Reviewed by: Lord Nelson
This lovely episode finally concludes the gigantic arc started with Sacrifice 1&2 at the end of last season. When it finishes we are presented with two full fledged heros in their own right, both changed to the marrow of their souls. In a way, this is an episode that requires quiet reflection. It promises such for both Xena and Gabrielle because their perceptions of their lives, individually and together, need to be rebuilt. At the end both need to find answers. What the events of the Sacrifice arc has impressed upon them is the necessity of living in the gray areas of life, living with constant, powerful ambivalence, living IN the questions life asks.
Superficially, this looks like a Hercules episode because there is The Destroyer, a really brilliantly carried off, spiky, hideous monster. However, unlike a Hercules episode, this prosthetic costuming masterpiece, is used as a way to plumb CHARACTER---the characters of Xena and Gabrielle. This is a wonderful device developed in Liz Friedman's story and Chris Manheim's screenplay for it focuses on a very difficult emotion to explore---ambivalence. This entire episode is about mixed feelings. Every character in the story is full of them and the feelings are very powerful. Each and every character, EVEN THE BAD GUYS are expending tremendous energy trying to sort out what they feel.
The symbolism of this episode is nearly all important. Scattered throughout are images of wheels, children's pinwheels, windmills, even a gigantic stone mill stone. The very last scene where Gabrielle and Xena talk about their futures the discussion is about the mania of repetition that Xena had about violence and hatred. Gabrielle mused that the same things keep happening again and again only slightly altered with each repetition. To my mind, Xena and Gabrielle are finally confronting their own views on all things in life. Both throughout the run of the series have been all or nothing thinkers. Again and again, the both of them are presented with the terrible problem of what to do with Hope, who is the daughter of the light AND the darkness. What better symbol of ambivelence could there be than this horrifying and fascinating character? The line from Sacrifice that Xena speaks, "It's strange, the person in the whole world I most love, and the person I most hate, look exactly the same, continues to haunt us the viewers as well as Xena and Gabrielle.
What do these symbols all mean? The question is profoundly spiritual. This is the concept that Xenastaff has now led Xena and Gabrielle. They must now not only confront their own feelings and behaviors as individuals and as friends, but now they must confront the meaning of reality itself. Is that reality the panoply of gods, monsters, and people that Xena and Gabrielle have always worked with or fought against? Or is that reality greater and despite its obscurity, far more profound? In Buddhism, the wheel is the symbol of confusion and suffering or Samsara. It is the state of illusion we all live in, until with work we become one with all reality, including earth, sky, others, and the gods. Buddhism says that everybody can simply destroy this confusion and suffering. Buddhism is very much like Lao Ma's teachings and the animism of Alti. Is this the way our heroines are going? I think so.
Xena has always had the skills to work with the spirit, she learned them from Alti, but was afraid to use them at all or to use them properly. Gabrielle has always been a spiritual person, but she was inexperienced and naive. Now their life and death experiences have made them confront the question of whether or not reality is something they can perceive directly, or is it more profound yet only indirectly apprehended. Unlike most people, they have been clobbered by ambivelence and that is mighty confusing, even to the most brilliant and sensitive soul. This is the wonder of this great script, and the meaning of Gabrielle's sacrifice and return. Xena and Gabrielle must go on a voyage of discovery. They must discover what living means to them.
Why is Hope such a powerful prod to Xena and Gabrielle to deal with the spirit? Simply it's because, Hope, while an enormously powerful force for evil has a very large dose of the most human of all people within her, Gabrielle. Somewhere buried in "Daddy's little girl" are compassion, and a longing to love and to be loved. We see this in Hope's behavior towards the Destroyer. Although single minded in trying to fulfull Dahok's mission, Hope is gentle and nurturing in a way towards her monstrous offspring. Again, in their confrontation in Gabrielle's room, Hope expresses her intense desire for Gabrielle's love by the very act of denying she cares for her mother.
When Hope describes the fall into the pit, the sequence used has Hope calling "Mother! Why?" Hope cannot understand that Dahok wants everything destroyed---even Gabrielle. In this aspect of her life, Hope is very clear. Dahok must win, even though Hope has no idea what that means. This is the cause of Hope's confusion, although Gabrielle DOES love Hope, Gabrielle must stop Hope to save everything. Hope must must care for her child, and even love it in a way, even though she has no conception that the Destroyer means death to the world. The Destroyer is a bereft child, just as Hope was a bereft child. Is there any wonder why Hope is so confused? Is it any wonder why Gabrielle and Xena are so confused? A saying of the Buddha comes to mind. "It takes a mind like a diamond to cut through Samsara."
This confusion is made even more profound in the final death scene. Gabrielle walks in on the Destroyer, who has Xena on the ropes and sure to die. The Destroyer, taking Gabrielle for his mother, approaches her, and Gabrielle hugs the beast and pretends to nurture him. Xena takes the opportunity to run the beast through. During the Destroyer's death throes, Hope walks in and is accidentally stabbed to death by the monster and they die poignantly in each other's arms. This is the most important symbol of all, confusion, pain and ambivelence can die, AND ANYBODY CAN KILL IT! It is THIS journey Xena and Gabrielle are now poised to begin, the journey to find the way to end confusion, pain, and ambivelence.
Others have laid out the events of this episode in great detail so I'll pass them over, but let me say right off, that of all the great performances we habitually get from the cast of Xena, this one episode was the best of them all. Everybody involved, including Willa O'Neill as Lilla, and Ted Raimi as Joxer are just fabulous from beginning to end. It was almost as if this episode was an acting school.
Renee O'Connor was absolutely magnicicent. I've done some acting, and ambivelence is enormously difficult to play, especially at the extreme energy level Gabrielle was feeling these mixed emotions. Gabrielle's sacrifice and survival gave her GREAT strength. Renee shows Gabrielle's new found power by not allowing Xena to control her. She shows this in the scene in the meadow when Xena says, "As long as Hope can use your family they're safe. You know that." "I DON'T know that!" She replies sharply. As Hope, Renee is powerful, with a set face, glittering eyes, and a rigid back, but she also shows with minute changes in her face, Hope's lack of understanding of her mother and of Xena. As Gabrielle, Renee full of confusion, sensitivity, compassion, fear, and power. She uses postures and expression in rapid succession and absolute precision. At the end, Renee very clearly shows Gabrielle's ache for spiritual clarity with a poigniance that can't be forgotten. Renee's death scene as Hope is stupifying. It is as riveting and true as any death scene I've ever seen anywhere. It is an award winning performance by any standard.
Lucy Lawless's new Xena is still growing and filling its new outline. Xena is still powerful, focused, and decisive, but now Xena's soul is on her sleeve. Xena's now softer, more giving, more compasionate. She is also more sensitive to the spirit world. Lucy's two reuninon scenes with Hope and Gabrielle are both intensely powerful but VERY different. Xena's meeting with hope is joyful and emotional, but she knows that something's up with the person she sees as Gabrielle, and Lucy shows that ambivelence perfectly. The reunion scene with Gabrielle is a masterpiece of understatement. Both actors here IMPLODE more than explode which greatly increased the power of the emotions portrayed. Lucy expressed Xena's new found human power by coos, touches, kisses of Renee's hands, and minute and constant changes of her eyes. No histrionics and scenery chewing here. It's beautifully controlled absolute truth.
All through her performance, Xena has her new posture, softer, less rigid, more relaxed and flexible. Overlayed with the great and dignified ability of Xena to be absolutely vulnerable, makes this new vision of Xena layered, complex, and utterly human despite the character's immense power. At the very end of the teleplay, Xena takes the right note by both restraining Gabrielle from rushing to her child's and grandchild's deaths and showing regret at the pain Gabrielle was feeling. If this is the standard of performance we are going to receive from Lucy this year, we are in for possibly the greatest sustained acting by a single actress in TV history. The great wonder of it is that Renee is with her every step of the way. Renee O'Connor and Lucy Lawless are the best acting tandem I've ever seen.
Ted Raimi's Joxer is becoming an admirable character and Ted's taking advantage of it. Although still intellectually challenged, Joxer is now sensitive, caring, and courageous. Joxer's become a tragic figure in a way because he still has no talent or ability to be a hero, but he has heart, and that heart may get him killed. I now want Joxer to stop being a hero not because he's a pain, but because he'd make someone a valuable worker, husband and father. I hope that Joxer takes pride in his new attitudes and learns from them. Ted's comittment to the character is clear and great to see.
To conclude then, A Family Affair is one of the very greatest Xena episodes. It's full of meaning and wonder. Like all great eps, it leaves us more questions than answers. How DID Gabrielle survive? Gabrielle didn't know. This wonderfully sets up an entire new story. Is Hope dead for sure? I doubt it. It takes a while for her to come back, but like Humpty Dumpty, Dahok keeps putting Hope together again. Will Xena and Gabrielle find the answers for which they are searching at the end? Probably not, but I'm sure that they will find the right QUESTIONS in which to live.
Liz Friedman and Chris Mannheim have given us a great script carried out with magnificent performences. Bravo.
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