Mourning Becomes Electra
"The Furies" Plot Summary:
Ares, God of War, demands that the Furies pass judgement on Xena for an unnamed act of negligence. They find her guilty and sentence her to both madness and persecution. Xena, who flips out (literally and figuratively) while discovering that the Furies have put a price on her head, learns that the crime she's been accused of is failure to avenge her father's murder. When Gabrielle helps her home, they learn that Xena's mother murdered her father trying to stop him from sacrificing the young Xena to Ares.
While Xena prepares to execute her mother at Ares' behest - he assures her that this is the only way to end her madness and exploit the weak humans she's been surrounded by all her life - Gabrielle visits Orestes, who killed his mother to avenge his father's murder, yet remained mad afterwards. Gab returns just in time to squeak a warning to Xena, who is about to kill her mother. Xena remembers a legend about how Ares seduced wives while their husbands were away at war and accuses Ares of being her own father. She challenges him to a duel, on the theory that only a half-god could defeat the God of War, so if she wins it will mean that she is his daughter. She wins the struggle, and the Furies free her.
Ares scoffs at the notion that Xena thinks he could be her father, and Xena says that it only matters that the Furies think so - that's enough to free her and get Ares in trouble for lying. The question of her paternity (and possible half-godhood) is not really resolved.
Xena has always done a superb job using Greek myths, walking a fine line between allusion and parody. The story of Orestes is not as well-known nowadays as that of Oedipus - does anyone read Aeschylus in high school anymore, let alone Eugene O'Neill's famous trilogy based on The Oresteia? Xena's writers clearly did, though they depend on their audience not remembering all the details of the plot for Xena's version to work.
Work it does, though, and magnificently, with the dramatic tension of Greek tragedy, but some of the lighthearted bawdiness of Aristophanes thrown in. Xena and Ares have always had dangerous sexual chemistry between them; the suggestion that the warrior princess and the macho god who never ages could be father and daughter is somehow delightfully titillating, rather than offensive. This is a struggle between near-equals, no matter what their biological relationship. It's impossible to see Xena as a girl being taken advantage of, no matter how hard Ares tries.
I was squirming a little while Xena interrogated her mother about the details of her own conception. The nasty Oedipal suggestiveness of this story worked well with the themes of madness and the squalor of human existence. Xena's asking about her mother's sex life and Ares' potential sexual interest in her might have been screechingly uncomfortable had she not been mad at the time! I was a little uncomfortable with the flip treatment of madness as divine retribution; everyone on this show seems to recover awfully quickly from the atrocities they commit, and I found it highly ironic that Lucy Lawless' ad to prevent domestic violence aired in the middle of this flip family struggle.
I liked all the references to the madness of Xena's own past - that she hallucinated Gabrielle as Callisto, and fought off attackers quite deliberately like a madwoman. I also liked the fact that Xena's strength was never diminished, even when she contemplated suicide. Most of all, I liked how strong Gabrielle was in this episode - not just a sidekick, but an independent entity, working her own angle on the mystery and fighting off attackers herself when Xena wigged out on her. There were a couple of lovely relationship moments between the two women, and Ares' obvious jealousy of the two together - in an episode where jealousy is used as a rationale for murder - made them all the more delicious.