain thing to do – ie personal revenge) rather than deciding to lay waste to all of Greece (a male-brain solution – society must pay)? No – not really – the blood thundering in the ears of fans means we can see only one thing, Bad Xena (mark 2) is born. And we want more, damn it.
Much, much, more.
With a snap, we’re back in present. Gabrielle is dealing yet again with Xena’s apparent death. The loss on her face, oh God, I felt it right to the core. Beseeching eyes swinging around to the healer, begging for him to do something, anything. The helplessness, the disbelief. The stillness, the quiet, the deathly void. It’s chilling too, in its own way.
Then cue the second montage set in Tartarus that just blows everything else away. When Xena is on death’s door, what images does she see to lure her back? Wall to wall Gabrielle. There she is believing in her, telling Xena she can do things, hugging her, crying with her, cradling her, loving her. Friendship or subtext, it can be read both ways – but the subtexter’s heart within me melted, and I found myself cooing like a deranged pigeon.
The montage felt incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. It also encapsulates a remarkable hero who is so unlike any other before or since. Seeing these scenes all run together in this way brings back what we have lost by no longer having a hero like her on television – the embodiment of grrl power, 10 feet tall and making no apologies.
For the first time I looked at my watch and marveled: how can it be this episode is only 42 minutes long? By its end I had that satisfied feeling you get from seeing an entire multi-layered full-length movie. That so much could be conveyed in so short a time is amazing. That a show like Xena could do it is just staggering.
Destiny really lifted the bar and set it high enough to cause nosebleeds. As I said at the start – who knew this show had it in it?
In a word: wow.