Season 5, Episode 6
September 15, 2000
Reviewed by Sheryl-Lee Kerr
RATING: 6.5 chakrams
SCRIBES AND SCROLLS: Written by Jeff Vlaming. Directed by Mark Beesley.
PASSING PARADE: Ted Raimi (Joxer); Marie Matiko (Pao Ssu/K'ao Hsin); Andy Choi (Go Kun); William Kwan (Vendor).
STORY SO FAR: Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer return to Chin after a note asking for help from Lao Ma. They find Lao Mas potentially dangerous book of wisdom missing.
DISCLAIMER: To obtain a copy of Joxer's recipe for Moo Shu Sauce and other Chinese delicacies, visit your local bookstore or look for it at the tavern.
REWIND FOR: The hapless monk who stumbled into the opening scene. Having cut out his tongue to prevent him talking, the bad guys then let him go on his merry way, without bothering to frisk him for the note he later delivered to Xena.
Xena deducing Lao Ma's book had been taken 'not more than an hour ago' by simply examining the dust on a shelf. Sherlock Holmes was a rank amateur compared to this woman.
Lao Ma's scent on a piece of silk evoking cherished memories for her Warrior Princess and a lovely montage of Lao Ma moments for us. The tears in Xena's eyes said it all.
Gabrielle and Joxer each tied up to a year's supply of gunpowder. While Joxer screamed through his gag for Xena to save Gabrielle, the bard remained ominously quiet. I'd like to think this was because she knew along that Xena's trusty double chakram would save them both.
Pao Ssu and her cronies clearly riding the fastest ponies in the East. The not nice daughter of Lao Ma drops a torch on a 10 second fuse of gun powder, then watches the resultant explosion from a clear 5 miles away.
"Come on, if we dress like locals, we might learn more." As stunning as she looked in her oriental outfit, Gabrielle still stood out like dog's ears with her blond hair and blue eyes. The funny accent would have had the locals smelling a rotten gow gee (meat and vegetables deep fried in a wonton wrapper) as well.
"Remind me to cut off my foot when we get out of here." Gabrielle gives Joxer another 'veiled' hint that maybe his attentions are unwelcome.
"There are people you meet who move in and out of your life like ghosts and after theyre gone you find theyve left a part of themselves with you as though in some small way their spirit helps define who you are or what you want to bring to the world." Xena to Kao Hsin. When did the Warrior Princess get so ... deep?
Joxer: "I was like a bird. I could see the trees, the ocean...!"
Xena: "You weren't high enough to see the top of my socks, dummy."
It is one of the cruellest ironies about the Xenaverse that the only person to stay dead is Lao Ma. Played impressively by Jacqueline Kim, Lao Ma had a beauty (inside and out), depth, dignity and presence which has been hard to match by any other Xena guest character. So, as if to mock us, we return to Chin to discover Lao Ma has in fact remained dead (thats where the cruel bit comes in) and in her place are her daughters: Simper and Cackle (Kao Hsin and Pao Ssu).
Maybe it was my disappointment that a letter from Lao Ma was not an indication of her resurrection but, rather, sign of a good deceased-estate lawyer and much forward planning. But I felt Kao Hsin and Pao Ssu (both played by the same actress) were poor substitutes for the real deal and thus the rest of the show seemed more like a reheated TV dinner when compared to the sumptuous feast that was laid out before us in The Debt 1 & 2.
What is it with this shows insistence on returning to hit episodes and doing somewhat dodgy follow-ups? After Them Bones, Them Bones one might have thought theyd get the hint that many trips to the same well doth not good storytelling make.
To be fair, at least here they are telling a story. And a grand tale it is too. Armies sweeping through Chin, blowing up cities with their mysterious black powder. Old wounds revisited and new enemies made. Oh and Joxer in a new hat... where will it end?
They did get the drama/comedy mix right here, too -- the lightweight moments between Joxer and Gabrielle were first rate, the banter funny, the market scenes excellent (remind me never to haggle with Joxer nearby).
So they nailed the humor. Then where did the problems lie?
Alas, pretty much in everything else.
I take great issue with Lao Mas book of wisdom being treated as a book of magic spells. They talk about it falling into the wrong hands as though anyone who reads it will be able to chant a few incarnations and their enemys cow will turn blue and explode.
The book was always about discipline. It was why Xena had so much trouble following it initially. It was about purity, yes, but a purity in emptying your mind of, among other things -- and to quote Lao Ma, hate. Thus someone filled with hatred, as Pao Ssu was, would not have been able to use the book as if it were a collection of spells. She would be blinded by hate.
But now theyd have us believe purity is purity -- be it purity of love or purity of hate. Well... um...okay... if they say so.
Marie Matiko as Pao Ssu was actually a pretty good villain, I have to grudgingly admit. I hated her most at first (and I was meant to), finding her brittle, twitchy and annoying. I am not sure what was with her plaited and loopy hair -- but the whole effect made her come off like a bitter, demented 12-year-old with major abandonment issues. She had a bit of charisma about her nonetheless, even if she was constantly tipping her hand as to how evil she was -- the leering, sneering and constant roving eyes were a bit of a giveaway. Not to mention her self-pitying speeches to Xena on her wretched abandoned childhood, doomed to be raised with, gasp, a fisherman and his family. Dear God, no....
But, effectively bad as she was, she remains too brittle, and did grate on the nerves.
However the major problem, I thought, was that Marie Matikos Kao Hsin wasnt a strong enough match for her evil sister. If youre going to do the yin and yang balance thing, do it right. Lao Ma had a hell of a lot more intestinal fortitude on display than this girl did. And she had charisma, intelligence and a sense of confidence and self worth that was almost tangible. As for Kao Hsin... she had a penchant for both crying and decrying her weakness and, her main skill was in, um, looking sweet. In short, the Insipid One was so invisible she wouldnt even cast her own shadow let alone walk in Lao Mas.
There was also absolutely no chemistry between Kao Hsin and Xena and I felt Lucy was actually carrying her co-star through most of these scenes.
Thus it was more than slightly annoying that Xena kept comparing Kao Hsin to Lao Ma and saying she was like her mother when, frankly, apart from being good, the two werent even in the same league, let alone peas in a pod.
Kao Hsins also not too bright -- remember the first scene with her and Xena and Pao Ssu? She has never met Xena before, nor has she been introduced. So heres this tall hulking, strange Greek woman, tagging along and playing buddies with her evil sister. The duelling siblings have an argument about the relative merits or otherwise of sister-killing and then Xena screams "enough" and demands the book. Without a word, Kao Hsin docilely hands it over. Sheeah, good one, idiot.
So maybe thats why Lao Ma was so adamant that you had to merge the hawk and the dove -- the dove was simply incapable of matching her sibling without drastic intervention.
Speaking of siblings, we get quite a few references from the young women to Xena being like a "daughter" to their late mother. In fact at the end, Kao Hsin refers to Xena as her sister. Id have put the relationship as more like mentor and student than mother and daughter. There was a special chemistry between the Xena and Lao Ma which was not what youd call maternal, and the airdance implied they actually might have been up to more than just mentoring. Throw in Lao Mas lack of interest in, er, "eating meat" and well... you know. But dont take my word for it -- Jacqueline Kim herself has said in interviews she personally felt the ambiguous suggestions of a relationship in the script were not so much suggestions or ambiguous as quite blatant.
So someone is rewriting history a little here, it would seem. From student (and maybe more) to daughter figure, in a few seasons. Why, I wonder?
Its not the first time, of course -- history, as Gabrielle noted to Mavican, can be so fickle.
On another note: One of the things that had me confused the first time I saw this episode was Xena saying shed "seen" Lao Mas tears as she handed Pao Ssu over to the fisherman for safekeeping. (Interestingly this event mirrors the very thing Xena would later do with Solan, and for similar reasons -- interesting the two children would perceive their mothers actions so differently.)
We know Xena herself had seen no such handover by Lao Ma. A number of Xena fans were equally puzzled by this line. On a third watch, I noticed they quickly mentioned the fact Xena has had a shared vision with Kao Hsin of this moment, so in a sense she had indeed seen it. I think I was so dumbfounded by the fact the Xena folks had (mis)appropriated what was such a classic image from The Debt -- that of the room with the latticework and pink sky background and the two women facing each other -- to notice what in the hell the women were rabbiting on about.
They do no honour in recycling their famous, classic scenes in such a way and I was appalled to see it bob up again when they could have gee, I dunno, created something original. Just a thought. Im sure they thought they were being clever "mirroring" the scene to highlight how history was repeating itself, but now the student is mentor. No guys, it just highlighted the differences and reminded us (yet again) that Kao Hsin is no Lao Ma.
But I did love many little aspects to this episode. That choral music in the climax, just as Xena says "I have seen into your past" to Pao Ssu was really something. I dont recall having heard it before and it was a credit to the composer.
There were some amusing moments -- Xena realising she must choose between saving Joxer or Gabrielle (er, hard decision that one...)
There was an absolute classic role reversal on the battlefield with Gabrielle and Joxer. Shes saving him by doing all the fighting, while hes running about lighting missiles.... and then she finally screams to him, mid parry and thrust: "Joxer, run".
Good to see the girl save the boy for once!
But my absolute favourite is the look on Gabrielles face when she sees Xena emerge from the fire. Gabs looks relieved, and above all else has an expression of "thatd be right". See the bard isnt even surprised now when Xena can walk through fire! So much so, I imagine they didnt even bother to mention it on their journey home. Hey, now thats a superhero.
In sum, this episode was surprisingly average and more disappointing for those who loved The Debt and expected to see more of the same.
If you hadnt seen this earlier episode, maybe it was fine. But I still doubt it would make anyones top 10... and its certainly not one youd want to watch over and over.
NOTE TO WRITERS: If youre going to focus on two new characters for a whole episode -- make them fascinating (or at least mildly interesting), not two-dimensional with a barely sketched-in back history.
NOTE TO CASTING AGENTS: My 82-year-old grandma could have made more of an impression than that limp lettuce-leaf characterisation of the good daughter.
NOTE TO SELF: Lao Ma really is really done-diddly-done-for. Time to get over it, get a grip, and get more chocolate. (Not necessarily in that order.)
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