25. "Xena," season three: "Fins, Femmes & Rome"

"When in Rome" picks up the Caesar arc originally introduced in "Destiny," and which played a supporting role in "The Deliverer": There, Xena's obsession with vengeance against Caesar, a "cyclopean" blindness of hers, led to her neglecting Gabrielle as she fell into the clutches of Dahok. Now Caesar returns, on the verge of eliminating his rivals to full tyranny of Rome. As with "Destiny," this episode was shot just as another of Colleen McCullough's books was released, the latest at this point being "Caesar: Let the Dice Fly," about Julius Caesar's elimination of the Triumvirate. That metaphor of the dice makes us think of "King Con," the episode prior to this one, a gambling story loosely inspired by "The Sting." However, "King Con" may have taken its thematic context from "Ion," like so many other episodes this season: "Goddess of change, blind Chance, disposing countless human lives to misery or fortune, how narrowly I have escaped this horror of taking my own mother's life, and she mine!" "King Con" wasn't quite this serious, however: it could be the satyr play take on "Ion," since it airs right between "Forgiven" and "When in Rome."

"When in Rome" takes us back to "The Bacchae" for inspiration. That might sound surprising, since it's obviously a pure history episode, right? Almost entirely, yes, except for one small detail: It opens with Crassus, one-third of the Triumvirate, about to be executed by the Parthians in Syria, which, historically, he was. In this episode, however, Xena intervenes, rescues him with the intention of using him as a bargaining chip to free the leader of the Gauls Caesar has recently captured. When Xena discovers that Crassus is as amoral as Caesar, she manages to substitute him for the gaulish leader, sentenced to lose his head in the Coliseum. The moral crux of the story is that Gabrielle discovers this, and through her inaction, allows Crassus to be beheaded. Though she didn't perform the deed herself, she has blood on her hands, nevertheless.

Crassus

As the episode shows us, Crassus, beheaded in history, escapes his fate, only to end up beheaded anyway in Rome. What does Euripides' play have to do with this? According to Plutarch's Life of Crassus, he was killed in battle fighting the Parthians, and a Parthian commander brought his severed head to the royal court. From E.R. Dodds' book, "Greeks and the Irrational": "A Greek tragic actor present grabbed Crassus' head and recited the lines from the Bakkhai, when the mother of King Pentheus held up her son's head and said: '...from the mountain and for this house, we bring in a blessed hunt, a fresh-cut tendril'" Euripides' "The Bacchae" was still so popular, four hundred years later, that a Greek actor could quote his play to a Parthian king and be understood. The actor was comparing Crassus to King Penthius, and his appearance on "Xena" just at this precise moment can only signal that "The Bacchae" reference is intended here. Xena acts as a bacchae, stealing Crassus away only to seal his fate elsewhere, as she saw fit. The result is the same, but now Xena is responsible...as is Gabrielle, who is a bacchae as well in spirit.

It's unlikely that the screenwriter of this episode was aware of this reference, since there's no other reflection of "The Bacchae" in the script. It would be unnecessary, anyway, since "When in Rome" stands out as an important chapter in Gabrielle's journey from innocence to experience. So what is the point of inserting this reference to Euripides? For the story on its own, it's irrelevant; but as part of a series, it helps place the story in a greater logical pattern. Xena's own fate will be that of Crassus: beheading. Gabrielle's betrayal of Crassus means she is linking herself to Xena's blood guilt; she is not merely Xena's student, but her accomplice. It may be pointed out that this pattern exists in the character development already, and no references to "The Bacchae" are needed. But this is ignoring the fact that character development alone is not sufficient to tell a story; such patterns are organizing principles, according to the "logic of aesthetics." On a show like this, with no fixed time frame or geographical location, character development alone won't help the producer and showrunner decide where to go next, or what to do. The story of Dionysus provides Xena with a pattern: she becomes an exile, then a pirate, then she has Crassus beheaded like King Penthius. A higher logic is useful not only in arranging these stories, but in suggesting new ones.

There's one final bit of evidence that "The Bacchae" reference is intentional: the actor who plays Crassus, Matthew Chamberlain, also plays the beheaded Orpheus in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Two very different roles, with one thing in common: Euripides' "The Bacchae."

I mentioned regarding "Forgiven" that when adapting myth to "Xena," small becomes big, big becomes small, comedy becomes tragedy, and tragedy, comedy: it makes no difference in regards to the story how its treated, because the source material keeps it on track however it's told. In "Fins, Femmes & Gems," we have what looks like a throwaway comedy loosely modelled after "A Day in the Life," but just as that episode was based on a chapter from "The Greek Myths," so is this: chapter 79, the myth of Erigone. It begins with Oeneus, the mortal who was the first to make wine, taught by Dionysus (he was also the mortal husband of Althaea, who will be featured in the "Hercules" dance episodes, and will be translated to "Xena" as a sequel to "Forgiven" in season four). The wine is so strong that shepherds who drink it become enraged and kill a man. His daughter, Erigone, hanged herself in despair, vowing that vengeance come to the daughters of Athens if her father remains unavenged. The result is that many Athenian women were found hanging from the tree, and the mystery was solved when the Oracle at Delphi explained the cause. Since then, during the annual Vintage Festival, the man and his daughter are honored by Athens, and its daughters swing from the tree on platforms hanging by ropes. The dog that led Erigone to her father's resting place was immortalized as the Lesser Dog-Star.

Though this episode is a comedy, the underlying themes are serious, and form the ingredients of the show. In particular is the theme of the unavenged death, and the improperly buried corpse, two crimes that were at the root of many horror stories in ancient Greece, and in "Xena." Graves comments on the sources of this myth by pointing out that the tree Erigone hung herself from was the same that Attis the Phrygian was castrated and bled to death as a sacrifice; he was a consort of the Great Goddess Cybele, and when she revealed her transcendent beauty to him, he went mad and castrated himself. This moment was reenacted by devotees of Cybele who practiced human sacrifice in matriarchal Greece.

Pretty gruesome stuff! In "Fins, Femmes & Gems" history becomes farce: the wine of Dionysus is replaced with an obsession spell of Aphrodite, cast on Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer, to prevent them from interfering with her capture of the North Star, a celestial diamond of incomparable beauty. Gabrielle gazes into the water and falls in love with herself as a result: this reminds us of the myth of Narcissus--remember the quote by David Eick, about who Graves said Narcissus really was? Spring Dionysus, a sacrificial figure, and Graves tells us in the myth of Erigone that the valley that this myth is set in is actually called "Dionysus," and that the legend of Erigone, the girl who hanged herself was inspired by a ritual in which long-haired effeminate dolls representing young Dionysus were hung from trees. So, Gabrielle is a Dionysiac figure here, but she's also a goddess--she doesn't call herself the goddess Cybele, though; instead, she calls herself Princess Gaea--Princess of the Earth Mother, which is pretty much the same thing. She's enamoured of her own beauty, and Joxer, reading an Attis the Ape Man book, goes "mad," i.e. turns apelike and becomes a fool for Gabrielle. According to Ovid, Attis's desire was to always remain a boy (represented here by Joxer's reading juvenile pulp fiction). In ancient myth, the male eunuch is presented in feminine terms, and Joxer here dons Gabrielle's nightgown and swings from a tree. This symbolizes that he too is Dionysus, since it's the female dolls hanging from the tree that represent the god as a young boy.

Fins, Femmes & Gems

Xena's immediate obsession is to fish, and her scenes tie the episode with "A Day in the Life," and "Altered States." Her epiphany is when she realizes her obsession with the fish is grounded in a feeling of loss: like Erigone, she is mourning what she's lost, and the solution is to have it acknowledged. This episode encapsulates the "Rift": it began in "The Deliverer" with Xena's obsession over her hatred of Caesar, and ended with the lesson they both learned in the Tower card scene in "The Bitter Suite". Each character discovers what their true need is--except for Joxer: apparently he missed his childhood, but they'll figure out what to do about that tomorrow!



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