The Logic of Xena

The title of this essay might sound strange to those familiar with "Xena, Warrior Princess." After all, isn't it a settled issue that there is no real logic that unites all of the elements in this show? At least, not intentionally, right? Hasn't it been made clear to us, after countless hours of viewing, and countless interviews with its creators, that "Xena, Warrior Princess" is a happy accident in which its components just magically fell into place? To speak of its unifying logic, then, is to recall that creature of Greek myth, the Chimera, possessing a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. Nowadays, when we want to describe something that can't possible exist, we call it by that fabulous creature's name, and surely, the idea of consistency in "Xena, Warrior Princess" is a prime example of the species?

The Chimera was not originally considered a real creature by the Greeks, however. It was an emblem, in which each animal part represented an important idea, and the creature as a whole symbolized the connection between these ideas. That's how I think we should regard the structure of "Xena." After examining many repeating story elements, and studying the creators' interviews, I conclude that "Xena" and its parent show, "Hercules, The Legendary Journeys," share internally consistent rules that can be discerned and repeated. The rules that govern "Hercules" also apply to "Xena." As the offspring show, "Xena" finishes the story that began on "Hercules," and the various spin-offs, "Cleopatra 2525" and "Jack of All Trades," and "Young Hercules," not to mention the aborted spin-offs ("Amazon High" and "Married With Fishsticks") operated according to the same patterns as well.

Now, when I speak of story logic, I'm not talking about the stories themselves being planned years in advance, as with "Babylon Five," or even in terms of a story bible, i.e., a record of a tv series' overall plot, maintained throughout as a guide for the writers. The writers themselves have uniformly stated from the beginning that neither method was used on these shows. I'm talking instead about the thematic patterns that govern the shows, which we can discover if we isolate the source material identified by the writers and examine how these sources were applied. Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi are filmmakers who rely heavily on outside references and quotations (visual as well as verbal) to shape their stories, going all the way back to their first film, "Evil Dead." There might seem to be random borrowings (or "homages") at any given moment, but as we add them up, over time, a picture emerges that can give us a larger perspective on the story than we'd otherwise have.

It would take a very, very long time for me to identify all the references on these shows and how they were probably used, and since the producers themselves didn't talk about them in any detailed way, it might seem to be a wasted effort to even take the first step. Let's go ahead, anyway, and take a few tiny steps right now along this path to see if it's worth going any further with this kind of analysis.

We know that Rob Tapert used the classic film "Black Orpheus" as a source of inspiration while coming up with the first four "Hercules" movies. That film is a retelling of the Orpheus myth set in present day Rio de Janeiro during the time of Carnival, a city-wide celebration just before the season of Lent, part of the Easter holiday which commemorates Christ's crucifixion, descent into Hell, and resurrection. This film uses the street festival of Rio to draw parallels between the story of Christ to Orpheus's descent into hell and return, and his death at the hands of Dionysus's followers, the bacchae. The story, as well as the sights and sounds of this film, can be found throughout "Hercules" and "Xena," and help explain why death and resurrection were such common recurrences on both shows. The Hercules movies are designed around the theme of descent into the underworld, beginning with "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom," in which he rescues a princess from the belly of a sea creature (a mythic equivalent of the underworld), continuing in "Hercules and the Circle of Fire," in which he braves death through a fiery wall (a Nordic vision of the underworld which we'll see again in the sixth season of "Xena"), and culminating in "Hercules and the Underworld," in which he literally descends to Tartarus. That was intended to be the final movie before the series began, but when the producers were asked to make a fifth movie at the last moment, the result was "Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur." This labyrinth is yet another metaphor for the underworld in Greek myth, but the way it's staged here, with the maze located underground, housing an army of zombies, and accessed the same way as Tartarus in the previous film, its parallel story of a descent into the underworld is made explicit.

Once this pattern is set, elements from "Black Orpheus" are used throughout both series. Music composer Joe LoDuca borrowed its hypnotic score for "The Festival of Dionysus," "Chariots of War," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," among others. Its story can be found in the two-part "The Path Not Taken" and "Mortal Beloved;" in fact, Xena's lover, Marcus, even resembles Orfeo from the film, though here he's taken the place of Hades' captive, Eurydice, with Xena acting as Orpheus. Xena takes Orpheus's place in another episode, "Ulysses." There, while in the midst of the Siren episode from "The Odyssey," Xena reenacts the Siren episode from the Jason and the Argonauts myth, wherein Orpheus competed with the tempting songstresses to protect his fellow voyagers. One recognizable motif these shows take from "Black Orpheus" is the name of Eurydice's friend, Serafina. Variations of her name appear throughout "Xena" and "Hercules." We'll spot her as Sarah, Sera, Serena, Seraphin, and finally, Lucifer, whom Xena refers to as Seraphim. The presence of these variations of her name indicates the presence of the theme of sacrifice. Looking further, we can see that the figure of Death that stalks Eurydice, along with his unusual costume, can be seen throughout "Hercules" and "Xena" as well, from the second Hercules film, "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom" all the way to Xena's sixth season episode of "To Helicon and Back" (and note the meaning of that title, taken from the classic film, "To Hell and Back," but also echoing the death and rebirth of "Black Orpheus"!).

Actually, it's hard to pick the episode that borrows the most from "Black Orpheus." Orfeo's search for Eurydice after her death can be seen in "Adventures in the Sin Trade," along with Eurydice (represented here by Gabrielle) seeming to call Orfeo's (i.e., Xena's) name from the underworld. Xena's practice of Siberian shamanism parallels the Afro-Indian shamanism of Brazil in the classic film. The follow-up episode, "A Family Affair," gives us Gabrielle's (i.e. Eurydice's) return in a scene that borrows visually from "Black Orpheus's street scenes, and "In Sickness and in Hell" (a title with another underworld reference!), we see a comedic reprisal of the Orpheus story, only this time, Orpheus/Xena is rescuing her horse! Later that season, we'll see "Black Orpheus" reprised yet again in "Between the Lines," when Gabrielle and Xena reunite in a future life, at very different points in their life, recalling a scene from the film when an old woman channels Eurydice during the Brazilian ritual. We can find more references to "Black Orpheus" in scenes from "Fallen Angel," "Let There Be Light," and "Redemption," to name just a few examples.

If we look to the Greek plays, we'll find more borrowings, particularly from related material such as Euripides' "The Bacchae." Its plot can be easily discerned in "The Festival of Dionysus," "Altared States," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "Lost City," "Atlantis," and to a certain extent, "To Helicon and Back." We'll find visual borrowings from the play in "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," "Return of Callisto," "When in Rome," the "Young Hercules" pilot, "Adventures in the Sin Trade," "Dangerous Prey," and countless others. Much of the show's comedies seem to borrow from the Greek comedies. The only surviving comedy by Euripides is "The Cyclops," about a silly confrontation between Ulysses, the goat man Silenus, and the Cyclops. We'll see bits of this play throughout Xena, but we won't have to look far to find its first appearance: in the credits of the very first episode, we'll see Xena defying Poseidon's curse, as Ulysses did at the end of the play. Shortly afterwards, the Cyclops himself appears, having been previously blinded by Xena (again standing in for Ulysses). The Cyclops traps Gabrielle, whose comic banter is a bit like the comic goat man Silenus, always trying to talk himself out of trouble. It's no surprise, then, to learn that Rob Tapert originally envisioned Pan the goat man as Xena's travelling companion, and as we look ahead to characters like Joxer, or Ares' comic foil, we'll see that he never really discarded the idea...just the name.

The classic horror film "Rosemary's Baby" played a huge role on both shows. It was already a centerpiece to their companion show, "American Gothic," but that arc had to be cut short due to its cancellation, which made it available for use in the Dahok arc of "Xena." The 1960s horror film helped drive the major "Twilight of the Gods" arc that dominated "Hercules" and since it involved giving birth to a child, it was easily adaptable to "Xena." The theme of the devil child can be found throughout in both shows, and quite often it was the source of comedy in such seemingly unrelated episodes as "Bad Eggs and Beanstalks," "Married With Fishsticks," and "Kindred Spirits." It was considered such fertile creative ground that it nearly spun off onto its own series in the form of "Married With Fishsticks." The devil child that begins the Twilight of the Gods arc, Hope, is replaced later by the "devil" child Eve, who ends it as an adult (and the adult Eve, 25 years later, is obviously inspired by Ira Levin's sequel to his novel, "Rosemary's Baby," which uses the same leap in time to portray the baby as an adult). It was the subject of the final "Hercules" episode, "Full Circle," in which Evander, the powerful but irresponsible child of Ares, is used to rescue Hera from the underworld, melding two of the show's major themes in one story.

According to Rob Tapert, another major source for "Xena" and "Hercules" was Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths," which provides a wealth of reference material. For example, if we look at chapter 30 in his book, we'll find the myth of Zagreus. It furnishes the building blocks to perhaps the most popular "Xena" episode of all time: "A Day in the Life." The episode is a comedy, but it uses the Orphic themes from Zagreus's story for its structure, and as a way of linking this episode mythically to the more serious ones. We'll also find throughout the book many of the themes and subtexts that helped give shape to Rob Tapert's unique take on ancient Greece. We've been often told by The Powers That Be on these shows that the "script monster" always needed to be fed. I believe it dined on the finest diet available to the producers: the classic myths, religions and films they already knew and loved. I think that same feast awaits us, too, if we consult the same sources. Ancient Greek audiences loved recognizing how their myths were used and turned upside down in the latest staged production, and I believe they would have loved how "Xena" and "Hercules" used the same techniques, as well.

We'll find more than just classic works used as sources on these shows. On occasion, more contemporary references are employed as they make themselves available. Not long before "A Friend in Need," the series finale that ends both "Xena" and "Hercules," was filmed, another film came out in the theaters: "Snow Falling on Cedars." It's a beautiful and bittersweet story of lost love, sacrifice, and redemption set in the post-World War II era in the Pacific Northwest. The series finale clearly borrows much of its tone, not to mention numerous details, from this film. There's such a strong parallel that I would recommend this film for any "Xena" fan who couldn't bear to watch the show's sad and violent ending. I would even argue that the finale borrows more from this film than from the movie Rob Tapert cited as his homage: "A Chinese Ghost Story." He never mentioned "Snow Falling on Cedars," as far as I know, but I found out about it from Lucy Lawless's ad-lib on the set while filming "A Friend in Need." It wasn't in the script, so she obviously had seen it recently, probably while her husband, Rob Tapert, was preparing to direct the episode. Now that's what I call a happy accident!

Of course, there's much more to these shows than just a compilation of references. But these references serve the stories and characters we love, and by studying the sources and examining the ways they're used, we can not only better understand the craft that assembled these shows, but we can even glimpse that larger vision of these characters and their world that its creators strove to achieve against mighty odds. When we do, the minor inconsistencies will begin to fade in the presence of the more powerful consistencies that give these stories meaning and unity.

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