In a Handbasket
In the 1998-99 season of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, the ancient world went to Hell.
That's plot summary, not my opinion of the series; I think both shows had an excellent year. But there's no denying that their power came from forays into various lands of the dead, and explorations of the darkest aspects of Judeo-Christian mythology. Xena ended with our heroine and her best friend dying on crosses, their spirits floating like angels in the sky. Hercules ended with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse threatening to destroy the world, with the son of Zeus held responsible by the Archangel Michael for the fate of humanity. With Kevin Sorbo leaving the franchise to pursue other projects early next season, and with Lucy Lawless expecting a baby shortly after this hiatus, the time of ancient myth will never be the same again.
I am opting to analyze the fifth season of Hercules and the fourth season of Xena together because there were so many thematic parallels as well as plot parallels this year - unlike last year, when the latter had its darkest year while the former remained fairly lighthearted. Hercules' big arc of 1999 grew out of a storyline which began on Xena in 1997 - the coming of the dark lord Dahok - while Xena's recent woes stemmed from a vision of crucifixion at the hands of Romans commanded by Caesar, who has tormented the son of Zeus as well.
As always, the supporting casts crossed freely between the shows. Olympians Aphrodite, Ares, and Discord made regular appearances, as did various incarnations of Dahok. The perpetually hilarious Autolycus as well as Joxer and Salmoneus hooked up with both heroes. Amazon leader Ephiny had her last big adventure at the side of Hercules before perishing on Xena. Roman ruler Caesar tried his last great conquest on Hercules before Xena inspired Brutus to murder the emperor. I expect the cross-pollination of the two series' mythologies will only deepen when Hercules goes off the air next year.
It's certainly possible to be a fan of either of these series without the other, but I think it's a lot more fun to watch both. In addition to the character crossovers, there were resonant thematic parallels this year, the most surprising being the deaths of sidekicks Gabrielle and Iolaus in the early episodes of the season. It was illuminating to see both heroes separated from the best friends whom it is now obvious are equally as important to the shows as the title characters. Xena has credited Gabrielle more than once with being the best thing in her life, and there's no denying that the most moving scenes on the series happen between the two of them. Gabrielle can be annoying in her pedantic dedication to nonviolence, but she creates a healthy balance on a series which exposes young viewers to a lot of killing.
As for Hercules, he's just more fun with Iolaus to play off - in fact, episodes which feature Iolaus but not Hercules tend to be more interesting than episodes which feature Hercules but not Iolaus, due to Michael Hurst's spectacular range. Even during Iolaus' long absence, we were treated to guest appearances by the Widow Twanky and by the alternate-universe jester who briefly became Hercules' sidekick on this side. It was a foregone conclusion that the real Iolaus would be back - Hercules said in the summary episode "For Those of You Just Joining Us" that he lived to a ripe old age - but the return was far less gimmicky than it would have seemed had the hero been resurrected right after his struggle with Dahok.
I was relieved to see the Dark One - and his daughter Hope - dispensed of early in the season on Xena, given that last year, Dahok became an excuse to bring sexual violence and absurd maternal behavior into the lives of the female leads. I don't think "The Deliverer" arc contributed anything valuable to the series; instead it created an artificial rift between the main characters and permitted a frightening amount of abuse on a show watched by children.
So imagine my surprise when Dahok's presence on Hercules gave the series new depth and created a plausible excuse for our hero to be mucking around in Ireland and the land of the Norse. With Hera in the pit of the Underworld and Zeus behaving like a relative good guy, Hercules has few adversaries who can get the better of him. Dahok's not only greedy and powerful, he's just plain mean - he plays dirtier than the Olympians, whose powers have apparently grown so weak that they can't be bothered to take on the new gods rising to challenge them. Interestingly, Ares is an exception...at times this season he almost seemed like a good guy.
Is Dahok the Devil? He sure thinks like one, killing off a Norse god to bring about the end of the world, siring a vicious grandchild called The Destroyer. Dahok didn't quite succeed in tearing Xena from her quest for justice, but he certainly knocked her out of the fight for much of last year, while this year he took Hercules out of the struggle by killing his best friend and making him doubt whether goodness has any rewards. While Dahok's evil minions went through Greece preaching lies and destruction, our hero was in Ireland, mucking with Celtic mythology and romancing the formerly powerful goddess Morrigan. He got over it, but only after an exorcism and some pretty tough times.
Hercules does have one new potential adversary who's stronger than the Olympians, the Celts, and the Norse combined, who could wipe out the world whenever He felt like it...but I'm afraid to name Him, as is the series. So far we've gotten only vague descriptive terms like "the Light" for this new god and his heaven, while his adversary is known only as HIM on Xena. But I think we all see some defining characteristics. Dahok notwithstanding, both Hercules and Xena became quite Christian this season...not in any sense a Fundamentalist would recognize, but in themes and characters recognizable to anyone who's read popular versions of Bible stories or at least seen movies based on them.
Look at the evidence. Callisto was stabbed with hind's blood and received not the oblivion reserved for Olympians, but an eternal sentence in Hell, which is controlled by someone stronger than Pluto. Iolaus died and went not to the Elysian Fields but into the Light, a mysterious place protected by archangels and populated with lesser guardians who watch out for people on Earth. Xena and Gabrielle were crucified after rescuing a Christ-like teacher of peace and love, yet they floated from their bodies into a heavenly realm of light and bliss.
All these events were set during Julius Caesar's rise and fall in the Roman Empire, setting the stage for the era in which Jesus would became known to the Romans and die on the cross. The shows' timeline is distorted - the Trojan War apparently ended just before the Romans took over, conflating centuries of history - but Hercules and Xena still seem to be hurtling towards the early era A.D. Where in the world will they go from here? Is Eli destined to take his preaching through the Holy Land, replacing the worship of ancient gods with his quest for absolute love? If so, will the fictional universe of Xena focus on his message or on the historical reality, which was centuries of bloodshed in the name of that love?
And what will the producers do about the star's pregnancy? I don't believe it will be possible to hide it, given the outfits and acrobatics for which the series is known. With the death of Xena's son Solon and the purging of Gabrielle's Hope, I had hoped we were done with the exploitation of the women's reproductive capacities; I certainly hope that this time, Xena chooses to become pregnant, and she and Gabrielle learn to co-parent without putting the child or their own selfish needs above their relationship, which both admit when they're thinking clearly is their strongest aspect.
If I have to pick a father for Xena's child, I'd pick Hercules, but I can't see any way to bring them together and then separate them shortly afterwards so Herc can ride off into the sunset. Which leaves numerous possibilities including Ares, Joxer, Eli...oh, let's not even go there. Let's focus instead for a moment on the fact that as far as we can tell, Xena is dead. Will that timeline be reversed, or will the warrior princess return as somebody else entirely? That would allow her to break out of the way of the warrior, but who might she become?
With the help of some Hindu deities, Xena realized this year that in this lifetime she must walk the path of the warrior, though in a future body she will become a Mother Teresa-like figure challenging the evil sorceress Alti. Since we know her ultimate destiny, it is getting increasingly difficult for the writers to generate tension in the here and now. Then again, the Star Wars franchise had the same problem when George Lucas decided to go back and tell the early history of the Empire, and that doesn't seem to have hurt it at the box office. We saw Xena's crucifixion coming all year, but that didn't make it less dramatic when it happened.
We know Hercules' reported destiny as well from the ancient myths, but it's really not a happy one until he manages to die and get taken to the heavens. I'm betting that the producers won't burn any bridges with a character death...it makes more sense to reserve the possibility that he might make a guest appearance at some future date. Wherever they send the son of Zeus, I hope it's worthy of the enjoyment he's given us for nearly a decade.
In other words...these characters deserve better than the Elysian Fields, and they certainly deserve better than going to Hell. But I'm not sure the Heaven on this show is an appropriate place for them, either.