Part 1

Season 3, Episode 6
04 July 1998

Reviewed by SLK

RATING: 9.5 chakrams.

thm_thedebt1.jpg (14609 bytes)SCRIBES & SCROLLS:

Written by R.J. Stewart;
Edited by Robert Field;
Directed by Oley Sassone.


Jacqueline Kim (Lao Ma);
Marton Csokas (Borias);
Grant McFarland (Ming Tzu);
Daniel Sing (Older Ming Tien);
Daniel Lim (Younger Ming Tien).


Xena receives a message asking her to go to the Land of Chin to “make the green dragon (a young ruler called Ming Tien) small again”. Xena wants to leave Gabrielle behind and, to explain why, recounts her years spent with the warlord Borias (who fathered Solan). The pair plan to steal from the wealthy Chinese houses - but, in doing so, Xena meets a remarkable woman. In the present day, Xena heads off on her journey alone but is captured during her assassination attempt, thanks to intervention by Gabrielle who is opposed to Xena's mission.


No frock tarts were killed during the production of this motion picture although they wish they had been. (eh?!)


The world’s only self-saddling horse, Argo (unless she sleeps in a saddle?) at the opening scene; the first ever game of tic tac toe (albeit yet to be perfected as the two-player version we know today!); the Great Wall of China’s first appearance 300 before it was actually built; an Indiana Jones ending for a showoff swordsman; note that the chess piece Ming Tien is holding when he is kidnapped by Xena is, aptly, a pawn; Xena promising Borias 5% of 50 horses. (You wouldn’t to be there when she hands over the remaining half of a horse); the underwater scene which reveals where Xena picked up CPR from in Is There A Doctor in the House; Xena’s jump from water level that beats all her old records (nice commando greasepaint by the way - er, explain again why you have to be nearly naked to kill someone?); the creepy ambience of the bird cage scene; the look between Gabrielle and Xena in the final moment.... ah, heck, rewind the whole thing...


“Ok let’s forget the cryptic part.” - finally, someone (Gabrielle) demands clarification from the enigmatic Xena;

“I’m glad I could help you get a good deal on the things you need to commit a murder,” Gabrielle now probably wishing she hadn’t asked for the details.

“Kill ‘em all? That was obviously your answer to everything in those days.” Gabrielle works out why Xena doesn’t reminisce much.

“They say you’re a dangerous woman.” Lao Ma making polite chit chat with Xena.

“Fill yourself up with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things.” Lao Ma, showing she actually never really was one for small talk.

“I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to look at the souls of others. You don’t know it yet Xena; you are a remarkable woman.” Lao Ma rendering Xena speechless. Again.

“My lord, I would never hide what is yours.” Lao Ma to Ming Tzu. It’s not so much a great line as much as how it shows Lao Ma has used it to avoid telling a lie. It’s true, Xena never was Ming Tzu’s, even if she was caught by him. Clever line.


Well this is it, this is the one - or to be precise, the two, episodes which Xenites can place before the anti-Xena voices of unreason and convert them (with a huge degree of success). They’ll never wonder about your Xena passion again. These episodes are simply breathtaking. Where to begin? This was a visual feast that was gripping from start to finish. The first sweeping “China” scene was so evocative it conjured up recollections of Dances With Wolves for a moment...well, until the 15 or so horses rather than 10,000 buffalo galloped by. But Xena’s bods even seemed to make their 15 horses look impressive, thanks to some creative editing, beautiful slow motion work and what seemed to be a pastelly pink lens filter bathing each shot in soft, supposedly eastern, hues. The costumes were equally exceptional. I note Xena was back in her old pirate outfit from The Quest - though how she wangled it back off Caesar's men is a bit of a mystery.

On to the important stuff: Is it any wonder the fans like bad Xena so much? Actually when Xena first comes thundering by, her head swathed in cloth, I half expected her to holler (ala Lawrence of Arabia) “No prisoners” as she ran her sword gleefully through her prisoner. We discover this bad Xena is not just misguided, she’s feral, out of control, completely lacking any form of morality as the rest of the world understands it and yet she doesn’t care. Heck no, she unashamedly revels in it. Listen to the way she rolls the line “Oh, you’ve heard of *me*” off her tongue to Lao Ma. She loves being the barbarian; it gives her a power kick to see other people’s fear at her name. And *we* love feral Xena because it shows us how far she’s come; what she’s capable of - ah yes, what lurks just beneath that tightly controlled mask and almost monotone voice we see now. It makes you wonder at how she can today hold back such passions. Perhaps we also like that idea of being so free as to be totally primitive, without thought or care. (Although *her* idea of freedom is reviled in every part of the planet... A minor detail.)

This bad Xena creates a very impressive contrast to Lao Ma, who appears to have adopted Xena as her protege. Lao Ma, portrayed brilliantly by Jacqueline Kim (some may remember her as Sulu’s daughter in the movie "Star Trek: Generations"), is controlled, calm and serene in a way Xena could never be, even in the present. I say even in the present because there was a lovely analogy Xena once made about her past being like a rock in a lake: though the lake's surface (her outward countenance) seemed calm, the rock remained underneath. Present-day Xena will never be able to remove that rock from her mind, no matter how hard she tries. She will never reach the plane of Lao Ma. And she has always known it.

Naturally, the differences between the two women were more exaggerated in bad Xena's day, and were deliberately heightened in this episode to nice effect. For instance, when Lao Ma moves, it is with an effortless grace sharply at odds with the clunky jarring movements of Xena, her legs crippled by Caesar’s man (to be precise, Lucy Lawless’s brother). Even the way Xena moves her head is like that of an aggressive, cornered animal - sharp, swift (mercifully without the “whoosh” effects for much of this ep) and jerky. And, like an animal, her first instinct is to kill the potential threat; the unknown, uncontrollable element (Lao Ma). Lao Ma on the other hand is utterly civilised. She would no more make a rash judgement than make a rash movement. She barely moves her head at all and when she does it is with controlled grace and for a reason. Always for a reason. Her measured, muted words show why - Lao Ma has found herself. It emanates from her every pore. And it also shows in her wisdom, with lines like “Nothing’s as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?” These words appear to be adapted from those of Lao Tzu (or Lao-tse), a Chinese man who lived around 500BC and sparked Taoism after writing "Tao Te Ching", a book which, not coincidentally, contains the lines: “Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it and nothing will alter its way.” (Translated by Raymond B. Blakney.)

With cryptic lines like that, you can understand Xena’s confusion every step of the way with this unusual woman before her. For Xena, Lao Ma makes no sense. This woman is telling her the strangest things. Saving her life for no reason. To Xena, she seems soft and weak - just look at the way she takes Borias’ hand to get to her feet, even after having just countered Xena’s attack - and yet she has great power to fight; a power she only uses in self defence (another weakness to Xena). Xena can not understand why one with such an arsenal at her disposal could be so foolish. And yet, conversely, be no fool. I love the looks on Xena’s face as she tries to figure her out. She may not be the most gifted in understanding Tao philosophy, or any philosophy apart from "greed is good and "might is right", but the warlord misses nothing. She watches, intrigued, animal-like from her cage, as Ming Tien throws back Lao Ma’s gift; she also observes closely the relationship between father and son and works out she could easily get a high ransom for the boy. She knows people and uses it to their disadvantage. Which is why Lao Ma is a frustrating paradox to her; worse she has no discernible weaknesses. She also talks in riddles. (Maybe that’s where Xena picked up those cryptic answers?!)

Their relationship is even highlighted by the camera angles. When Xena has been offered her freedom by Lao Ma and the Chinese woman goes to eyeball the frothing dog, look at how tall she is compared with Xena - she towers above her. Even as she returns to Xena’s side she seems taller for much of that scene. We are left in no doubt as to who’s in charge here; who is the greater woman. I like that Kim can play the greater woman without stealing anything from Lucy Lawless. They are a beautiful balance. I can’t help but wonder in passing what sort of an amazing pairing these two would have made if Xena had always been journeying with Lao Ma instead of meeting up with Gabrielle. But I’ll cease these heretical ponderings before the death threats begin...

One final, technical point, I note the lighting always appears softer when Lao Ma is around and, conversely, it's more starkly contrasting, when it’s on Xena inside tents with Borias. Only when Xena and Lao Ma are together does Xena get to share Lao Ma’s softness and thus softer lighting. I doubt it's a coincidence. Hey, Xena was right to worry Lao Ma would be a civilising influence on Borias if this is what she does to mere lighting!

On that note - Xena’s initial fears about Lao Ma and Borias - take another long hard look at that scene at the dinner table on the first night with Lao Ma and Borias. I don't believe we were seeing Lao Ma as she really was, but rather as Xena, affected by opium and raw jealousy, was seeing them. Xena saw Lao Ma's every gesture as a sexual overture and seemed convinced Lao Ma was going after her “piece of meat”. Yet this goes against everything that we see and later learn about the enigmatic Lao Ma. Throughout the entire scene, Lao Ma seems to be acting very much out of character, both for herself and as a dignified Chinese woman who's head of a great house. Her coy flirty behaviour we never witness anywhere else, at any other times, in this episode (or the next); her almost touching Borias and her constant laughter were, again, most un-Lao Ma. I honestly don’t think any of it really happened this way at all - it was merely how Xena perceived it. And the slightly unusual slowed camera effect indicates we’re in a dreamy, semi-unreal sequence - probably to indicate Xena's opium haze. This ends suddenly (and hence, with it, our look from Xena's perspective) when we switch back to Lao Ma and her genuine shock at Xena’s actions with the knife. Lao Ma’s “I don’t eat meat” line (which can also be taken two ways, to indicate vegetarianism or lesbianism, you decide) was more a statement of fact that Xena had it all wrong, rather than the guilty denial one would expect if she had been doing any of what Xena thought she saw. In the end, it seems logical she never really was doing any of it that way. It's all a matter of perspectives.

I have ignored Gabrielle (but then so did the show's makers) and so I apologise. But while I will talk at length about her role in part two of my review, let me just say this: the look of shock on Xena's face at being betrayed by her dearest friend is one that will stick with me for a long time. That's not a look I ever want to see again in a hurry. That was great acting by Lucy. You could feel her pain. I have never seen Xena so defenseless, that her adversary could simply walk up to her and pluck her weapon from her hand, while she uttered not a word and made not a movement. Gabrielle, what have you done? To play devil's advocate to a friend; to disagree and to argue your beliefs with them, to tell them they're plain wrong is one thing. But to somehow beat your friend to their destination (?!) and then seemingly, self righteously take her enemy's side and put that friend in danger... that's not my idea of friendship. That's just plain bizarre. Ah, but what a compelling, incredible cliffhanger... Will Xena ever trust Gabrielle again? Now that is the question. But a better one is why Gabrielle? Why?


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