Sappy Showtunes and Sad Arias
"The Bitter Suite" Plot Summary:
While Gabrielle undergoes an Amazon purification ritual, Ares convinces Xena that only killing Gabrielle will bring her peace. Xena rides into the Amazon camp and fights Ephiny while Joxer tries to escape with Gabrielle. Xena stops them, ties Gabrielle to the back of her horse, and drags her over the ground to a cliff where she prepares to hurl the body into the sea. But battered Gabrielle springs to life and attacks Xena, screaming "I hate you." The two fall over the cliff into the waterfall below.
Xena is awakened by a kiss from Callisto to find herself in Illusia - a fantasy world where everyone sings and the wheel of fortune hangs over all. Callisto tells Xena that she is her guide, but Xena must spin the wheel. Gabrielle also arrives, and realizes that she is not in the Elysian Fields of dead heroes when Joxer turns out to be her guide.
Xena finds herself among soldiers led by Ares, chanting of her battle triumphs, while Gabrielle ends up back home in Potedeia, where the provincial villagers sing that nothing has changed. The villagers encourage Gabrielle to kill Xena; the solders encourage Xena to kill Gabrielle. The two march through their respective armies to a portal where Gabrielle strikes first, but Xena delivers the lethal blow. As she mourns, Ares offers to take Gabrielle's place in Xena's affections, and Callisto tells Xena to let go. But a living Gabrielle comes through the door.
The wheel of fortune sends the women into a dark temple, where their angry words echo deafeningly. Xena realizes that accusations about the past set off the effect, but they still blame one another for the pain they're in. The wheel starts to pull Gabrielle to another place; when Xena tries to rescue her, she's dragged in as well, and they find themselves in the temple in Brittania where Dahok possessed Gabrielle.
Inside the temple, apparitions of Ares, Callisto, and other villains appear from inside coffins as Xena and Gabrielle are both crucified, Xena on a cross like the one where Caesar left her, Gabrielle on the slab where Dahok took her. Xena and Gabrielle realize that love must be their guide, and the apparitions - including a Gabrielle breaking Xena's legs, and a Xena stabbing Gabrielle - vanish.
The wheel appears and Solon appears on the other side. Gabrielle steps through to him, but Xena cannot follow; she realizes that the last apparition is Ming Tien, whom she lied about murdering to Gabrielle. She apologizes to Gabrielle for betraying her, and to Solon for never being there as his mother. Ming Tien vanishes, and Gabrielle pulls Xena through. The two find themselves by the sea, unharmed, and rejoice.
A stunning episode in every regard, "The Bitter Suite" went a long way towards redeeming this season, though I am still disturbed that Xena's maternity ends up so thoroughly defining her...and that Gabrielle's maternity ends up being forgotten, despite the fact that it was the driving force behind her actions for the past several weeks. Hailed as Xena's first all-musical show, the episode wasn't really that - there were long stretches of dialogue breaking it up, in addition to the beginning and ending - but the show reveled in unabashed sentimentality that could rival the sappiest of musicals. In some ways it reminded me of Carousel.
Lucy Lawless gave a tour de force performance that ought to win her any role she covets for the rest of her career. She was heartbreaking singing both the love song with Gabrielle in the temple and later the plea for forgiveness to Gabrielle and Solon, Her dance number with Kevin Smith's Ares was erotic and graceful. Renee O'Connor didn't get as much good material - and I'm not sure whether she did her own singing, the lip-synching seemed off in places. But the duet between the two crucified women, voices rising together in a love song while the forces of hatred surround them, was both vocally and emotionally lovely.
Oley Sassone directed the gorgeous floating-on-air sequences in "The Debt," and his work here stood out, particularly on the parallel numbers when Gabrielle was walking through Potedeia and Xena was walking through the soldiers. It's more subtle than camera work following a chakram or depicting double Xenas, but other than the too-busy opening musical number sung by an attractive but jittery Hudson Leick as Callisto, the cinematography worked wonderfully with the score. The songs were predictably cliched in places but I'd bet that was intentional.
There were plural mythological themes running through the episode: the use of the four elements (fire, air, earth, water), the Tarot card imagery of Joxer as The Hanged Man and Ares as War. There were singing animals and imagery on the wheel of fortune that looked Egyptian as well as Greek, but may also have been Kabbalistic or otherwise connected to occult traditions. Curious place, Illusia, but as good a setting as any for a musical!
Much as I have complained about Xena this season, I have to give the producers credit: they had a successful product yet were willing to take big artistic risks with it. This is the opposite problem of most shows on television, where the producers seem to be striving for a successful formula from which they will never have to deviate. This was a very gutsy episode which would have lost much of its impact without the exceedingly dark lead-in, so while I'm still undecided about the season as a whole, I'm feeling slightly better about the development. Now I just hope they remember all the things Gabrielle complained to Xena about, and fix some of them.