THE DEBT II
Season 3, Episode 7
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 9.5 chakrams.
SCRIBES & SCROLLS:
Written by R.J. Stewart and Rob Tapert; Edited by Robert Field; Directed by Oley Sassone.
PASSING PARADE: Jacqueline Kim (Lao Ma); Marton Csokas (Borias); Grant McFarland (Ming Tzu); Daniel Sing (Older Ming Tien); Daniel Lim (Younger Ming Tien).
STORY SO FAR: The conclusion to Xenas time in the Land of Chin - both recalling her past as a warlord who was being redeemed by the wise woman Lao Ma and, in the present, facing execution for the attempted murder of Lao Mas son (Ming Tien), now a brutal dictator. Gabrielle, meanwhile, comes to understands the depth of what she has done and seeks forgiveness for having betrayed Xena, leading to the Warrior Princesss capture.
DISCLAIMER: Xena and Gabrielles relationship suffered another blow (although Gabrielle doesnt know it yet) during the production of this motion picture.
REWIND FOR: The vase breaking scene, the glinty look on Lao Mas face when she realises Xena is beyond redemption and hurls her around the room a few times; the Gabrielle apology scene in the water dungeon which is so touching it makes you wanna put on the gumboots and scratch Xenas nose too; and Xenas own horror at her failure to be more than she is in the final scene.
QUOTABLE: "Would you kill a mosquito with an axe?" Lao Ma stealing Xenas triumphant moment in giving a vase a death by uggboot.
"I happen to like a good kill," Xena actually revealing a frightening detail we havent heard before - perhaps explaining why she always looks happy in a fight.
"You have been a dead woman for a long time now Xena, I am offering you a chance to love." Lao Mas practising a hitherto little known Chinese remedy to death.
"To conquer others is to have power; to conquer yourself is to know the way," Lao Ma gives Xena the roadmap before Xena even knows about the road.
"Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating. That was it; that was the moment I could have buried all my pain right there. That was my chance." Xena now realising what the roadmap was for.
Wow, now *thats* a conclusion. The Debt II is as impressive as part one, just as intriguing, and with the same beautiful effects, both musical and visual. Some of the scenery is motion-picture class - such as the background view while Xena and Lao Ma are showing each other vase-smashing styles (with varying styles of grace I might add). It was incredible.
Not so incredible as what Gabrielle gets up to - and her poorly explained actions in both episodes were what cost these eps that extra half chakram in my score. Never did I ever think Id see the day where Gabrielle would stand over a helpless Xena, slapping her and screaming at her, as tears streamed unchecked down the Warrior Princesss shocked face. But Ill come back to this in a moment.
This episode tackled three ideas, each as compelling as the next: one, Lao Mas mistake about Xena - thinking she could be converted to goodness by sheer force of Lao Mas will and belief in her, before she was ready to be converted; two, Gabrielles betrayal; and three, Xenas handling of her Ming Tien problem in the final scene.
First Lao Ma. I was curious as to what Lao Mas relationship was supposed to be with Xena. It seemed like the classic taming of the savage beast - the washing of the tangled, unkempt hair; the re-dressing into less barbarian clothing and softer makeup, the wise words whispered in Xenas ear from her mentor. Except the underwater kiss-of-life, the hairwashing and mid-air dance scene were all shot to be most sensual. The pair were clearly intended to be seen as very close by director Oley Sassone. How close and how far it all went is left up to the individual to decide.
In part two we see Lao Ma refer to Xenas love for her with the lines: "It is easy to serve someone you love", after Xena suggests serving Lao Ma. So we know Xena loves Lao Ma. Clearly, she loves her enough for Xena, a decade later and with little thought or discussion, to decide to leave behind her companion of several years and hightail it back to Chin on a single command from Lao Ma.
One thing I think is indisputable about the two women is they fascinate each other. And rightly so - they are opposites in every regard. The savage and the civilised. But they are learning from each other. Xena is certainly there with Lao Mas intention that she become more civilised - and she does learn something. Watch her attempted respectful manner in dealing with her former captor, Ming Tzu at the end, her head bowed, her tone placating - sharply at odds with how she first dealt with him while with Borias.
But, interestingly, Lao Ma has learnt something from Xena too. She learnt a little bit more about living and life. Lao Ma has been restrained from day one, but in one glorious moment, when floating in the air with Xena in a wonderful scene, she seems joyful. Id bet that in the day-to-day running of the House of Lao, her opportunities to discover joy would be somewhat limited. Xena must be like an incredible breath of fresh air.
But in her enthusiasm for the evolving creature Xena is becoming, Lao Ma forgot what Xena had been. Too soon she reintroduced her to Borias - a living reminder of bad old Xena. Suddenly we see Xena snap back into who she really is, her primal nature, as though her time with Lao Ma was, regrettably, merely a brief holiday from herself into the fantasy of what might have been. It is so realistic, this unHollywood ending, so tragic, so true, I loved it. But the look of disappointment on Lao Mas face is palatable. A worse one though, is the appalled look she later gives Xena when, at the gambling table, as Borias offers Xena his heart, the Warrior Princess accepts it in a beat, without a moments hesitation.
An clearly bothered Lao Ma looks like she has conceded defeat in her mission.
With Xena and Borias together once more it was like watching a well-oiled team back in action; a team who know each other so well they actually anticipated the others next words and moves. Too late, Lao Ma realises it was a mistake bringing them back together. The wild, untameable Xena will, again, no more be Lao Mas "Warrior Princess" than she will be Ming Tzus caged prey. Lao Mas bringing Borias back was a test for Xena, just like her test in serving Ming Tzu - to see how far she has come. It would have been a cruel blow to her.
One moment later, Lao Mas disappointment with Xena is complete when the Warrior Princess moves to kill Lao Mas son. And, there, finally, we see Lao Ma human. And angry. She did not have to throw Xena three times against the walls until Xena lost consciousness to stop the warriors attack on her boy. Afterall, one throw was all she gave Borias. Lao Ma was venting her frustration, anger and a mothers protectiveness against Xena in a way her clipped words never revealed. I felt for her enormously. And Xena didnt even see it coming. Thats the tragedy of it. If she had, then it would have been a sign Lao Mas wise lessons had taken a firmer hold. It even seems that Lao Ma took Xenas abject lack of empathy and understanding to be Lao Mas failure as a teacher, not Xenas failure.
It was so sad. Lao Ma had so much she could have taught the present day Xena. Now Gabrielle fulfils the role of teacher to some extent, using her good heart and a native, innate wisdom (not on a par with Lao Mas but present nonetheless) to guide the former warrior from the darkness.
Which leads me to Gabrielle. For one so wise a lot of the time, whoever the doppelganger masquerading as Gabrielle in this episode was, she was not the Gabrielle I know. I still cant get out of my head the image of Gabrielle in Xenas enemys silk clothes, jewels and makeup, dining with a tyrant while her best friend is in mortal danger, shivering in the dungeons, seemingly because ... Gabrielle is helping Xena. For all her fine clothes and makeup, Gabrielle looked chilling; while Xena, pale, hair slicked back, stripped of most clothing and adornment, her emotions nakedly playing across her face, gave off a dignified beauty Gabrielle would never attain at that moment. What awful scenes to look at, but aesthetically an amazing piece of work.
We are given hints as to why Gabrielle has done all this.
The excuses Gabrielle has seem to me to fall apart quite quickly, but first Ill tackle how the bard saw the situation - what she would have told herself.
Gabrielle has an innate distrust of the characters from Xenas bad old days - they do things to Xenas mind that makes Gabrielle fearful of losing the Warrior Princess back to the darkness. Just look at how Caesar gets Xena all riled up and ready to pile up Roman corpses to get to him. And in The Price, Xena is placed in charged of an army and suddenly she reverts to a kick-ass kill em all Xena that Gabrielle doesnt know.
Gabrielle likes to keep a sharp eye on Xena whenever ghosts of the past bob up. So here, up bobs a ghost of the past. A cryptic message to go to Chin to sort out a problem which Xena decodes to mean "go kill". Thats it, premeditated murder; nice knowing you Gabrielle; see ya when I get back.
Gabrielles alarm bells go off. Xena tries to explain but all Gabrielle has to go on is that Xena is about to kill a young man, once harmed by Xena as a small boy, as a favour for a friend who saved her life. Gabrielle does not have enough evidence to go on to sway her to believe that Xena is doing a good thing by killing Ming Tien. So the bard, horrified, and excluded from this trip, outlines all the reasons why she shouldnt do it. Xenas sense of justice and doing only good nowadays being prominent. But Xena ignores the arguments - as though, as Gabrielle says, "these past few years have meant nothing".
Talking is no longer enough for Gabrielle and she acts, as she tells herself, to save her friend. It seems a moot point that her actions indeed almost get her friend killed. But the irony is not lost on the bard, later.
At first when she meets Ming Tien he seemed reasonable to Gabrielle. He talks about justice and being a fair man of the law. The stuff Gabrielle likes to hear. Gabrielle is trying all the while to convince herself she is doing the right thing. Her desperation grows, though. Reading between the (all too) sparse lines of explanatory dialogue, Gabrielle is promised that if she can get Xena to promise not to try to kill Ming Tien again, he will spare her life and send her on her way. But Xenas presumably total refusal to even listen to Gabrielle, to even look at her, leads to her slapping Xena around in frustration. Gabrielle starts to be genuinely frightened Xena will die - and she is terrified, both for her friend and for herself for getting Xena in that situation.
She is starting to realise the horror of what she has done. It shows in her face. She looks almost ill. But then, when Ming Tien tells her he would have killed Xena anyway, regardless what Xena said, Gabrielle now knows without doubt that she has been duping herself - Ming Tien is not a man of justice after all. He is, as people have been saying: a brutal tyrant. Gulp. Time to make amends...
Now thats Gabrielles perspective, at least how she would tell the story. But what gets me is this is still Gabrielle we are talking about. Have you ever seen her slap anyone? Scream threateningly at Xena? Even in desperation I never would picture her crossing the line into violence - and against a defenceless person. It was both unfathomable and so hard to watch. Lucy was magnificent. To have Xena trying vainly to ignore the fact she was crying, her stony face revealing nothing, while her tears revealed everything: her pain and hurt and disbelief, was inspired.
By the end of the show we finally hear our first Gabrielle excuse as to why she did it. She explains at the end of a very touching scene, that her "reverence for life" kept a brutal tyrant in power and almost lead to her best friends execution.
We knew she was anti-killing but this would seem to show how high a value she places on life. But higher even than her dearest friend? Gabrielle would do that?
Well in The Price, yes, we saw that to an extent. She was willing to argue tooth and nail with Xena whom she thought was losing her humanity and goodness in the face of a battle. However Gabrielle did not mean to endanger Xena or anyone else with her beliefs (although arguably she should have known theyd try to mount a rescue, thus putting others in danger) when she went out beyond the fortress walls to be the water bearer. This, while an absurdly risky course, was at least consistent with Gabrielle. But to put what she did in The Price on the same scale as in The Debt; Gabrielle in The Price should have resolved her no-killings-at-any-price conscience by delivering Xena hogtied to the opposing tribal leader. Under these circumstances, she would again be fulfilling her belief in reverence for life by stopping needless deaths. But she didnt do that, did she? Because thats just not Gabrielle.
Except, it seems, in The Debt.
Next, Gabrielle is also a bit hypocritical too. Look at the episode, Return of Callisto. Remember it was Gabrielle who wanted Xena to promise to kill Callisto after the unhinged woman killed Gabrielles husband. Xena did, indeed, let Callisto die (when she could have saved her). Although, judging by the sickened look on her face, it was against her own convictions. She appeared to do it for Gabrielle, more than anything else - she did it to fulfil a promise she gave to a friend she loved.
Fastforward to The Debt. Here, Xena feels she must kill, again, because of a promise to another friend she loves (this time, Lao Ma) and now Gabrielle stops her. Is it only okay for Xena to kill if the victim has personally wronged Gabrielle? Or is it okay only when Gabrielle knows first hand that the person to be killed is evil? If it is the latter then Gabrielle lacks faith in Xenas judgement and does not entirely trust her. If it is the former, then how much are Gabrielles high-falootin convictions really worth? Or shall we blame that on grief? Which is actually far more believable than ... um, explain why was she doing all this betraying stuff again in The Debt?
Regardless, none of Gabrielles actions here really washes because they were far too severe to be believable for one supposedly loving friend to do to another. Well not for the reasons Gabrielle uses, anyway. Her excuses just dont add up to such an extent that her actions seemed almost out of character. The usual Gabrielle would have found another way. There are always other options. Her solution was not it. And that was not our Gabrielle.
But as it turns out Xena is much more forgiving than I suspect many others would have been. The "Will ya scratch my nose?" line was beautiful. It showed Gabrielle she was forgiven without melodrama - just a simple look of longing for the way things used to be from both women. A lovely piece of writing and some mighty fine acting. But Gabrielle did get off lightly. I think she knows it, even through her relieved laughter.
I asked at the end of the Debt I review how Xena could ever trust Gabrielle again. But we see at the conclusion of Debt II that Xena is not exactly blameless in the trust department, herself. Its just she manages to hide her actions from Gabrielle.
The interesting question is: Did Xena always intend to kill Ming Tien once she escaped her bonds on the execution table?
At first it appears she originally intended to walk away. She didnt have to kill him as he had indeed lost face drastically and was for all intensive purposes destroyed - which was all Lao Ma wanted: His destruction any way Xena could manage it. While the Chinese woman expected that would mean killing (why else send for the barbarian Warrior Princess), one imagines she would have been delighted if Xena had found a way to achieve that end without her son dying.
It seems Xena only made up her mind to kill once Ming Tien began goading her about Lao Mas death. Ming Tien even brings out the old hair clip which he conveniently happened to have on him despite having no plans to give it to Xena as promised (she would have been executed without having been given it, if all had gone to his plan).
It was a silly thing to do... Xena is sentimental, despite her best efforts to hide the fact and that, combined with Ming Tiens derision about his mothers prized book of wisdom certainly pushed all Xenas buttons, to his own detriment.
She then would have staged the talk with Ming Tien, knowing Gabrielles return was imminent.
But on a second look it seems Xena did try to deliberately kill Ming Tien with a bolt of energy when shes destroying chunks of House of Ming. She looks straight at him and then lets rip. Perhaps she thought he had killed him and that was why she walked away? But when he stuck his head up out of the rubble she seemed to have no interest in "cleaning up after herself" as she claimed later and simply turned to leave.
Then she later again decides to kill him when he riles her.
So what was going through her mind? Yes, no, yes? A bit indecisive.
(A small aside on the fight - Xena should never have let rip that warcry if she was in her absence of hating/desiring zombie-like state - for it showed she was anything but a passionless empty vessel at the time.)
Id have preferred to believe Xena had wanted to let Ming Tien live as Lao Ma would have wanted when the opportunity arose and Xena suddenly realised there was another way (his loss of face had destroyed himself). But that it was only after Ming Tien drove Xena to fury, did she snap and kill just like the old Xena Lao Ma had so wanted to temper.
The ironies flying about in the ending are so thick it hurts: The hair clip, when Lao Ma gave it to Xena, came with the line: It could be a very useful weapon if thrown at the right body part. The same hairclip, Xena uses to do just that - and in direct opposition to the message Lao Ma had been trying to impart to Xena when it was given... to look beyond her overpowering will for answers. Oh Xena had the answers all right, this time. But she also still burned with her old passions; and nothing can quell a force that strong.
Another irony: Gabrielles deceit came in trying to save life; Xenas came in the taking of it.
Also, some of Gabrielles hope comes from telling Xena she loves her and hearing comfort when Xena reciprocates. Xenas pain comes from hearing that trusting voice of Gabrielle telling her she loves her, with little idea of the deceit Xena has just perpetrated. And the pain, that shocked stupefied hurt at what she has done, is written starkly across her features. The trusting "I love you" would have been like a body blow given its timing.
But of course the best irony of all is that Xena, in going to the Land of Chin to fulfil Lao Mas final wish, should let her down so completely in that one overriding lesson her mentor wanted her to learn: That Xena should once more resort to violence when there was clearly another way; and when she was on a mission for Lao Ma, was the biggest disappointment of all. This time, though, Xena was well aware of what she had done. Her empathy and understanding were now honed. This time, it was Xena who was left to stand there, disgusted at what had transpired. And this time, it was Xena who now took the responsibility for failing Lao Ma.
Wow. What a conclusion.
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