TO HELICON AND BACK
Season 6, episode 15
Reviewed by SLK
Rating: 8 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Written by Liz Friedman and Vanessa Place.
Directed by Michael Hurst. Edited by Robert Field.
PASSING PARADE: Tsianina Joelson (Varia); Craig Parker (Bellerophon);
Morgan Reese Fairhead (Cyane); Kirstie O'Sullivan (Gwyn-Teir); Madeleie Sami (Tyro); Marise Wipani (Kanae); Michelle Blanchard (Mawu-Ka).
DISCLAIMER: No shark bait was harmed during the making of this motion picture.
STORY SO FAR: Gabrielle leads the Amazons into battle against Bellerophon, son of Artemis, who is seeking vengeance against the tribe over his mothers death.
REWIND FOR: The look Xena gives Gabrielle after she said "have a good time at the party -- don't do anything I wouldn't do." Which, apart from howling at the moon and painting herself blue, pretty much gave Gabrielle carte blanche really, didn't it? *g*
Was that a full moon I saw as the Amazons stormed the beach head? Okay, that saved them tripping over each other, but it also meant Bellerophon could see their every move as clear as day - literally. So much for the element of surprise.
The slow-mo vision of Gabrielle, looking every inch the Amazon, as she tried to out-run the mortar fire whilst in Varia's bow sights.
Gabrielle's stirring battle speech a là King Harry just before the battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V. Nice touch by the writers and well played by Renée.
The look-away rolled-eye expression on Xena's face as she pretended to have her butt whupped during her 'duel' with Bellerophon in front of his fortress. The kinda look that said, 'the things you have to do when your soulmate is an Amazon queen!'.
"You Amazons deserted Artemis. She needed your worship the most. For that, I will kill each and every one of you." Bellerophon to Xena, just before she taught him the futility of vengeance - with the end of her sword. ie death + death = more death.
"That's the thing about vengeance, you're never really satisfied." Xena, speaking from experience.
"Keep still everyone, they're drawn to movement." Er yeah - Xena, that's why the shark went for the only thing not moving in the water - a dead Amazon.
"Is that fear I see in your eyes Warrior Princess?" Bellerophon proves he's definitely the new kid on the block when it comes to personality profiling the leather-clad one. As she later responded, it was disgust not fear.
Varia: "How's the eye?"
Gabrielle: "How's the hand?"
Varia: "Fine, why?"
Gabrielle: "I thought maybe you sprained it on my face."
To Helicon and Back had ambition aplenty, Saving Private Ryan in the kitbag, more moral questions than Freud could handle in a single sitting and angsty Amazons by the boatload (literally). This could have been a frightening cocktail for disaster -- actually every grand, big-scale episode has this potential. But for the most part Helicon really pulled it off, rising above mere action fare, into a deeper than expected, philosophical and emotional rollercoaster for Gabrielle.
It sidestepped some of the more usual, easy routes the show is wont to rely on -- such as applying the moral message with a brush the size of the barn; or making the heroes so gosh-darned flawlessly heroic, that the humanity is lost and with it our fears for their safety and edge-of-seat hopes that they can do it.
Instead, we find our heroes must make very hard, cold decisions that while not "heroic" in the cartoony world of action shows, they are very human in our world. And as such the emotional impact is far stronger. More on this later.
I did wonder why this came episode now, especially as it was in many ways so similar in theme to A Good Day. In that earlier episode Gabrielle must put aside her own loathing of war for the greater good, and finally concede, at episodes close, with a an utterly devastated, sick look on her face, that it was a "good days fighting".
This episode the concept may seem on the surface exactly the same -- indeed all her moral dilemmas are the same -- fear she is becoming less of who she is in order to do the right thing. But the theme is taken one step further by writers Liz Friedman and Vanessa Place. Here, Gabrielle must not only lead people into battle -- but her friends, her adoptive family, her tribe -- people she knows and really cares about and who care about her. These people are by no means faceless and she has a real emotional investment in how the fight turns out. And an awful emotional investment if it all turns to dust.
Further, while in A Good Day, she was only on her own and leading the charge because Xena was otherwise occupied until she could rejoin the bard and take over the leadership role; this time Gabrielle is in some ways more on her own even with Xena by her side, because she knows she is not just warming someone elses seat until they can take over. The responsibility is and remains Gabrielles.
Okay so she was technically warming Varias seat -- and she did try to hand it back quickly in the middle -- but at all other times she really knew the buck stopped with her.
As Xena so typically bluntly puts it: "You are it."
This episode marks the first time that Xena totally takes a backseat in all things, the whole episode through, to let Gabrielle take charge. Nowhere is this more poignant than where Xena, Varia and Gabrielle all disagree on what to do with the wounded and how to proceed with the plan. Once Xena has stated her case, and its clearly in direct disagreement with Gabrielles, she says nothing more, but just looks at her and awaits the bards decision. She does not argue or try to change her mind. The decision is Gabrielles. That Gabs quickly (and I would say most oddly, given its not really explained why) changes her view to Xenas, is not the point. The point is that had she stuck with her initial plan, to leave the wounded on the beach, it seemed that Xena would have gone along with it -- respecting Gabrielles command decision.
So for this reason the episode really takes over where A Good Day left off. It aims at showing how the bard is now completely self reliant, mature and a person who needs no one else to prop her up any longer in battle. A woman in her own right. A warrior in her own right. And a leader in her own right. Xenas support of this without interference is proof the bard has come of age on the battlefield and off it. I doubt that fills Gabrielle with a great deal of joy -- especially after what she went through -- but it was a marvellous acknowledgment nonetheless. And it shows how much of an equal she has now become for Xena.
I almost got the sense of a passing of the torch from Xena to Gabrielle in this episode, as though the Warrior Princess feels she no longer needs to automatically take that leadership role now she has seen and knows what the bard is capable of. I will be fascinated to see if and how they pursue this idea. Not that the old WP is ready to hang up the chakram quite yet (as if!), but she has been taking a more backseat role lately -- especially when the Amazons are around. One could argue thats simply because shes not an Amazon and its not her place, whereas Gabrielles ties make it more her realm. But I would argue Xena has never let her not being an Amazon stop her from putting her nose in where it doesnt belong before. Its just now she doesnt have to. She has a fully-trained Gabrielle in her stead. And thats the point.
Besides a coming of age theme in this episode it also shows the horrors of war from a more personalised perspective. We have become a little immune to the biffo on Xena as it happens so often, and sometimes quite comically -- or at the very least in a surreal detached way. Even when it is shown realistically, like in One Against An Army they had to rush in and lighten it up with a ludicrous pogo stick routine. This episode and A Good Day stick in my mind as the two most realistic war portrayals of Xena, and were intended to really make us, the audience, GET the horror of it all. Of the two episodes, Helicon succeeds more, because the Amazons have long been our constant companions in the Xenaverse and to watch them die by the, er, tens, is as personal as it gets.
Yep, this episode really personalises war for Gabrielle in all its hideous shades of red, although god knows she didnt really need it any further thrust in her face. Here we see her being as ruthless as necessary and, for instance, ordering a young woman to her death because it was what was needed.
Note how there was no impractical and unbelievable Hollywood do-it-yourself-martyrdom here, where it would normally be either Gabrielles or Xenas cue to volunteer themselves as the certain-death diversion. The realism of this was so much more profound. Hell, we know Gabrielle is brave. We know if she thought it was for the best, she would volunteer herself. But her futile death or wounding at that moment would have done nothing for her troops and actually harmed them far worse than her picking this poor Amazon and sending her to die for the cause.
I liked the power of that scene. And I felt for Gabrielle seeing her on the horns of an awful dilemma that she could see no way out of. So I did like how they decided not to make yet another point about Gabrielles bravery (we get that already) and instead asked her to be brave in the hardest way of all -- by going against her own caring, self sacrificing nature to save the rest of her warriors.
A bit of proper chronology now, to look at how they wove it all together. Back to the beginning: I loved the opening, showing that friendly rivalry between Varia and Gabrielle. How the Amazon rituals must have changed... we see Gabrielle looking a little green when Varia gets cut as part of her Queening ceremony. Quite ironic really when given all of what Gabrielle will see and do later in the episode. What is it that they say about rising to a challenge....?
I note they have trippily fast eclipses in ancient times. One minute the moons a smidge off the sun, next second, bright daylight....
The opening fight scene was tenison-building at first -- those faces in the bushes creepy. But then it deteriorated into silly. My objection for the past three episodes remains the same. Have these Amazons not heard of perimeter sentries? How could these fiercest of all warriors not hear the army of cloaked wonders crashing through the brush and Xena could hear them from a campsite and a half away?
If I was being generous Id say they were all at the ceremony and thinking of other things. But that doesnt explain why both Gabrielle and Xena were so easily knocked on their butts in fairly pedestrian manoeuvres by the fighters. It bothered me to see Xena lying there going "what the..." when it usually takes someone really special to do that. For instance, Ares, a full god, I doubt in all the times Xenas fought him, hes managed to knocked her so squarely off her feet, unless shes planned it to happen. It was just these little things that made my teeth itch in annoyance. It just seemed a little too easy... and then ... oh, ooops, there goes Queen Varia...
Sigh. I wanted a better fight from a better class of fighters.
Having said that, I did like how Xena and Gabrielle immediately fell into the back to back position, by some unspoken agreement after years of fighting together, and just knew without question what to do next. They had more well-trained, seasoned discipline between them than the rest of the Amazons seemed to have, no matter how bravely the others fought when they went down in a screaming heap.
Which brings us to Bellerophon and his fortress, Helicon. Historically most references refer to him as the tamer of the winged horse Pegasus and there seem to be no reference to him being the son of the huntress Artemis -- and given she was sometimes also known as the goddess of chastity, it would have been quite a feat to be both things.
Even if he is Artemiss son, his motivation of pure, cold-blooded vengeance is pretty shaky given how long he has waited to do anything about it -- 26 years be exact. Twenty-six long years to go after his mothers betrayers. Even allowing for the fact he was too young initially to do anything about it, it seems he was probably old enough to seek them out quite some years ago. But then that wouldnt be much of a Xena story now would it? ....Amazons going down fighting and every now and then we cut across to an ice cave with the words, "Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle sleep on ..." Chuckle.
I didnt mind Craig Parker, the actor playing Bellerophon -- it was perhaps because his look was so right. Nothing more cold than someone with a sweet, boyish face promising untold nastiness. I got chills with his great dramatic timing when he is told by Varia that her Amazon sisters will come after her and he replies, with a deadly, awful pause "I know"... and adds a snake smile at the end.
One of my favourite snips in the whole episode is the "lend me a coin" line between the two Amazons on the boat. The last line "Im not joking" absolutely cracked me up.
I wont ask where they got the boat from, why they figure attacking under a full moon is cluey, and why if it was so easy for Xena to get inside the walls of the fortress and say hi-there-hello to Bellerophon, why all the Amazons couldnt have employed the same route.
And I think the late Joxer would have been pleased to hear his name still spoken of, even if it is in relation to being afraid of Driads -- again, I wont ask how these modern day missies knew of Joxer, but I am guessing either Gabrielles scrolls were best sellers or he really made his mark during his perving phase, so much so that they still refer to him in their stories. Again, hed be so proud....
Okay, so the Amazons boat blows up, its in the middle of the night and they all head for shore.... when they reach it, the sun is up and the sky is blue. Hmmm -- if they really did swim all night, they should be too tired to be leaping about those catapults the way they were (although god knows fear is a surprisingly spritely motivator). Nice catapult by the way -- someones earning their FX budget (and dont start me on the cameramans "out there" film speed).
Hmm I wonder how they explained the cannon ball sized divet-marks in the beach to Auckland City Council? *g*
I loved the lonely image of Xena wading ashore like some indestructible goddess (come to think of it, thats exactly what she is) and arriving just in time to metaphorically slap an hysterical Amazon around the jowls for screaming "were all gonna die" in front of her.
Next, and Varias back and what a great bit of imagery. First the sight of a handcuffed blindfolded Amazon Queen stumbling back towards her soldiers... so many questions on our minds, how and why is she left to live? And its answered in a single, cold, line: "Bellerophon says a queen should die with her troops."
Its here we see Gabrielle eagerly returning command to the queen. Not that I blame her. Thus far she has presided over the deaths of half the Amazons and sent one woman to her death. Who would want this responsibility? But its more than that, too. She is keen to show Varia she is not usurping her and acknowledges her as the rightful leader.
As I said earlier, I still do not understand what it was that transpired in Gabrielles brain to make her change her views 180 degrees when she, Varia and Xena have a brainstorming session about what to do next. Two things surprise here: this reversal of opinion that but one second ago she held with such incredible fervour she states it twice, her voice rising into the pleading range. And secondly, they are both looking to Gabrielle to decide what to do. Not Varia. Most odd.
Still, lets just assume Gabrielle rethought her objections after Xenas words at last sunk in, and if thats the case, then shes a commander Id want to follow into battle.
Shes clearly not someone so into their own ego that any changing of opinion is impossible because she fears it would mean the others see her as weak or a failure. I do love the certainty with which she commands. She just wears it so well now -- gone are her doubts about her own ability -- her only doubts are in not letting down her friends.
And now we come to a scene that was simply breathtaking in its execution. Varias betrayal of Gabrielle. She was lucky that it was Gabrielle who volunteered for the scouting exercise, but I am not surprised given she probably had a touch of commander guilt at sending that woman off to die earlier. She probably wanted to show the rest of the Amazons she was doing nothing that she was not prepared to do herself. Although how Varia knew all this is unclear. She must have gotten lucky in asking for a volunteer and getting Gabrielle going "oooh, me, pick me".
That awesome scene of Gabrielle screeching to a halt and taking in the sight of Xena holding back Varia was something to behold and it just got better and better as the bard then had to run the gamut of catapults to reach safety once more. I so love that one single moment which sums up some of the young womans most obvious characteristics -- strength, courage, beauty and humanness.
And the look of thunder on her face as she stomps up to Varia, with a "YOU!!!! You tried to kill me!" spitting from her lips... well if I was Varia, Id certainly pale. That was some pretty impressive acting from Renee there. She was very convincingly mad as hell.
But not so mad as to make the wrong decision regarding Varias fate. Again, as I say, she makes a wowee of a commander. She keeps her head when all around her are losing theirs. Interesting that the mistake Varia made -- of believing Bellerophon -- is not one the bard would have made, making her a better leader by far. But its a mistake she may have made a few seasons back. Experience certainly shows its worth here. Which is why I always remain gobsmacked that the method by which Amazons challenge their leaders is in displays of fighting and strength and not anything to do with brains, experience and wisdom. Foolish, foolish tradition that. No wonder the Amazon Nation is smaller every time we see it. The stupid brawn-over-brains hotheads keep winning the leadership challenges.
But I digress. Gotta love Gabrielles coup de tat in snatching the queens necklace from Varia. I note that no one utters a peep at this. When Gabs is having a tanty, who is game enough to argue anyway? Chuckle. To be fair, she was the only who had earned it and everyone knew it.
Check out that little chat up there on the dunes between Xena and Gabs. Xena is commenting out loud about her concerns for those changes she sees in her bard -- concerns which she has in the past probably either pushed aside and not wanted to think about, or thought about them but not ever voiced them properly. Its like she wants the old Gabrielle back and wants to know who is sitting beside her. Newsflash: It doesnt work like that.
Actually I dont think Xena really was arguing the necessity of what Gabrielle was doing. Her expression was more wistful and thoughtful about who Gabrielle used to be -- and, knowing Xena, it held a small tinge of guilt for having a hand in making her this way. Xena, of course, is probably the first to see how necessary it is for the bard to do these things. Its just very hard for her to sit by and watch it happen, knowing theres not a cursed thing she can do about any of it.
That scene, while actually I thought a little late coming for the Xena show, was still very beautiful.
Not beautiful was the shark scene. Id have canned it immediately. The implausibility of it all and the fact I kept half expecting the Jaws theme to work its way in there any second gave me a tragic case of the "oh-no, god...theyre NOTs???.."
I get why it was done - to punctuate Gabrielles point that she is prepared to be cold and ruthless to save the women. However the point had already been made, when she ordered the young Amazon to die. It did not need to be made again and not in such a forced way. And to tack on yet ANOTHER rogue element into this mix just totally killed the atmosphere they were going for.
You cant have Saving Private Ryan meets Jaws. It just doesnt work. The meshing of genres like that really hurt the pace as everyone I know who was watching this episode immediately stopped everything to discuss it and were still discussing it halfway into the next scene. Not good.
And incidentally am I the only one thinking how dumb it is to be executing an assault while floating your favourite dead bodies along with you? Its not like she was wounded and they hoped to save her later. She was as done diddily done for as the Amazons left on the beach. And yet they took her WITH them on their fortress assault? As you do.
The "win one for the Gipper speech", to rally the troops, was interesting as so much more was going on that meets the eye. Its the first time that Renee has given a speech like that that I havent winced the whole way through because I am noting how uncomfortable she seems and how forced and out of character it appears. This one, she is quiet, so that helps -- Renee shouting, detracts from her message greatly, always has -- and you can tell she finds the philosophy behind what she is saying quite touching. She may have been a little over dramatic with the quavery voice, but then she has seen so many women die at this point.
But heres what I found so interesting. One she did it very well, but as soon as shes with Xena it becomes clear she only said it because she had to. It wasnt quite all an act but something she forced herself to do for the good of the mission. It was hardly some spur of the moment inspirational thought she had and felt the need to share. It was a calculated ra-ra measure, and discovering the depths of that little performance was most unexpected. Also, she feels distaste for herself for having done it. Like she feels cheap or something. The mantle of leader is at this point pressing hard upon her small head.
And the other thing happening during all this is Xena. Xena, who probably gave more than a few of these sorts of speeches in her time, watches this one silently with a rather odd look on her face. To define it Id say a cross between uncomfortable and moved. I think she personally finds the mantle of Gabrielles leadership weighs heavily on her, too. Xena likes to take over and do this stuff herself and to make other peoples burdens lighter. And it is hard for her to play a passive role. And now she is watching the bard do this very hard task herself -- a task the bard loathes doing, and one that is essentially geeing up all the women to go fight again and probably die. At this precise moment, Xena is now, more than ever, acutely aware that Gabrielle is no longer in Kansas any more. This fact alone, makes it very hard for her to watch this stranger wearing her bards face, speaking words her bard would - should - never be forced to say, even as her brain acknowledges how necessary all of this is and how it is the only way. And so, yeah, of course Xena is looking unsettled.
But my question is this... how long will Xena and to a lesser extent, Gabrielle, take before the finally acknowledge to each other that the bard has changed and the change is permanent? That there is no going back to the sweet young girl from Poteideia? That the mature, capable woman in her place, the realist, the fighter, and the leader, is what Gabrielle is now -- disturbing though at times it may be to them both.
Will they ever acknowledge that, I wonder?
Will there ever come a time when they no longer have these deep discussions about how it seems Gabrielle isnt the woman she used to be, and they accept she is now what she is and theres no point looking back?
Or is it somehow vital to the Xenabods that the character of Gabrielle remain in part still this vulnerable ingenue -- so much so that we must be constantly reminded of what she supposedly "really is" under all her changes? Not that I am saying Gabrielle is hard or cold or meaner now -- its just shes a realist and she no longer, for instance, objects to killing the way she did. She still doesnt like it -- but she no longer has enormous ethical debates when she does it. Of course she is also the first to say her soul is being lessened by all this and the changes within her.
So I will be interested to see what happens next for the battling bard of Poteideia.
Then we have the second last scene -- epitomised to me by three things: one, out of place music that seems oddly cheery but was probably intended to be inspirational; two Xena finally getting a purpose -- she seems to be Gabrielles elite force commando (and doesnt she just love mugging to the cameras *g*); and three, we see how few Amazons are left to carry on their nations proud history even as they fight to a standstill.
Poor old Bellerophon got short shrift in this battle and he is definitely forgotten with all that is happening around him. Even though Xena gives him his chance to end it all in his big dramatic moment, and even, foolishly, turns her back on him in THE cliche of the episode, all anyone else is really caring about is how Gabrielle is faring. I know I was.
So when she sprints past Xena to chase down the stragglers I couldnt have cared less whether Bellerophon lived or died or was hosting a cocktail party with the Teletubbies. I wanted to know how Gabrielle was going emotionally and what she would do next. It was after all the whole point of the episode, and why it worked so well when other loftier aimed episodes have failed.
I liked the symmetry of it being Xena this time who calls Gabrielle off and tells her to essentially put down her weapons as the battle is over. How many times have we seen the bard do this for the warrior princess? How many times is it Gabrielle soothingly trying to talk Xena back to the present?
Yes, the Xenaverse has gone full circle. While I did actually think that above scene was a little forced, I appreciated the thought behind it. I liked what they were trying to do -- to show how much Gabrielle has changed and how war changes you... and yet also, by her laying down her weapon, she is still our Gabrielle.
The music as she walks back, blood spattered and exhausted, watched by the remaining Amazons, and in particular Xena, is haunting. She is 100% warrior now. An unchallenged leader. Everyone knows it. I did like that moment.
I also like it when the writers top and tail a story so neatly that the ending brings you back to the beginning. They did that here so well -- as the women all cheer: "To the Amazons" -- it was an affirmation as it was as the episode opened.
Of course at storys end there were barely enough Amazons left to not feel a little embarrassed when they said that. I feel they committed a major error in diminishing the size of the group as much as they did by this point. These women were supposed to represent all the remaining Amazon tribes from across the world, who had been gathered together last episode in a last ditch attempt to stand as one and carry on the Amazon name.
The numbers at the start of the episode gave a sense that this was a mighty tribe. But by the end they were down to less than 12 by my estimation. Now I get they were probably making a point about how awful the slaughter was, or more likely, they were saving on their extras budget. But the point is, they now have about 12 Amazons left over to carry on this noble tradition and that is not only unlikely, its laughable. Add in the fact that when Gabrielle is doing her marvy "win one for the Gipper" speech, I did feel like she was addressing her local lawn bowls club, and not the last remaining gathered masses of all the tribes of the fierce Amazons. Now I can no longer believe anything they say when they refer to the "Amazon Nation" because it has been ruined forever for me by that last scene with a dozen women standing around looking mournful.
Although, hmmm.... historically, Bellerophon is credited with killing all the Amazons, so maybe thats their way of showing that. And if you buy that lame explanation, youll buy a blanket factory in the Sahara...
Quibbles time. I had a few minor problems with the story. One, it seemed a bit dim to take on a fortress after they had Varia back. True, Bellerophon would keep coming after them. But now they knew he was out there and what his motives were, the best tactical solution was probably to get the hell out of there and take him on on their own terms. Let him come to them... they could have a whole forest booby trapped by then. It just seemed suicidal to carry on with the mission once their objective had been achieved, without having regrouping time. Luckily it worked out. Or did it? Is 12 Amazons left of all the tribes a victory?
The other problem was the too-much-happening scenario. It seemed to work in that nutty Saving Private Ryan way of chaotic drama but at times it did make for a bit of a lurchy story. Was the story about Bellerophon? Or was it about Varia becoming queen? Gabrielle as leader? Xena as follower? What? And throw in a hungry shark and you have a bit of an all-over-the-place-like-bad-pizza problem. That they made it work as well as they did is an absolute credit to the Xenabods. But a problem for many writers is trying to cram too many things into a story. And not just actions -- but emotions and themes and dilemmas and challenges. A Good Day was far more focused by far than this episode because it only tackled the one concept: Gabrielle facing up to when something bad like killing can be good, even if it sickens her.
And yet, despite the fact that A Good Day was also technically better in its battle scenes -- I defy anyone to show me a better edited and directed sequence than A Good Days final one -- and although To Helicon And Back jumped about in its focus, it is this latter episode I would watch again and again. I think in the end, Helicon had more heart. Not to mention the fact it didnt leave the viewer suicidal! It offered hope and it showed Gabrielle in all her humanity -- not just a pawn, but a participant. Living and dying by her own measured choices.
And so for that reason it really worked and exposed the bards thoughts and feelings in ways I never thought Id see. It didnt do much with Xena, but if it had, itd have killed the whole thrust of the episode.
This was Gabrielles episode and Renee shone to bits.
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