It’d be easy to ramble on about the
general plot of Callisto, talk about the introduction of Joxer and the
campfire scene that launched a thousand fanfics. But that would be like dwelling
on the workmanship of the frame on the Mona Lisa. So I’ll get to that
other stuff in a bit – but first it’s time to stop and admire the masterpiece in
the middle of the room.
The old Hollywood adage has always been that a good villain makes a great movie.
A weak villain will sink even the best hero. And so it goes for a little show
called, Xena, transformed completely and irrevocably by the best bad girl
in Ancient Greece.
Enter Callisto –with wispy waves of blonde hair, innocent big brown eyes, standing
proudly in her dominatrix leather bikini complete with knee-high boots, and
boasting thin shopping-mall-groupie arms that look incapable of snapping a twig,
let alone mastering Chakram 101 and Swordplay For Serious Stalkers.
With Callisto’s deceiving little-girl looks and constantly surprised expression
comes that bored sing-song high-pitched voice, punctuated by the erratic hisses
of a cornered cougar, the blood-curdling scream that goes right through you and
’50s-style cackles that would put to shame the arch, over-the-top Flash
No doubt she’s an attention grabber. But this Barbie doll on acid is also easily
the show’s greatest villain. Why?
Well she was the only villain who ever had the ability to utterly crush
Xena – and from the inside out. And, worse, she knew it, too.
And how come Callisto was so very good at being bad?
Simple: Callisto is Xena’s own tortured conscience. (Albeit tweaked one or two
rotations into madness.) Plus Callisto shamelessly exploited against Xena the
fact she was her victim. Guilt trumps all for Xena.
The first moment we meet Blonde
Ambition, the Xena bods mirror her with the warrior princess – same
angles, same glimpses of leather outfit from the boots up, same fighting
techniques, and, most crucially, the ability to handle the chakram like Xena
But there’s way more to high-end villainy than mere fighting ability or any
number of the show’s bad ugly guys would be contenders for the Most Evil of Them
What sets Callisto apart is her motivation. She is so dangerous to Xena because
she’s not focused on power, bloodshed, wealth or conquest. She’s not focused on
anything at all except her goal of sticking the knife into Xena, and twisting.
For Callisto – it’s what she lives for. And does she ever have Xena’s number.
Witness this merry little assortment of guilty digs, Callisto style:
Callisto’s favoured little grenade: “Oh no, it’s not her fault at all I dream
every night of my mother’s screams coming from my burning home.”
There’s my personal favourite for its
etiquette-teacher style delivery as though one is merely eating with the wrong
fork: “No, no, no not to fear Xena, I won’t be screaming out like my sister.”
Then the big one, when Xena talks about
justice, pretty much the only thing a reformed killer like the warrior princess
has to cling to when she’s feeling so low, the blonde is there to sweep even
that conceit right out from under her feet with the rejoinder: “Have you ever
been tried for all of the things you’ve done? Have you ever been handed over to
a mob that wanted your blood?”
So powerful are all these verbal jabs,
that Callisto even has Xena wanting to release her. Yes, Xena’s having a
dangerous dose of empathy in this episode and Callisto is just loving it. Twist,
You have to pity Xena as she’s in a
lose-lose situation. For Xena to kill her would be to kill her old self and, at
the same time, paradoxically, to also kill again the victims of her past. To let
Callisto live, is to let her old self live even with all the evil that she knows
would follow. There is no easy answer, and Xena is completely wrong footed by
the entire experience.
Callisto’s line that sums up all of
Xena’s agony best is: “I’m a painful reminder of what you used to be and how you
will never leave it behind.”
There’s little wonder sooner or later
we find Xena gazing blearily into a camp fire seeking answers from the flames.
That is the most beautiful piece of framing, deciding to have the flames in the
foreground, then shooting through them to the actresses.
Flames have such a great imagery all
throughout this episode – for they remind Xena of the deaths in Cirra she caused
plus the birth of vengeful Callisto that she also feels responsible for. They
are used to mirror her past when Xena is trapped in an inferno in Callisto’s
But most powerfully of all, flames can
also represent cleansing. And that’s one of the most touching moments of this
episode. We find ourselves here, in front of the fire, closely watching Xena’s
ice-chip blue eyes coursing with emotion.
Her voice is a sad weary monotone as
she spells out her crimes to Gabrielle. Then, as Gabrielle digests it all, she
suddenly comes alive. She demands, for the first time, something from Xena. She
doesn’t ask – she demands. She wants her friend to stay away from the darkness
When Xena blows her off with a laugh
and a snatched half hug, Gabrielle isn’t buying it for a second. No, she’s not
finishing this conversation without her promise. At that moment you can see the
dawning respect on Xena’s face as she regards Gabrielle with new eyes. The farm
girl from Poteideia, the chatterbox hanger-on who trailed around behind her hero
is gone. In her place is a powerful equal to be reckoned with and accorded with
respect. You sense even without a fire it would be sizzling around these two.
It’s little wonder this scene is viewed
by many fans as Subtext Central. The kid sister dynamic is completely shattered
by it. These women are now equals and sharing a deep, deep friendship – however
you choose to view it. All the penetrating long looks and intimate
fingers-brushing-away-hair gestures, just added to the feeling we’re intruding.
The only jarring moment in that scene
was Xena’s reference to Hercules in her list of people whose deaths might tip
her over the edge. Er. Right. Whatever. Cos she mentions him so often and is
clearly so into him these days.
That aside, this one scene could be
used as a Xena showcase to encapsulate everything you ever needed to know
about the show: Xena’s past, Gabrielle’s relationship to her (she’s fierce and
she’s loyal and her opinion matters), Xena’s tortured soul and her slightly
blokey persona (brusquely wiping away a tear and looking embarrassed at her
lapse of emotion).
What a powerhouse scene.
Of course with all this high-end drama,
from killing women and kids in the opening scene to an unhinged villain cutting
a swathe through Xena’s emotions, you can almost imagine some behind-the-scenes
panic attacks that they were going too dark.
Enter that other, er, villain, Joxer
the Mighty. Even Argo whinnied disdainfully at his self-important intro. You
know, I never minded Joxer in his early days – mainly because he had a certain
self awareness about exactly who he really was: “People don’t fear worthless
idiots so it’s easier to get the drop on them.”
And he knew in his heart he wasn’t all
that as a warrior, his self awareness assisted by Gabrielle expertly
pummeling him at every encounter (oh wait, now I just remembered why I liked
He’s not even all that observant
either, referring to Gabrielle as the “irritating little blonde”. Um, hey mashed
hubcap dude, she’s a redhead here. Oh wait, maybe Joxer’s a seer.
But to be fair, it’s hard to play the
joker and an exposition man, and that’s what Joxer spent a fair bit of time
doing, having Callisto’s evil plots and motivations explained patiently to him
as she derides him mercilessly. Ted Raimi did a fairly good job at taking a very
unflattering character and making him amusing.
Anyway – welcome Joxer.
A couple of quibbles – how did Melas
escape the ropes when he was tied to the tree? (And didn’t Xena feel like a
murderer leaving him there without food or water?)
How did Gabrielle catch up so quickly
to Xena and Callisto when the pair had galloped flat out for miles across the
dunes? And how did Xena know where to look for Callisto’s lair after the blonde
had snatched the bard? And when, oh when, will they stop finding male leads with
the worst accents in the biz? I do wish Melas had been less of a Houdini at
While I am detouring about, I have to
give a huge nod to the fight co-ordinators for the brilliant ladder fight, which
Also, seeing the Xena stunt double take
a huge dive into the side of that sand dune from a horse at full gallop was
nothing short of amazing. Having personally visited that very sand dune I can
tell you it’s incredibly high, and the way she was tumbling down its side made
me pray for more than just her ability to keep sand out of unmentionable places.
That’s bravery. Seriously.
Finally, I can’t finish up without
referring to a passing comment Hudson Leick (Callisto) made at one Xena
convention, when asked if her tortured character would ever find love.
“She’s already found love,” was the
actress’s adamant response.
If you have to ask with whom, well go
back and have another look at this episode and you’ll see Hudson has been busy
value-adding. There is something very sexual in the way Callisto eyes,
manipulates and stalks, her unwitting prey.
Callisto actually slowly and pointedly
kisses Xena’s chakram, her eyes closing sensually. She also wanted all the
details from her second in command, Theodorus, after he’d been interrogated by
“Did she put her touch on you?”
Callisto asks excitedly. She giddily enquires as to whether Xena then let him go
with a warning, with barely concealed excitement. Her delight when he answers
yes is almost blush-worthy, like a schoolgirl being told her dream idol is going
to be asking her to the dance.
They say the line between love and hate
is a thin one. And you’ve got to hand it to Hudson on this – the way she put
layers upon layers into her character was just mind blowing. Every time you
thought you’d figured her character out – monster, victim, flirt, sadist, she
turned the knife again. Another twist, another layer.
I also recall Hudson saying once that
she always preferred working on the Xena set (as opposed to Hercules)
because the cast and crew never made her feel like a chick in a leather bikini,
despite that being exactly what she was.
I would hazard a guess that the Xena
people were so blown away by her untamed talent and characterisation of Callisto
here, that even the thought of objectifying her would have been the last thing
on their minds. Yep, no matter how you slice or ice the cake, in the end, this
episode was completely stolen by Hudson.
She came, she shrieked, she conquered.
No wonder they called the episode