This is the second Xena episode I ever saw (after Hooves and Harlots) and at the time it seemed like witnessing some confusing, bizarre director’s LSD trip. I still remember the burning questions muddling my brain: Why did the woman in leather have an exact clone? Didn’t anyone think that was incredibly strange? What - no one?
Why does a strange whoosh noise come out of that woman’s head whenever she so much as looks in a different direction?
And why did that oddly off-centre, monotone-sounding American actress sound like a full-blown Kiwi when playing a princess?
Well with the marvellous benefit of hindsight, I can answer these simple questions:
1. Clearly Zeus is into cloning experiments. Duh.
2. Whoosh noises come from excessive Pilates workouts, Ancient Greek style (since perfected in the modern age).
3. And Lucy Lawless is most definitely a New Zealand actress – although granted, she’s still slightly off-centre – as in, she’ll never be your typical mainstream missy. Thank the gods.
This episode gave viewers perhaps their first real evidence that Lucy Lawless could act. Oh don’t give me that outraged look – we all know the talented big lug was more than a little rough around the edges in season one, shading variously between girly girl and uber-butch, depending on script and whim, all while boasting every accent and affectation between these two polar opposites.
Occasional viewers who took a gander at that flatly even, flavour-of-US accent she bunged on in these earliest episodes – as she tried valiantly to reign in her wayward Kiwi vowels – must have wondered what planet she’d landed from. (I don’t know either, but I’d sure like to visit).
But then, like a bolt from the blue, came this marvelous detour which was cleverly and deftly acted. While just about anyone can do a strong silent type and strike a few hero poses as they utter monosyllabic musings, few actors can character-hop as Lucy does, from extreme to extreme so effectively and instantly that you can actually forget it’s the same actress playing both roles.
But more on the princess and her warrior double later.
The plot of Warrior Princess is a bit of a yawn – adhering closely to that Xena rule that no arranged marriage ever goes unpunished. Also no arranged marriage is ever without someone set to swoop in and declare eternal love for one of the participants at any given moment.
The usual cheerfully stupid plot holes exist – namely an assassin ON FIRE can escape despite an entire castle full of guards looking for his blackened, smoke-trailing, sorry ass. With or without help from two traitors inside the castle, that sooty little fireball still shouldn’t have gotten too far. But then these aren’t the brightest cherry tomatoes in your average Grecian salad bowl.
Mystery of the ancient universe number 2: How come Philemon could immediately recognize Diana wasn’t the woman he loved at the castle, but couldn’t spot the woman he did love when she was dressed as Xena?
And of course the biggest plot stretch of them all – how did Xena know they’d eventually figure out that a murder, not suicide, had taken place and they’d go looking for her, calling her back to the palace? (And by the way, she didn’t half telegraph that revelation to the audience, the way she pointedly looked all around the room.)
Think about it – if all the palace folks had been a bit dim (and we’re not led to believe anything but), then no one would have ever gone after Diana (who was playing Xena) and so Princess Di would have been away, trekking far and wide with Gabrielle for days (missing her own wedding), while Xena, in disguise as Diana, could have technically wound up being married to the princess’s beau as she waited to be attacked.
This is one of those scary examples of how the characters are there to serve the plot and not the other way around.
All this aside though, the plot was merely white noise – a backdrop to the liberal amount of fun taking place front and centre. And for this we have Diana and Gabrielle to thank. Their scenes were an utter joy to watch. Namely…
Diana trying to convince Gabrielle she’s not Xena – and Gabrielle convinced Xena is testing her. Gabs is all narrow-eyed, pumped up and "right!" while Diana is yipping like a chihuahua, squealing "papa" and girly-running then diving for the foliage at the first hint of trouble. It was almost as funny as the sight of the princess daintily riding side saddle while wearing the proud warrior princess’s leathers.
Then there’s Diana explaining the "round killing thing" to her impressed unwashed masses, complete with a crazed demonstration which gave the king a crown-lobotomy. It’s a good thing he was her daddy or in any other lands that’d count as an attempted regicide.
Diana leaping behind Gabrielle when thugs appear. This is where you truly get a feel for just how small the bard is compared to her lanky companion. As far as camouflage goes, the bard makes a great, er, bonsai shrub.
Diana brushing Argo’s tail 1000 times. Note the unimpressed whinnying. Clearly that horse is no show pony. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
The attention to detail throughout these scenes was great and the humour being teased out of Gabrielle was revelatory when this first aired – we knew she was funny, but THIS funny? Go Ren.
Speaking of Gabrielle, the episode boasts a massive character turning point which often gets overlooked. When the bard finally realizes Diana/Xena isn’t going to save her despite the
Kidnapped Bard/Knife at Throat/Dramatic Help-Help Scream for Rescue™ , Gabs simply picks up her walking staff and clobbers said thug with it. (Wouldn’t Lilla be surprised.)
It was effective, non-lethal and punishingly perfect. It was the most brilliant fit of a weapon to any character. Perhaps after the previous episode and her silly attack with the funny-bunny bag, even the writers realized she can’t travel with Xena for too much longer without lifting a finger toward her own protection. The viewers would grow weary of her constant kidnappings and damsel in distress lameness, and lose any respect for her.
In case you think it was straining credibility that Gabrielle could somehow instantly master a staff – this episode also reveals Xena has been training her. Gabrielle asks Diana/Xena for some warning if she’s being tested and also mentions that it’s "test day". So Xena has been preparing her, even if we haven’t seen it.
On the flip side we see Diana played by Xena. Please, she could convince no one with that predatory glare around every room and lethal cat-on-the-hunt stride. But let’s congratulate whichever clever scribe it was who came up with the world’s most deadly and novel use of a harp. The four arrows flying from it and Xena’s almost demonic look are completely hilarious.
Also worth a giggle is Xena/Diana’s fight where she has to pretend to be a helpless princess while warding off a horde of fighters. Every time Philemon’s back is turned she is thumping and whacking up a storm; whenever he turns to look at her, she is sedately admiring the ferns. Very funny.
Given Brenda Lilly wrote this episode, I wonder if that fight isn’t also a cleverly subversive little dig at the early female action heroes who always had to give credit to the men folk after saving the day, so the male egos in the vicinity would be protected – e.g. Wonder Woman. For all those who thought the name Princess Diana was just a nod to the late British royal, ask yourself – what was Wonder Woman’s real name and title? Ah yes, Princess Diana… Makes you wonder.
So if there was a bit of nudge-wink feminist subversion taking place in that scene, and I really wouldn’t put it past them, then Xena beautifully and pointedly got the last laugh at the end of that fight by telling Philemon "You were so brave" and then patting his arm oh-so condescendingly. What Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman) would have given to get away with that!
This episode we also discover that Gabrielle truly bites as a poet "… a world of broken sieves" makes no sense in anyone’s language, sweetie. Don’t give up your day job. Oh wait… that is your day job. Ever thought of being a sidekick? (For the record: point me to any acclaimed poem in ancient or modern history with the word sieve in it. *grin*)
We also find out that Xena is into leaving Gabrielle behind a fair bit, although some might argue it’s a sign of trust. I argue it’s a sign of traveling at the speed of plot again. It wouldn’t be nearly as funny if Gabrielle hadn’t been left to camp outside and wait for the princess to show up pretending to be Xena. And bear in mind it wasn’t Xena who raced back to the palace leaving an irked Gabrielle behind – we find out later it was Diana. Just as well… for Xena’s sake!
The subtext count in Warrior Princess was minimal for those who keep track – although one might raise half an eyebrow at how Xena sees Gabrielle’s job description – "waiting on hand and foot and fulfilling her every whim". Every whim? Oh my… that’s a tall order given one supposes Xena’s whims are not just nut bread, yodelling and swordplay. That impressive demand aside, you could really feel the companionship starting to grow between the pair in this episode. The friendship the two actresses share is definitely starting to seep across into their characters. Love it.
In the final analysis, this is a Xena episode containing the minimum of what all Xena eps should have – a bit of humour, Xena and Gabs interaction, a bearable plot, and some great action and acting.
So is it rewatchable? Sure it is, in a "oh no, a car wreck, oh wait, look, there’s Paris Hilton" head-snap kind of way. But it is notable for the fact viewers discover Lucy can really act. And also now we have our first taste of little Gabby with her very big staff, so what’s left to say but - bring it on!