Crouching Samurai, Hidden Dragon
"A Friend In Need" Plot Summary:
While Gabrielle contemplates the cosmos, Xena contemplates going south -- she has heard that in the land of the Pharaohs, they need a girl with a chakram. Their musings are interrupted by the arrival of a monk from the East, who tells Xena that he was sent by Akemi. She is stunned by the young man's story of having met the beautiful ghost. The monk tells Xena that Akemi sent him to find her, to beg her help in stopping the demon Yodoshi who steals the souls of his victims.
As they sail east of Chin, Xena tells Gabrielle of her last trip to the land of the samurai. She traveled with Borias in search of wealth and conquest, but found a devoted student in Akemi, a lovely young girl whom they planned to return to her father for ransom. Akemi wrote love poetry for Xena and tried to emulate her physical prowess; though flattered by the adoration, the warrior princess was more interested in the money. Still, she agreed to teach Akemi the pinch of death in tribute to her devotion. It troubles Gabrielle that Xena taught someone else her most powerful maneuver. "The truth is, Gabrielle, she broke my heart," Xena admits.
Continuing the story, Xena explains that once liberated, Akemi took Xena in search of the grand katana -- a sword of great purity and strength. She stole the blade from its forge by defeating several trained warriors who believed a woman had no business holding a sword. Xena's story is interrupted when the boat captain tells Xena and Gabrielle that the port of Higuchi is burning. Though the vessel turns back, the women dive into the water and swim into town. There they use sophisticated acrobatics and physical skills to release a flood from the water tower, saving the town. But instead of hailing them as heroes, a town elder confronts Xena, blaming her for the deaths of 40,000 people from the last time she entered Higuchi.
Xena tells Gabrielle the rest of the story: she accompanied Akemi to her father's fortress, only to watch the girl kill her murderous father with the pinch. Though Xena's initial concern was her lost ransom, she was shocked when Akemi then demanded that Xena restore her family honor by cutting off her head with the grand katana, then taking her ashes to the sacred shrine in Higuchi. After the girl disemboweled herself, Xena tried to fulfill Akemi's dying request, but the townsfolk tried to stop her. They broke the urn containing Akemi's ashes. Wounded and furious, Xena set fire to one of the local buildings before fleeing the city.
Now Xena and Gabrielle learn that the wind carried the fire through Higuchi, where tens of thousands died and were devoured by Yodoshi -- the spirit of Akemi's father. He was so evil that the underworld rejected him, turning him into the Eater of Souls. A man who saves souls from Yodoshi by spearing them before the demon can find them, The Ghost Killer, informs Xena that he has tried to kill Yodoshi for 40 years but because he is mortal, he cannot get close enough. Only a spirit can destroy the Eater of Souls. During preparations for battle against three hostile armies, Xena teaches Gabrielle the pinch, using her friend's hands to paralyze herself. "If I only have 30 seconds to live, this is how I want to live them, looking into your eyes," Xena chokes out, telling Gabrielle always to remember that she loves her. Then Xena sends the bard and the young monk against one army while she remains behind to fight another.
After burying her breastplate, Xena uses her chakram to spill enemy explosives, creating a huge firebomb that results in a mushroom cloud over the area. As Gabrielle falls to the ground yelling for her friend, the warrior princess singlehandedly goes against hundreds of soldiers. Several arrows pierce her from among the thousands shot in her direction. Xena kills many men, but a samurai corners her and chops off her head. Gabrielle finds the bloody chakram, yet refuses to consider the possibility that Xena could be dead; she will not ask the Ghost Killer if he's seen her soul. Meanwhile Xena's spirit arrives at the tea house where Akemi's soul is enslaved to Yodoshi. A woman with an anklet stamps her foot and Yodoshi appears, tormenting Xena before she promises obedience.
Xena finds Gabrielle in the woods and hugs her friend, but when the bard tries to return her chakram, Xena's fingers slip through the blade. Gabrielle realizes that Xena has died, and vows to find a way to bring her back. With the help of the Ghost Killer, Xena gets the anklet that summons Yodoshi. At the tea house, she introduces her soulmate to Akemi, then learns that if Gabrielle takes Xena's ashes to the Fountain of Strength on Mt. Fujisha before two days pass, Xena can return to life. Before Gabrielle sets off on this quest, Akemi gives her a huge dragon tattoo all over her back and arms. Then Gabrielle goes to search the war camp, finding Xena's headless body and challenging the samurai for her head. When Gabrielle defeats him in a single stroke by listening to the movements of his body, as Xena taught her, he asks for an honorable death but she refuses, knocking him out. Then she takes Xena's corpse to cremate it.
At the tea house, Xena calls forth Yodoshi. The Ghost Killer stabs the demon, but Yodoshi returns to battle Xena after trapping Akemi under a sheet of ice. Xena slashes off his arm and he vanishes again. With his dying breath, the Ghost Killer explains that Yodoshi must be drinking from the Fountain of Strength on Mt. Fujisha. Xena heads to the mountain where she has already promised to meet Gabrielle. Yodoshi freezes the fountain and swallows an icicle made from its water, regaining his strength; after knocking out Xena, he fights Akemi and swallows her soul. Hearing the fight, Gabrielle drinks from the fountain, protected from Yodoshi by the dragon tattoo. She kisses Xena, letting the magical waters flow into her mouth. The warrior princess transforms into a powerful ghost wearing her familiar armor.
Though she couldn't hold the chakram, Xena can take the grand katana from Gabrielle. After a final struggle, she uses it to behead Yodoshi. The 40,000 souls are released, including Akemi, who thanks her for redeeming them all. Gabrielle begins the ceremony to bring Xena back, but the ghost of her friend stops her, explaining that even though the souls have been freed from Yodoshi's power, they will not find peace unless their deaths have been avenged. To achieve that, Xena must stay dead. Gabrielle sobs that she doesn't care about the souls, Xena is all that matters to her, yet Xena explains that in their travels together she learned from Gabrielle to do the right thing. As the sun sets and Xena's spirit fades, she promises always to be with Gabrielle.
On the boat from the Far East, Gabrielle holds the urn with Xena's ashes. The ghost of Xena appears at her side, saying she will always be there. The bard suggests that they go to the land of the Pharaohs, where she has heard they need a girl with a chakram. Alone in vision if not in fact, Gabrielle sails smiling toward the sunset, holding what's left of Xena in her arms -- and her heart.
I said in my review of "Soul Possession" that I would have been just as happy with that episode as the series finale, and I think I would like to remember it as such. I know many people are very angry about the ending of "A Friend In Need," which seems like a cheat, yet it didn't make me cry -- I didn't take the weak storyline seriously enough for it to have that kind of emotional impact. The final sequence balances Xena's need to save Yodoshi's trapped souls with Gabrielle's need to restore Xena to life. Both projected events are given equal weight in the converging plot lines. We see both Xena and Gabrielle struggle on the side of Mt. Fujisha to reach the Fountain of Strength and fulfill their destinies. We're given no indication beforehand that the fulfillment of Xena's task will make Gabrielle's impossible.
When out of the blue Xena announces that she intended to stay dead all along, it's as unfair to viewers as it is to Gabrielle. It's hard to mourn deeply, for her spirit lives on and she has found the redemption she's sought since she recognized the karmic price for what she did to Callisto all those years ago. Unfortunately "Friend In Need" seems like a pretty superficial excuse to end her mortal incarnation in the form of Lucy Lawless, which is the only rational explanation I can come up with for why the producers would leave dead a character who has repeatedly come back to life, and whose heart will go on -- just without physical form. The scale of the whole episode seems off; were there really more than 40,000 people living in any Japanese port city of the early common era? When we hear the number, it sounds like the writers were looking for the proper epic scale to match the import of the pre-planned execution.
That said, there are fascinating implications for Xena's decision to choose death at this juncture. We learned during the India arc that Xena and Gabrielle will be reunited in future lifetimes, and we learned in the penultimate episode that they would be married in our own era. On a series where the dead keep returning by divine intervention and the heroine's nemesis finds redemption through reincarnation as her child, death becomes somewhat meaningless. We KNOW that Xena will remain with her beloved in a very real sense if not a corporeal form.
"Friend In Need" firmly establishes the ascendancy of Gabrielle, Warrior Princess. Now she can use the pinch, throw a chakram, fight a samurai, whoop, back-flip and perform nearly all of Xena's trademark moves. The scene in which the two women work together using Gabrielle's acrobatic plans to save Higuchi marks the first time I can remember where the two worked as complete equals; there have been times when Xena humored Gabrielle by doing things her way, but I can't think of another instance where they matched one another step for step and took turns covering for one another's difficulties. That scene warmed my heart, even more than the declaration that Xena would want to spend her last moments looking into Gabrielle's eyes or the passionate kiss by which Gabrielle restored Xena's strength.
Although I've always been a much bigger fan of Xena than her sidekick, I have to admit that I'm intrigued by the idea of Gabrielle on her own, in possession of most of Xena's powers. I love seeing her as Xena's equal. But what does it say about the bard if she can only achieve that status with Xena dead? The episode provides an interesting contrast between Gabrielle and Akemi, whom Xena once thought of as a pupil, but from whom she ended up learning a harsh lesson -- her own words to the girl, "Trust no one," come back to haunt her when she learns that Akemi was using her all along. Strangely, the girl's innocence and sincerity become easier to believe as her grand design unfolds. Like Gabrielle in battle, Akemi's actions are never selfish; she takes action she believes necessary to redeem her entire family, she gives her life in the process, she devotes her time as a ghost to trying to free all those her father has tormented. It's a pity she can't do it without Xena, but 40,000 souls are reason enough to excuse her. Akemi is the ultimate victim of patriarchy, and it's evident that she does appreciate Xena's strength and self-possession even while she's exploiting the warrior princess.
It's hard to say whether Akemi ever really loved Xena. The allure of her poetry -- "In a flurry of snow, two breaths of wind unite and become as one and then disappear into each other" -- suggests that her erotic yearnings go far beyond a schoolgirl crush, and her passion isn't entirely fabricated. Xena introduces Gabrielle to Akemi's ghost as her soulmate and Akemi accepts Gabrielle as such without envy precisely, but an undercurrent of resentment between the two women that flows both ways. The title "A Friend in Need" could refer either to Xena or to Akemi; Gabrielle is the only one who could be deemed a savior in both instances. Now we can finally rationalize why Xena never completely trusted Gabrielle with the knowledge of the pinch and other secrets; she wasn't only trying to keep her lessons from being misused, she wanted to protect her friend from temptation. After Akemi's betrayal, it would have been incredibly difficult for her to open up to anyone -- particularly a bard. In the end, Xena must prevent Gabrielle from making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons, just as Gabrielle has done many times for her.
The imagery of the episode is rich and strange, particularly the mushroom cloud rising above Japanese soil at the command of a Westerner -- are we supposed to infer that Xena is paying not only for her own sins, but all evils committed against those in the Land of the Rising Sun by outsiders? We get dolphins leaping in the sea, we get a scene in a forge reminiscent of "The Warrior Princess" -- the Hercules episode that introduced Xena -- we get a spectacular firefight with acrobatics, we get Kabuki masks, we get hari kiri, we get Xena breathing fire, we get a swordsman killing ghosts, we get a katana duel, we get Xena in the ancient equivalent of a bikini, we get Xena stark naked with only a man's hand blocking our view. Some of the tea house imagery mirrors "The Debt," as does the structure of this two-part episode. Yodoshi's special-effects entrances are right out of The Mummy, though quite effective, while Xena's battle with the demon has obvious antecedents in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its school of filmmaking.
First-rate performances, particularly by Lucy Lawless as Xenas of different eras and Michelle Ang as Akemi, help hold an uneven script together. But Renee O'Connor deserves credit for nearly stealing the Xena finale away from the title character. Her reactions in the final few scenes, when she realizes she must let Xena go, are complex and wrenching. One wonders what Gabrielle will do now, having finally become a true warrior. She turned off the path of Eli by her own choice, she lost her family and her past to stay with Xena. It's hard to imagine her staying alone in the land of the Pharaohs, with only a ghost for company. In the lifetimes before she meets Harry, how will she fill the emptiness? Xena: Warrior Princess offers only a resolute belief in spiritual love as its answer.
The holes in the episode affirm seasons-long indications that the writers are burned out, so I'm not devastated that the series is ending; perhaps this is why I can't get as worked up as some at the unhappy ending to which Xena and Gabrielle have been consigned. (One might argue that it's an attempt by the producers to maintain their hold on Xena -- post-series subtext fan fiction is well-nigh impossible under the current circumstances -- but we've seen Xena come back from the dead so many times that it also seems like a challenge to fans to think beyond the obvious.) I have many of the same doubts and frustrations as other fans. Why have the warrior princess go out in a glorified bloodbath, reinforcing her role as a fighter, not a lover? One might argue that despite Gabrielle's restraint the episode glorifies beheading. Why reduce it to action-adventure cliches, blood-and-guts mayhem that turn the heroine into a slab of meat, then ashes? Why must Xena's redemption depend on her dying by the violent code she tried to escape once she met Gabrielle?
Most of all, why the need to use death to prove that their love is deathless? Television's best-established lesbian couple has been denied the happy ending that Xena's counterpart Hercules found in his much-more-obviously-straight relationship with Iolaus, and it's hard to avoid comparisons; Hercules rode off into his sunset, Xena faded away with hers. (And where in hell is Ares to bend the rules for a girl when she really needs him?) It's clear to some extent that the producers sought controversy for its own sake, but in a final-ever episode of a television series with no movie or sequel in sight, I don't understand whose interests the controversy is supposed to serve. I expect it will bring the fan community together in an outpouring of grief and anger, which will probably inspire demands for sequels that may fill the pocketbooks of Renaissance execs down the road. From that standpoint I understand all the anger. But I also think about Xena: Warrior Princess the way I think about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, namely: it belongs to the fans now. We can take it where we please.