A GOOD DAY
Season 4, Episode 5, 1999
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 8.5 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Written by Steven L. Sears; Edited by Jim Prior; Directed by Rick Jacobson.
PASSING PARADE: Karl Urban (Caesar) ; Stephan Lovatt (Phlanagus); Jeremy Callaghan
(Pompey); Stephen Butterworth (Carminus); Caitlin McDougall (Nogalin); Darren Young
(Brutus); Caleb Ross (Temecula); Tyler Read (Deirimus); Steve Matthews (Olivas); Nigel
Harbrow (Patrol Centurion); John Lodf (Roman Scavenger Messenger) ; Peter Ford (Artillery
Man); Lance Dunne (Pompey's Messenger Spy)
Boydon Muir (Agrilius); John Lock (Patrol Sergeant Major)
STORY SO FAR: When Roman troops spoil for war in Greece, Xena devises a plan to pit Caesars and Pompeys forces against each other in the mother of all battles. Gabrielle must lead men into war for the first time.
DISCLAIMER: No permanent battle scars were inflicted during the production of this
REWIND FOR: Xenas head making a "ding" noise when she headbutts a soldier.
Who wins the worst Yank accent of this ep? Stiff competition between Brutus and our archer boy. Ouch on both counts.
Ahh those eager beaver villagers. Xena says burn the place and one woman will do it before shes even got her stuff out of her house. Talk about keen.
Eerie but quite subtle sound effect made by the fireballs - a soft whistling. Nicely done.
Egad, Gabs is holding a sword - and whats more shes screaming into battle with it... well until she stabs it into the ground mere seconds later. (Hmm, why bother at all? Or is leading people into battle by empassioned staffpoint not the done thing?)
The Doh special effects award goes to the Xena bod who forgot to insert the blood after Xena "cuts" a soldiers throat with a dagger and he drops to the ground dead from, well, nothing more than a scratch...
The Gabs moment of decision, spear in nervous hand, time slowed down... did your heart stop too?
Listen for the angelic music come up when the angel faced archer boy kills the soldier. Very cool indeed.
The Xena/Gabs reunion... and the funeral pyre scene. Hmmm. Heres one for the trained actors among us to mull over: look into Renees eyes. Did you hit an impenetrable wall? Read more on this below.
Faces in flames - both Xena and Gabrielle are used in some beautiful editing, melding them seamlessly with the fight scene... those with a sharp eye will recognise one fiery
Xena shot as being from a flashforward in Adventures In The Sin Trade 2. It looked creepy and powerful there, but even better here.
QUOTABLE: "It changes everything, everything." The automated reply on Xena for answering the What Does It Feel Like To Kill? question. The current offender is Gabrielle. Ah, guys, we got it already...
"We lost, Pompey. We were played and we lost." Caesar - conceding defeat? Perish the thought.
"You want to know that what you did was for all the right reasons. With that pain in your gut and that weight on your shoulders, the best we can come up with is that it was a good days fighting." Xena to Gabrielle. I suspect soldiers and warriors like that speech a lot more than pacifist bards.
"I see so many changes in you. Things that I would never have expected. As hard as the changes have been, youve got to know that its for a reason. All this is for a reason, otherwise whats the point. I was asking myself that question when I first met you." Xena to Gabrielle.
Pompey: There were only two guards.
Xena: I know, otherwise I would have had more helmets.
Hmmm, interesting episode. Makes you think about it long after its over - a good sign - and ponder things that may be a little uncomfortable to ponder. Like when is killing the best course of action and when is "a good days fighting" not a contradiction in terms?
It also makes you wonder about Gabrielle. I watched her there, in the middle of battle, a curiously at odds war helmet on her head, blonde hair sticking to her girlish features from the exertion, and she was smashing, pounding, thumping into enemies. She was relentless. She made no mistakes. She had precision and expertise. Hence, she was a warrior in anyones terms; in anyones dictionary.
And then she stopped and turned, and looked about her, watching the scene with eyes slightly wide, slightly sickened. And I felt myself wondering: "Gabrielle, is this what you signed up for? Is this what you thought youd be doing with you slipped away to be with Xena and see the world?"
And my answer and doubtlessly hers would have been a definite "no".
So why is she there? And I felt she was asking herself that very question, too. It tied in rather neatly with the end question about her being on the right path in A Family Affair. Gabrielle didnt want to be put in such situations - to lead men into death and to do some of the things shes done and see some of the things shes seen. And yet still she continues. But I suspect this battle might have been quite the wakeup call to make her question many things. It will be on her mind for awhile.
Thats what made the episode compelling - it was the internal ponderings which were going on with all the characters which gave it a real kick, far more than the actions they were carrying out. And what I really liked about the show was the Xena bods didnt spell it all out for us. They gave us room to use our imaginations and wonder, as I did, what our characters were thinking and why.
Like what was Xenas first thought when she saw Gabrielle sitting forlornly in the middle of a bloodied battle ground, head hanging sadly, beside a dead body? I could almost hear Xenas internal curse, and her wondering what had gone wrong. Followed by a fleeting feeling she was responsible in some way for it...then her quashing that thought as she rushed to Gabrielles side. I love the latitude we are given to muse long and hard on it all. None of this neat: "When I saw you sitting there I thought... and then you said... and then..."
This episode was given the thumbs up all round when it first aired in the United States, and I can see why to some extent. It slowly cranked up the emotion and the power until the climactic battle scene fills the screen and the senses with some absorbing and beautiful editing. Everything else is then stripped away. All you hear is the grunting as Gabrielle puts that now well worn staff into yet another Roman with crunching accuracy, while the slow motion swirls of colors and figures recede into the background. And all you then see is Xena standing there, starkly beautiful, against the ugly backdrop of fire as she strains to see Gabrielle, to find her in the blood and mayhem. I cant think of another show on television that would do such a premise so well and thought provokingly. It puts to shame the sham fights of other shows, and even its own on occasion. It lifted the bar and made an impact all the more for it.
And there were some beautiful lines. Trite some may think it, but I love the line of the wife of the dead soldier Phlanagus when she says: "When he asks me what his daddy used to do, I will tell him he was a simple fisherman. Its what he was to me." It sounds so cheesy written out, but she delivers it exceptionally well.
But Im getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a minute. There were some curious moments, plothole wise - like Caesar seeing a fake flag and suddenly deciding of all the people in ancient Greece it had to be Xena who put it there.
Also odd was Xena not choosing to kill both Caesar and Pompey and end all this bloodshed on Greek soil once and for all. Of course she couldnt, or else history would show it to be a lie, but her excuse was "Not while you still have armies in the field". Hello! The reason she separated them from their armies to begin with was so her little army could bring the mens two headless monsters together to destroy each other. It was in her interests to kill them. But Xena cant go mucking around with history that much, so they papered over reason a bit.
Also papered over was how Xena came to be in that cave with the dastardly Roman duo. We hear at the start of the ep she asks for a map of the caves in the area and gets it from some miners. So she lures the two men to where she wants them to be, standing, presumably, directly above a cave. But it was only when the fireballs from her newly acquired catapults start thudding around them that the ground above the cave collapses and they fall through. There was no way Xena could have predicted where the balls were going to land accurately enough to predict that outcome. And besides she looked surprised when it happened. A better scenario would have been her covering an opening with twigs etc and luring them into it.
Meanwhile, those boys sure are dumb. Youd think if you were at the head of an army and you fell into a hole, your first priority would be to get the hell out of there and see what Xena was up to; why she wanted you down there to begin with. They should have followed her out of there the second she left, agreeing to resume hostilities top side if nothing else.
Another minor quibble - what do you do in a warzone if you see a woman not wearing a uniform for either side run by you? Thats right, stop attacking your blood enemy and turn your attention on her. Just in case...
Interestingly, the episode seemed to be more than half made up by battle which gave it its substantial feeling that this was more than the usual half dozen extras per side clanging their metal-coated plastic around.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was intrigued by archer boy. He was sweet and nice and youthful and well, precisely Gabrielles type based on past form. She instead actually gets quite condescending there with him. Shes seen it all and done it all... Hmmm. Remind you of anyone? Yep, Gabs is now doing the bored Xena "No you dont wanna go with me; you wouldnt like where Im going" routine. How interesting.
Some fascinating character markers were being lit up for us throughout this ep. Two scenes spring to mind about how Xena and Gabrielle now understand each other so wellnow, dialogue is becoming irrelevant. (It happens when you live/work/play together all day, every day.)
At the village, Xena gives her "burn the village" speech, saying there are no other options.
Gabrielle, unlike when she was facing the swarm, knows Xena well enough now to not question the Warrior Princess in front of other people. So she whispers moments later: "Are you sure about this?"
"Yes," hisses Xena.
Thats it - no more discussion. Gabrielle trusts Xena and knows she wouldnt say this without reason. No lengthy debates or "but there must be another way" wails from Gabrielle, as she once might have done.
Similarly, Xena asks Gabrielle to go into battle leading the men, as, according to Xena, the bard knows her and she knows Caesar.
Gabrielle replies: "I cant give the command. I can not lead these men to their deaths."
Xena looks at her. Offers no counter argument. And accepts what she has said. Why? She knew it was coming. And she knew she could no more persuade her to change her mind than she could ask her to sprout wings and fly.
Irony, being what it is, Gabrielle does indeed give the command to lead these men into battle. How that came to be is quite laughable and implausible (one word of advice from Gabs and suddenly shes their leader?!) but what is more interesting is that Gabrielle did it.
She felt it all hinged on her and so put her moral objections behind the reality that this was a necessary battle that had to be fought. This also shows a maturity which wasnt evident even a year back - where she took a very black and white approach with many of her ideals and would never concede to the greys of which the world is made.
Gabrielle realised at that moment this fight depended on her, and she put the greater good ahead of her ideals. That was a tough call. And she proved herself to Xena once more. Xena should never again have grounds to doubt Gabrielles ability to hold her own in a fight after that little effort. And based on that fight, if I ever see Gabrielle held helpessly at knifepoint by some two-bit hood in any future episode, screaming: "Xena, help me", I will be justifiably infuriated and outraged. This was Gabrielles coming of age as far as her fighting ability is concerned. Theres no going back to the all-thumbs Gabs now.
Gabrielles next turning point was far more difficult. The scene with her holding a spear. Incidentally, what we saw and what actually happened are two different things.
What we saw was Gabrielle stop and think about killing the guy, aim her spear and, at the last minute change her mind and throw it harmlessly out of the way. It seemed a conscious decision: "I shall not kill in cold blood." A slightly naive decision, too, given all shes been through, and what shes in the middle of, but nonetheless in keeping with the bards character. Certainly the character she was.
I remember being slightly disappointed in her - and then disappointed in myself for my reaction. I felt she should have been recognising this as one of those shades of grey moments - shes in a war; and a good man was about to die at the hands of a very nasty man (remember that was the guy at the opening scene ordering the executions). And still she couldnt even maim him? Nice ideals, but impractical for the job she had at hand...
But an interview with the folks who put this episode out sheds an interesting light on that scene. It was written that Gabrielle intended to hit him. It was her subconscious not her conscious mind that blew the shot. It seems she did not deliberately miss on conscientious objector grounds, but something inside her wouldnt let her do it and at the last possible millisecond she inadvertantly pulled the shot.
This explanation I like a lot more. It shows Gabrielle naturally remains the good person we always knew she was inside, but in times of necessity, it shows she also tried as best she could to do what was necessary... even though it went against her principles. By heavens, Herodotus was right - shes changed forever because of Xena. This is Xena through and through - all this doing "what must be done", business.
And no wonder Gabrielle is very torn at the end - she is in incredible conflict between her ideals and whats right. Nothing is computing. How can killing in some cases be right? How? It makes no sense. How can fighting sometimes be good? Her heart tells her it cant ever be, but her eyes and brain offer a completely different picture. And then theres Xena telling her not to feel bad, she did the right thing, as best as she could. And you can see her thinking: Then how come I feel so lousy? And how come a good man is dead whom I could have saved? How come....
All these questions. Xena understands Gabrielles pain and guilt but she was never such an idealistic person to begin with, one presumes, so I imagine she cant come close to feeling the torment the bard is now putting herself through.
I have left a rather tricky and controversial point to last. I know I shall be lambasted for it (please be gentle - I do like ROC you know!, and she kicks butt in humor), but I would like to suggest Renee didnt do as well as she might have in two of the most pivotal scenes of this episode.
Renee, in drama, sometimes gets little hard to reach. I first felt it when she understated the scene with Ephiny in Maternal Instincts, describing her "bad situation" with Hope. She didnt let anyone in there. Here its the same: No "feel my pain"; rather, "feel that I am in pain". Two very different things.
I felt her delivery in the first scene, next to the body of the dead guy (Phlanagus) to be troubled to say the least. There were walls up in front of her eyes. She made the right external looks, frowns, pained expressions at the right time but she didnt let go. Not in the way some actors will make you feel every heartwrenching moment. Lucy, you can read her feelings like a book - they flit and dance across her face, behind her eyes. Its like Lucys going through what Xenas going through. I remain forever awed by her chilling looks in The Debt when Gabrielle slapped her.
An actress friend put it to me thus: "Believe me, opening those doors, going to
those horribly painful places and letting others in, is the single most
difficult thing about acting. Incredibly tough to do. You have to make
yourself so vulnerable, and you have to feel all that pain -- and it's real
pain -- and then you have to allow millions of people into your eyes and let
them watch you experience some of the hardest moments of your life. It's a
wonder anyone becomes an actor. But when you do... it transcends. Lucy does
it. Renee doesn't. Renee won't let you in. She makes the right moves. But I'm always aware she's acting."
I felt my friend had a point when applied to this scene with the dead Phlanagus. I watched it about 10 times just to see if I would get something extra out of it that Id maybe missed in all the hubbub. I waited with bated breath after Xena rushed up to her; waited for Renee to break my heart as I really hoped she would.
Alas, my first thought was her timing was off a little (a rare thing for ROC). Where a pause was needed, she instead rushed straight in, the very second Xena was at her side. She delivered her lines with the monotone befitting someone in great pain, just trying to clamp it down, squeeze it in. That was fair enough. But that vacant look... well I did feel I was being blocked out.
I felt the same later at the funeral pyre. I liked the feel and ambience of that scene. I thought the lines were an interesting choice. It seemed highly weird to get Gabrielle to utter something like: "It was a good day fighting". And that in itself was a telling point - to show how massively far she has come as a person to believe something like that, which is in direct odds to what she ever would have. That alone made it a pivotal moment in the development of Gabrielle. Thats where the emotional impact came from. But again, I felt the wall. The stay back sign. The "dont come any closer"...
She had the right expression. Her tone, I felt was a too deadpan for this time... With a funeral just passed and Xenas sad singing, the emotions would have been much closer to the surface for her. She may have carried it better with a chin wobble for effect or barely contained tears or a voice cracking. But instead she was doing the "Im in shock"/ keeping a handle on it thing again. This time it bugged me. I wanted her to be more interactive with Xena, also. Instead she was talking to no one in particular. Yes, she has the shock look down pat. Call me greedy, but I want more...
From a writing point of view the effect of having Gabrielle be the one to talk to the young man who had lost his blood innocence was again a beautiful piece of symmetry - for, that man represents the person Gabrielle was. It was full circle. And the more she must tell him of the world as it is, the more it represents how wide the chasm has become between past and present Gabrielles - naive farm girl to hold-her-own been there done that warrior.
This episode, despite my pause for some reservations about Renees dramatic acting style, will remain a high point for character development. It went way beyond the usual grist for TV shows. And they did it in such a beautiful way that the subtle effect of completing the circle of Gabrielles development was almost poignant.
Well done all round. Brilliant.
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