"Mercenary" Plot Summary:
On a prison ship headed for Sparta, Hercules frees a murderer from his bonds when a storm and pirates simultaneously threaten to sink the ship and the prisoner along with it. He awakens on an island with a stake from the ship through his arm. The prisoner, Dirk, thanks him for saving him and then clubs him over the head. When Hercules wakes, he tracks Dirk into the forest, where they both discover that the drinking water is deadly.
Pirate thugs come to the island in search of gold from the ship. Meanwhile, Dirk traps Hercules in a hole, but Hercules escapes to bind the killer. Though he suspects the giant eggs they spotted earlier bode ill, he leads the prisoner into the desert in search of safe water. But the two are attacked by huge creatures that dive through the sand and eat flesh. Large tremors always precede an appearance by the critters, which devour the entire pirate survey party while Hercules and Dirk take refuge on top of solid rock for safety.
Dirk promises to go back to Sparta peacefully if Hercules will let him see his family one more time. Hercules, who's been discovering that Dirk is a real family man, agrees. Dirk takes care of Hercules' wound and spares the lives of the remaining pirates after they escape the sand critters by crashing them into stone pillars and one another. They take the pirates' boat and head to Dirk's home, where Hercules puts the children to bed while Dirk reunites with his wife and tells her his promise to Hercules, whom he hopes will be a role model to his children in his own absence.
In Sparta, the evil magistrate sentences Dirk to death on the basis of a trial held in absentia. Hercules shoots down the noose with which they plan to hang Dirk, and says that justice will be served if Dirk returns to his family to become a farmer or a fisherman, giving up life as a mercenary. Dirk agrees and tells Hercules that the hero will always be welcome in his home.
This was a rambling, chaotic adventure with a lot of character growth for Dirk but none for Hercules. One of the problems with a show featuring a superhero is that it's hard to make such a person grow; Xena has a dark past to overcome, but Hercules just marches around teaching endless lessons without really changing himself. I guess he realized that he'd misjudged Dirk just as badly as the magistrate did, but we mostly heard platitudes from Herc, not introspection.
The action of this episode was terrific, with the sand-demon scenes ripping off both Tremors and the Sarlaac sequence from Return of the Jedi. I liked the idea of a wounded Hercules trapped on an island with no water and villains all around, though I think the Enemy Mine concept, with Hercules and Dirk having to work together despite mutual distrust and a cop/criminal relationship, could have been taken a lot farther.
This episode featured few of the usual winning one-liners, but I did like hearing the head pirate announce that the men were probably on their last legs. Considering that the sand critters tried to eat people from the legs up, the image was amusing. I'm very impressed with the stamina of men who can have a swordfight after two days in the desert without water, so the second half had a surreal feeling that could have been humorous had the plot not turned so serious. I'm glad Hercules made a friend, but I'm not sure what the consequence is supposed to be.