Five Torches (Out of Five)
This article was originally published in April 2009.
Xena: Warrior Princess is probably television’s best fantasy show ever. Its six year-run was a veritable creative explosion as the show veered boldly between genres, tackled complicated themes, and created an intense action pace that had never before been seen on the small screen.
Not to mention the fact that the show completely redefined the notion of the female action hero.
But by the show’s sixth and final season, most agree it had gotten a little tired. The brilliant heights of the gloriously operatic third and fourth seasons were behind them, and a notoriously spotty fifth season had left fans restless. The ill-conceived “Eve” storyline was sputtering to ignoble end.
In the DVD extras for the sixth season, one of the producers describes the last season as “tying up loose ends” — which sounds like it could be interesting in theory, but which is, of course, a radical departure from the bold, over-arching storylines of each previous season. In retrospect, “tying up loose ends” seemed to mean “spinning our wheels until we wrapped the show up.”
Then came the “Norse” trilogy.
This series of three episodes — “The Reingold,” “The Ring,” and “Return of the Valkyrie” — came smack in the middle of the sixth season, first airing in November of 2000.
And if fans had any concerns that the show’s fire might have gone out, they were immediately put to rest.
The episodes tell a single story: that of Xena’s return to the northern lands of the Norse gods, where 35 years ago (10 years ago, plus the 25 she was frozen in ice by Ares) she was a Valkyrie in the service of the god Odin. But this being the Xena of her own dark past, she didn’t stay in Odin’s service for long. She plotted to steal the precious “rheingold,” which, when shaped into a ring, grants the wearer great power. But that power comes at a cost: by exercising the power of the ring, the bearer loses that which they most value.
Unless, of course, the bearer of the rheingold has forsaken love. Then the power of the ring can seemingly be used without consequence.
If anybody had ever forsaken love, it was the Xena of 35 years previous: first, she’d been double-crossed by Caesar, then she’d traveled to the Chin Empire, where her trusted mentor and lover Lao Ma had been executed.
The Norse trilogy is Xena’s usual audacious blend of legend and history, in this case loosely mixing Norse mythology with the stories of Beowulf and the Das Rheingold opera. But of course, the legends of history left out the central role Xena played in all these stories. Beowulf shows up, sure, but he’s merely a supporting player in his own legend.
The theme of the episodes — written by R.J. Stewart, Joel Metzger, and Emily Skovop and directed by John Fawcett and Rick Jacobson — is a return to the classic theme that made Xena, both the show and the character, so interesting to begin with: her having to make amends for the sins of her own dark past.
Years ago, the beautiful and noble Valkyrie Grinhilda chose to try to defeat Dark Xena by putting on the ring of the rheingold. Not only didn’t she not succeed, because she had not forsaken love, she was transformed into a hideous monster, losing the things she most valued: her beauty and her nobility.
So, as with her arch-nemesis Calysto, Xena must do battle with a monster that she herself literally created all those years ago. But it’s always easier to open the box of monsters than it is to get those monsters back inside. Before the episodes are over, Xena is forced to don the ring once again — but this time, it comes at an extremely high cost: she loses her memories of being a warrior, and — more importantly — her love for Gabrielle.
In other words, forsaking love all those years ago hadn’t saved Xena from the consequences of the ring; it had merely postponed them. Such is the wonderful irony so often seen in well-told fantasy.
There are debts that must be paid in life, Xena tells us again and again, things that must be put right. And unless and until we do make things right, we will be unable able to move forward in life, suffering again and again at the hands of the monsters we created.
It’s a theme that is both classic in its idea of self-sacrifice and modern in its notion of choice and individuality.
Six Feet Under and Damages are both great shows, but I’m not sure I recall them ever tackling anything quite this profound.
The episode is terrifically acted (except for the actor who plays Beowulf, who is a little wooden), especially Brittney Powell, who plays Brunnhilda. The special effects, especially the monsters, are as good as any Xena episode ever — on par with the fifth season’s Fallen Angel, which includes some of the series’ best effects ever.
Another notable element in the Norse trilogy: it’s definitely the most overtly “lesbian” of all Xena episodes, even the finale, when the true nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s love is revealed.
There’s none of the show’s vaunted “lesbian subtext” here. The Valkyrie Brunnhilda falls openly in love with Gabrielle, and everyone talks openly about Xena’s “love” for Gabrielle. And in the opening teaser, check out how Xena signs her farewell note to Gabrielle: with a big, lipstick kiss.
Meanwhile, the Rhinemaiden’s also fall “in love” with Xena. And when Xena wakes Gabrielle up from her year-long sleep, she does it with — what else? A kiss.
Okay, so the Norse Trilogy may not be the best fantasy even seen on television — that honor might go to Xena episodes such as “The Debt” or “The Ides of March,” or maybe even an episode or two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But still: these episodes gotta be right near the top.
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A fan-created trailer for Xena’s Norse Trilogy