Passing Parade: Robert Trebor (Salmoneus), Kevin J. Wilson (Xerxes), Nigel Harbrow (Koulos), Emma Turner (Flora), Ian Hughes (Diomedes), Maggie Tarver (Hermia), Ross Duncan (Parnassus), John Dybvig (Brigand (Ox), Jonathan Bell-Booth (Chief Guard), John Pemberton (Arresting Guard), Tim Hosking (Blacksmith), Colin Francis (The Grump), Adam Middleton (Black Wolf Sympathizer), Jimmy Rawdon (Father)
Story So Far: Xena gets thrown into jail to help free a childhood friend who is part of a band of freedom fighters.
The blacksmith working hard on a cold horseshoe. He obviously charges by the hour.
When Gabrielle outs herself to Salmoneus as Xena’s friend. The usually surly Warrior Princess’s expression dissolving into one of undeniable pride was priceless.
"Would you believe Xena taught me to swing a sword and embroider linen for my wedding chest?" Yes. And no.
"I threatened all of you Black Wolves individually and as groups, it made no difference…" Koulos having proving totally ineffective as a general’s second-in command tries boring his prisoners into submission with long-winded ineffectual exposition.
Xena: "Oh don’t bother the dears, they’re sleeping."
Here’s a quick test. Have you ever watched Black Wolf more than twice on a home-owned copy? If yes, was it willingly? If yes, was alcohol involved? If no, was it only to watch the ever-cool Salmoneus? If no, was it for a bet? No?! Man, you are just freaking me out. You should probably skip this review and immediately cease operating heavy machinery and get a lab to check what’s in your brownies. Everyone else, read on – it’s plot-splatting time.
Black Wolf is one of those episodes which is incredibly embarrassing to watch in mixed company (i.e. Xena fans and non-Xena fans), because you will spend half your time justifying to perplexed loved ones why the show’s usually sooo much better. You’ll be explaining futilely that the show does get better, no really…. followed by you urgently fumbling to find your copy of The Debt while talking a little too-fast and hysterically about the rollicking good times of bad Xena who kidnaps small children and flings hairpins around with deadly intent. But by then it’s too late and the damage is done and they’re already backing towards the door. Curse you, Black Wolf.
Alas, the cringe factor begins the moment the atrocious Kiwerican accents start up from Xerxes’ men and peaks moments later as the tiny handful of Black Wolf ninjas save the day. Then they try vainly to make their triumphant victory roars sound more than just four extras going "raaagh, raaagh" like a few de-motivated pirates.
There’s no mention of Gabrielle in the opener, making one initially wonder if she’s back being princess of the Amazons or something. And so Xena is left to do all her plot exposition with Argo in the first scene … although it’s a rather one-sided conversation. Seems they both need new shoes. You’d think Salmoneus would have fixed her up with a boot company sponsorship deal by now. I can see the new logo already: "Buy these boots or else."
Enter Flora – and never a more innocuous sounding name was there. If that wasn’t the head’s up there was more to the girl than meets the eye, we also learn that the big X, one of the greatest conquerors of all times, taught this little slip of a thing swordplay. With Xena as your sensei, just how harmless could Flora possibly be?!
I love the line "it must be 10 years since I saw you last". Yes, yes, we all know Xena had a very full dance card 10 years ago. Looting, rioting, raiding, invading… teaching Swordplay 101. But just for once, I would love an eight or nine-year-old recollection. Ah well.
Here’s where we discover one of the most profoundly fascinating things ever revealed in the Xenaverse. Namely, Xena can embroider. Go girl! Somehow you just know Cyrene was behind that somehow. You know, I’ll give Black Wolf this – it does introduce one of the most beloved sayings: "I have many skills."
It’s priceless the way Lucy delivers the line and it’s wonderful they kept returning to it.
Curiously Xena is chakram-less, having left her prized weapon with Argo – a most unwarriorly thing to do. It has never left her hip even when she’s upside down in the middle of the ocean swimming against a tsunami. Can someone spell plot point? P-L-O… (oh don’t be a smart alec.)
Anyway, so Xena, minus one chakram and one chatty bard, is off to save her childhood friend. Into the dungeon she bounces but not without embarrassing the head guard in a particularly delicious moment sarcastically telling him how he makes a comeback. Naturally revenge is sweeter than even Flora’s name, so Xena next discovers what it’s like to be a pickled onion. But I can’t say I am as fond of seeing Xena attempting an underwater scream from the prison’s water hole while making her big break. Xena, sweetie, you don’t know where that water’s been. And how embarrassing would it be to drown mid-escape? Pity Salmoneus having to explain that one to Gabrielle.
Which brings us to – Salmoneus, bearer of the biggest grin in all of Ancient Greece, he’s friend to everyone (who can help him), seller of all things (most of questionable merit), a born survivor. And he’s also the one thing that saved this episode from being in my kill-me-now-rather-than-see-it-again Xena stack. No, wait, even Robert Trebor’s not THAT good. But he did a mighty job with a lean script.
His best-delivered line, in explaining to a large ruffian why he needs the man’s item of apparel: "That belt really ruins the line of that ensemble."
Only Salmoneus could ever do that line justice. Written down it’s nowhere near as funny as Trebor makes it brilliant with a flourish of wriggling fingers and eyebrows pointing to the heavens. His other classic moment is discovering Xena has a friend – namely Gabrielle – who has smuggled in Xena’s chakram disguised as the world’s most out of place hat. "YOU have a friend?!" he asks. Snicker.
The comic talents of both Renee and Trebor were a real delight to watch as they played off each other. Sadly their scenes together were far too brief.
The way they played with the "hands on Gabrielle’s tomatoes" line was priceless – the look on Xena’s face was brilliant, and the first real sign she’s distinctly territorial when it comes to her bard. One thing I have always enjoyed about Salmoneus is that he is smart, and highly – and you can sense he made a distinct mental note at that moment about what just transpired. It’s probably the reason he’s a survivor – he’d be the first one to figure out never to lay a finger on the head of any woman Xena has decreed a "friend" – and particularly one to whom she is a little too proprietorial about. He probably knew before they did just how "special" that friendship would be.
Next comes possibly the show’s worst metaphor for life, for so many reasons. Xena, the tree, and Flora.
Ever wonder what Xena would have been like to have around as a friend growing up? Would she have been a loner? A daredevil? An athletic champ? How about a really mean tease who repeatedly tricked her smaller, hero-worshipping childhood chum and then laughed about it? And later, (here’s the really clever bit), she’ll disguise this borderline cruelty as some misunderstood deep life lesson that her friend failed to grasp at the time. (Must remember that one for the next office Christmas party. e.g. "But sir, it was a life lesson – you merely misunderstood that my mocking of your ill-fitting toupee was to help you grow emotionally!")
For those still suppressing the memory, here’s the recap. Flora reminds Xena that when she was younger, Xena would climb a tree and offer her hand out to the smaller girl who could not reach the branch on her own. "You gotta have faith, you got to," Xena tells her. And, at the last minute, she would pull her hand away.
Flora couldn’t understand why someone she admired would do this.
I’m with Flora.
It turns out the moral to this story was teaching Flora to have faith in herself. Well there are a few problems with this – if you are physically too small to climb a tree on your own, all the faith in the world isn’t going to make it happen or change the fact you’re not taller. It was not a lesson in self worth and self-belief at all but one about not trusting others, even your friends. A lesson in how to be let down, deal and move on. While this might be a worthwhile lesson (if you’re pretty jaded), why pretend it’s anything else? No, if you want to teach someone to stand on their own two feet, do it on a task that they CAN actually win at.
Here’s the second problem with that story. Later, when Xena is about to reveal Flora’s identity, she turns to her and reminds her of the tree story. "Do you have faith?" she whispers to Flora, echoing what she’d asked her as a child. Now if I was Flora, having learned the lessons of young Xena only too well, those words would have sent a chill down my spine. For Xena was, strictly speaking, warning Flora not only to not trust her, but that she is on her own! Not the best story to invoke when you’re trying to convey the very opposite.
The last problem with the story is it just seems, well, mean. I don’t like to think of the Warrior Princess as mean – and it just irks me a little that they had her as one of those annoying kids who liked to tease others for sport (lesson be damned, it WAS for sport).
Speaking of annoying, there’s Xerxes. He has a certain charm but he was also a little, well, stupid. Xena tries to convince him her plan to expose the Black Wolf would have worked if his stupid guard hadn’t foiled the escape. Of course, if the escape had gone ahead then the Black Wolf would be gone, gone, gone and that fact should have given Xerxes a huge heads up as to which side Xena’s really on. But he didn’t plot her plan to its logical conclusion and so foolishly sends her back in to complete the job. I have to say though, she did great, financially, out of that guy – 10 grand and a new pair of shoes? I am thinking it’s five-star taverns and spa baths for a few months to come.
When the escape is finally perfected, you have to hand it to that chakram. It slices through axe handles and chains – and what angles! I am surprised every warrior in ancient Greece isn’t clamouring for one!
On the subject of axes, watching Xerxes impaled on the handle of a battleaxe left me somewhat puzzled – did they have a habit of sharpening the ends of those suckers in ancient times or something? Weirdest death ever on this show. (And that is saying something.)
We get to see Gabrielle in her second fight – her nice Ephiny staff is now missing – a pity as I thought it made for an impressive weapon. Although, in hindsight it looked far too heavy for poor old Ren to swing around. Glad to see she has yet another set of new threads – these are finally flattering and functional. Excellent.
It’s all over now and one surmises they all live happily ever after. Or do they? I was thinking that overthrowing Xerxes could still create a few problems for the villagers – I mean no matter how you look at it they’re still a bunch of tax evaders Ah, but the Xenabods thought of that and added the line from Flora: "We already have some people in the Government so it won’t be difficult." Hmm, no offence, but if they already had people in Government then why on earth didn’t they get the matter resolved politically without resorting to ninja getup and bored pirate raarghs? I guess because that would instead make Flora the leader of a band of crusading bureaucrats and that’s up there with whale song musack for action value.
So finally we have the last scene – Flora reunited with her mother. They missed an absolute dead easy laugh by having her comment on her sweet daughter being the Black Wolf and how she was in such huge trouble. But that was the problem with this episode – many, many chances to make it better than what it was were passed by (more Salmoneus and Gabrielle just for starters) and we ended up with a paint-by-numbers prison-break effort.
The accents and acting of the blow-ins were almost universally awful, Flora excluded. The metaphor involving Flora and the tree (no pun intended) which the whole episode seemed to be hung off was simply plain wrong and a little off. Gabrielle’s role was miniscule. And the only thing keeping it all together was Xena’s sheer force of personality and a hilarious Salmoneus who could make standing in a corner funny.
In sum, give it a miss, and whatever you do, keep this episode far away from friends, family, loved ones. Well, pretty much everyone come to think of it.