A Tale of Two Muses
Review by Lord Nelson
Gillian Horvath and the Xenastaff has pulled a sweet, joyful fast one on us. At first blush, A Tale of Two Muses is a very fluffy, light entertainment, with gentle laughs, good dancing, and a wonderful over the top hammy turn by Bruce Campbell's Autolycus. As with every Xena episode there is something more here than meets the eye. In THIS case what the Xenastaff has given us is a very sly, gentle, but pointed POLITICAL SATIRE! Not only does Ms. Horvath's script twist the noses of her political targets, but she also shows the new Xena in a sweet light. She also shows Gabrielle's love of action and how deep a rebel the Bard of Potidaea really is. This is very sophisticated writing, and I'm totally surprised that few fan reactions that I've read came close to seeing it.
Xena and Gabrielle are walking the desert while touring the world. Gabrielle is reading her scrolls, and Xena compliments her on a passage. Gabrielle wishes that Xena had means of expression that she'd use often, Xena says. "You kiddin'?" while playing with her chakram. Gabrielle looks at Xena sidelong while commenting she needs to stop at the next town to get her boots fixed.
When they arrive X&G find our fractious friend from the episode 'Forgiven', Tara (as usual, played with verve, sweetness and sensuality by the fine actress Shiri Appleby) is in big trouble also as usual. The magestrate of the town Istafan, (played with over the top menace by John Givens) has sentenced her to a flogging. Xena and Gabrielle save her by beating off what they initially take to be thugs. Gabrielle jumps into the fight yelling, "Save some for me!" Xena tells her to take over while she saves Tara. Soon they find out that the crime for which Tara is to be punished is simply dancing. The magistrate claims that to dance is to blaspheme the muse Calliope. Well, it ends up that Tara is banished, but she's formed emotional ties to a shopkeeper named Telamon and his son Andros. Xena knows that the law against dancing is just ridiculous and decides to go back to help. That night when they are turning in, Gabrielle discovers that she's just gotta dance! (Gene Kelly, where are ya?) The rebel of Potidaea has arrived.
Xena sent an express pigeon for Autolycus who was three day's journey away in Oman. (This sets the scene probably in Southern Iraq somewhere not near the big rivers there.) Auto arrives playing the role of Palamon the Reformer. He finds out that Xena's plan was to humiliate the Magistrate on the eve of his office's election. Like the magistrate, Palamon is an outrageously self righteous preacher dressed all in black. He whips up opposition to dancing and other such gross immoralities by delivering a stem winding sermon that features the line, "Extremism in the name of piety is no vice!" Everybody but Telamon buys this hokum.
THIS is the point when the political perspective of Ms Horvath becomes apparent, and elevates what would appear to be mere fluff to a much higher level. The line pointed out above is almost a direct lift from the first paragraph of the Presidential acceptance speech delivered by Republican Senator of Arizona Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention in 1964. The quote is in full, "Let me say that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Moderation in the pursuit of justice is NO virtue!" The first target of Xena's plan are those members of the religious community that prefer teaching war to allowing the unhampered human right of self expression. The flap over funding such art works as William Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs, or performance art of people like "The Chocolate Lady" immediately jumps into strong relief. The leading exponents of this kind of censorship are certain southern US Senators, who shall remain nameless, along with some television evangelists, whom Autolycus EXPERTLY lampoons. The second target is the public in general, the majority of which refuses to THINK, question authority, and have the tolerance to let people express what they feel, so like sheep they buy whatever pap is fed to them.
Xena's plot is extremely deep. There's a THIRD target to her plan. It's TELEMON. He's the only adult in the village willing to accept that the town's children need to express themselves as they like. So Xena works on HIM as well as lampoons Istafan by using the similarity between dancing and fighting! Xena marches in as drill instructor for the kids (much to the delight of Istafan by the way) claiming that she's there to channel the excess energy the kids have into the arts of war. She demonstrates those skills and the children, and Gabrielle follow. Telemon becomes insensed. He claims that it's almost criminal to teach children to kill when they could dance, and he declares himself a candidate for magistrate!. Xena contrives to have all the government officials leave, and then she teaches the kids EXACTLY what she wants.
This is revealed at the end. Istafan just can't leave well enough alone. Afraid of the opposition, he contrives to have PALAMON assassinated. Xena breaks this up by stopping the arrow, and trips Istafan up. THEN Xena reveals what she'd trained the children in DANCING! In a delightful scene, Xena dances with abandon, with tremendous enjoyment and Gabrielle at her side. Autolycus REALLY twists the knife by having a religious epiphany from Calliope and joins in the fun. Xena ends the total humiliation of Istafan in the only way she can, buy a gigantic, split leg, layout backflip! I'm sure that was NOT in Xena's plan. She did it because she enjoys her athletic ability AND the chance to display it artistically. This is new for our Xena. She sang rarely in the past, now she can dance with abandon. Again my happiness for the character grows. No more dour, self absorbed, brooder here.
The point's home. All those who oppose freedom of expression, of whatever sort, just don't have a clue. Life NEEDS it!
You can see the joy in this little message throughout the performances. The ache over the loss of the right of expression was beautifully shown by the scene where Tara and Andros dance and then decide to run away in order to keep doing it. This was overdubbed by a very sweet, and memorable song sung by Lucy. The idiocy was pointed out by the simple landscape painting near Telemon's shop, that Istfan bought was obscene because Autolycus told him so. (Catch the disbelief in both Xena's and Gabrielle's faces there) The need to express was shown by Gabrielle's almost complusive desire to dance. She's come a long way from her fear for the crops during the 'Gabby Dance' in Hooves and Harlots.
Joy was all the way though the ep. You could clearly see it in ALL the performances. Lucy and Renee were both having so much fun I thought that they'd bust. Bruce took Auto's hamminess to its hillarious, and pointed logical conclusion. I also greatly liked the sweetness and the tenderness in Tara's relationship with Andros, as well as the quiet strength and compassion of Telemon. Kudos to Shiri, Hemi Randolph as Telemon, and Michael Kumpnega as Andros.
Again, Michael Hurst brings his gentility to the direction of a Xena ep. He loves Xena and Gabrielle as much as anyone on Xenaverse, even though this isn't his show, and it's shown in the photography. He paced the ep slowly, which was very proper. That was a really strong way to drive the message home. The only beef that I have is that the ep was SHORT. Only 40 minutes. GRRR. So then, this ep wasn't greatly dramatic, and it wasn't a riotous farce. It was a lovely little satire, with a sweet atmosphere, good dancing, and a positive message about self expression achieved by tweaking the nose of the overly pieous. It was perfect after a devastating drama like A Good Day. While not the greatest of the comedies, it was, perhaps, the wisest.