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Xena: Warrior Princess is the story of redemption for a woman who did horrible things in her past. Rather than continuing the cycle of hate and violence, she actively puts it behind her and fights tooth and nail for a better tomorrow with the help of a relatively innocent bard, Gabrielle, who is dedicated to telling the epic tale for future generations to learn and feel inspired by.
Sure, Xena is a great hero, but she's also a terrifying villain. While the focus on redemption is strong throughout the series, the show never forgets that her crimes were significant and impossible to fully walk away from. Though we love her as a hero, it is still a heck of a lot of fun to watch the old, evil days of Xena play out on the screen.
"The Warrior Princess" (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; Season 1, Episode 9)
This episode is the one that kicked it all off. Lucy Lawless played the character Lyla in previous episodes of the show, but this is without a doubt the debut she is best known for in her role as the bloodthirsty and manipulative warrior princess, Xena. The episode opens on a scene that is easily as homoerotic as anything we would later see in Xena with Hercules and Iolaus sweaty and topless, smiling at each other and forging a knife for Iolaus. Iolaus feels bad that his old flames are all settling down while he continues to wander the countryside seeking adventure. He just so happens to run into a woman named Xena, helpless on the side of the road after her horse has been injured. Iolaus doesn’t know that she injured her horse to trick him into lowering his guard to her, and he falls for it completely as she manipulates him into fighting Hercules for her. She isn’t the Xena we would later come to know and love, but it’s easy to see why fans were intrigued by her from the very start.
"Intimate Stranger" (Season 2, Episode 7)
In Xena’s struggle for redemption, the villainous Callisto was perhaps the most consistent roadblock. A woman who had watched her own village burn and her mother and sister killed at the hands of Xena’s army, Callisto became twisted by a desire for revenge. Of all the villains of the show, perhaps none were so memorable as her, because she was fully justified in her anger and though she was a warrior equal to Xena, her most powerful weapon to wield against Xena was Xena’s own past. Prior to this episode, Callisto had died when Xena consciously refused to save her from sinking in quicksand, adding to the guilt Xena carried. Here, Callisto is in Tartarus, infiltrating the Warrior Princess’ dreams and using her guilt against her in order to trick Xena into taking her place in the afterlife. It works, and Callisto gains full control of Xena’s body while Xena’s spirit is banished to the netherworld. She immediately begins tormenting Gabrielle, and it’s a lot of fun to watch their interactions as Gabrielle slowly realizes what's going on.
"Destiny" (Season 2, Episode 13)
This is the episode where we finally get some context as to the why and how Xena felt so compelled to become a villain in the first place. We meet Julius Caesar, portrayed by the many-faceted Karl Urban, when Xena’s men take him hostage during a battle. He and Xena become romantically involved after she grows to admire his callousness and ambition and the two of them talk about conquering the world together, but naturally, he uses this leg up to betray her. The inciting incident comes when a girl whose life Xena had spared named M’Lila dies in the fight against Caesar, and in trying to go to her, Xena loses the fight and is crucified and left to die. In current times, she nearly dies and meets with M’Lila’s ghost, who urges her to return to her body and continue her quest to redemption.
"The Price" (Season 2, Episode 20)
Xena and Gabrielle discover a dying soldier in a river, and Xena becomes alarmed when she realizes that the man has been killed by the group known only as The Horde. She flashes back to her early days, when The Horde ruthlessly attacked and destroyed her army. This leads to a major PTSD-driven defense strategy from Xena, who starts reverting to her old merciless tactics in order to protect a village against a group that she considers to be the ultimate enemy. Gabrielle is increasingly put off by Xena’s fear-driven response to The Horde, and extends sympathy to them where Xena cannot. She brings them water and allows them to retrieve their wounded soldiers. Xena is upset by her own emotional reactions and the potential pain they might have caused, not just herself but The Horde, who she now sees as having their own code of honor. She and Gabrielle defend the village, and Xena becomes introspective about how close she had come to losing herself.
"Paradise Found" (Season 4, Episode 13)
This is one of the very few times when Xena’s rage and ruthlessness is actually a good thing. When she and Gabrielle stumble down a hole in a cave and discover a bizarre paradise run by the guru Aiden, Xena is immediately suspicious, but Gabrielle asks her to hold off while she tries to make good of their circumstances. She begins to work with Aiden, who convinces her to release the past and find the peace within herself. Xena, however, becomes angrier and more agitated. When she realizes that Aiden feeds off of goodness and is draining Gabrielle of her life, she embraces her own inner villainy to attack him with all of her pent up aggression. When she begins to teeter and nearly takes an innocent life, Gabrielle talks her back down.
"When Fates Collide" (Season 6, Episode 18)
Caesar returns, this time finding the Fates and their loom of destiny. He forces them to change the course his life took, going back to when he betrayed Xena and uniting with her instead. They become the ruthless leaders of Rome, and no one can stand against them. One night, they see a play performed by a bard named, you guessed it, Gabrielle. Xena feels immediately drawn to Gabrielle, and compelled to speak with her. Caesar sees the threat of Gabrielle to his carefully laid plans, but Xena’s interest in her is strong. Even without knowing each other, the attraction is palpable and they combine forces when the villainous Alti makes her move to conquer Rome. Gabrielle discovers the Fates and their loom, and she sets it all aflame to save Xena. The two are reunited in their reality at the end. This episode is about evil Xena, but it is there for the Xena and Gabrielle shippers in a very real way. Alti notes, “Your story will end with your playwright unable to save her fallen hero,” but Gabrielle always saves Xena, even when she’s so often saving her from herself.