OK, suck in a shuddering breath then pinch yourself as you remember how this show started out. Namely as a female Hercules - mere equal-opportunity kiddytainment for the tween girl crowd. Now if there was ever any doubt that someone in Xena camp has been going wildly off script, Return of Callisto is it. And all I can say is ‘‘thank you’’.
This episode was completely riveting. It was a coming-of-age story with revenge, love, and loss all tumbled in, not to mention a gripping role-reversal as Xena must counsel Gabrielle on the dangers of choosing the path of hatred. Oh the irony.
It made me utterly love the new depths of both the character and the show Xena – depths which had only ever been hinted at before.
Who ever thought they’d see Xena down on one knee praying for the light that is in Gabrielle’s soul not to leave her? Because she couldn’t stand the darkness left behind? Wow.
Who ever thought they’d see a grief-enraged Gabrielle viciously jabbing at Xena with a sword to get her to train her in the dark arts of swordplay so she can have her vengeance?
Who ever thought they’d see a normally noble hero just sit back and not lift a finger to rescue someone calling out, pleading for help? Just "bye, bye you sick little …" ahem.
From the first moment Callisto eyeballs her tormentor guard, and gives him that infamous malevolent death stare while smirking and sing-songing "Here piggy, piggy, piggy" the little skitter that went up my spine stayed there all episode long.
Got to love Hudson Leick, because she never turns in a bad performance, and Callisto in this episode is chillingly perfect. Oh how she loves to toy – and her pet passion for swatting is Xena. She gets extra evil points for still being the only villain to correctly figure out the Warrior Princess’s Achilles heel.
Speaking of that bard from Poteideia, all her hormonally-charged ships have finally come in it seems, with a wedding proposal from her Extreme Makeover former fiancé. Yep, after all that boy-crazy talk, episode after episode, she’s finally nabbed her man, Perdicus v2.0.
Is yay the right word here?
Someone really should have sat him down and had a talk to him about the black-widow side-effects of dating a certain redhead though.
Not that Gabrielle seems that into Perdicus – despite confessing to Xena that she thinks she fell in love with him in Troy. Could have fooled me. And everyone else it seems.
This is possibly the least well-telegraphed, biggest bolt-from-the-blue grand love affair in TV history ever – well bar only Chakotay and Seven’s ridiculous insta-hookup in Star Trek: Voyager.
Perdicus is not exactly a huge one for romance, is he? How many dates have they had post-reuniting since she first fled the idea of married life with him to be with Xena?
Oh that’s right, none. Yes, none.
Handholding attempts then? None.
Whisperings of sweet nothings in each others’ ears? None.
Number of times the bard has even actually mentioned Perdicus’s existence since departing Troy and allegedly falling for him? None.
And yet, two seconds after seeing Gabrielle again, Perdicus is on one knee PROPOSING. What the? Does he get bonus points for speed? (Not a good sign for the wedding night, Gabs.)
So why the haste? Is it the Las Vegas Britney Spears quickie-vows-between-drinks sort of deal? At least Britney had the excuse of of a near-drunken coma. What’s Gabrielle’s?
Or does she just like ditching Xena repeatedly to see the heart-rending mix of "my soul is now officially crushed" looks as the WP does those sad little farewell waves (this one conducted while holding the wedding bouquet, no less)? Ouch.
So what ditching-the-warrior-princess number are we up to now? Four times? Five?
It’s a pity they rushed for another reason – I reckon Xena could have run a kick-ass bridal shower. Probably literally. The mind boggles.
Well for whatever reason – and despite Gabs not being wooed at all by the supposed love of her life she never mentions, nor being off her face on last season’s bin 30BC - she said yes. Because he said he needed her and Xena didn’t.
I did laugh at Xena’s eye roll when Gabrielle excitedly declares her beau to be sensitive and kind. I’d be tempted to say, "Um, how would you know? Have you even had a conversation with him lasting longer than 20 words?"
Then there’s the poor, long-suffering Xena. She tried to do the noble thing and give Gabrielle her blessing. She didn’t want to be the reason the bard gives up the dream she appears to have been harbouring all this time for domestic bliss (despite having fled her home in fear of it, go figure).
Gabrielle almost begs her to give her a reason to stay but Xena is Xena. She thinks she doesn’t deserve to ask for good things, or people, in her life after all the bad she’s done. And so she says what she thinks she’s supposed to say, and then tells Gabrielle her first and most outrageous lie: "I’m so happy for you."
Sure you are, sweetie. And the moon is made of cheese.
And by the way, this can’t have been the match made in heaven for others either or else Gabrielle’s family would have turned up. You’d think even Lila would show if only to talk some sense into little sis and remind her why she did a runner last time Perdicus was her fiancé. No such luck.
Really, again I ask, why the rush?
Anyway, the look that launched a thousand fan-fics and opened quite a few people’s eyes to the subtext lurking just beneath the surface of the show came with the wedding day. Namely that hug and that kiss.
Don’t know about you, but when I hug dear friends getting married, I don’t look like they’ve just scraped out my heart with a blunt butter knife.
And when I give them a quick farewell peck on the cheek, I don’t look like I have been thinking of nothing else, before slowly, so, so slowly, lining up their lips as though this one instant means the world to me - a moment I will cherish forever. The first kiss.
But then I’m not Xena.
The monstrous heart-stomping shadow of sadness that crosses Xena’s face when Gabrielle can’t see her as she farewells her partner is not one of just losing her friend. She looks like her heart is exiting that door with a sweet girl in a white frock, floral hairdo and ridiculous brown boots.
The funny expression on Xena’s face as Gabrielle pointedly gives her the bouquet is priceless. Xena’s "uuhhh" and smirk tells you she knows it’s the most pointless gift as she clearly doesn’t think that particular tradition will ever apply to her. Gabrielle smirks back with a knowing smile of "Yeah, I know you won’t be getting married next, either…"
Gee, I wonder why. *Grin*.
A small digression: Joxer fans will see a development in their tragi-hero this episode. In the wedding scene, Xena refuses to let him touch her when he reaches out his hand to her. However he saves her and Gabrielle’s lives when they’re tied up at Callisto’s lair by being a distraction and allowing Xena to steal back her chakram. So afterwards, Xena finally allows him to take her hand, in that Roman-style hand shake. It’s only small, but a sign of respect that would have meant the world to Joxer. And Xena knew that. It was her way of thanking him, whether his bumbling was intentional or not.
Back to the main program: This was such a turning-point episode, and although I know quite a few people were outraged at the instant wedding to Perdicus, and obviously part of me is included in that outrage, but I’d also argue that in a strange way it was necessary. Why?
How do you portray Gabrielle as an adult after so long playing Xena’s kid sister? How do you show she has the maturity to know her own mind, and make her own decisions when she travels with someone so powerful, who could easily cast a thrall over almost anyone. How do you show she’s no longer at the WP’s side because of any "Warrior Princess haze" groupie fandom, but rather as an equal?
In this case you marry her off then kill the husband– achieving some interesting immediate results. One, she becomes instantly a woman – once you’ve been a wife and a widow, no one will see you as a child ever again.
Two, by killing off the fiancé you can still have Xena and Gabrielle together again, but should the powers that be ever decide to make something of all that subtext that’s been bubbling away, to possibly imply there really is something more there, they want to be damned sure no one will ever see it as Xena preying on a child, and also so no one could argue it’s because Gabrielle has never experienced the alternative or was simply accepting the only love she has ever known.
I know these are offensive and/or silly assumptions, but they’re also common arguments. And so in a way Perdicus’s arrival then immediate exit was necessary to show Gabrielle is now officially her own woman, and any decisions she makes from hereon in, are as an adult who knows exactly what she wants. And, possibly down the track, who.
That would apply equally had Gabrielle’s next romantic choice tended towards the XY chromosome, too – as it’s really all about Gabs becoming and being perceived as a woman, with all the maturity and self-determination that entails.
And so, for everything that pretty, toothy, plot-device boy represented in death, again I say thank you.
Which brings us to that death… frankly Perdicus’s shelf life was always going to be short, and not because of his choice in brides. Any moron who puts their sword down and kneels in a battle with their head bowed, will be lucky to see the next sunset. Whether it had been Callisto or a blind thug doing the deed, Gabrielle was always going to be inheriting the Perdicus family crockery sooner rather than later.
But the way he did die…. It was one of those astonishing moments in TV that you don’t expect to see – a hero doing what appeared to be nothing to save the life of an innocent. Was it a conscious choice on Xena’s part?
Well it looked a little suss, and that gives me a huge laugh every time I see her standing there all bug-eyed, not even twitching a finger, as Callisto plunges the sword in plot-device-boy. But I doubt it was a conscious choice.
My favourite net rumour at the time this episode first aired was that Xena actually mouthed the word "thank you" to a departing Callisto while Gabrielle is wailing over her dead husband.
Frankly that would have given Xena’s character a nasty little element that I don’t think anyone would have really wanted to see in her. And for the record, it’s not true, as my trusty DVD frame-by-frame function reveals. I suspect while it’s possible Xena’s subconscious might have thought it, her conscious was still far too busy not wanting Gabrielle in such pain.
Ah yes, Gabrielle in pain. I give a nod to Ren for this – I bought it, despite some slightly overwrought writing to go with the acting (no we didn’t need to see four "teach me’s" from sword-waving Gabrielle).
That scene is powerful to the point of uncomfortable, especially the appalled look on Xena’s face as she witnesses the transformation in her friend. The worst part is Gabrielle’s line "I’m going to cut her open and watch her bleed" as well as the most shocking line of them all "The innocent Gabrielle is gone and there’s no getting her back".
If you listen closely you’ll hear Xena’s heart shattering into a million pieces at that line. Her indignation and mounting anger at being jabbed by Gabrielle’s blade just evaporates into a sad, heavy-hearted realism. Love the juxtaposition: Gabs jabs at Xena; now Xena is jabbing back in her lesson, in a mirror image.
But to me by far the most powerful moment in the entire episode, done with chilling perfection, is Xena’s prayer. "Don’t let the light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn’t stand the darkness that would follow."
The depth of her love for Gabrielle and the depth of pain she’s feeling at what Gabrielle has become, and what it will mean for Xena, has never been so beautifully encapsulated in a single sentence. That sentence was so profound and moving it stops you cold. I forgot to breathe I was so transfixed.
The other relationship that has been developing throughout all this is Callisto and Xena’s. Love the pithy one-liners. "You never wrote." "I just love watching you work." At one point Callisto even blows Xena a kiss. What sensational chemistry they have. The standout shot of the whole episode is Xena catching her chakram, holding it up and staring, transfixed, at her nemesis in a shot so brilliant I have seen it on posters, fan-kits, and even lunchboxes. Yep, that’s the power of Callisto – she’ll get your mug on a lunchbox.
Callisto is truly one sick pup, we know this, but seeing the enjoyment she gets out of watching Xena fight, even when her own side is losing to Xena, makes it impossible to tear your eyes away from her. That woman in all her overblown hammy glory completely made this episode.
She actually appears to be getting some sort of sexual thrill watching Xena’s prowess. This again aligns with Leick’s comment at a fan con that Callisto has already found love… and we’re not talking Theodorus here.
Callisto’s loathing for her lusty lieutenant is only matched by her seriously appreciative looks at Xena. Even in death, when Xena figures her way out of the sink hole, a dying Callisto is openly admiring, virtually licking her lips as she declares: "Oh you are good…"
Ah yes, the death of Callisto. Post Ben Hur race along Bethells Beach, er ancient Greece, post Xena drag, and Xena cliff roll, now we find them up to their necks in volcanic sand. Xena gets out and for the first time in history, the hero doesn’t save the girl.
There’s been much debate about why she just sat there and didn’t save her. Was it because Callisto is an evil monster who would only keep on killing if left alive?
Is it because she wanted to spare Gabrielle a task (killing) Xena knew would sever her soul if the bard tried again to do it?
Perhaps it’s that if Callisto lived the bard would be forever a target.
Is it because she made a promise to Gabrielle to take care of it (we all know what she meant) – and she always keeps her promises?
I am going to plump for all of the above, but mainly b), c) and d). I think if Callisto had not laid a finger on Gabrielle and this was just your garden variety killer going down for the count at the end of a long day, Xena likely would have saved her. Besides who feels more guilt about Callisto’s bad start in life than the one who gave it to her? It wasn’t helped by Callisto’s observation in front of Xena, wondering if she, Callisto, would have turned out like Gabrielle if Xena hadn’t turned her path.
In the end Xena is now a good woman, merely paying penance as she goes along. Her grudges are few and far between. She isn’t into cold-blooded murder and that sick little expression on her face was all about doing a dirty job, in order to try and prevent any more harm coming to Gabrielle. It was a necessary death. But still a rotten one.
No one can envy Xena in that moment, listening to the pleas for life from a sinking Callisto. But, as I said, it was necessary.
And with that the amazing relationships epic that was Return of Callisto is over. Finally, we can exhale again.
In a word: remarkable.