Xena: Warrior Princess Review
‘I thought they were exaggerating when they said it was the Greatest Love Story Ever Told’
During Pride Month 2020, I finally had the will to watch Xena. A show that had been in my to-watch list for years, but never got around to start. And when I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised. It was not what I expected and it was everything I think my eleven year old self would have loved.
The one thing that surprised me about the show, was the lack of packaging. Even though it was a fantasy, it also played with different kinds of genres as well. I’ve talked about this before in my other review — Xena was made at a time when TV had very few rules/rarely had a set audience, since there were parts of the show that were clearly for kids and there were other parts that were clearly for adults (therefore had much more flexibility). I admired how they weren’t afraid to break barriers and touch on deep themes such as religion, morality, redemption, spirituality, motherhood, forgiveness etc — even more than shows of today are able. I also loved how they played into the subject of ‘murder’ and how much it can damage a person — not just the person who commits the act, but the many people affected afterwards. I wasn’t expecting it to be that extreme. It made me think that this must of been the inspiration for Game of Thrones.
I see a lot of comments here and there, saying how ‘cheesy and terrible’ it was but to just accept it because it’s part of the fun. And while like any show it does suffer from the occasional spell of bad writing (the whole of Season Five) but it was also shown to be very aware of that fact and never took itself too seriously — unlike some shows I could mention.
And regarding the ‘cheesy’ factor (what 90s show wasn’t) It definitely can be, but I personally would call it ‘camp’ and ‘experimental’ more than anything else. (Don’t diss the poor use of CGI — I’m personally sympathetic to what was available to them at the time) The style of humour reminded me of Taika Waititi’s filmmaking. If you’ve watched any of his films such as Hunt for The Wilderpeople or Jojo Rabbit, then you know what I’m talking about. I liked how little they cared about being accurate or logical, which added to the ‘bonkers’ element in the show — which you can see in all of Taika Waititi’s films.
In all seriousness, a show centred around two women in their late twenties, who are realistic sizes (not trying to play teenagers). One of whom is a reformed mass murderer, who has lived a life experience, trying to do good in the world for the first time, picking the other one up who has no life experience prior (after they bugged them until they said ‘ok fine’) in their path to redemption. Just two women who become friends travelling the world together, fighting crime, having a laff, learning from one another without any toxicity — when suddenly when the stakes are raised — they both realise ‘oh! I’m actually falling in love with this person’. I have watched a lot of badly written shows in my childhood enough to know that, that’s not ‘cheesy’. I have never seen a story like that in my entire life. I’m not at all surprised that Russel T Davis was inspired by it while writing the Doctor and Rose’s relationship in Doctor Who since he’s gay himself.
What’s more amazing about their love story is how they both develop as separate people as well. There’s this video essay explaining “Why you should watch Angel the spin off series to Buffy; how Buffy The Vampire Slayer was all about growing up and Angel was all about being an adult. With Xena: Warrior Princess, you have both of those stories at the same time.
The Character of Xena was such a multifaceted experience to watch. In the words of Quentin Tarantino ‘her back story is quite magnificent’. And I can’t imagine anyone else who could play her as well as Lucy Lawless. What planet did they get that actress from? She’s flawless! The amount of skill she has to put herself into a very physical role is astonishing. I personally had a love/hate relationship with her character all series long. Not in the way that I hated her, just that I couldn’t trust if she was all good or bad, which I know was intentional on the writers part. I haven’t seen a character quite like her before. She felt very much like a fallen angel; almost like the villain of her own story. Some of my favourite episodes come from fleshing out her character and dark past (‘Locked up and Tied Down’ is one of them) which reminds the audience that’s she’s not the stereotypical hero everyone expects. I loved her transformation from being this incredibly stoic warrior to being content and happy with who she is in season six, all because of a woman she fell in love with along the way.
I’ve always thought of Gabrielle as the real hero and narrator of Xena. She’s the prime example of ‘a normal person becoming extraordinary’. Gabrielle’s coming of age story starting out as an innocent farm girl dreaming of adventure, and ending as this vicious warrior who realises the ‘adventure’ wasn’t how she made it out to be is honestly the best character arc that I’ve ever seen. I loved how travelling with Xena made her realise her passion for writing (which was never going to happen in her home town, given the ‘sexist’ and ‘heteronormative’ ideas) and that she became an Amazon princess like Xena. In regards to her sexuality, which is more up for debate than Xena’s (which I think we can all agree is bisexual) I personally interpret her as gay, just in terms of how she was written. There’s this moment in ‘Between the Lines’ where she’s being held up by her hair, and Xena symbolically cuts it ‘freeing her’. And she never really gets with a man afterwards, unless she’s being ‘possessed’. It reminded me of a moment in one of Hayao Miyasaki’s films Laputa, Castle in the Sky where the bad man Muska shoots Sheeta’s ‘princess hair off’ which symbolises her transition from child to adult.
The cinematography was breathtaking. There was some great utilisation of New Zealand as the scenery. So was the soundtrack. You could tell it was made by experienced filmmakers. One of my favourite things about the show was the domestic elements — moments in the show where time seemed to stop — which made the world around the characters seem very real and magical. Even though it was a show that featured a lot of action/adventure, there was also this gentleness to it as well. For example, you could feel the wetness of the rain, the warmth of the sun and the clashing of the waves. This technique is used in Hayao Miayasaki’s work a lot .
“If you just have non stop action, with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension” — Hayao Miyasaki
To my understanding, they used a lot of the local actors in New Zealand, which according to Lucy Lawless, consisted of ‘African Immigrants and other different ethnicities’. It was so refreshing to see such a diverse show (despite some major slip ups) especially in the 90s. I appreciated the idea that if the actors or extras couldn’t do an ‘American accent’ they could just talk in their natural speech which was also very refreshing. As much as I loved many of the side characters that joined (and left) their travels such as Lila, Ephiny, Amarice, Joxer, Lao Ma — the narrative never needed to give them closure to tell a fufilling story; as the show was primarily about Xena and Gabrielle. You don’t get many shows like that anymore.
The LGBT Representation was surprisingly amazing. I never expected so many queer characters in one show — especially under the censors. There was this one episode ‘Here She Comes…Miss Amphipolis’ where they had a trans woman — played by an actual trans actress — win a beauty contest. It made me cry. Not to mention the actress was an aids activist at the time. It was apparently Lucy Lawless’ idea to kiss her which was incredibly controversial considering how everyone thought you could catch aids just by kissing. I can definitely see how it validated people back in the 90s.
When people told me that Xena: Warrior Princess was one of the greatest love stories ever told, I thought they were exaggerating a little. But no, watching the show in context, I found out that it really is. Despite its obvious restrictions, It made me realise (regarding token gay couples today) how often television writers rely on physicality and drama to convey a ‘love story’ and how much of it is actually pandering the audience. One of the reasons why Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship felt so genuine is because it was built on mutual respect/compassion and they were also best friends. I felt like I was witnessing something very real and private. It didn’t need kissing scenes or drama to make it interesting.
It really helped that most of the writers were queer also. There’s an opening scene in ‘Locked Up and Tied Down’, panning over to Gabrielle giving Xena a massage (a coded metaphor for sex — because they weren’t allowed to show that on screen) which I consider to be one of the most iconic scenes in media — considering how I wanted to sick up my supper when I watched the ten minute ‘empty’ explicit sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour. The difference when something is written by a queer women verses a straight man.
Because the creators weren’t allowed to write their love story in the normal way, due to the studio forbidding them to, they found creative ways to showcase that love on screen — which made for a very magical/sensual experience. And I can safely say, if anyone has doubts about watching Xena, whenever I expected to be queerbaited at a few points in the show, I was proved wrong time and time again.
It’s the most romantical show I’ve ever seen in my life!