44. "Xena," season six: "A Friend in Need"

The two-part series finale, "A Friend in Need," brings to a close the threads discussed in this essay; however, those threads alone won't account for all the elements we'll see in this story. For that, we need to consider all the major threads involving cinema, Greek myth, Greek theater, and religion. There are a lot of creative decisions we won't be able to consider until we've had a chance to talk about those threads, but for right now, we know enough to get an idea of how it works as a final statement for "Xena" and "Hercules."

It's been said that the episode's title sprang from the word "Fin," which is the last word seen in French movies (meaning "The end."). That's plausible, but it probably also comes from Aesop's fable # 176, "A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed." The fable goes like this:

"Two friends were travelling together when a bear suddenly appeared. One of them climbed up a tree in time and remained there hidden. The other, seeing that he would be caught in another moment, lay down on the ground and pretended to be dead. When the bear put its muzzle to him and smelt him all over, he held his breath--for it is said that a bear will not touch a corpse. After it had gone away, the other man came down from his tree and asked his friend what the bear had whispered in his ear. 'It told me,' he replied, 'not to travel with friends who do not stand by one in peril.'"


Aesop's moral: "Genuine friends are proved by adversity."

Confronting adversity is a defining quality of life, on "Xena," and it's the defining quality of Xena's friendship with Gabrielle. It's also the defining aesthetic of "Xena, Warrior Princess:" the show rarely takes the path it's expected to, and its relationship with its corporate sponsors and with its audience has been to a greater or lesser extent adversarial. That's where it gets its energy from, and I think the roots of this confrontational attitude come from the producers' experience in Hollywood going all the way back to their first professional effort, "Evil Dead."

The universe of Xena, which has been expanding ever since "Sins of the Past," now contracts fully back to its central core. All characters that are not essential to this story are left behind; we have now arrived at the third "Xena" movie, which began in "The Debt," and was continued in "Adventures in the Sin Trade." All three movies look similar, and seem to tell the same story, at slightly different starting and end points. These are the anchors of Xena's story, and now we're finally going to see the conclusion. To tell this part of the story, we need to go to a new land and meet a new cast of characters, in order to tell the only story in "Xena" that needs to be told. Everything else we've seen up until now has just been a variation on a pattern.

Just like the final episode of "Hercules," "Full Circle," "A Friend in Need" also comes full circle, but it reaches all the way back to the first "Hercules" film written: "Hercules and the Lost City." The story of a young woman, played by Renee O' Connor, who goes from offering herself as a sacrifice to a becoming a princess, is the story of Gabrielle in "Xena." It's also the inverse of Xena's story, who goes from being a "princess" to offering herself in sacrifice. But in fact, Xena's and Gabrielle's story are one, if we look at it in terms of writing strategy. The series is structured to tell the story of Xena, and to do so, the character of Gabrielle is created to help illustrate her past struggle with violence, as well as to show the way to the selflessness she must adopt to achieve her redemption. There's another important reference to "Hercules and the Lost City:" Xena goes to the "Land of the Rising Sun," Japan. She refers to it as "Jappa," and immediately we think this is some ancient variation on "Japan," just like Ch'in is an ancient name for China. Drop a letter, and you have an ancient-sounding name. However, unlike Ch'in, there is no such ancient name for Japan, which is an English word. The Japanese never called themselves any variation of this name, though they did call themselves the "Land of the Rising Sun," since they were east of their closest neighbors, the Chinese. Where does this name Jappa come from? If we look around, we can find that name in the ancient world, but it's not in Japan: it's on the Mediterranean Sea: Joppa. Actress Lucy Lawless even pronounces it that way. Joppa is the kingdom where Andromeda was sacrificed to the sea serpent by her father, the king. This myth, according to Graves, is derived from the same roots as the Hesione myth used in "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom."01 Joppa is also the city that God tells Jonah to go to, from which he boards the ship whose crew will toss him to the whale. It's a city of destiny, and an appropriate name of the land Xena will make her last stand in.

Like Jonah and Andromeda, Iphigeneia was also sacrificed at the shore to appease the gods, and we'll find Euripides' play, "Iphigeneia in Tauris" referenced here. Akemi, daughter of a cruel otherwordly lord, must trap souls for his consumption. She finds that one of her victims is trustworthy enough that she can ask him to carry a message to the West, calling on Xena to rescue her. This is a plot device from Euripides' play, and we'll recall that Tauris was considered the "end of the world" to the Greeks, analogous to the "Land of the Rising Sun," here. Rob Tapert has not spoken of the references used in this episode, with one exception: a Hong Kong film, "A Chinese Ghost Story." It's been thought by some that this was a lazy solution for what should have been a wrapping up of the original character arcs of the series, but I disagree: Xena is not about such character arcs: all three major threads--mythic, religious and cinematic--must be addressed here, and they are. "A Chinese Ghost Story" is referenced in "The Debt," in which Xena and Lao Ma exchange breaths underwater, and that scene is echoed here (the plot device of the messenger from "Iphigeneia in Tauris" is echoed here as well). Though Tapert said the story was derived from "A Chinese Ghost Story," (because "A Chinese Ghost Story" was inspired in part from his "Evil Dead" film), that's not exactly the case: we actually see all three films in the "Chinese Ghost Story" series used here. The monk is not taken from the first movie, but rather, the third: the character in the first movie is a government clerk. The "Belly of the Whale" motif that Yodoshi represents is taken in part from the second film; and the idea of the freed souls does not actually come from any of the films. There are actually more cinematic references used here than we're able to discuss now, and they play as important a role as "A Chinese Ghost Story," but we'll discuss those later in the companion essay, "Blood on the Screen".

The original conception of Xena, in "March to Freedom," is incorporated back into her story. Oi-Lan now becomes Xena once more; her husband was an acrobat in her father's palace, and in the opening sequence in Jappa, we see Gabrielle, Xena's mate, drawing upon the experience she had watching acrobats to help save the burning city of Higuchi. The image we saw earlier of Oi-Lan standing in the rain is repeated here, this time with Gabrielle dressed as a Japanese warrior, demanding the head of Xena from her enemies. We'll also recall that Oi-Lan had a magic touch when it came to relieving pain, analogous to Xena's pinch. That Oi-Lan's story is used here to complete Xena's shows that it was close to Rob Tapert's vision of the warrior princess; therefore, setting the finale in Japan should not be considered a departure, but a fulfillment of the story he set out to tell. "A Friend in Need" is Xena in her purest form.

The killing of Yodoshi, Eater of Souls, completes the motif of the belly of the whale, which we saw in episodes like "Hercules'" "Descent," among others. The training of Akemi to use the deadly pinch is the flip side of M'Lila's training of Xena in "Destiny." We'll recall that Rob Tapert had long wanted to do a story about Xena training Medea, only to discover she trained the wrong type of person; we have something like that here, when Xena trains Akemi, and she uses it on her father to kill him, rather than to extort money from him, as Xena planned. Akemi's subsequent request to be killed for her crime of patricide is what set Xena on the path to committing a crime so heinous that it would haunt her to the end of her days. That crime can be glimpsed in "The Furies," when Xena, consumed with madness, stumbles into a village naked and accuses the women and children of killing women and children; she announces she will take her retribution "in flames." This looks like an early foreshadowing of Xena's backstory: though the specific details of the burning of Higuchi may or may not have been part of Xena's story from the beginning, I'm guessing something like it may have been, and Xena's mad accusation would be an inversion of her own crime. Of course, we learn in the finale that Xena is not aware of this crime, since it was the consequence of her drunken flamethrowing, but certainly, it may have lingered as a "morning-after" sense of dread that something horrible might have happened there--she would've sense the flames that rose as she stumbled away. This idea of an earlier injustice coming back to haunt her sounds similar to the plot device of Star Trek's "The Wrath of Khan," which likely influenced the show ("Khan" was originally supposed to be a recurring villain in Xena's life). In that film, Admiral Kirk learns that he's created a vengeful monster by marooning his nemesis on a desert planet; he wasn't directly responsible for it, but through his inaction he created a day of reckoning that would lead to the death of his friend and colleague, Spock.

The plot device of the sacred katana has several sources: one is from the book, "Snow Falling From Cedars." The film bears a strong resemblance in style and theme to "A Friend in Need," (and is even mentioned by Xena as an inside reference); there's such a strong influence from this film, more so than from "A Chinese Ghost Story," in my opinion, that I would strongly recommend it to any "Xena" fan who can't bear to watch the final episode, yet wishes to experience its haunting beauty. They won't be disappointed.

The other katana reference is from the Hong Kong film, "Three Swordsmen," starring Brigitte Lin; at the end, she gives up the sword and the warrior way of life. The theme of succession is manifested at the end, when Gabrielle is able to wield the chakram for the first time; this recalls the final scene in "Black Orpheus," when one of the children takes Orpheus's guitar and starts playing; "Now you are Orpheus," the other tells him.


The Rapture
War, the first horseman of the Apocalypse, from "The Rapture."


Another film reference seems to be "The Rapture," starring Mimi Rogers as a woman who discovers the Apocalypse is nearing. One of the early signs is a dream of the "Pearl," by those who will be saved. She encounters a woman who has a giant tattoo on her back of the Pearl and the hand of God. Gabrielle receives a giant circular tattoo on her back of a Japanese dragon, which saves her life when Yodoshi shoots a fireball at her as she fills a bowl full of sacred water from a pool atop Mt. Fuji. "The Rapture" ends with the main character refusing to cross over to the other side to be with her son in Heaven because she feels God is unjust. The film probably took this plot device from a medieval poem, "The Pearl," about a man who has a dream of Pearl, his love, whom he lost, is now in Heaven, and she explains what it's like to him; she also explains what will happen at the end of time. He's desperate to be with her, and attempts to cross, but wakes before he does. This poem was translated by J.R.R. Tolkien in a collection of medieval poems, so it's widely available, and would be encountered by anyone interested in Prof. Tolkien's works. It should be noted here that there was originally intended to be a third season episode called "The Pearl and the Book," 02 around the time of the Rift arc, so it may play a role in that season's associations with the Pearl and the third season references in this final episode.


The Rapture
"The Rapture," 1991, features a woman with a protective Pearl tattoo on her back (like Gabrielle's dragon tattoo); a Tarot image of the Hanging Man (see "The Bitter Suite"), signifying change (according to the director's 1997 commentary); A mother sacrificing her child (see season three's Rift arc, and Xena executing Akemi in "A Friend in Need"); the child beckoning the mother to cross over into Heaven's sunlight ("The Bitter Suite," and the end of "A Friend in Need.")

This reference to "The Pearl" completes the medieval ballad motif on the show, which we also saw on "Hercules" in "Revelations," in which the Apocalypse is staged by the Archangel Michael, and Hercules wins back his friend, Iolaus. The "crossing-over" motif ends when Xena refuses to cross over into the living, in the name of justice. The use of a dragon tattoo as a protective device for Gabrielle as she collects a bowl full of sacred water may have been inspired by a combination of "The Pearl," "The Rapture," and Mircea Eliade's description of the dragon symbol as an image that protects the source of redemption:

"There are gryphons or monsters guarding all the roads to salvation, mounting guard over the Tree of Life, or some other symbol of the same thing. When Hercules went to steal the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, he had either to kill or put to sleep the dragon guarding them. Whether the hero did this himself, or had it done for him by Atlas--while for a moment Hercules supported the heavenly globe in his place--is of secondary importance. What matters is that Hercules was successful in these heroic 'trials' and took the golden apples. The golden fleece of Colchis was also guarded by a dragon, which Jason had to kill to obtain it. There are serpents 'guarding' all the paths to immortality, that is, every 'centre,' every repository where the sacred is concentrated, every real substance. They are always pictured round the bowl of Dionysus, they watch over Apollo's gold in far-off Scythia, they guard the treasures hidden at the bottom of the earth, or the diamonds and pearls at the bottom of the sea--in fact, they guard every symbol embodying the sacred, or able to bestow power, life or omniscience."03


We'll note that the passage above contains imagery seen in the series finales for both "Hercules" (Atlas) and "Xena" (the dragon, the 'pearl,' reference, and the bowl of sacred water). This passages associates the bowl with Dionysus: it's appropriate that Xena's salvation comes her Dionysiac nature.

A Friend in Need

Another motif that comes full circle is the medieval ballad of the Romanian "Mioritza," which we see when Xena once again buries her weapons, the "tools of her trade," like the shepherd did. The other shoe has finally dropped, her crime at Higuchi, and Gabrielle had demonstrated her competence to fill the shoes of the warrior princess, so Xena is now ready to define her fate. As the armies of Lord Yodoshi approach, she wears the vulnerable skin-exposing armor that recalls an earlier scene when she stole the sacred katana. In the commentary for that scene, Rob Tapert said he wanted Xena to look vulnerable among all those weapons, and that certainly must have been the case in this scene. In her last battle on earth, against the "Eater of Souls," a monster who is the embodiment of her former mentor, War, Xena at last reveals her true nature: in her samurai outfit, she is Bekka, the bacchae queen; her revelation is similar in its devastation to Zeus's revealing of his divinity to Semele, Dionysus's mother, only it goes much farther. Xena's is literally nuclear: she tosses the chakram at the army's fuel depot, and creates the world's first mushroom cloud. Finally, Xena has become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, and as Krishna prophesied, this was always her destiny in this life as a warrior.

Bekka & the Bomb

The motifs borrowed from Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths" receive closure here as well. In "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," and in "Ulysses," there is the implication that we're seeing the roots of Homer on this show. Early in "A Friend in Need," we're told by the messenger, Kenji: "The way of the sword is the most ancient of the warrior's art. With practice, the samurai develops the sacred virtues of bravery, self-discipline, and honor. A samurai would rather die a warrior, than live as a warrior." In any of these episodes set outside of Greece, we musn't think we're in some strange, exotic culture: on this show, we never really leave Greece. In chapter 163, note 2 of "The Greek Myths," Graves comments on the world that Homer, who's sympathetic to the lost matriarchal values of his past, depicts in his poems for his patriarchal sponsors:

"Homer faithfully describes the lives of his new overlords, who have usurped ancient religious titles by marrying tribal heiresses and, though calling them godlike, wise and noble, holds them in deep disgust. They live by the sword and perish by the sword, disdaining love, friendship, faith, or the arts of peace. They care so little for the divine names by which they swear that he dares jest in their presence about the greedy, sly, quarrelsome, lecherous, cowardly Olympians who have turned the world upside down. One would dismiss him as an irreligious wretch, were he not clearly a secret worshipper of the Great Goddess of Asia (whom the Greeks had humiliated in this war); and did not glints of his warm and honourable nature appear whenever he is describing family life in Priam's palace."


Graves continues:

"One result of the Illiad's acceptance by Greek city authorities as a national epic was that no one ever again took the Olympian religion seriously, and Greek morals always remained barbarous--except in places where Cretan mystery cults survived and the mystagogues required a good conduct certificate from their initiates."


Homer mostly left Dionysus out of his epics, sparing the god this fate, but Euripides restored the god's place by inserting his legend into Odysseus's myth, in his play, "The Cyclops," at a time when Dionysiac cults were on the rise. In Graves' passage above, we can also glimpse the warlike politics of the Athenians; both Euripides and Homer were subversives who used their art to change their world, and they succeeded: Homer helped begin the twilight of the gods, and Euripides witnessed it. He ended his days at the court that would give rise to the Dionysiac Emperor of the known world, Alexander.

This brings us to "The Bacchae" once more. Xena's dramatic transformation into a bacchic queen was foreshadowed by Akemi's subtler reference: like Xena, to kill her father she must get close to him, and this is done by becoming something other than she is. She dons the mask of the actor wielding a knife, and is able to get the jump on him as a result. The use of a mask recalls "Death Mask," and "When in Rome," with its use of the beheading scene from "The Bacchae," as well as the homage to that moment throughout the series. As with Xena, Akemi's closeness comes at a price: her death. She offers her neck for beheading by Xena: Xena must play the role of Agave once again, and it breaks her heart as it did Agave. This mask also announces the completion of the shamanism motif on the show, especially as it relates to the bacchae. As Eliade writes in "Shamanism," p. 167-8:

"For these reasons, and taking into consideration the various evaluations given them in the rituals and techniques of ecstasy, we may conclude that the mask plays the same role as the shaman's costume and the two elements can be considered interchangeable. For wherever it is used (and outside of the shamanic ideology properly speaking), the mask manifestly announces the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, mythical animal, god). For its part, the costume transubstantiates the shaman, it transforms him, before all eyes, into a superhuman being. And this is equally true whether the predominant attribute that it seeks to display is the prestige of the dead man returned to life (skeleton) or ability to fly (bird), or the condition of husband to a 'celestial spouse.' (women's dress, feminine attributes), and so forth."


This shamanic nature is seen earlier, when Akemi talks about the kami, the spirits that inhabit everything in the world, and in Xena's ability to hear the "sounds behind the sounds." Later, they will indeed display the ability to transform themselves into birds to fly to Mt. Fuji. "Adventures in the Sin Trade" began with Xena turning back from her quest to rescue Gabrielle from the Land of the Dead, to do the right thing as she would have wanted it; here, she turns her back on the land of the living, to do the right thing that Gabrielle had given her the strength to do. Xena's end is not a fatal acceptance; she is defining her entire existence in the face of an unalterable destiny. She was never going to live forever, but in Gabrielle, her good works will live on. By making the right choice, she ensures that. In "Fallen Angel," her demonic self tempts Gabrielle, saying that their love "is an end in itself." Here, it's only the beginning.




RenPic


So what is the point of all these Dionysus references? Why tell the story this way? Why would Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi have taken strength from this kind of referential storytelling? I believe the answer goes all the way back to the first page of this essay, to the time of the Dionysiac dithyramb. The worship of Dionysus was best expressed in song and dance. It had to be experienced, not talked about. The Festival of Dionysus brought together the entire range of the human experience, and did not discriminate between high and low forms of culture; for this is the lesson the god of wine taught: that no one is above the world, and no one should be excluded from it. This is a law of human nature that is naturally self-enforcing; those who think they can control the world will find themselves the butt of its joke. What Tapert and Raimi may have found inspiring in this message is that it fit well with their approach to movies and television. Their approach is democratic in nature; they want their work to be enjoyed by the Three Stooges fan as well as the opera lover, and the force that unites both is the ancient Greek notion of comedy and tragedy. It's a force too powerful for any studio to reduce to a calculation, because the ultimate power is not an executive on the top floor, but some kid looking for a new way to play with a hoop. This was as true for the Greeks as well as for us, and like them, we can achieve excellence by embracing our humanity and honestly acknowledging the full range of the human experience. Rediscovering such long-forgotten values, the medieval world experienced its great Renaissance; why can't Hollywood?



"The greatest prize you can pursue
Is the best in you."


Euripides, "Iphigeneia in Aulis"


FIN



01The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 73.7
02Whoosh: The Pearl and the Book
03"Patterns of Comparative Religion," by Mircea Eliade, p. 291.

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