16. "Xena" & "Hercules": The Halloween episodes

"The phone rings in the middle of the night
My father yells "Whatcha gonna do with your life?"
Oh daddy dear, you know you're still number one,
But girls, they want to have fun
Oh, girls just wanna have fun!"

--Cindy Lauper


Bacchus
"Mess with the bull, you get the horns!"


The fourth episodes of "Xena" & "Hercules" in season two both coincided with Halloween, and as a result, they both tailored their themes accordingly. I'm speaking of the Dionysiac themes of freedom, "Black Orpheus," and the cyclops, but also themes that will be brought into sharper focus later this season: women living in the shadow of their fathers, and indications of what will become the "Uber" episodes, set in the present day.

"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" reprises "The Bacchae" in its horror aspect: it opens with Xena being told of recent disappearances of young women near the Forest of the Bacchae, while we get a point-of-view shot of Gabrielle being watched as she peeks curiously into the forest, reminding us of the peeping going on in Euripides' play. The polarized color effects, first seen on "American Gothic," will be seen again later on in 'Them Bones, Them Bones," in season five, when Gabrielle goes on her shamanic trip to the spirit world. This episode was shot by the same director of the first shamanic episode, "Adventures in the Sin Trade," and we'll see many of the same kinds of staging, especially in the ecstatic motions of the women. This is no accident, since the subjects are related: the bacchae of ancient Greece practiced ecstatic rites, and as Eliade tells us, the shaman's chief spiritual power is derived from the quality of his or her state of ecstasy attained during ritual.

Joxer runs into them while chased by bacchae in wolf form. This scene will be reprised in "The Debt", season three. Only one thing can subdue these bacchic wolves, we're told, and that's Orpheus's singing and playing of the lyre. Since he's not available, Xena pulls out her whip and keeps them at bay: this is not only her Orphic nature expressing itself (since she can calm the bacchae as Orpheus calmed the Sirens in the story of Jason and the Argonauts) it's a reminder of her origin in "The Bride With White Hair", who also wielded a whip and was known as "Wolf Girl," for her power over the beasts who raised her. Joxer reveals he's carrying the head of Orpheus, having been beheaded by the bacchae in service to Bacchus, who's seeking to rob his longtime foe of his powers over them. Bacchus kept Orpheus's head alive as punishment, forcing the poet to witness his own loss of power. This story is taken from chapter 28 of "The Greek Myths," in which Dionysus sent his maenads (i.e. bacchae in ecstatic state) against Orpheus to tear his head off--the head then floated to Lesbos, a plot point that will be bookended in the sixth season. The opening teaser ends with Xena and Orpheus restaging one of the most famous moments in "The Bacchae" (and in all of Greek theater): the bacchic mother holding her son's head by his hair like a hunting trophy. This will be reenacted throughout the series:

Orpheus
"Never pick his head up by his hair!"


We're told that Xena and Orpheus are enemies because of a battle between Bacchus's army and hers in her evil days: Eurydice tried to reason with Xena, but was killed by Bacchus, so Orpheus blames Xena's recklessness. This is an odd kind of backstory, and given Xena's identification with the myths of Orpheus and Dionysus, we'd think they'd all be allies. That would make for a dull show, however, so the relationships are redefined: Eurydice wished to befriend Xena, perhaps in a peacemaking mission, and Bacchus is the evil mentor figure to girls looking for trouble. We're not told why there was fighting between them, but Bacchus clearly puts a priority on adding Xena to his company of bacchae, and it's only logical to assume its because he feels the same way as Ares (a Dionsyiac figure himself) about having Xena leading his armies. We're reminded of another bacchic figure, the Minotaur, and his big plans for an enslaved army, as well as Ares and his band of deluded boys on "Hercules." This relationship, then, is familial in nature: we're told later that only a bacchae can kill Bacchus, and Xena as the spiritual daughter is suited perfectly to the task; in this episode, she just needs to make it official by getting bitten.

Naturally, we should expect to seen signs of "Black Orpheus," and we hear a variation on its hypnotic samba beat as they head towards the bacchae lair, with villagers dancing in the streets along the way, as in the film. Inside, the revelry is not far off from Rio's Carnival, and there may even be a visual quote from the film "Altered States," when the scientist must cut his hand to add blood to the hallucinogenic mixture as the final touch: here, Bacchus cuts his hand to add blood to his hypnotic wine. The bacchae drink and become one with him. We're told that only a bacchae can kill Bacchus, a pattern on the show that will play a big part in the series finale, and Xena obliges. She's armed with dryad bones, the only weapon that can kill a bacchae. What's the logic behind this? Again, we go back to chapter 28 of "The Greek Myths": after the maenads killed Orpheus, they had to face the punishment of Olympus, but Dionysus protected them by turning them into dryads, i.e., tree spirits. Here, the dead dryads lurk in a graveyard looking like skeletons of harpies, which on this show play a similar role to bacchae. One reason for this equation comes from Orpheus's involvement in the voyage of the Argonauts, when he charmed the Sirens (and which we'll see Xena do later on). So, Orpheus can charm the bacchae, and since the dryads resemble harpies who, elsewhere on the show, have similar bacchae inclinations; this means since Orpheus can charm them like he charmed the Sirens; therefore, the dryads are related physically to harpies. Makes sense? To put it more simply, they're all in the same category, making them available to play similar roles in different stories, which is the real reason why they're lumped together: the purpose is to conjure up many versions of the same tale, not to introduce hordes of unrelated characters with irrelevant backstories.

In order to calm the bacchae while Xena fights them, Joxer plays the magic lyre while Orpheus sings, but first, the lyre must be found. This element is borrowed from fragments of another Greek satyr play, Sophocles' "The Trackers," about a group of satyrs looking for Apollo's cattle, and how they also discover the first lyre, invented by Hermes. The trackers are led by Silenus, who lacks the cultured sense to understand what this new sound can be. This is dramatized on the show by Joxer's not understanding why a warrior like Orpheus would play the lyre. Of course, it turns out Joxer himself can play, and this recalls subsequent myths about those who tried to play the lyre in competition against Apollo: they met with untimely fates, and here, Bacchus is seen threatening Joxer when he picks up the instrument. "The Trackers" describes Hermes' invention as made from a tortoise shell, and the one here has a nice, shiny, prominent shell. The cattle from the play are represented here by horned, bullish Bacchus himself! Going back to the opening scene, with bacchae changed into wolves, "The Trackers" depicts satyrs behaving as dogs on the scent as they chase down their prey, in a moment of comic relief. These references are no accident: they'll be repeated in the companion to this episode on "Hercules." Euripides didn't write "The Trackers," but the show's substituting of bacchae for satyrs, and Bacchus (Dionysus) for Apollo puts it closer to Euripides' influence, and we'll see this done again a few episodes later in "The Xena Scrolls".

The resolution has Xena stabbing Bacchus with a dryad bone, freeing the enslaved bacchae to their former selves, in a moment similar to the killing of the Minotaur (and similar to the series finale). Orpheus regains his body, takes the lyre, and vanishes, grateful to Xena for freeing him. We hear him playing Eurydice's favorite tune on the lyre, having passed over into the next world to reunite with his dead love, like the ending of "Black Orpheus." But like "Black Orpheus," this is a never-ending tune: the last thing we hear, as the screen fades to black, is Bacchus's laugh, and his eyes are superimposed over the sky. As Hera watches over Hercules each week in the opening credits, so Bacchus's presence is always felt on "Xena."

"Mummy Dearest" is the Halloween episode for Hercules, and it uses the same story elements of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" to tell its own story. The real story are these elements, though, and how they help anticipate future themes of both shows. The episode begins with an Egyptian mummy discovered by thieves who sell it to Salmoneus. He's preparing to make money off an Attic festival involving the dead, and wants the mummy as a feature attraction of his house of horrors. We're not told what this festival is, but judging from the beat and the street revelry, not to mention the skulls painted everywhere, this is similar to a Latin American Day of the Dead celebration, which means we're in "Black Orpheus" territory again. We don't hear the signature samba beat, but only because it would be overkill to feature it both here and on "Xena" in the extended party sequences.

Egypt's princess, Anuket, has come to Greece to reclaim the mummy, her ancestor, and is used to being waited on by a host of slaves she takes for granted. Hercules, in his lighter Dionysiac role of defender of freedom, bristles at this. Anuket derives her name from Egyptian myth, as the spirit of the Nile, a figure associated with water. If we check that list of X names I presented earlier, from "The Greek Myths," we'll see that the closest equivalent is Anaxibia: her name comes from several myths, the first as a daughter of Danaus, the second as an alternate of Eurydice. The daughters of Danaus were forced into marriage to their Egyptian cousins, and here, Anuket is being pressured to marry Sokar, an Egyptian who, like numerous other Penthius figures, actually wishes to gain the throne. He'll use the mummy to force Anuket's father to grant him his daughter's hand. The Danaid got her vengeance by stabbing her husband, but it seems the roles might be reversed when Sokar tries to stab her; Anuket's slave intervenes and takes the blade himself, which leads to Sokar's own death at the mummy's hands, fulfilling his unlucky fate as a pursuer of a Danaid. The association of Anuket with the daughter of Danaus is strengthened by the fact she's not a queen, but a princess: Hercules even asks her if she's a queen, since she seems to carry herself as one. She has ultimate control over the lives of her servants, and there's no reason to make her character anybody's daughter: in fact, there's good reason to make her a queen, instead, if we regard this episode in isolation. If Sokar wants the throne, marriage to a queen will instantly grant him access, rather than this roundabout way of going through the father. We might even speculate that an early draft of this teleplay had Anuket as queen, thanks to a fleeting reference to Cleopatra, when Salmoneus has himself rolled up in a rug to hide from Sokar's men. Sokar may have been a suitor, like Antony to Cleopatra (which we'll see on "Xena" in season five), with Hercules his unintended rival when Anuket tries to woo him instead. The ending would have more power, as well, when Anuket vows to free all the slaves--now she says she'll work to make that happen, whereas a queen could simply order it. Making her a princess puts her in the shadow of her father, and this reasoning applies to the decision to label Xena a princess; they're related characters. The second reference mentioned above, to Eurydice, of course takes us back to "Black Orpheus," manifested in the carnival setting of what seems to be a Halloween-like celebration in the city's streets.

We're given two horrific figures here: the fake one, in the form of King Cecrops, and the real one in the form of the mummy. The ghost of Cecrops is intended as a diversion for the true threat of a walking mummy. Most of us, when we first hear Cecrops' name, probably think of the cyclops, and the ancient Greeks did, too, with their love of puns01. Here a visual pun occurs when Salmoneus tries to remove the mummy's mask, ripping off one eye. It reveals an empty eye socket, creating a temporary cyclops; the real cyclops is Sokar, lurking in his caves plotting to overthrow Egypt, not to mention Anuket herself, who's blind to her slaves' wish for freedom. She actually believes they will want to be buried with her when she dies; this practice of suttee is mentioned in Graves, dramatized in Euripides, and will be reenacted in "Between the Lines," season four.

We're told that Cecrops has returned to seek vengeance on Hercules for killing him, but Hercules knows that the king merely fell off a cliff while they fought. The Cecrops of myth didn't suffer this fate: Orpheus did, at the end of "Black Orpheus," and so did Cecrops' daughters, after he entrusted them with a horrifying baby in a box given them by Athena. Since he resembled the baby in the myths--both had the lower bodies of serpents--he's equated here with that horror, and this is reflected when his ghost confronts Anuket and Hercules: "You don't look so good," Hercules tells him, and Anuket recoils, but tries to placate him: "I think you look very well, for a dead person. May we go, please?" Cecrops' ghost is a fake, though, as Hercules discovers: "It was a simple magician's trick, all done with mirrors." The magician's theme will reappear later on, in "Devi," formerly titled "Smoke and Mirrors," building on the idea introduced in "Altared States." Cecrops is a foreshadowing of the future "Rosemary's Baby" arc: his daughters screaming at seeing the baby recalls the famous climax of that film as well, and the play that Euripides mentions this myth in--"Ion"--is also used during that arc. We'll see Cecrops again at the end of this season, on "Xena," as a figure of exile; he's the same character of the myths, but very much alive. His story from the myths is not retold, but the story components from this and other myths make their appearance in that story, and when examining the overall patterns, that's the real story that links to the following season!

The real monster, the mummy, consumes souls by drinking their blood, like Bacchus and his followers, then draws power from their life force. This is the dark Dionysiac technique of accumulating power on these shows, and culminates in Xena's confrontation with the "Eater of Souls" in the series finale. It's discovered by robbers opening up an Egyptian tomb, and this image will be seen again very soon in "The Xena Scrolls." This is tied directly to "The Trackers," since the lost play was discovered in Egypt by modern-day "tomb robbers," whom we'll meet in "The Xena Scrolls." Here, we can see signs of this satyr play in the presence of the Silenus-like Salmoneus: he's stocked his house of horrors with wax figures of Dionysiac figures, such as the Minotaur and Bacchus himself. The final lines preserved in the fragments of "The Trackers" is about freedom for the satyr, if his mission is successful:

Silenus: "What? What are you saying?"
Apollo: "I say that you, and all the race of your children, will be free."


This appears in this episode at the end, when Anuket's loyal slave takes a knife to protect her, setting her free from her Egyptian suitor. In return, his dying wish is to be set free. She vows to set every slave free, as a result. Like the Minotaur, and eventually, like Xena, death is unavoidable, but he can still define the meaning of it.



01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves,

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