“Get your yi-yi’s out.”
I used to be a Xena fan; for the first couple of series, I was a die-hard, never missed an episode, bought the merchandise, went to the gatherings, etc. I loved (with one exception) the supporting cast – Joxer, Ares, Autolycus – and still reckon Callisto remains one of the great TV villainesses of all time.
But the dynamic of the series slowly changed; Xena’s irritating sidekick, Gabrielle, started getting more screen time, and it became more of a relationship-based show than the action/humour cross which I knew and loved. Finally, around the end of Series 3, I gave up (I think the musical episode was a watershed – as with Buffy); not even the news that the series was ending could lure me back, and the finale in Summer 2001 passed me by. It even took me a month to decide to pick up the DVD, and then it was only ‘cos I had a Best Buy gift card burning a hole in my pocket. But I’m glad I did, as it’s an ending fit for a warrior princess.
Warning: the following, of necessity, contains extreme spoilers for the show’s end. Readers are advised not to proceed if they wish to avoid such knowledge.
Let’s get the spoiler out of the way first: the original title for this review was, Oh My God – They Killed Xena! You Bastards!, but wiser counsel prevailed. To screams of fury from the Hard Core Nut Balls (as Lawless herself once described the more extreme fans), Xena died. And this time, it was permanent – something of a change for a show in which fatality was previously only a minor inconvenience. Indeed, one of the problems was there was no longer any tension, characters having come back from the grave so many times, even death no longer had a sting. The reason for the reaction, it seems, was less the actual death, than the separation of Xena and Gabrielle. For a small but extremely vociferous part of fandom invested the relationship between those two with far more than the actresses (and most of the creators) intended. These “subtexters” wanted to see the two walk off into the sunset, hand-in-hand – probably sporting crew cuts and Birkenstocks too, if you catch my drift. The makers sometimes jokily acknowledged these obsessives, which was perhaps like trying to put a fire out by throwing petrol on it.
The things which made them dislike the finale were, perhaps, the ones why I enjoyed it. I was never bothered by the concept of a Xena being a lesbian, it was just the idea that whiny waste of space Gabrielle was her partner which I found inconceivable: sidekick, yes; love interest, no. The finale largely downplayed Gabrielle’s role: she was entirely absent from the half told in flashback, concerning a previous adventure back when Xena was, shall we say, “morally independent”. This created the drive for the film. The incident in question saw Xena ransoming a Japanese girl – forming a bond with her which certainly has subtextual elements of its own. But it all went horribly wrong, and Xena caused – albeit inadvertently – the deaths of 40,000 people. Now, the only way for her to find redemption is to kill the demon which consumed their souls…but the only way to do that is to become a ghost herself. While there’s the usual escape clause, at the end we discover that any return to life would condemn the souls forever; Xena is not prepared to do this, and so remains dead into eternity.
Like the series itself, the finale veered wildly between the fabulous and the questionable, vacuuming up influences like Tarantino on speed. From Japan: Kwaidan, Shogun Assassin and Akira Kurosawa. From Hong Kong: A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman. From the West: The Evil Dead and Sergio Leone – the former makes sense, since director Tapert produced that classic slice of low-budget horror. Fortunately, it has a lot of its own to admire, rather than being a series of homages; the story is great, and the acting largely excellent.
The highlight is probably Xena’s death, a five-minute sequence of harrowing intensity featuring a never-ending hail of arrows, into which our heroine struggles, intent on finding a warrior’s death. It’s a fabulous combination of effects and acting, which would be worthy of any movie – at the end, there’s a mass exhalation of breath, as you realise that those who live by the sharp, pointy object, die by the sharp, pointy object. It’s entirely fitting, and if the show had ended there, I’d have had no complaints. The actual climax is clunky and contrived in comparison, though the shock value present remains huge, since you confidently expect the revival of Xena, right up until the credits roll.
On the downside are various, jarring inaccuracies: Xena’s ghost hugs Gabrielle but is incapable of holding her chakram (the “round killing thing”, if you didn’t know); some of the “samurai” possess blatant New Zealand accents; a giant explosion implies the medieval Japanese possessed nuclear weapons (given the location, this is in somewhat dubious taste). If Xena really cared for Gabrielle, why send her on a wild-goose chase of resurrection, when Xena knew it wouldn’t happen? Why did Gabrielle pause to get a full-back tattoo first, before going off on this, presumably somewhat urgent, quest? These are clumsy and obvious flaws which could/should have been corrected.
It still remains a brave and uncompromising finale, in an era when “final” is usually about the last word you’d use to describe them. While the door is not completely closed – not in a milieu where humans can become immortal and then get killed anyway – in all likelihood it is the end of Xena, and marks the close of her chapter. From a beginning as a minor character on another show, she became a cultural icon; whatever you may think of the series, its important place in female action heroine history cannot be denied.
Dir: Rob Tapert
Stars: Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor