28. "Xena," season four:
"Orpheus and Horses"


Orpheus's search for his dead love in "Black Orpheus" doesn't have a magical happy ending that overrules the physical rules of nature: he's reunited with Eurydice only in death. "Xena" provides us with a reunion for her and Gabrielle, but avoids the question of how she survived her leap into a seemingly inescapable volcanic chasm. Xena decides to visit Gabrielle's hometown of Potadeia, not knowing how she survived, but assuming that however she did it, she would've gone home, not knowing where Xena went afterwards. That logic turns out to be correct: Xena meets Gabrielle in what looks like a shaggy dog story: they simply bump into each other at a hometown festival. The explanation for how she escaped death is not given yet, and won't be until the very last episode before the series finale. It was a question that long perplexed viewers, and over the years they'd been told that, in fact, the writing staff never bothered to come up with a rationale, despite knowing a year in advance that Gabrielle would die in the season three finale and come back early next season, using a cliffhanger plot to build viewer interest and create buzz for the series. We'll recall that Rob Tapert quote early in this essay that ratings were a big factor in staging these deaths and resurrections. This revelation to the fans was something of a double-edged sword: while no one could possibly have doubted Gabrielle would return, and that her death was obviously a contrived ratings grabber, the idea that the writers never bothered to think through how they'd resolve the cliffhanger, merely skipping over it, seemed a bit negligent. However, by this time, regular viewers had grown used to such disconnects, and had even begun to grow fond of them as a kind of endearing flaw of the writers' quirky process. Season three was the peak of fan devotion to the show, but this disconnect between story logic and character caused something of a rift between the audience and the writers. The audience began to think it could do a better job at simple continuity than the writers, and the rise of fan fiction's power in the online fandom coincided with a rise in second-guessing the writers. As season four tackled more abstract issues of religion and non-violence, fan fiction kept the focus on character development, and it was felt by an increasing number that the writing staff had forgotten, or never realized, that the show's true appeal lay in its characters, not its ideas.

While I agree that the show's appeal came from its characters, its power came from its ideas, and without them, would not have lasted as long as it did. I believe it's incorrect to believe that the lack of a logical explanation for Gabrielle's survival from the fall indicated that they were just flying blindly. The logic for her return doesn't come from narrative logic, but from the external structure that I mentioned early on. One of the writers of the season three cliffhanger, Steve Sears, mentioned back in 2005 on a fan message board that, contrary to popular belief, not all the writers deferred on the need for an explanation for Gabrielle's survival. He felt it was improper to leave out such an explanation, and advised Rob Tapert that her fall should be shown in flashback with Dahok rescuing Hope, and consequently knocking Gabrielle with a fiery hand into a side cavern, making it possible for her to find an exit to the surface. Tapert rejected the idea on practical concerns involving, among other things, a tight budget, but my guess is that any kind of solution that relied strictly on logical narrative would not have been acceptable. This is not to say it's a bad idea, only that Tapert could not find a way to marry it to the external structure (either that, or he already had the solution in mind: see below). The story of "Xena" does not advance according to logical narrative, because if it did, it would be forever tied to that narrative logic, instead of to the external structure based on the cinematic, mythic and religious sources that inspired the show. We know that this is the reason, and not just budgetary considerations, because "Soul Possession," the penultimate show in the series, does provide a solution and had an entire episode's budget to play with, but instead it's based on the external structure of outside influences, not the internal structure of story logic. And which writer did Rob Tapert finally look to for the solution? Surely you must know the answer by now: Euripides!!

A Family Affair
Big wheel keeps on turning!


The follow-up to "Adventures in the Sin Trade" is "A Family Affair," and opens in Potadeia during some kind of festival: it looks like a spring celebration, a pagan precursor to Rio's Carnival, and we see the signs of "Black Orpheus" everywhere. We see the sun, as large as it was at the end of "Forgiven," giving way to a pinwheel, which reveals a young girl's face when removed. Like the festivals of spring, this is a time of renewal: the young children of "Black Orpheus" represent the eternal cycle of its story, and we see images of the sun, and spinning pinwheels throughout, representing the cycle of life like the Wheel of Fortune we saw in "The Bitter Suite." The reunion of Xena and Gabrielle is dramatically flat, and it turns out she's not really Gabrielle, but Hope, looking like Gabrielle's twin (This is a device borrowed from Euripides' "Helen," and it's that play that's used in "Soul Possession" to explain her survival). Hope has returned with her child with Ares, the Destroyer, Dahok's grandchild, who will carry out his will in bringing destruction to the world. Unlike Hope, an innocent-appearing child with purely evil intent, the Destroyer is a spikey creature whose destructive powers seem an innocent expression of his animal nature; to the extent he expresses any human intent, it's to be with his mother. Gabrielle manages to trick the Destroyer into thinking she's his mother, stabs him, then he kills Hope thinking she's not his mother. This ends the Dahok arc on "Xena" on a personal note, and the sight of the two spawn of Dahok killing each other is a bittersweet one. This dual relationship of mother and child, ending with bloodshed, reminds us of the mother beheading the son accidentally in "The Bacchae's" family affair. The Destroyer with his spikey back is clearly modelled after the Australian Echidna, one of the few mammals who lay eggs (and we'll recall that Hope herself was reborn from an egg). We've seen Echidne in another form, as the Mother of all Monsters on "Hercules," and as horrifying as she appears, she's a tragic figure we come to pity as her brood is led into madness by Hera (like Herakles in Euripides' play) and killed. Hercules, who doesn't kill his own children in this series, kills Echidne's instead, and does penance for it. Here, Gabrielle has come home to her parents, who blamed Xena for not protecting her, but she is the one who will kill her monstrous child and grandchild (who already killed Xena's child). In "A Family Affair," Gabrielle herself becomes the Mother of all Monsters.

This three-part drama that opens season four ends with a satyr play, like any good Greek tragedy. And like a good satyr play, it's a variation on the themes of the trilogy before it. "In Sickness and in Hell" has a number of satyr play indicators: for the satyrs, we have an unkempt Xena and Gabrielle looking for a bathroom, not to mention the Scythians, who are analogous to Centaurs, or goat-men. As the first three involved the search for lost Gabrielle, this deals with the loss of Xena's horse, whom we saw being left behind in part one of "Adventures in the Sin Trade," so that Xena would not have to sacrifice him when it came time to travel to the Spirit World. The idea of sacrifice comes early on, when Gabrielle attacks a killer rabbit in a brutal slapstick scene. Any reference to rabbit in a Greek context is a pointer to "Agamemnon," Aeschylus's first play in the Oresteia, which involves the story of Iphigeneia's sacrifice: Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to appease Artemis, who was angered when one of the Greek warriors killed a rabbit, sacred to her. We'll recall in "Forgiven" when Gabrielle's charades answer was "Iphigeneia in Aulis," Euripides' version of this same story, but he does not refer to the rabbit as the cause. Rather, he has Artemis substitute a deer for her sacrifice at the last moment, so we'd expect a deer reference here too, given Euripides' influence on the show. Sure enough, there is: the first thing we see in the opening teaser is a mother deer tending to her child, which recalls the mother/daughter relationship in "A Family Affair"; the next thing we see is Gabrielle's foot rot! This is slapstick, but it also resonates with previous episodes. The cure for foot rot and lice is a mud bath, and underneath all these comic scenes is the connection to the shamanism of "Adventures in the Sin Trade." Referring to Eliade's book on shamanism, the chapter on "Scythians, Caucasians, Iranians," we find how these are linked:

"Herodotus has left us a good description of the funerary customs of the Scythians. The funeral was followed by purifications. Hemp was thrown on heated stones and all inhaled the smoke; 'the Scythians howl in joy for the vapour-bath.' Karl Meuli has well brought out the shamanic nature of the funerary purification; the cult of the dead, the use of hemp, the vapor bath, and the 'howls' compose a specific ensemble, the purpose of which could only be ecstasy. In this connection Meuli cites the Altaic seance described by Radlov, in which the shaman guided to the underworld the soul of a woman who had been dead forty days."


There's that word again, "ecstasy," which connects shamanism with bacchic revelry. Eliade continues:

"Meuli has also drawn attention to the 'shamanic' structure of Scythian otherworld beliefs; to the mysterious 'female sickness' that, according to legend transmitted by Herodotus, had transformed certain Scythians into 'Enareis,' and which this scholar compares to the feminization of Siberian and North American shamans."


"Enareis" is a term meaning hermaphrodite, in particular, one who becomes a soothsayer, or shaman because he/she possesses the power of both sexes: this androgeny is the so-called "female sickness" that empowers the spiritual healer, and which is set to comedy in "In Sickness and in Hell" (we should remember, though, that comedies on this show deal with serious subjects just as much as the dramas do). Eliade mentions this principle in his chapter on "The Myth of Divine Androgeny."01 This idea, as expressed in the myth of Attis (which we saw in "Fins, Femmes & Gems"), as well as the upcoming "Between the Lines," where Xena and Gabrielle personify Shiva and Shakti, India's way of imitating androgeny by uniting the sexes through tantric ritual, and is present in nearly every religion, whether ancient and primitive, advanced and modern, and is present in Greek mythology, in the person of Chronos, as well as Chinese mythology of the male/female pairing of the gods of light and darkness (which we'll see in "Back in the Bottle." Of course, we've already seen it on season two's "Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis," in which a cross-dresser wins a beauty contest--in reality, he/she wins the "divinity" contest! It's appropriate that Dionysus is the god that presides over the Xenaverse: according the Mircea Eliade in "Mephistopheles and the Androgyne," he is an androgyne himself, the most bisexual of the gods.

"In Sickness and in Hell" gives us both the shaman theme ("Sickness") and the journey to the underworld theme ("Hell"), linked together in a phrase we associate with marriage ("In sickness and in health") to represent the marriage of male and female attributes of the androgyne, all of which are turned upside down in a satyr play. But, as with the Greek satyr plays, the message these themes convey remains intact, recognizable through the mask. Having resolved this Orphic arc, we're ready to go back to "The Bacchae" for more story ideas in "Xena" and "Hercules!"



01Patterns of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade, p. 421-2.

Previous/Next

The Types and Patterns of All Things Xena  > Free To Be Euripides: Chapter Index

Back to Home menu