I first started watching Xena: Warrior Princess about a year ago. I can’t believe I missed the entire six seasons when they were broadcast from 1995 to 2001. I was in Boston for the first three seasons, and Sweden for the last three. I watched Xena now and then in Greece during summer vacations when the show was broadcast, dubbed in Greek. But I had no idea that Xena was Thracian and Mt Olympus was located on the very island of Lesbos where I was, the birthplace of Sappho. Women went to a particular souvlaki café to catch the show on the tavern TV, and I have finally understood their enthusiasm years later.
Once becoming hooked on Xena after a rerun in Sweden featuring an episode about Gabrielle and the Amazons, I rented Season 1 and 2 at the local video store. Soon after I ordered the complete six-season box set. The first set came from China which stalled a lot and some episodes were missing, but I received a refund and got to keep them. It became my portable Xena set for my travels. The complete set remains at home.
WARNING : SPOILERS!
I knew beforehand that Xena dies in the last episode. My sister told me and I was crushed when she revealed the ending. But knowing that made me pay attention to any premonitions of her eventual destruction during the seasons. Xena had died before and came back to life but nowhere as brutal as in the last episode. It is not only that Xena was killed, but how she was killed.
The relationship between Gabrielle and Xena was carefully established over the years. Watching Gabrielle come into her own power and learn to fight was remarkable, but it never ceased to amaze me how skilled Xena was as a warrior. She could take on more than several foes at once, and rescued Gabrielle countless times. In the final episode Xena asks Gabrielle where they should go next. Then in answer to her question, a monk arrives with a beautiful sword that once belonged to Xena and tells her that her services are requested elsewhere in the East.
Akemi and Yodoshi
Akemi is in danger, and Xena can set things right. The soul-eating demon Yodoshi has been snatching people’s souls right and left so Akemi sends for the “Warrior Princess”. Xena met her a long time ago and followed her home to get the ransom on her head from her family. Along the way Akemi stops by her grandfather’s grave. His spirit tells her that Xena needs a better sword. The warrior princess has to fight for a mighty one from sword makers who don’t want to make one for a woman. The monk delivers this to her with Akemi’s request.
Akemi’s father Yodoshi turned into a demon after she put “the pinch” on him that Xena taught her. The pinch causes blood to rush to the brain and death in 30 seconds unless the vein is reopened. Gabrielle is astonished that she would have taught Akemi that. Perhaps now we know why Xena always hesitated to teach it to Gabrielle. She told Gabrielle that Akemi broke her heart and was the first woman to teach her about love. Well talk about it anyway for Xena didn’t understand that Akemi’s rapidly beating heart was a sign of passion. It was hard to figure out what Akemi was up to from the very beginning. After Akemi puts the pinch on her father, she suddenly commits Harakiri with a sword. Her dying wish is for Xena to take her ashes to a special shrine for protection. This tragic event causes Xena to momentarily become an alcoholic, and stumble through the streets carrying Akemi’s ashes. The villagers have hacked off her hair. When they attack her again, the urn breaks into pieces and the ashes scatter. In retaliation Xena sets some of them on fire, a fire that spreads through the entire village. She learns later that 40,000 people lost their lives that day.
On her new visit to the “Land of the Rising Sun” (Japan), the soul-eating demon Yodoshi has prepared a welcome for Xena with a ton of soldiers. They first set fire to a village. Xena asks Gabrielle what she would do in this case, preparation for the new Warrior Princess. Gabrielle suggests using acrobatics to approach the water tower for extinguishing the flames. “Its not what I would have done”, Xena says afterwards, “but it worked”. Xena teachers her the pinch, and tells her that with only 30 seconds remaining in her life, feeling her love for Gabrielle was enough.
Akemi’s ghost lives in a teahouse outside of town with two other ghouls. When Xena visits, one of them stamps her foot bearing an ankle bracelet on the floor, and Yodoshi comes running. He warns Xena what he has in store for her and that she will lose her head. Akemi knows what she is in store for too, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Xena is told that she must die to enter the underworld and conquer Yodoshi. But Akemi doesn’t tell her there is no way back after her death.
Xena's Final Battle?
That this manipulative and child-like waif who teases monks and leads Xena to her death is allowed one more time to reek havoc on the warrior’s life is astonishing after so many tests and ordeals. The fire that took so many lives was started because of Akemi’s sudden death and Xena’s despair, and hardly an act of malice that the fire spread so quickly. Should this end the love she experiences with Gabrielle. Isn’t Xena smarter after all of these years? Isn't Gabrielle worthy of a life with her? Apparently not. Xena buries her copper breast plate, as she did in the first episode, and adorns a royal warrior outfit with silver and crimson trim. She strikes out on her own to conquer an enormous army, without Gabrielle and does well in the battle. She sets their ammunition on fire, which creates a huge mushroom cloud, and takes many of them out with her bow and arrow. Then the Captain instructs his warriors to unleash a barrage of arrows, several which hit her and wear down her strength. Next, the warriors attack her with swords. Xena cries out for Gabrielle, unable to hold her own alone any longer. Why would she have done this if she didn’t have the will to live. And why, for once does Gabrielle not appear. The Captain marches up to Xena and hacks off her head. The screen goes red, and fortunately we don’t have to witness the beheading. A bloody chakram lays on the ground, used only once when it could have saved her life. Later when Gabrielle finds Xena’s naked body hung up outside a shed and we see her devastated and tear stained face, we know the murder has been brutal.
The Captain tells Gabrielle that Xena was a worthy fighter, but she counters that she died dishonorably, was unfairly outnumbered and slaughtered. She asks to see her head, which is propped up on a nearby plank like a trophy. Gabrielle avenges her death by killing the Captain and refusing to cut off his head. She returns to the little teahouse and meets Xena, who has not yet understood she is dead. When she reaches for her chakram she cannot grasp it in her hand. She tells Gabrielle that death is the only way to conquer Yodoshi. Gabrielle believes her and burns her body. On the second sunset she is to take Xena’s ashes in a magic spring in order for her to return. When the Captain shows up again and attacks Gabrielle, the urn rolls away. After defeating Yodoshi and seeing that the souls he has captured will be condemned, Xena tells Gabrielle to forget about her ashes. She has to stay dead to atone for the 40, 000 dead souls and wants them to have peace. Gabrielle is stunned and crushed but accepts it, perhaps all too quickly.
Context vs Subtext Resolved
Writer RJ Stewart scripted the narrative. Throughout the series, and despite subtle hints, it finally sinks in how romanticized the “friendship” of Xena and Gabrielle has truly been (subtext) which fits with the ending. Having Xena by her side in spirit seems enough for Gabrielle. They have experienced being soul mates through declarations of love to each other, or when the frequently injured Gabrielle is held by Xena. In the end, Gabrielle attends to Xena’s corpse and must say farewell to her life on earth. Soul mates or not, enduring screen love is not for same sex mortals like Gabrielle and Xena.(context)
When commenting on the episode years later, director Robert Tapert does most of the talking in the video commentary. It is his creation. Lucy Lawless looks glum while Gabrielle is gushing. In the preceding episode “When Fates Collide”, both Lawless and husband Tapert reveal their interpretation of Xena’s love for Gabrielle. While hanging on the cross, Xena says, “ I love you Gabrielle”. Lawless says the declaration was "forced". "Yes, says Robert,” it was forced”. Did Lucy Lawless mean that she felt "forced" to say this? Or that she should have said it more convincingly. This is the MAIN TEXT, not SUBTEXT. For is it not appropriate to exclaim love after taking Gabrielle’s place on the cross. Alas, sacrifice is the stuff of Greek tragedies. Gabrielle gets to love Xena in spirit for the rest of her life after the final episode, as it pretty much has been all along. At which point with the chakram situated on her waist, Tapert exclaims, “Its Gabrielle; Warrior Princess, but we couldn’t sell it.
I don’t believe in endings where women atone for their past with their lives, where women are beaten and assaulted after kicking ass with superior skill for more than six years. It would be more honest to end in a manner more like Lawrence of Arabia and have Xena fall from a horse in an accident far removed from the battlefield.
So Sad to Fall in Battle is the story of the Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi who lost the campaign at Iwo Jima during World War II. He refused to risk the life of his men in suicidal banzai attacks, but to fight defensively. Isn’t a suicidal attack what the Warrior Princess must do in the end? She has been on several during the years to clear away the wreckage of her past. How much is enough, and doesn’t Gabrielle’s presence deserve a life long commitment? Isn’t this what RJ Stewart put her through in the end? Should her demise so clearly resemble Akemi’s with an aborted scattering of ashes for the final rest and confinement to the underworld for sins? Why is Akemi’s fate and hers in greater collision than with Caesar or Alti or Ares? By ending in this way, the makers of Xena: Warrior Princess have done both heroines an injustice. Gabrielle is not allowed to persuade Xena to remain alive, as Xena so many times has done for her. Thank goddess for Xena fan fiction like“The Shipper: 7th Season”, more in truth with the characters. Well, let's face it, the final episode(s) of Xena Warrior Princess are epic, lots of spectacular events, but inconsistent and unfitting of a nine year grand finale.
Lucy Lawless has said previously said that “Xena is not real”. Perhaps not, but her character was made “real” through countless courageous and daring episodes affirmed by a dedicated following. Most of us did NOT think this ending was believable. Xena deserved an honorable death, and was not given one: it was this Xena who was not “real”.
One final compelling question remains: in their adventures, Xena and Gabrielle have met historical figures such as Caesar, Homer, and Hippocrates. Why in heading towards the end of the season did Gabrielle not get to go to a play by Sappho on her birthday and meet her, but only get a piece of her poetry?
It is erroneously claimed that Sappho died for the love of a younger man by Greeks who are ashamed of the poet who loved women. There have been legal battles to change the name of Lesbos to Mytilini, the capital city of the island where Sappho was born and had a school for women, and for Greeks to have exclusive rights to “Lesbian”, meaning inhabitant of Lesbos.
Sappho should have been in the Xena series. And Gabrielle and Xena should have experienced corporeal rather than only romantic love. As Sappho wrote, “Aphrodite crowned in gold, please let this piece of luck be mine”.
We'll just have to leave this one to fan fiction.
Swedish Film Critics Association
February 23, 2010