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Why Xena's redemption arc works
Redemption arcs are all over fiction, and it's become a bit of a double-edged sword. While there is something to be said for forgiveness, and many of us want to believe that a person can be redeemed for their past misdeeds, fiction tends to take a lot of the same shortcuts so many people do in real life. A lot of people want to be forgiven without doing the work, and sometimes even demand forgiveness without acknowledgment of harm.
Among the many redemption arcs of genre, the underlying theme of Xena: Warrior Princess was established on the idea of a lone warrior who hangs up her past life as a powerful force for evil and instead chooses to fight for justice and help people who, like her, had been hurt by the constant battles of feudal warlords. Though Xena did many terrible things in her life, her redemption arc works where others don't because she fully committed to changing her ways and didn't ask for anyone to forgive her.
At the beginning of her arc on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena wanted to kill Hercules more than anything because she knew he stood in the way of her conquering Greece. To achieve this, she manipulated his best friend Iolaus, who was feeling down due to his long-term bachelorhood. Iolaus was a smart guy, but matters of the heart make fools of us all, so he briefly turned against Hercules. Soon enough, however, he saw through Xena's machinations, and Xena fled, vowing to return another day.
Xena was an immensely popular character even as a villain, but by the next time she appeared on the scene, she took a more heroic turn. Dedicated to burning the countryside to the ground and remaking it in her own image, she falters when it comes time to kill an infant. Her army becomes disgusted with her, calling her weak and womanly, and Xena decides it's time to win them back by bringing them Hercules' head once and for all. They have an epic fight, but Hercules wins by a stroke of good luck, and tells Xena, "Killing isn't the only way of proving you're a warrior." This has an impact on her and she begins traveling the countryside — lost, but hoping to finally return home. When she does so in the first episode of her own series, she finds that her home no longer wants her, and she must keep traveling.
Ares and Callisto
A lot of us have had a toxic ex that wants to pull us back to being our worst selves, and for Xena, that's Ares. Throughout her series, Ares shows up in hopes of seducing and manipulating Xena into rejoining him as his most glorious warrior. For Ares, the chaos Xena brings to the world feeds him. There is no one on earth that brought him the worship that she did, so when she decides to use her awesome power for good, he's disappointed and feels abandoned. He tries, again and again, to bring her back to her former self, but like a lot of people have had to do with their exes, Xena ultimately has to realize that Ares wants her to be her worst self again because that's when she was easiest for him to control. Instead, her refusal of his wishes changes him. At the end of the series, Ares is a better, more beneficial god than ever before.
On the other side of Xena's past, there's Callisto. Anytime a person tries to change their life for the better, there will always be past harm to reconcile with. Callisto, the young girl whose family was killed by Xena's army, eventually became a warrior of equal caliber and used all of her power and strength to hurt and kill. Callisto is a constant foil for Xena, and no matter how much progress she makes in her quest for redemption, Callisto is the one character that can always make her feel like it's all for nothing. Callisto later reaches her own redemption of sorts, but it doesn't change the fact that all the carnage she caused was, in some ways, on Xena's hands. Ares and Callisto even team up for a time, though their mutual fixation on Xena makes a longterm alliance impossible. Still, they both serve similar roles in her life.
Yet, out of all the negative energy Xena accumulated in her life as a warlord, one can't undervalue Gabrielle's incredible positive influence on Xena's life. In the pilot episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle sees the good Xena is capable of and insists on following and helping her. Xena thinks it would be best if Gabrielle stayed put, but Gabrielle's persistence and versatility eventually sway her enough to change her mind. Throughout the series, Xena regularly feels guilt over pulling Gabrielle into her own quest, but Gabrielle is adamant that she could never regret following Xena.
Gabrielle seems naive in the beginning, but throughout the series, she goes through a lot and still manages to retain her sense of hope and commitment to good. When Xena falters, Gabrielle is always there to help her find her way again. The supportive bond that Gabrielle offers is important, but in some ways, the most crucial part of the story is that Gabrielle does surpass Xena by avoiding her shadowy path and walking towards the light at every turn. Because of Gabrielle, Xena is not a story of a lone warrior finally falling to the sword. She's a woman who was very much loved, who carried a heavy burden, and who tried to do the right thing to make peace with those she'd harmed. Xena never needed to redeem herself in Gabrielle's eyes, and that's what ultimately saves her.
Xena's redemption arc is long, and it's difficult, and it lasts for the entire series. Only in death, after sacrificing herself for the greater good, does she finally know peace. She struggles to forgive the people in her past who have harmed her, but by doing so she learns to forgive herself. Still, it's never an easy journey. Xena knows better than to plead for understanding, and instead just goes forward and does the work to become a better person. In her hope for redemption, she isn't always forgiven by those she has harmed, but she helps save the world. For her, for her friends, and even for some of her enemies, that's what matters in the end.