ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE 1
Season 4, Episode 1
February 6, 1999
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 8 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Story by Robert Tapert & R.J. Stewart; teleplay By R.J. Stewart; edited by Robert Field; directed by T.J. Scott
PASSING PARADE: Marton Csokas (Borias); Claire Stansfield (Alti); Sheeri Rappaport (Otere, teenager); Vicky Pratt (Cyane); Erik Thomson (Hades); Kate Elliott (Yakut); Charlotte Saunders (Anokin); Jay Saussey (young dead woman); Samelle Vosloo (Young Otere); Barry Duffield (Koryak); Ben Baker (Chalcis); Barret Irwin (Warrior)
STORY SO FAR: Xena tries to find Gabrielle in land of the dead. In the process, she discovers her deeds from her bad old days have kept a tribe of Amazons from entering the Gates of Eternity and decides to right this wrong by going after an evil black shamaness.
DISCLAIMER: No Dead Amazons lost their lives in the production of this motion
REWIND FOR: Nutso "hiiiieeeeeya!" Xena scene just before the opening credits. OK so it meant nothing but Xena needing to vent, but it sure looked good.
The Xena grief-stricken funeral pyre scene, complete with Gabrielle montage - note what scene flashes up as each word is spoken by Xena: "Best thing that ever happened to me": Gabrielle kisses Xena; "Gave my life meaning": theyre handholding; "Joy": a hot tub waterfight; "Part of me forever": a silhouette of them walking together. Very sweet.
The establishing shot of the Amazon Queen Cyane in a beautiful classic pose of the proud huntress. Note she always stands higher than Xena in every shot - she has the high moral ground, after all!
Have another look at the Beserker and horse... and tell me if that isnt nearly identical to Robin Williamss waking hallucinations from The Fisher King.
When fighting the Beserker, to keep the pain from stopping her, Xena gives herself a thigh thwap. Is it my imagination or did she use the same type of thigh thwap on Gabrielle during Gabrielles Hope to take away the pain of childbirth. Thats one mighty far ranging nerve pinch.
QUOTABLE: "Even in death Gabrielle, I will never leave you. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. You give my life meaning and joy; you will be a part of me forever." Xena about to keep the mother of all promises. Well, almost...
"I cant Gabrielle, I cant. You know nothing would make me happier than seeing you again. You are my light. I just realised what it was you gave me. A light of my own. Theres something Ive gotta do, something youd want me to do. I love you."
Xena getting awfully verbose all of a sudden for a stiff-lipped Warrior Princess. Not that Im complaining, mind... Perish the thought.
Borias: What would do if I told you I was in love?
Xena: Id cut out your sweethearts throat... you think I wouldnt?
Land of the Dead girl: Will you be able to get back from there?
Xena: I dont know
Land of the Dead girl: She must be a very good friend.
Xena: Shes the only friend.
No Renee OConner in the credits, eh? An ominous sign for those hanging out to discover whether Gabrielle was a) clinging to that rock wall by the skin of her teeth; b) being saved by one of the gods midflight down that ominously deep hole; or c) as dead as a bards boyfriend and talking the hindlegs off Hades.
Well, I guess we wont know for a bit.
In the meantime we get the first of a two part episode following Xena on a quest of her own. At first to find her friend whom she is determined to follow into the Land of the Dead if need be. (Oh for the record Xena should know Gabrielle is in the Elyssian Fields - afterall the bard said thats where she ended up in Is There A Doctor In The House - but Ill put it down to grief that Xena forgot this.)
Then Xena decides to right a wrong she committed years ago, realising at last she has her own guiding light and doesnt need to get her How To Be Goodly cues from Gabrielle any more. Nice idea. Very nice. And right up to her turning away from the Gates of Eternity I felt this episode was going to kick ass big time. I was, alas, wrong. But.... they tried. Hard.
As soon as I heard about the shamaness who would become Xenas second mentor, I rolled my eyes. Firstly, because it sounded like they were trying to re-create the impact of the magnificent Debt two-parter. And on that score they would never be able to succeed because they were hamstrung by a number of factors. Although we again see bad Xena hanging about with Borias, talking about alliances and the like and finding yet another mentor, it was always facing an uphill battle when the overriding theme is not the grace and beauty of Lao Mas serene centering control, but the bloody ritualisticness of black shamanism. People are naturally drawn to beauty and repulsed by bloodiness and so this in itself meant AITST was never going to have the lure of The Debt.
The other reason I paused for thought was I felt it was shameful that Xena would go immediately from the Land of Chin and Lao Mas guiding light and goodness straight into the clutches of this woman. While Xena may not have managed to control herself enough to follow Lao Mas teachings, she did respect the woman, loved her and
followed her. She was astute enough to take one look at Alti and know Lao Ma would definitely have not been impressed. I think it was too soon for Xena to have bounced from one mentor straight to an ideologically opposed one, without feeling a sense of huge guilt at what she was doing. Yeah, this bad Xena didnt go into the guilt thing much, but we also know that bad Xena did love Lao Ma, to the point she was capable of being humble because Lao Ma asked Xena to be. And that sort of devotion seems to me to be something you cant just shrug off like a pair of socks. Some of it had to stick a bit. If, years later, she would go back to fulfil a debt for Lao Ma, then months later, she should feel she owes her enough not to disrespect and turn so completely from her teachings so quickly.
Or maybe Alti just pressed the right buttons by saying: "Lao Ma, her powers came from denial, self sacrifice and the light. Thats not for people like you and me..."
Maybe all Xena needed was a bit of threadbare convincing.
But I digress. The biggest problem I had with this episode was the disgracefully confusing flashbackathon, where you actually got flashbacks within flashbacks, while also having to remember Xenas mind was in a different place from the body. You had to constantly focus or youd completely lose your place in the time/geography line.
Second problem: The costumes, by all reports, were very faithful and accurate in every detail for the area Xena was apparently supposed to be in, and for the shamanism she was practising. I never thought Id ever say this but, well, I would argue they were a little too accurate. The headgear on the tribe of young (Siberian?) Amazons made it exceedingly difficult to work out who was who. Im still not a hundred per cent sure in some scenes which Amazon was Alteri, although it seems a rather critical plot point that we know, seeing she is apparently going to take away Xenas powers next episode.
Meanwhile, on purely aesthetic grounds, Xenas Rudolph impersonation just made me whimper for the days when you could see the wind in her flowing black mane and she looked like a fearsome warrior princess not an extra for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Accurate yes, annoying, uh huh.
On the same note, some of the shamanistic gestures Lucy was doing, while also, I am told, fairly accurate, just looked out of place. It jarred. It wasnt what one expected and I could be wrong, but Lucy didnt look all that comfortable doing it in places either.
But I will say this - I admire the sense of pride the show has in itself to go to such lengths to be historically accurate. Too few shows bother with such details these days, so, for that, I respect what they have tried to do.
Now for my biggest criticism of the show and the reason it did not work as well as it might: In any show, people tune in to see different things happening to the same people in roughly the same setting. Its like slipping into a set of comfortable shoes. Its fine to move the furniture around a bit or the players, too, once in awhile, but to change all the players and all the furniture all at once so the audience has absolutely nothing left that is familiar to them is an uncomfortable experience. Bravo for the initiative and daring but next time dont do the monster garage sale all at once.
Heres what I mean. In this episode nothing, and I mean nothing, was what we were used to. There was a completely new costume for Xena; a new land and with it a new look and feel; no sidekick Gabrielle; no Argo; all new friends and enemies (Borias excepted); Xena having weird new habits with dead creatures (shamanistic hand shaking rituals, never before seen); Xena having a new way of fighting (more shamanistic hand movements mid fight, never seen before); Xena suddenly knowing all about animal sacrifices and a Land of the Dead even Hades doesnt know about! (one of her many skills no doubt); Xena with a new weapon (the bow) which she has never used before. And taking the cake for me, Xenas personality transplant, which has her giving her life story to strangers after a two minute meeting. Remember the first scene in the Land of the Dead where the girl thanks her for the decent funeral and asks her how she knows about the Land of the Dead? Suddenly Xenas rabbiting on about meeting Alti and her fondness for Altis apprentice, Anakin.
Like, Gabrielle would have given her right arm for that much detail within five weeks of their meeting, let alone five minutes. It made sense in The Debt for Xena to be rehashing the past with her travelling companion of several years, but with this girl? This was just wacky for Xena. Guess she had to tell someone though or wed still be in the dark, right?
Also wacky was Xena suddenly becoming den mother to a group of Amazons. No one discusses why she wants them around or why she stays and whether shell stay later and how theyll feel when shes off again to find Gabrielle and leaves them all behind. It was just plain curious. No one asks and she doesnt tell. By the way, why were they all roughly the same age, and very young at that? Youd think any disparate group would have a spread of age ranges.
Meanwhile, there were some very good points in this episode. Chief among them for me, the meeting with a very queenly Amazon queen (and about time, too). Pity she had to be dead. Why are all Xenas greatest sparring partners dead, anyway? Oh...right. Never mind. And is it my imagination or did she look exactly like Laura Dern?
There were some beautiful scenes as Xena thought of Gabrielle. Obviously she finally had an outlet to mourn the bard for the first time when she honored the dead girl and gave her a nice pyre. Its hard to mourn an open hole in the ground. The montage of moments Gabrielle has meant a lot to Xena were very sweet and Im sure subtexters had a field day.
Speaking of subtext, it was a bit hard to miss the neon sign they gave fans with Altis apprentice Anakin. Watch that first meeting between Xena and Alti again. Alti virtually offers the girl to her as a clincher in the deal.
The shamaness actually takes off the girls coat so Xena can get a better look at her and then begins stroking her hair seductively while the girl arches her neck and looks just about set to purr!
Xena also gets very upset when Anakin dies, so much so that Borias ponders aloud what spell Xena is under to feel something for a woman she has known only a moon. Add in the fact Xena is willing to kill someone to get back to visit her in the Land of the Dead and then her first reaction is to rush up to her and attempt to take her in her arms, well I dont think theres much doubt these two probably got closer than scone-recipe swapping. Although while it is possible all they did was sit up late and do each others hair, Im personally not buying it. And if Alti did indeed foresee these two, er, hitting it off, it is little wonder she thrust the girl front and centre at the first meeting.
The most nicely scripted thing in the whole episode seemed to me Xenas realisation she has her own light. Good. About time, Warrior Princess. For too long shes been treating Gabrielle like her travelling conscience. No Gabrielle, no conscience. In Forgiven she makes reference to the fact she has learnt to trust what the bard says. That almost implies she doesnt really get what Gabrielle is on about but as shes generally right, she trusts the bards instincts. (Oh god, did I just quote Forgiven?! Someone, kill me now.) These days Xena is starting to figuring it out for herself, reprogram herself so she knows with her heart and with her own guiding light, what is the right thing to do - after so long ignoring both. Although, Im sure if Gabrielle was around the bards first response wouldve been: "Xena, I am not worth killing a beautiful living feeling horsey for."
OK, so, Xena has a little way to go yet on that guiding light...
It is also interesting hearing what lengths Xena will go to get Gabrielle back:
She will not be distracted for an instant - not even to see Solan, the son she almost killed Gabrielle over only a few episodes back.
She will kill a horse.
She will drink animal blood.
She will travel to the Land of the Dead and in doing so indulge in things she vowed never to indulge in again.
She is prepared to go through the Gates of Eternity, having no idea whether she can get back again.
Yep, as that dead girl commented: She must be a very good friend.
As Xena replied: She is the only friend.
Well, who could be in any doubt of that any more?
All I can say is, Xena, dress warm, keep the blood off your chin, and hurry home to Greece with Gabrielle soon. We miss you both.
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