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Of all the great dynamic duos in history, the story of Xena and Gabrielle rates pretty near the top. Though the beginning of Xena: Warrior Princess might have made it seem like this was going to be your run-of-the-mill hero/sidekick scenario, it was clear within a few episodes that their story would be anything but. Gabrielle’s trajectory from beginning to end was difficult and full of hard knocks, but she learned and grew by leaps and bounds through this series.
Choosing the best Gabrielle episodes isn’t easy. Not only was she on almost every episode of the series, but this is a character that was up against none other than Xena and still managed to steal most of the scenes she appeared in. Xena might have been why people tuned into the show, but it was her relationship with Gabrielle, and Gabrielle’s own legendary journey, that kept people coming back for more.
"Hooves & Harlots" (Season 1, Episode 10)
Unlike most sidekicks, Gabrielle was already growing by leaps and bounds by this point in Xena's first season. In the first episodes, she relied on talking her way out of dangerous situations, but here, she started to pick more skills and slowly learn how to fight by watching Xena. When she and Xena are stopped by the Amazons and then collectively they are all attacked by mysterious assassins, Gabrielle throws her body over an Amazon in an attempt to save her life. When the Amazon dies, it is agreed by all that this makes Gabrielle an Amazon Princess in her stead. Gabrielle struggles to learn to wield her staff while Xena attempts to solve the mystery behind the attack.
This is one of the episodes that feels equally as hilarious as it is important and moving, and scenes in which Gabrielle tries valiantly to copy the moves of a fellow Amazon, only to repeatedly smack herself in the face with her staff, are pure comedic gold.
"The Greater Good" (Season 1, Episode 21)
This is the episode right before the debut of Callisto, Xena’s nemesis. Here, she appears as a shadowy figure who shoots Xena in the neck with a poisonous dart. Xena attempts to hide the fact that she’s been poisoned from Gabrielle, who is angry and chastises Xena for putting her in danger by not telling the truth. Xena weakly says, “Yell at me later,” causing Gabrielle to further realize how drastic the situation really is. The village is in danger, and they refuse to leave, so Gabrielle disguises herself as Xena to fool the attacking men.
The deep… um, friendship between Xena and Gabrielle is beautifully executed here and this episode changed the drive of the show to being mostly about the relationship between the two of them while solidifying Gabrielle’s role as more integral to Xena’s story than that of a standard sidekick or companion. Best of all, watching Gabrielle in full Xena gear, imitating Xena’s speech patterns with a wig that looks like it’s about to fall off, is easily one of the most entertaining moments of the entire first season.
"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" (Season 2, Episode 4)
It’s true that a lot of people who watched Xena had no idea that the story of Gabrielle and Xena is quite literally one of the greatest love stories of our time and therefore absolutely bursting at the seams with queer subtext. Sure, by today’s standards the love story between those two can seem a little on the subtle side, but it was the mid-’90s, after all. It’s true that the showrunners could only get away with so much, but then there’s stuff like this, the lesbian vampire episode of Xena, in which the subtext becomes text so hard that it’s kind of tough to deny.
The story follows the same general plot of any “lesbian vampire” story, with Gabrielle hanging out at an “all-women club” and going rogue after she’s bitten by a vampire. There isn’t too much to say about this episode, but if anyone ever says that the queer subtext wasn’t intentional in the early days of the show, you can always just send them screenshots.
"Return of Callisto" (Season 2, Episode 5)
This episode is the length of any other regular old episode of Xena, but it is jam-packed with enough story for a whole season of a lot of other shows. As the title says, Callisto returns after being imprisoned at the end of her first appearance. She escapes by murdering many guards and immediately goes after Xena. Gabrielle for some reason agrees to marry her old boyfriend Perdicas and return to her boring village life with him. There is no way this would have lasted for more than six months, but we never get the chance to find out, as Perdicas is swiftly murdered to death by an absolutely delighted Callisto.
Even if network executives weren’t fully able to see the love story between Xena and Garielle, Callisto sure did, and as a result, she was dedicated to hurting Gabrielle from the very beginning. Gabrielle is filled with rage and vows to see Callisto dead while Xena tries to mediate the blood lusts of pretty much every character, including her own.
This isn’t exactly a fun episode, and the whole wedding between Gabrielle in Perdicas makes no real sense, but it is important for Gabrielle’s story. Going forward, her views on violence would change and shift drastically.
"The Quest" (Season 2, Episode 13)
This is easily one of the best episodes of the whole series. Xena died in the previous installment, and that leaves Gabrielle to make arrangements for her body. However, Xena does live on in some capacity as her spirit takes possession of Autolycus (played by Bruce Campbell). There are some great moments of the physical comedy Campbell is known for as he attempts to free himself of Xena’s control then ultimately relinquishes himself to helping his old friend.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle agrees to return to the Amazons as their queen after she takes care of Xena’s burial. She doesn’t believe Autolycus when he insists that Xena has possessed his body until Xena pulls her into a sort of astral plane and convinces Gabrielle to spare her body. After that, Xena kisses Gabrielle full on the mouth, as good friends often do.
This episode is great and introduces an incredible if short-lived villain in Velasca, a bitter Amazon who despises Gabrielle.
"The Quill is Mightier..." (Season 3, Episode 10)
Xena did a surprisingly great job of balancing several different moods across its many seasons, effortlessly shifting from comedy to horror to tragedy and back again, often over the course of a single episode. This is one that is just here on the list for humor’s sake, and it’s all the better for it.
Aphrodite is angry that her followers seem to revere Xena a little more than her. Ares convinces Aphrodite that Xena would never be so popular without Gabrielle and her scrolls chronicling Xena’s adventures. Naturally, this leads to Aphrodite cursing Gabrielle’s scrolls so that everything she writes becomes true. Gabrielle has no idea this is the case and carelessly writes whatever she likes, causing massive chaos and confusion that Xena has to step in to fix.
"To Helicon and Back" (Season 6, Episode 15)
Xena is generally remembered as being a lot of queer campy fun, but there was some heavy stuff happening on that show. A whole lot of guest stars died in various terrible ways, Callisto was banished to literal Hell on the regular, and Xena and Gabrielle get crucified. Among the very bloodiest of Xena episodes, there is this, "To Helicon and Back." Do not let the clever pun title deceive you; this is basically Gabrielle’s Apocalypse Now.
In the previous episode, Gabrielle essentially relinquished control over the Amazons to their new queen Varia, and this episode shows Varia stepping into that position. During the ceremony, a mysterious figure attacks, and many Amazons are killed. Gabrielle is forced to take control of the Amazons once more and leads them into a bloody battle, during which many are lost.
There are a lot of pretty shocking things that happen here (Gabrielle definitely feeds a deceased Amazon to a shark at one point) but it’s also an important episode for Gabrielle’s development. She resists going into battle, then goes too far in her attempts to protect the others. Xena is there to talk her down and of course they live to fight another day. The action scenes in this episode are great and the character beats are some of the best in the series.