The Last Emperor
"The Debt, Part Two" Plot Summary:
The young emperor Ming Tien has Xena thrown into his mud-pit of a prison with a large restraint around her neck. He tells Gabrielle that he will have no choice but to execute Xena; she will only come back for him if banished. Ming Tien explains that he learned everything he knows from Xena, who taught him how to rule without mercy.
In prison, Xena learns that the emperor is hated and that he had Lao Ma executed. Devastated, Xena remembers Lao Ma teaching her how a hairpin could become a deadly weapon. But Lao Ma did not believe in killing; she thought Xena too full of hate, and demonstrated that suppressing desire would make her stronger. She asked Xena to serve Ming Tso and his son, since to conquer others is to know power but to conquer oneself is to know The Way.
Xena learned that Lao Ma kept her husband, Lao Tsu, alive but unconscious so that she could rule his kingdom - the only way that a woman could rule in Chin - and that she was writing a book of her wisdom which bore his name. Lao Ma also told Xena that Ming Tien was her son. She didn't care about getting credit for any of her accomplishments, only about teaching peace. Lao Ma healed Xena by running her hands over her, then asked Xena to be her warrior princess in a united kingdom. But Xena could not make peace with her former enemies, and the alliance failed.
The present Xena refuses to promise not to try to kill Ming Tien despite Gabrielle's pleas, and is sentenced to death. Gabrielle mourns the fact that her reverence for life has given the country to a deadly tyrant, finally understanding that Lao Ma saved Xena's soul. At her own execution, Xena recalls Lao Ma's words over the years and fights off the guards with new-found mental powers. She defeats the emperor and tells him that Lao Ma was his mother. He admits that he depended on that fact to keep himself safe from her when he murdered her. Xena realizes that Lao Ma didn't demand the Green Dragon's execution, just his diminishment, which she has accomplished. She takes Lao Ma's Book of The Way with her. When Xena leaves with Gabrielle, the Emperor has a hairpin stuck in his temple and his eyes are clouded over.
I liked this episode's conclusion much better than the first half, mostly because the superlative Jacqueline Kim got so much screen time as Lao Ma. When she's onscreen, it's hard to look at anyone else, even Lucy Lawless; Kim can go from demure to seductive to terrifying in the space of a few moments, a twist of an eyebrow or a lift of the chin. It was easy for me to believe that Xena could forget Gabrielle and everyone else by comparison to this woman. Lao Ma was her healer, her benefactress, and possibly her lover, though the show typically chickened out on providing a conclusive answer to the ongoing question of Xena's bisexuality. The scene in which the two women float above the ground, wrapped in silk, was powerfully sexy. Xena's animalistic smooch with her pirate paramour paled by comparison.
As for Xena herself, I'm uncertain what she's supposed to have learned from this excursion into the Far East. She never reverted to being the consumingly hateful, violent person she was when Caesar first got done with her, and it's unclear from all this what effect meeting Hercules had on her - I always thought of that as the beginning of her real development as a force for good. Maybe Xena operates in several universes simultaneously, like the one we saw on Hercules in "Stranger in a Strange World"; that would explain how she could have met Caesar, Ulysses, Boadicea, Lao Tsu, etc. in one lifetime. Or maybe, if she is Ares' daughter, time operates differently for her and those close to her than it does for everyone else.
I'm not sure whether Xena/Gabrielle relationshippers will love or hate this episode. On the one hand, we got the most direct exchange of "I love you"s we've heard so far on this series, and it appears that the rift in the affiliation is healed. Moreover, anyone who feared that Joxer or some other man would be thrown in as a love interest to heterosexualize Xena can rest easy; the writers chose to have another woman come between the two, and to portray that relationship in highly erotic images.
But this was a very weak episode in what's been a weak season for Gabrielle. She's been beaten up quite a bit, but she seems to be growing more naive, misguided, too simplistic to be interesting. She's been a liability for Xena of late, and now we learn that it wasn't even Gabrielle's love which transformed Xena (as Xena said in "Half a Dirty Dozen"), but Lao Ma's. Though Lao Ma and Gabrielle share some common elements - an aversion to violence, a deep sense of justice - the Amazon bard couldn't hold a candle to the compelling philosopher in this two-parter. Gabrielle's fine as a foil for Xena in comic episodes, but her platitudes can't compete even with the grossly oversimplified Tao Te Ching spouted by Lao Ma.
Technical stuff: The actor who played the young Ming Tien - not the emperor, but the boy in the flashbacks - was superb, reminded me a lot of the child king from Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. In fact, much about this episode reminded me of The Last Emperor, which I mean as the highest possible compliment to Oley Sassone, who directed "The Debt." The backgrounds were exotic, lush yet understated, and the lighting was superb. However else one felt about this episode, there's no arguing that it was a gorgeous change of pace for the series.