The State of Ancient Greece
The ancient world was rocked this year by foreign invaders, political intrigue, and neophyte gods messing with the Old Guard, while its two most famous residents - hunky Hercules and quixotic Xena - struggled to maintain the status quo. That sounds strange, doesn't it? One expects heroes to be shaking things up, eradicating evil and paving the way for enlightenment. Yet although the ancient gods are still petty and cruel, and warlords and barbarians still threaten the innocent, Herc and Xena had their hands full this year defending the evils they know against new threats even more terrible.
Hercules had quite a mediocre year, though Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had a superb one. Still, in terms of heroic deeds, our hero was a little slow on the uptake and went missing for entire episodes at a time. It was left to his sidekicks Iolaus and Autolycus, plus his younger self, to take up the slack; fortunately, they performed admirably. I'm not sure whether Kevin Sorbo's shoulder injury or a conscious shift in direction is responsible for the increasing campy humor and decline in gratuitous fighting, but it's easier to take the serious episodes seriously because there's so much fun in between.
As for Xena, the series has always been darker and the humor more delicate, but the balance seemed off-kilter this year. There were some stunning individual episodes, particularly for Xena herself, and the visual beauty of "The Debt" has stayed with me even though aspects of the storyline were disturbing, and altered the show's landscape internally. The tragic arc which left Xena's son dead and Gabrielle's daughter tyrannizing the world will not be easy to retreat from. Xena's a well-done series, but it's not as consistent as Hercules - it takes bigger risks, but they're not always enjoyable to watch.
Perhaps the easiest way to sum up the year is to look at where the individual players stand, now that it's over:
Aphrodite: The Goddess of Love did not have a good season at all. She became the victim of fish jokes in "The Quill is Mightier..." before turning Xena into a fish joke herself in "Fins, Femmes, and Gems." Iolaus still thinks she's a babe and Hercules begs her for favors for his pig-friends, but she's not the hot stuff she used to be. Ironically, mighty Aphrodite's strongest showing was in the Sovereign's universe, as the chaste, moral Queen.
Apollo: Hercules' whiny half-brother showed up on his surfboard a couple of times, but other than taking advantage of mortals and choosing the wrong side in the battle for Olympus, he didn't make much of an impression. The Urn of Apollo, which Xena saved in "Forgiven" to help people turn their lives around, made a stronger showing than its namesake did.
Ares: While it's hard to know what effect Hera's demise and Dahok's apparent failure to take over the world will have on the God of War in the future, there's no denying that he had a great year. He got Xena driven temporarily insane by the Furies, he fathered a child upon a former love of Hercules, he got friendly with Gabrielle during a brief stint as a mortal, he got it on with Callisto, he impregnated Hope. And he very nearly killed his own father before the newly deified Hercules saved Zeus. Ares did lose his sometime sidekick Strife for all eternity to hind's blood, but considering that he took hind's blood from the Golden Hind in the first place, it seems only fitting. Ares managed to be in all the right places this year, and although he wasn't always on the winning side, he did manage to spread war and havoc everywhere. Plus, he may be Xena's father. Of the Olympians, he's clearly the man to contend with.
Autolycus: The King of Thieves had a superb year, although he might not think so: he met and lost the love of his life, got devolved and chased by a giant chicken, and had to give up the greatest heist of his life to return Peace to its rightful place. He also helped Xena save the inhabitants of a sinking ship and shared some nice bonding moments with Hercules and Iolaus while helping them prevent a war. This antihero is coming across as a real mensch, plus he looks good in a skirt...but then, that could be said about so many of the men Hercules knows.
Caesar: My, how the mighty have fallen since the last time he and Xena clashed. This time she tricked him into executing a member of his ruling Triumvirate, while Pompei looks to have an eye to taking over Rome. I expect that Julius will be back, as power-hungry and arrogant as ever, so I look forward to Xena kicking his ass.
Callisto: Sadly, it looks like she's really gone for good this time, stabbed by Xena with a knife soaked in hind's blood...as is fitting, since she became the first goddess to kill a god when she murdered Strife with the same knife. Once freed from the lava pit where she fell after swallowing ambrosia, the manic goddess of self-destruction helped Hope trap Hercules between the worlds so she could try to kill his mother, burned Xena's centaur friends alive, traveled through time where she became the agent of destruction of her own family, and ultimately chose oblivion as preferable to boredom. Underneath the witty banter, Callisto was always a creature in agonizing pain, so despite the horrible things she did, it's hard not to hope that she's at peace.
Discord: Following an early-season alliance with Ares in his effort to torment Xena, she angered both Hercules and his Hephastian double and ultimately wound up getting turned into the Giant Chicken of Doom. Like Ares says, her taste in men in execrable, and her adolescent punk look is the pits. She needs to get out more.
Ephiny: The current leader of the Amazons had a pretty weak year, featured mostly as the mother of a centaur child instead of as the leader of a community of women. Given that we learned from Hercules that rogue bands of Amazons are running around, I hope she takes charge a little more strongly before someone starts demanding that Gabrielle come back and take her rightful place as an Amazon princess.
Gabrielle: The Bard of Potedeia and great love of Xena's life (hey, Xena said so) had the most awful year of her life, worse even than when Callisto murdered her young husband. Her innocence made her gullible and vulnerable, allowing her to be taken advantage of by the evil Dahok, then impregnated by him. Her inability to murder her own child at Xena's behest placed the whole world in Hope's hands. In addition, Gabrielle betrayed Xena to Ming Tien with the help of Ares, who later called in that favor by demanding Xena's life in recompense for Hope's death. In order to save her best friend, Gabrielle threw herself into a fiery pit with her daughter...and no one knows what she'll be like when she comes out. Hopefully she'll be wiser, tougher, and more consistent than she was this season.
Hera: After decades of sending her minions to torment Hercules and everyone he ever cared about, the all-powerful Queen of the Gods is in the Pit of Tartarus, undone by her own plot to take over the universe from her wandering husband. Will she stay there? I'm betting not for as long as Chronos et al have, especially considering that she tried nearly identical stunts in the animated film with no consequence!
Hercules: Though his trial for sedition ended with a triumphant vindiction of all heroes and he nearly toppled Zeus in two halves of the universe, the big man himself had a pretty low-key year while his friends played around. Yeah, he did some of the usual slaying giants and defending villages, all while making people feel good about themselves, but his most memorable turn was a five-minute epilogue to an episode in which we learned that he's still around, preventing earthquakes in contemporary Los Angeles. He did save the galaxy from Hera and his young self fought for truth, justice, and the Greek way...er...not like that...or maybe like that, given all his bonding with Iolaus, so things weren't all dull for the action figure. But he didn't do anything as heroically extreme as his Disney counterpart, either. The biggest changes were the death of Hercules' mother and his reconciliation with his father, which are sure to be ongoing issues for the hero.
Hope: Gabrielle's demon daughter has already returned from the dead once, so even though we saw her fall into a volcanic pit with her mother, I'm not counting her out, though she made a monumental mistake underestimating first Hercules and Iolaus and then Xena and Gabrielle. Still, as villains go, she had a terrific year - recruiting Callisto, murdering Solon, bedding Ares (something I'd have put in my contract if I were a villain, for sure) and she's pregnant with his baby. We never found out exactly what Dahok's plan for the world was, and I'd sort of like to hear it: how much worse could he and Hope be than some of Zeus' followers, anyway?
Iolaus: Hercules' sidekick had his best season ever, though his finest moments came when he impersonated The Widow Twanke and demonstrated just how good he can look in a dress. In several episodes, Iolaus had to shoulder the burden while Hercules was away. Though he had more episodes this season in which he lamented his role as unappreciated follower of the great hero, he also had many moments of true heroism and great pathos, such as his reaction to Hercules' presumed death. There is no question that he is now as valuable to Hercules as Gabrielle is to Xena. Late this season he reconciled with his family, and the dread pirate Nebula seems to have developed a crush on him, so he could have a good year ahead of him.
Jason: Hercules' stepfather had a very difficult past month, losing his wife, Alcmene. In flashback, however, young Jason had a fabulous showing - becoming King of Corinth, taking Medea away from young Herc, stopping a war, training Hercules to confront Apollo. He needs to lighten up a little, but Jason's definitely one of the good guys.
Joxer: Xena's buffoonish sidekick went through wild swings this year; just when I thought we might see some character growth, he turned into Ape Man again, literally. Inoffensive in his first several outings in which he mostly served as the butt of anvil-falling-on-the-head jokes, he had a droll duel with his evil twin Jet and a stronger turn as a heroic double in the Sovereign's universe. Our own familiar Joxer showed a bit of that heroism in the end, finding the hind's blood knife for Xena and letting himself get taken prisoner by the priests of Dahok so he could get it to her. But while his hopeless love for Gabrielle is touching, it's also undercut by his affinity for bawdy houses. Will Joxer ever grow up? I doubt it.
Salmoneus: The greedy associate didn't get much screen time this season, but his comic turns as art show patron and drag queen were highly enjoyable. He did lose his one big chance to marry a prince. I'm not sure Hercules will be inviting him to accompany him anytime soon.
Xena: We learned some fascinating facts about the warrior princess this year, from her contentious relationship with Barias to her experiences with Eastern mysticism taught by Lao Ma, the woman who really wrote the Tao Te Ching. And we got to see the inner resources Xena can summon on her own when necessary to fight off executioners and entire armies. But her inconsistent maternal instincts nearly destroyed her - first, when she callously disregarded Gabrielle's feelings for Hope, and later, when her obsession with Solon's death caused her to try to kill her best friend, sending them both to Illusia to regain their souls. Her strength was formidable, but her wits seemed strained, and I'm starting to worry about her taste in friends on occasion. It's hard to go from trying to save the entire world one week to trying to humiliate a crooked gambler the next without seeming a little frivolous; I wonder which she prefers, and which we'll get to see more of next year? We met a new Xena double to go along with the tramp and the princess, this one a virgin priestess, so maybe we'll see them all at once.
Zeus: The King of the Gods his throne to his scheming wife before his half-mortal son bailed him out. Add to that the Sovereign's attempts to murder him via hind's blood in the alternate universe and the animated invasion of the Titans, plus the fact that at least two of his children want him dead...I have to conclude that Big Daddy's days are numbered. The good news for him is that "Cupid, King of the Gods" just doesn't have the right ring to it.
Rumors persist that next year will be Hercules' final season, so it will be interesting to see how much crossover between the two series we get as the more viable storylines from the original are transferred to the spin-off. I expect to see a lot more Autolycus and Joxer than ever before, and I'm dying to know how Gabrielle's going to get out of that pit; it seems like a job for Hercules.