My local butcher makes a special dish he
calls Chicken Surprise. Once you get past the bright and cheerfully herbed outer
chicken skin you discover chunks of lamb and beef. Every time I see this dish’s
bizarre ingredient list I can’t work out whether to be charmed by its amusement
value or faintly disturbed on some deeper level.
So, too, it goes with The Greater
Good, the Xenaverse’s own Chicken Surprise.
On the surface is the usual silly
nonsense of bad guys plotting dastardly conquest schemes and bellowing “arrrghs”,
while Xena and Gabs ham it up with them, each other, and now even Argo. But cut
through that goofy comfortable layer and there’s a surprisingly dense and dark
plot underneath to affect its startled viewers.
To cut to the chase – a hero, Xena,
(seemingly) dies. Her friends must cope.
But unlike many other shows, there were
no long gazes off into the distance while everyone just strikes a dramatic pose
for three beats and then just moves on.
Although the plan was indeed for
everyone to move on, the fact is, in The Greater Good they didn’t let us
process anything in the usual way. We were forced to dwell in uncomfortable
corners and look at things when we’d rather turn away. They lingered on Xena’s
“death” and the pain of her friends. The zoomed in on the loss and the awfulness
when it would have been easier to cut to “NEXT DAY, EXT, VILLAGE, SUNSHINE.”
Instead we were left there, right there,
heart in mouth, with Salmoneus as he stepped over one dead thug and turned to
see another form on the floor, a dawning horror crossing his face. We felt his
awful shock of seeing a broken, bared, vulnerable Xena tossed aside on a
scattering of old, dirty straw lying so unnaturally still. Without her armor on,
she seemed so small, so lost and yet, so beautiful. No longer was this a larger
than life legend favoured by the gods – she was just a broken human being.
Salmoneus gathered her up in his big
bearish arms, his shaking hand seeking a pulse, a breath, anything, and then
cradling her more gently than you could ever imagine the man could, and telling
her he would miss her. It’s significant he was one of the few people who knew
her well as both bad Xena and good Xena. And we were there, right there with
him, holding her too.
Then we felt his agony of having to tell
Gabrielle – and the man, being as astute as he is, knew exactly how much her
heart would break.
We watched her struggle with her
composure, kiss Xena goodbye, try to keep everything together as Xena would have
wanted and then, finally, we felt every bone shuddering thwack as Gabrielle
rained blows into a tree. And it all felt so uncomfortable, so sad and -so real.
Yep, those naughty Xenabods put us
through the wringer.
These were emotional depths that the
show Xena had never really gone near or hinted at before, and suddenly
realizing they would even do this was a huge revelation. It must have made an
awful lot of people, who had been dismissing this as Herc-style
kiddytainment, sit up and pick their jaws up off the floor.
This episode made clear the show’s
potential from that moment on.
Serious stuff over – time to look at the
odd bits of stuffing that held this Chicken Surprise together.
I have to laugh at how Xena takes out a
row of bloke’s phallic symbols – swords and arrows, in a single chakram throw.
Some of the soldiers looked most deflated.
Witness Xena’s worst ever fighting
maneuver which I will dub Windmilling Arms of Destruction. How did the extras
not laugh? How did a dizzy Lucy/stunt double not land on her face? The mysteries
of it all.
Best moment ever – Gabrielle
unequivocally saving Xena’s life in a fight – and not through words. She
javelin-tossed her staff right into the thug who was about to skewer Xena with
such power I kept waiting for a little Olympic official to run out with a tape
Weirdest exit ever – OK now I have seen
some weird things in my time, but nothing beats arrow-poisoned Xena hanging off
Argo on one side, both feet dangling, and Gabrielle mirroring her on the other,
and the mare affecting the big getaway with no one in the saddle. Like the
Windmilling Arms of Destruction, above, I suggest the stars Just Say No.
Sweetest moment – Gabrielle furiously
telling off Xena because the big WP hadn’t told her earlier about her poisoning.
That doesn’t sound too sweet but it is when you consider Xena let her do
it. This finally confers some actual relationship status on Gabrielle. Mere tag-alongs
who may be given their marching orders any moment don’t get nagging rights. Only
a real partner can say such a thing to the Warrior Princess and get away with
it. I also love Xena’s droll comeback: “Gabrielle? Yell at me later.”
Gotta love, love, love Salmoneus, now
and forever. In this episode he leant a touch of class, and the way he dealt
with Xena’s “dead” body was so beautifully acted. That man was woefully
underutilised in both RenPic productions. Pity.
Meanwhile, Argo – this episode marks the
start of a beautiful friendship. Gabs and Argo make peace, and who knew the
horse was so super? Laughed at the mare kicking warrior butt.
And while we’re on the topic – wasn’t
Gabrielle stunning in her fight scenes? Now if she could just work on not
picking her fights when an entire army is between her and her goal, she might
have a bit more luck. As it turns out, yet again, she winds up with a knife held
at her throat. Will some things never change?
Subtext alert – well where to start?
There was Xena’s hand on Gabs’s shoulder and her empathic squeeze when the bard
is telling her about her pony, Tippany. “That’s what happens to things you love
- sometimes they just leave you,” Gabrielle says in an aching voice. And then
looks pointedly at Xena.
Um, I don’t think they were still
talking about the horse. In which case, Gabrielle just told the big lug she
loves her. Hence the cute shoulder squeeze – assuming Xena was astute enough to
get the message. And no one has ever accused Xena of being dumb. *grin*
On a similar topic – the last line of
the episode was always bittersweet for subtexters. Gabrielle jokes she might be
going all soft on Xena. The WP replies “Wouldn’t want that, would we?” It’s not
what she says - clearly she’s smiling and joking - it’s what she does next. Xena
actually winces, as though the thought is icky to her. It’s not like she’s doing
that for Gabrielle’s benefit as the bard isn’t even looking at her. So I hope
those worried studio chiefs were sufficiently pleased by that grimace, which was
probably done for their benefit. i.e. Please observe, there’s no way that woman
likes that other woman, got it?
Next - I know many a fan regards
Gabrielle kissing Xena on the lips as a big subtext moment – me, I tend to think
it’s just what you might do when a friend passes away. But true it is the first
lip-on-lip touch for the pair, especially given Xena is so prone to plant kisses
on the top of Gabrielle’s head all the time, but never anywhere one might
construe as romantic.
Actually what I loved about that scene
was the way Gabrielle played with Xena’s hair. Straightening it, smoothing it,
as though trying to make it right. To me that was far more loving and
affectionate than the kiss. And we’ve all kissed aunties and uncles we don’t
want to, but who plays with their hair? It was so heart breaking.
As a result of how tender that farewell
was, I felt we were a little robbed when Xena bounces back to life, literally,
and they decided to play her resurrection for laughs. Gabrielle appears like a
perky cheerleader and announces: “Glad to have you back. Don’t you ever do this
again”, while Xena smirks and retorts: “Gabrielle we’re in the middle of a
After all that draining emoting earlier
it was a bit of a let down for the reunion to be two smart-alec lines delivered
as a joke. Ah well.
Now then, quibbles time – Is Xena part
of some religious sect that prohibits medical treatment? Why did she not even
try to look for an antidote? It’s not like she knew she would live – she
actually discussed funeral arrangements with Gabrielle.
I wasn’t a fan of dressing Gabs up in
Xena’s costume – she always looked ridiculous to me. She also seemed to be
wearing Xena’s getup for an inordinately long amount of time (can anyone say
They also wasted an opportunity for a
big reveal when doing the slow pan up of Gabrielle slapping on the leather gear,
by having Xena watching on in the background. It would have been a much greater
tease to have Gabs revealed in the last moment, as we’d have been half convinced
it really was Xena.
Quibbles over. It really wasn’t about
the flaws anyway. The point of The Greater Good is the potential it
unveiled, the mission plan laid out (now we all officially know why Xena does
what she does and how Gabrielle will follow suit) and the show flirting with a
breathtaking depth of emotion.
I know the first time I saw this
episode I simply couldn’t believe how much they’d made me feel for characters
who, until that moment had been roughly sketched out 2D cartoons. You know - The
hero and her sidekick – woohoo, watch them kick butt, defy gravity, flirt, and
do things with a metal disc that are just impossible. That pretty much was the
extent of it.
And then along came The Greater Good.
It made the leap away from the two dimensional and into the 3D, where the
show has stayed, give or take a few detours, ever since. There’s little doubt it
finally began to start living up to its potential from this moment on. And what
a turning point it was.
So while I never could bring myself to
try my butcher’s Chicken Surprise, the Xenaverse’s version is definitely worthy