How High a Price?
"The Debt" Plot Summary:
A man with Asian features and clothing gives Xena a cryptic message about a green dragon which has become too large, sent to her by one who is soft and hard at the same time. Though she has barely finished comforting Gabrielle after the younger woman's recent ordeal, Xena announces that she is traveling to the Kingdom of Chin and Gabrielle had better not accompany her - she's going to commit a murder.
As they travel to the ship which will take Xena to the Far East, she tells Gabrielle the story of traveling in her unreformed days with a lover who stole from the two royal houses of Chin, the Ming and the Lao. Xena had only just escaped from Caesar; her broken legs hadn't healed, and she was bloodthirsty. When the wife of Lao tried to seduce her lover, she tried to kill the woman, but the initially passive Lao Ma proved an even more skilled warrior than Xena, with surprising powers.
Xena kidnapped the heir to the house of Ming, and was betrayed by her lover to the leader. He traveled with her in a cage, set her loose and hunted her onto Lao property. Lao Ma rescued her, hiding her from the Ming family and taking her in. Ming described the wily woman as soft and hard at the same time, and the debt Xena feels to her requires that she kill the "green dragon" - the young Ming boy, now grown. She leaves Gabrielle behind. But when she arrives in Chin to murder the youth, Xena finds Gabrielle hidden in his bed - unwilling to let Xena commit murder in cold blood, she has followed her and betrayed her plan to the Ming family.
It's hard to evaluate this episode without part two, since Gabrielle was in it so little, and her actions seem so inexcusable considering that she never heard Xena's whole story. She sounds disapproving when Xena describes how she behaved as a jilted lover, but Gabrielle's the one who seems crazed about being jilted - she asks Xena whether the warrior princess really owes someone so much that she'd throw away the past three years, Xena says yes, then Gabrielle reacts by betraying her behind her back rather than trying to understand. Either Gabrielle's really changed, or she's way too full of herself and her notions about the power of love. What does she think the Ming boy will do to Xena, after all - sit down to discuss the need for alliance and peace with her and the Lao family?
Of course, we won't know the answer to that until Part Two, so it's difficult to talk about plot and characterization in the present...much more interesting to talk about the flashbacks, which were superlative for the most part. Lawless did less of her trademark flipping and kicking and a lot more acting than usual; they should let her try that more often. She was utterly convincing as a woman who'd recently had both her legs broken, desperately fleeing a pack of hunting dogs and men; she was scary and sexy with her bandit lover, and eerily compelling with the seductive Lao Ma, a former courtesan given in marriage by the elder Ming to his rival. In the bizarre sequence where Xena's hidden in a pool of water in Lao Ma's private rooms, the other woman gives her underwater mouth-to-mouth breathing to keep her hidden from Ming; it's barely believable yet strangely sexy, as is the sight of Xena in traditional Chinese clothes.
I'm no expert on Chinese history or myths, so I don't know what to say about Xena teaching them to put the heads of their enemies on spikes on the Great Wall, and I have no idea what to make of her scoundrel lover's Eastern European accent - he sure sounded Russian to me. Despite the ninjas, the fighting and torture skills of the Easterners seemed very Western - which is in some ways refreshing, since they're never portrayed as exotically Other, but there's nothing particularly unique credited to the culture either.
I thought the directing was superb, particularly the visual references to Kurosawa films and the sequence adapted from Apocalypse Now where Xena, covered with mud, rises from the water with a knife in her mouth. The flashbacks wove in very nicely, though at times I almost wished for an obvious dissolve or some other signal to indicate a time jump; in a couple of instances, I got confused as to which era we were seeing. I didn't love this episode, but I'm certainly looking forward to the next installment; now that we know the background, it will be exciting to see who Xena becomes on this journey.