I used to think I was fairly well versed in mid-to-late ‘90s television. I was a big watcher of those WB shows — you know, back when The CW used to be known by a different name and played host to the dancing amphibian known as Michigan J. Frog. But I have a confession to make: I’ve seen very few episodes of the fantasy TV series about a fierce, leather-wearing, chakram-wielding queen and her girlfriend called Xena: Warrior Princess. That is what the show is about, right? I feel like I'm pretty close.
Given that my own Xena knowledge is woefully limited, I asked fellow FANGRRLS writer Sara Century, who is a self-professed Xena die-hard, to recommend five episodes to watch. She picked six. She is a dirty, dirty cheater.
Season 1, Episode 22: “Callisto”
Sara’s summary: Callisto is kind of the best part of the show, and this episode messed me up inside as a kid. I also had a huge crush on her because I fall in love with villains constantly.
It speaks to my rudimentary Xena know-how that I remember the name Callisto. As far as villains are concerned, she’s one of the biggest and the baddest on this show, so I was excited to get to her official series debut. Is it derivative to say that I feel like Callisto and Xena are what Faith and Buffy would be if they were warriors fighting in Grecian times and not Slayers? There are definitely parallels you could draw, what with Callisto being the bloody warlord Xena could’ve been if she had continued down the path of darkness. The fact that actress Hudson Leick also looks like an innocent angel with her blonde hair (until she lets out a blood-curdling scream, that is) helps with the whole “iconic baddie” status. Callisto is a gorgeous sociopath, and watching her hiss at her enemies and try to get under Xena's skin is the best part of the episode.
This ep also introduces Joxer, a name I also recall as being… sort of important? Jury’s still out on that guy, though I do appreciate that there are a significant amount of scenes dedicated to Gabrielle kicking his ass. (Would it be accurate to say that he is the Xander equivalent?) Most importantly, there's a scene where Xena and Gabrielle tearfully discuss their feelings in front of a fire, and yeah. I will go down with this ship.
Season 2, Episode 15: “A Day in the Life”
Sara’s summary: This episode shows Xena being really good at planning. Also, she and Gabrielle have a splash fight in a bathtub which, as a teenager, helped me learn some stuff about myself.
What would it be like to have to fill the role of sidekick to a mighty warrior princess day in, day out? That’s what this episode considers when Xena has to be in two places at once to protect two different villages: one from a giant, one from a warlord. “A Day in the Life” feels a bit more Gabrielle-centric than certain eps from Season 1, and it’s nice to see Gabrielle get a little bit more to do in terms of both action and plot. She sure knows how to use that staff of hers! It’s also fun to see what Xena and Gabrielle do when they’re traveling, from fishing to playing guessing games, and all the playful bickering that ensues.
As an aside, I can definitely understand why that bathing scene is a big moment for shippers. Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor have fantastic chemistry together. Watching this episode over 20 years after it first aired, it’s interesting to consider how the queer subtext in this and other scenes could have possibly become text in a more contemporary version of the series. Xena scoffs at the notion of any man being romantically interested in her while sitting within perfect kissing distance of Gabrielle. No wonder fans got a little frustrated.
Season 3, Episode 10: “The Quill Is Mightier”
Sara’s summary: This episode is funny and is pretty much every writer's worst nightmare, as super literal interpretations of every sentence Gabrielle writes come true. Also, Aphrodite is THE BEST.
This episode kicks off with a bunch of youths essentially spray-painting Aphrodite’s temple on behalf of Xena, which is so ‘90s it hurts. But this is also the first time I’ve watched a Xena episode with a god who wasn’t Ares (although he’s in this too and sporting some insane facial hair, I might add). Aphrodite is mad that Xena is jacking her spotlight via Gabrielle’s scrolls, so she curses Gabrielle’s writing to literally come true. Hijinks ensue, natch.
At one point, we are intended to believe that Gabrielle has actual abs of steel, as she manages to deflect a sword with her tummy. Joxer’s back, and while we don’t care about him all that much the show seems to have fun making him the butt of frequent jokes. Minya from “A Day in the Life” shows up again as a glorified Xena fangirl, which I absolutely love. This is a very Xena-light episode (she doesn't really arrive until the end with a wagon full of fish), but fully entertaining nonetheless.
Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22: “Sacrifice”
Sara’s summary: Sorry, two-parter! Dick move, but Callisto is TERRIFYING in this, and it's so amazing.
Callisto is back! And looking more fierce than ever, because now she’s... kind of a goddess? Anyway, sometime prior to all of this, Gabrielle gave birth to a child called Hope, the product of rape by the evil God Dahak, but this child gets resurrected and is now in the process of being reborn? I think I have all of that right. Xena and Gabrielle are trying to stop Gabrielle’s friend Seraphin from becoming an unnecessary sacrifice to who they believe is Callisto, but who is actually Hope. Callisto’s protecting Hope and calling herself “Auntie Callisto”; it’s all seriously great and I love her a bunch.
This is a pretty epic two-parter, the first part of which culminates in an adult Hope (also played by O’Connor) emerging from a giant disgusting mucusy cocoon, but the real lesson here, kids, is: You’re in a cult, Seraphin, call your dad. Once Hope is reborn with a crap ton of powers, it turns out that Callisto isn’t getting what she asked for (basically, to die) and she and Xena agree to work together to take down Hope after all. Teamwork makes the dream work! At one point, Ares is revealed to be collaborating with Dahak, and the whole altar situation looks like the stage at a heavy metal concert. Also, Hope and Ares make out a bunch and it’s really gross. But the saddest part of all is that Gabrielle sacrifices herself in order to take down Hope. WHYYYYYY.
Season 4, Episode 4: “In Sickness and in Hell”
Sara’s summary: Xena and Gabrielle have lice and are super gross from traveling but still have to save a village, so they're pretty raw the whole time and it's kinda great.
Um, Gabrielle's back? Clearly, I need to figure out what happened in the time between this episode and the ones I just watched, but Xena and Gabrielle are together again and all is right with the world. After the intensity of the "Sacrifice" two-parter, this episode was exactly the palate cleanser I needed to remember how awesome this show can be when it just focuses on the ridiculously silly plots. Like, this episode literally opens with a shot of a mama and baby deer. It's a surefire sign that things are going to be a little lighter. Thank you, Sara. I needed this.
So Gabrielle has contracted some kind of weird fungus, Xena has lice, and Xena's horse doesn't want anything to do with her? That's rough. Gabrielle tries to make friends with a demon rabbit. Oh, and Joxer shows up again, clearly riding on Xena's coattails for fame and fortune. Gabrielle pukes on his boots. It's terrific. And there are poop jokes! Amazing.
Overall Impression: This show is a beacon of light in a dim world. It's hard to believe Xena is old enough to drink now, and it's definitely representative of TV in a certain era—but it's wildly entertaining, full of kickass ladies, and clearly paved the way for the amazing heroines we have on the small screen now. And I'm going to watch more because I have to know how Gabrielle came back, but also for the overall entertainment value.