OK firstly, a burning question: Why are we meant to care about anything in this episode?
This has always puzzled me ever since the first appearance of Meleager in The Prodigal.
At the time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, expecting he was the usual one-off blow-in, albeit one who could actually act and had nice comic chemistry with Renee.
But now they’ve brought him back. So I have to wonder: Why go to all the effort of making a show about kick-butt women doin’ it for themselves only to repeatedly insert a fusty old has-been who needs his skin and ego constantly saved by a hero-worshipping female admirer? An unusual choice of stories for a supposedly empowering grrl-power show, to be sure. This isn’t Wonder Woman, after all. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
But despite the irksome decision to create another Meleager-centric story when one was already too many, in some ways I did like his portrayal more this time around because he was genuinely funnier and a lot less needy.
Even so, his overall patheticness remained starkly at odds with the pedestal heights to which Gabrielle had elevated him. The man is all flaws and gruffness, held together with a bit of spit and leather. That’s endearing in some ways but hardly anything to deify.
So the Meleager-worshipping bard must be a) blind, b) stupid or c) doing the most pointless case of ego stroking ever witnessed (pointless because the Great White Tufty One is not around to enjoy it). Given the enthusiasm with which she gushes over and over about him to Xena we’re led to believe it’s a little bit of all of the above.
Which reintroduces us to someone I’ve been dreading seeing – clueless Gabrielle. Remember her? Annoying, overly naive and a little dense, she’ll turn on her dearest friend at the drop of a hat, listen to no logic and rush off, half-cocked, on any plan, the more ill-considered the better. To quote a proud Xander from Buffy in a line which could equally have come from Xena’s lips: "That’s my girl – always doing the stupid thing."
I really don’t miss this incarnation of the bard.
For those trying to work out the Xena/Gabs dynamics in this part of the show’s run – Gabrielle now has some of the power in her relationship with Xena (witness her bound up and whack the Warrior Princess playfully on the stomach) but no equality in any important decisions. She is merely the junior partner (in training).
By the way, that stomach whack was a really intimate gesture given who got whacked – Xena not being fond of anyone touching her who doesn’t share her gene pool or bed. I doubt she and the bard are lovers here (they don’t act like it – yet), but they do share every waking (and sleeping) moment together which gives them a great bond of intimacy. What can I say – I just really loved the careless way Gabrielle did it, as though it’s her right – given you have to know Xena really well before you could try that stunt and keep your hand.
The ideal scene to sum up their current power play is also a fabulous one. Gabrielle doesn’t want Xena to go after Meleager and assumes the position, staff in hand, blocking her path. A real partner would have been able to talk it out and reach a joint decision. Not these two. But, as I say, Gabs is not an equal partner yet.
Xena meanwhile offers a breathtaking array of facial expressions as she processes Gabrielle’s seemingly traitorous behaviour. First, we see a flit of real hurt that she would oppose her and take Meleager’s side over hers. Then it settles into blue-chip fury – that look she has of incredulousness and anger brewing behind cold blue eyes, outraged that anyone would dare do what Gabrielle is now doing. It’s like she’s saying "You would defy ME? YOU?"
Not a good expression to ever see from the former destroyer of nations, to be sure, and certainly not when you’re two feet away and eyeballing her from deep inside her personal space. To Gabrielle’s credit, she bravely, albeit stupidly given who she’s up against, holds the line. The possessed bard even screams at her: "He is NOT GUILTY." Lots of flashing eyes and angsty pathos ensues. Ooooh.
Xena then tires of the pointless standoff and equally ludicrous threat ("You have to go through me"), and chooses to go over Gabrielle with a disdainful glare and a mighty leap.
Yup, these two have lots to talk about later, methinks. The power plays between them have only just begun. Perhaps it’s just a whole lot of roiling UST… I guess we’ll see.
This was the only scene really worth re-watching the episode for. OK, there was a pretty good plot twist for first-time viewers during Meleager’s execution and they got me well and truly. "Huh? He’s dead?", was my deeply profound sputter the first time I saw it.
The hanging judge, meanwhile, is worth a nod as the most hilarious ham actor going – I have never seen a man draw out a sentence pronouncing death quite so much. What an Alan Rickman wannabe. Of course his extreme case of Rickmanitis likely had many a suspicious viewer questioning his good-guy credentials from the opening scene.
There was one other scene I tip my hat to for being there – Meleager and Xena fighting. He held his own for a little while, and it was necessary to show he had some actual skill to back up his once formidable reputation. Xena, of course, never wanted to hurt him, and could have shut him down pretty quickly if he had truly been her enemy. But then we would never have witnessed one of Lucy’s genius moments.
"You are so good," an impressed Meleager tells her after being dumped on his rump. Xena gives a stunning, beauty-contestant smile and flicks her hair like a true shopping-mall tragic. It’s pants-wettingly funny. Flattery will get you everywhere.
But we can’t really skip out of this episode without picking over the central theme it was supposedly addressing – Gabrielle’s odd need to put anyone remotely good, especially if they have a chequered past and a sob story, high on a pedestal.
Xena warns her earnestly that sooner or later people are going to fall off that pedestal. Gee, who could she possibly really be referring to? Hmm?
Anyway, neither Gabrielle’s absurd astonishment that she does this pedestal routine, nor the fact Meleager loses her respect exactly as telegraphed by Xena, progresses the bard’s character one iota. By the episode end, with Gabrielle’s redeemed hero back on his pedestal where she thinks he belongs, and Xena right up there too where Gabrielle also thinks she belongs, the bard has learnt absolutely nothing.
You sense she’d do it all over again, including pointing her weapon at her best friend, in a flash. The completely one-eyed hear-no-evil soft soft-spot she has for her two heroes becomes more disturbing than endearing, because blind loyalty is just that – blind. It’s the sort of personality trait that could get people killed.
I really wanted Gabrielle to get a clue at the end of the show and admit something like "Although I was right about Meleager, I could have just as easily been wrong - that’s a frightening thought. I could have got us all killed…"
Maybe for some fans this level of massive head-in-sand loyalty is just part of who the bard is. But putting friends in danger by not even considering listening to trusted, wiser heads with an alternative viewpoint is foolhardy. Still, as I said, the bard is still in clueless mode, and I really hope it’s short-lived.
It’s a bit like this episode really – wishing for a thing to be mercifully shorter, and getting it, are two separate things. And yet still we hope.
As for Meleager – I wish him no ill. He is who he is and gained some popularity with a small but hardy group of viewers (many of them blokes) who enjoyed his colourful flaws, boozy humour and craggy crash-test dummy charms. But I personally never saw the show as the good fit for him. And I never saw this script as a good fit for Xena either.
In the end, my argument comes down to this: What an amazing opportunity getting a show like Xena green-lit. So they shouldn’t ever waste a second of it on men’s mid-life crises, Joxers or teenage girl trolls or Flintstones themes, or ripped-off Chinese movies, or rehashed B-grade TV pilots, or anything that doesn’t celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime uniqueness of this show.
In essence - If you’re going to do a show about kick-butt grrl power, then do it about kick-butt grrl power. And The Execution, my friends, was anything but. It was a show that could have been on any channel, set in any time period, rewritten for any genre or stars. The plot was so blandly mundane it did nothing to progress the characters. It did nothing to progress the Xenaverse. It really did nothing at all.
Ultimately it was effective only as a tribute to mediocrity. Oh what a waste.