WHEN FATES COLLIDE
Season 6, Episode 18
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 9 chakrams
SCRIBES AND SCROLLS: Written by Katherine Fugate. Directed by John Fawcett.
Edited by Robert Field.
PASSING PARADE: Karl Urban (Julius Caesar); Claire Stansfield (Alti);
Ted Raimi (Joxer); David Franklin (Brutus); Leah Mizrahi (Clotho);
Elizabeth Pendergrast (Atropos); Chloe Jordan (Lachesis).
STORY SO FAR: Caesar rewrites history forcing a new timeline where he rules the world with Xena at his side, Alti is his high priestess and Gabrielle is a playwright.
DISCLAIMER: As the Fates would have it, Caesar was once again harmed during the making of this motion picture.
REWIND FOR: Caesar's toga still showing the blood stains where he was stabbed to death by the Greek Senate. What? No time to change big fella? Or did Xena kill off the God of Dry-Cleaning in her last purge of Greek gods? It made for a humorous piece of continuity, nevertheless.
Alti's comical look of total disinterest while watching Gabrielle's play. Why does it come as no surprise that all things 'mushy and romantic' were not her 'thing'. *g*
The following moments in the playhouse: 1) the expression on Caesar's face when Gabrielle is announced as the playwright, 2) the haunted look on Xena's face when she first sets eyes on Gabrielle, 3) her captivation with Gabrielle expressed with the gift of a red rose, 4) Gabrielle's lingering looks as her eyes check out Xena and then follow her out the room.
Gabrielle's sudden self-conscious nod when she realises Xena is watching her from the balcony. ROC nailed this moment with just the right amount of awkwardness and intrigue written across her expression. Beautiful.
Alti's insensitive chuckling at Xena being nailed up on a cross. Like iron filings to a magnet, so is Alti's attraction to everything evil.
"...instead I get stabbed in the back by my good friend Brutus, while Xena gets to ride off into the sunset with her girlfriend." Caesar, and the ancient Greek version of "life's a bitch and then you die - over and over and over again."
"I saw the way you looked at her tonight, during the play...wouldn't Caesar give anything to have you look at him that way." The spectre of Alti hovering in Xena's face yet again. And therein lay Caesar's eternal conundrum - didn't matter how many Fates he chained to a pillar, he could never change the irrevocable fact of Xena and Gabrielle's inseparable destinies.
"I'm a playwright. I live on a vineyard by the sea. I have a simple life." Until the fish eat all your grapes. Then life gets very complicated. *g*
"You know a fate worse than death? Dying before you get a chance to know who you really are." Alti's parting words as she chokes the life out of Gabrielle's limp body. No telling how many millennia a TV series starring Alti, would have to run for her to find redemption.
"You betrayed me Caesar. No matter what life you live, you'll always be scum." Scum with a really bad hairstyle. You also left out, 'megalomaniac' and 'poor judge of character', Xena.
"Xena, when I'm with you, this emptiness that I have felt my entire life - is gone."
A heartfelt confession from Gabrielle that we hope the Warrior Princess never forgets.
Caesar: "A new play from Athens. I thought you'd appreciate a taste of your own culture."
Xena: "More drivel from old men with tricky names - that was very thoughtful of you."
Alti: "What do you want?"
Xena: "Your hands on me, like they were last night."
Xena: "Crucifying me on the beach was drastic. I must have been your worst nightmare."
Caesar: "Yes, well, I've had better experiences with women."
Nine chakrams is a mark I give neither lightly nor often. When Fates Collide deserves this mark completely. Like a beautiful tapestry, it has interweaving threads, akin to The Fates loom, and takes us forwards and backwards, crisscrossing in time as it asks us over and over one potent question: What if....
What if Caesar had never betrayed Xena?
What if Gabrielle had found her path on her own; one that did not intersect with Xena until years later?
What if Alti had turned her greedy, ambitious eyes to the seat of power that is Rome?
What if all these three elements came together in an almighty crash of colliding fates and then the threads began to unravel as each character realised the opportunity cost of their choices, decisions and turning points?
What if they became aware of each others interconnecting threads, their impact -- fair and foul -- on each other... Would their decisions remain the same?
This must have been one helluva story pitch meeting. Full credit of course goes to freelance writer Katherine Fugate for coming up with a concept that was both different, thoroughly engaging and which, more so than in many Xena episodes, went straight to the heart of what this show is about and what makes it unique: Xena and Gabrielle, and their destiny to walk the earth together, whatever time-frame theyre in.
The things that made this episode great are so obvious I feel almost foolish for restating them. But here we go: Top of the list, great writing, focused writing, in-character writing. Did I mention the writing? It was a crying shame the Xenaverse only discovered Ms Fugate with five episodes to go.
Second, the acting. Every single person on that screen lifted a notch or two to pull out fine, complex performances. Add in the fact there were no extras and bit-players with exceptionally bad Nu Zulland accents to detract from what the cast were doing. With no distractions, I became lost completely and utterly in the story. Which is whats supposed to happen.
I was impressed by Lucy, but I often am when she gets utterly focused on and into what shes playing - as in The Debt. Here she plays a powerful, passionate woman who finally recognises who she really is and the person shes supposed to be with... all with such gentle revelations darting across her fine features. Its simply stunning.
Her balcony scenes - both at the play and in the palace are a feast. Who needs grand speeches about the power of love to explain whats going on: just ask Lucy Lawless to play a woman spying the love of her life for the first time and sit back and watch in awe....
I was most impressed by Claire Stansfield (Alti) and Renee, who each offered new aspects to their performances I had not seen before, which were in their own way exceptional.
Claire, who has a habit of wallowing in ham-slam acting if the mood so takes her - but then again Alti is such a caricature at times, who can blame her -- but here she kept a tight reign on her magic box of scowls, leers and taunty faces. And her character was no caricature in this episode -- Alti has a full-blooded, 3D role and purpose, and no one, but no one is getting in her way. Especially not some mere Roman conqueror or his love-sick wife.
The scene Claire most wowed me was when in prison with the Conqueror -- the way she let it be known Xena had been used by her husband in another existence... even the word "husband" was spat out in a many-shaded, telling tone as though to say "That sack of *(#@&*!#".
This was followed by the most wickedly good piece of editing, the pain montage concluding with the snip of scissors coinciding with Xena falling over in violent shock. I felt slammed into those bars with Xena. Wow. Right about here I found myself astonished that something so good was being realised...and there was still more to come. The pure unpredictability of what would follow, how it would come together in the end had me edging slowly towards the front of my seat, cornchip in hand frozen in the air somewhere between plate and mouth...
Renee impressed me most in two scenes, the balcony moment where she sees Xena watching her with that beautiful expression of recognition, desire and a hint of sadness. Gabrielles response to this power-packed look is so subtle: at first she moves as if to look over her shoulder, as though confused the Conqueror could possibly be looking at her like that (a very believable response), and then, not completing that gesture (because she knows instinctively she is alone), she shyly acknowledges Xenas interest. Finally, not knowing how else to respond, almost embarrassed by Xenas intensity, but clearly intrigued nonetheless, she slips away.
It was such an all-telling all-knowing scene and both actresses completely aced it. Certainly you can believe after that intensely charged scene that the playwright -- especially one awed by the idea of love -- would come back, curious, and seeking more from Xena a few moments later....
The other scene Renee was brilliant was in the jail, the first time she meets Xena in that setting, and tries to understand the connection she feels with a woman she has only just met -- a woman who is prepared to take the playwrights word over her own husbands. (Now THAT alone would have had to have made an impact.)
With subtlety, we see a warring mask of confusion and something deeper playing over her face as she understands what shes feeling. It is absolute perfection. When Renee goes under-stated, she can really pull off amazing looks sometimes.
The scene that bothered me most however was Gabrielle explaining where her writing words come from. The words per se were believable - in fact many writers say these things about the words having a mind of their own and they just write them down. But Renee was playing it a bit too saccharine sweet and lovey-dovey and it bugged the hell out of me. I kept expecting her to offer Xena a group hug and to strike up a round of "Kum Ba Ya."
It was good to see Karl Urban was acting at his darkest, and at no time did we ever get the feeling he was anything less than a multi-layered manipulator who had conquered Rome. I loved seeing his jealousy for Gabrielle - he was smart enough to know that woman means trouble as far as rocking his cosy set-up goes, and too stupid to realise hurting her was the fastest way to get himself in Xenas deadly book of ire.
Also deserving the thumbs up was the costuming -- and Gabrielles and Xenas outfits at the end fights scene (with aerobatic super-zappy Alti) were really something. Leather pants, huh, big X? Tres cool. Gabs was great in her shades of purple.
Altis wardrobe intrigued me - Im so used to seeing her in furs the size of a pregnant grizzly bear, and here she is having a game of thump the conqueror in a glorified bikini top. Okay.....
Still on the costumes, I disliked, nay hated, detested, had boo-hissy fit issues with playwright Gabrielles ba-ad wig in her opening scene, and it was a small mercy Rome likes its prisoners shorthaired. (Incidentally why didnt Xena and Alti get the free haircut? Caesar must really fear their bad-hairday wrath...*g*)
Interesting to see Ted Raimi back, not playing a clutz, and small though his role may have been, he did well with it. I loved the line about he being shocked that Gabrielle was jailed for writing a bad play. Nonetheless Id be curious to know why TPTB decided his character had to be added in later.
My theme/plot quibbles for When Fates Collide are very few....and not actually nearly so big as could be implied by the space I give to debate them. Still, here they are nonetheless:
I have some problems with Alti using her body the way Xena would to get her way. In the past Alti manages to manipulate without sleeping her way to the top. Here she does. Katherine Fugate explains it as Alti wanting Rome, and Caesar being Rome. This would imply the only way to get Caesar is to sleep with him. And yet, although I could be wrong, the high priestess presumably initially got her position of power not through her body but through her many skills -- pain-channelling being one. Still perhaps she figured hed trust her more naked and at his mercy (with a knife in hand *g*)...
The final scene, of Alti having sex with Caesar, deliberately mirrors the scene of Xena having sex with him in the original timeline, and was, I imagine, to imply he would always betray and in turn be betrayed. All that metaphoric analysis aside, it still bugs me a woman so powerful as Alti was, would give her body to a man she thinks of as no more than a gnat...when there were numerous other ways she could have had access to kill him. But hey, thats probably just me. I get a bit thingy when women solve their problems by sleeping with the guy in charge ala Xena in Antony & Cleopatra.
Then theres Xenas character and choices in When Fates Collide. I question two things about this. One, she loved Gabrielles play. I have a hard time buying Xena in ANY reality liking something so sappy.
This Xena does seem a softer version to the one were used to, given betrayal has not darkened her doorstep. I did think losing her brother and half of Amphipolis to Corteses army might have made her a little more of the brutal conqueror that led her to Caesar in the first place. Someone this hard would not, therefore, react so sweetly and openly to a play -- shed be too tough acting for that. Of course, as Katherine Fugate also points out, all these things we perceive as being of her past - the death of Lyceus for instance - have not necessarily happened in this reality. This is very true. Afterall Gabrielle has not been sold into slavery, as in Remember Nothing, despite having never met Xena. Shes got her own seaside vineyard writing retreat....
But still, the niggly part of my brain thinks Xena in any reality would be too cool to be so unabashedly swoony about that romantic play.... Maybe her usual characterisation is so firmly imbedded I cant shake it even in an alternate reality.
Other quibbles: I really wanted to hear all of what Gabrielle said during Xenas and her first meeting after the play. Now, what would a Conqueror use as a pickup line I wonder... *grin* Seriously though, after all that serious eyeball interaction, werent we all a little curious to hear how that conversation was going to begin?
The other thing I questioned about Xena is that she would go willingly to her death.
It also bugged me the adoring Roman soldiers who she was so popular with would take her without murmer - both in the execution scene and the arrest scene. (Come on, would anyone who respected someone as much as its claimed Xena is loved by the soldiers, really string em up behind a horse and drag them all the way back to Rome?) At a pinch, Id say orders are orders. But it didnt ring true. I think perhaps they should have left out references to her popularity among the soldiers if they would later treat her this way...orders or no orders.
Back to that crucifixion. Xena could have freed herself. She sees this death as what she is fated to do. She gives Gabrielle a little speech in the jail cell just before declaring her love for her, saying that everything is as it should be. Everything she went through in the past was for a reason. I just cant wrap my brain around this fatalism no matter how it is explained to me. What is she trying to say here? That just because its happened once in another correct timeline, she wont fight it here?
Xena has always fought the pre-ordaining of peoples lives by gods or The Fates. She has no truck with any of them and believes we make our own luck/fortune/fate/nutbread. THIS is Xena through and through. A god says "bow down to me, because this is the way of things", Xena usually says nya nya and gives him the finger. And then comes up with an innovative solution on her own.
Now she is willingly going to be crucified because she sees this is her lot, what is meant to be. She does not have a clue Gabrielle is running off to destroy the loom so she cant be thinking: well, I wont have to hang up here for long, soon thingsll be back to normal. She cant be thinking: well at least my death has a purpose because for the life of me I cant see that it does. What will ANYONE gain out of this death? (Apart from making Altis week...?)
I just dont get it.
Finally, the ending. It originally made my head hurt, this refreshingly unorthodox approach that X&G remembered everything that had happened in both their lives, despite destroying the loom. I reasoned to myself that if you correct a timeline, you should remember only what presently exists for you. Although I could be watching too much Trek.
But I now agree with Katherine Fugates reasoning that they would remember it all.
Try this argument for size: Because Xena and Gabrielle were made aware of the different timelines thanks to Alti, only they (and Alti presumably) would be the ones to retain a memory of what they had lived through before and how it differed from their new reality when that shimmered into existence. Caesar would have remembered, too, had he lived.
With the destruction of loom, The Fates are now gone - thus, all the possibilities and alternate realities are now shattered, not merely corrected but shattered, and there just IS what is -- ie how life would have been if The Fates had never existed, controlled and tweaked things. This reality now is what was meant to be. Thus, Caesar, clearly, was always meant to have died. Xena and Gabrielle, thus, were always meant to have been together...and to have loved each other.
So what now? The Fates are dead, long live free choice, it seems. Whatever road Xena and Gabrielle take will be one of their own choice and making. Although how that actually differs from their fate-determined reality is a mystery to me. Those two free-spirits always seemed to do whatever the heck they wanted anyway. *g*
My biggest quibble of them all and the only one I cant sweep under the psychological carpet is the last scene - with Gabs on foot, Xena on horse, in the mist. Two problems: One, I should not have to strain my brain to work out what emotion the actresses were aiming for. I didnt have a clue. It seemed laidback, like saving the world/destroying the fates is just another thing to do between lunch and dinner.
Apparently they were playing shock.
The enormity of what had happened had hit them and they were stumbling about half dazed while it sunk in that they had a) lived multiple lives, b) been together in all of them, c) were not dead d) had permanently destroyed The Fates, and e) were now together as they were always meant to be and had a chance at a whole new life again.
This is a lot for any actor to have to play. But, sadly, I dont think they nailed it. I just couldnt get the shock. Even going back and watching it a few times, knowing they were playing shock, all I got was uncertainty at best. We shouldnt have to guess. Id have voted for less subtlety here, more obviousness, a few stumbles, looking around a bit more as if to say "where in the hell am I"... anything.
I did also believe that Lucy was at this moment playing more her old tall dark and warriorly Xena self (aka season 2), to contrast her earlier emotionally freer self. You know, when she tells Gabrielle in that cool way that her play was only "all right" compared with her earlier "I loved it". That would have been interesting approach especially when you consider this Xena would have been a product of Caesars betrayal and all her dark past, and hence emotionally darker and more closed.
But, oops, Im wrong and this was LL still playing shock.
Which leads me to the thing that really threw me in that final scene, although I did laugh at the time: the Xena joke. "Coulda used a few more fight scenes," she tells Gabrielle.
"Everyones a critic," the playwright concludes in an amused tone.
Okay, whats so wrong with this? Nothing ... in any other Xena episode. In fact this sort of ending is mandatory usually. It lightens the mood and gives the viewers a wry chuckle as all seems back to normal for our duo.
Whats wrong with it here is that by using it it made me convinced that Xena and Gabrielle really had been aiming for "laidback" in the preceding moments, because going for the gag here would fit with that. If they were in shock, the last thing Id have expected was them to be cracking jokes. Yes, I know shock makes us do/say dumb things. But unless you specifically knew what the first emotion was, the second, the wry humour, totally threw you off and made you think: WHAT the hell was that all about? Whats going on?"
And so after all this fine buildup, the understated response from the pair followed by an inappropriate gag, left me confused as all get out. While it was probably very obvious to some fans, pity us other poor mortals. *g* As one confused Xena fan concluded to me: "It was ambiguous to the point of being obtuse."
What I did like about it however was the final moment of all -- Xena and Gabrielle riding off together, not quite into the sunset, but together again. And indeed I had a feeling of warm fuzzies and mums apple pudding that all was right with the world. That counts for a whole lot with me.
In sum -- excellent work from every quarter gave a sense of watching a tightly-written mini-epic. The rewatchability score on this episode is off the scale. Thats a huge thing... so many episodes are not bad on the first viewing and die spectacularly thereafter.
There were so many small and subtle moments to this script that I also loved. Lao Ma rules Chin, eh? Cool addition that.
Then there was the subtext. I have deliberately not mentioned it until now because it seems the height of pointlessness to sit down and slavishly map out subtext moments when the episode is treating it as maintext. In fact to try and prove there might be something more than friendly in the way Xena was looking at Gabrielle or vice versa, is about as clever as going to great pains to point out the sky is blue.
So much did this episode show the love was love regardless of gender, and that the love was profound and meaningful (instead of being of the frivolous hot-tub variety or only allowed out when ones partner is dying/maimed/about to be maimed) that I was almost speechless with surprise.
Long ago I had given up on the notion that TPTB actually "got" the subtext in Xena, even though they had a large hand in developing it. For the fans it never was about near naked romps in pools/spas or doodling on ones other-half in Indian ink ... or anything else that was designed to titillate. It was only ever about two women who seemed to love each other...and whose love kept on winning out despite all the obstacles (including death) in their path. And when that resonated through every fibre of the lead characters beings in this episode, so, so, powerful in the writing and the portrayal, I was left speechless.
I guess the credit lies with Katherine Fugate for managing to write a gentle, moving love story without trivialising it in any way just because the two leads were women.
But what I adored about it most was the truth. It looked real and felt real. The looks they give and the emotions the characters talk about actually match. The characters are acting within character. And the love they speak of seems believable. Real. Tangible.
And therein lies the secret ingredient to the success of this episode. It was about truth. That, my friends, was why it was so good, and why other episodes, no matter how much nekkid butt or kick-butt action is going on, can always fall over in a heap. Nothing beats an honest, true, real story. Nothing.
Footnote: For a full interview with Katherine Fugate, discussing her themes in WFC, and addressing all my pesky issues mentioned above, go to: http://ausxip.com\one\katherine_the_great.htm
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