The Redemption of Love
"The Return of the Valkyrie" Plot Summary:
One year after Xena lost her memory, Beowulf tries to talk a Viking warrior out of trying to bring Gabrielle out of the ring of fire; his burned hand testifies to the fact that only Gabrielle's true soulmate will breach the flames. The Lord tries anyway, and dies. Beowulf orders his men back to Denmark, hoping that King Hrothgar can defeat both Grinhilda and the curse. But Hrothgar is about to marry the lady Wealthea -- who is actually the amnesiac Xena. Despite occasional flashbacks of Gabrielle and the Ring, she has no idea of her real identity.
Beowulf visits Xena on her wedding night before the groom arrives, begging her to help him rescue Gabrielle. She doesn't recognize him and begs him to stay away, using force when he refuses to be deterred. Hrothgar interrupts their struggle and begins to believe his sister's suspicions that Wealthea will betray them all. He sends his bride to the dungeon, but she and Beowulf fight off the palace guards and flee to Beowulf's boat. Odin's raven witnesses the warrior princess' escape.
Beowulf tries to prove her heritage as a fighter to Xena, but although she can stop his sword, she doesn't recognize her chakram. When the boat comes ashore, she remembers the river of the Rhine Maidens. Meanwhile, the Valkyries, who honor the men dying in pursuit of Gabrielle, learn from Odin that Xena is alive. The pursue her, preparing to fight Beowulf's men until Xena insists there will be no bloodshed in her name. Head Valkyrie Waltraute nearly kills her until Odin interferes, sending his warrior women back to Valhalla. Now that he has forsaken love, much to Waltraute's regret, he wants the Ring. If the Valkyries keep Xena safe from Grinhilda, she will lead him to Gabrielle and the gold.
The bard appears to Xena again, saying, "I am the truth of who you are." When she reaches the ring of fire, Beowulf assures Xena that the flames cannot hurt her, for she is Gabrielle's soulmate. Brinhilda's face appears in the fire, telling Xena that her love burns stronger than any flame, and that Xena and Gabrielle belong together. Before she can enter the magic circle, however, the Valkyries attack. "It makes me sick to see you grown so soft," sneers Waltraute, who wants the Ring for herself and has no intention of giving it to Odin. Xena knocks her into the flames, where she dies. "Go now," says Beowulf, but he is stabbed by Grinhilda.
As she leaps through the fire, Xena has visions of herself sharing happy memories. She kisses Gabrielle, and sleeping beauty wakes. Through some magical power, Xena now appears in her armor, while Gabrielle wears the red halter and long hair from her Amazon princess days. The two talk about being complete now that they are together. Then Brinhilda's voice warns Xena to take the Ring. Xena announces that she will summon back its evil, and heads after Grinhilda. Inside her lair, the monster tries to strangle the warrior princess, but she begs her former adversary to find her humanity inside her and learn to forgive. The Ring begins to glow. Fleeing, Beowulf and Gabrielle see the cave explode.
Xena comes out with the Ring and with Grinhilda, now a beautiful woman again. After saying a grateful goodbye to Beowulf, Xena and Gabrielle ride with the Valkyrie to Valhalla, where Odin hopes Xena has brought back something that belongs to him. Xena says she has, then shocks him by producing Grinhilda, who promises to teach the Valkyries to use their powers nobly. Realizing he has not forsaken love after all, Odin hugs his former mate, leaving Xena to take the Ring back to the Rhine maidens. The three women ask what magic made their former adversary become honorable. "It wasn't magic," says Xena, gazing at Gabrielle.
Xena rewrites The Ring, Beowulf, and "Sleeping Beauty" into a lesbian fairy tale! "The Return of the Valkyrie" makes an eminently satisfying conclusion to the Norse arc, featuring magnificent costumes and a lovely if unpleasant wedding scene, while Gabrielle plays Briar Rose and sleeps under a canopy of thorns that never touch her skin. And she's got her long hair back! I am happy enough about that not to care what unnamed deus ex machina undressed and re-dressed the bard and the warrior princess as they kissed in the mystical ring of fire.
I'm sure this kiss will get talked about nearly as much as the Mulder/Scully "Millennium" smooch on X-Files, so let me note that it was not filmed as particularly erotic, and the flashback montage surrounding it emphasized the early friendship between the women rather than the struggles to stay together till death and beyond. In other words, fans who can't stomach the idea of the two women as lovers can cling to their beliefs. Everything else about the arc, however, strongly emphasizes the intimate bond between Xena and Gabrielle, from Brinhilda's misplaced jealous passion to Beowulf's gracious acknowledgement that he'll never be Gabrielle's soulmate. Amnesiac Wealthea's revulsion at the idea of having sex with the brute Hrothgar must have confused her, particularly when she had soft-focus visions of Gabrielle offering her true love.
Grinhilda, apparently a good guy simply because she opposed Pre-Reform Xena, gets her beauty restored and a second chance with Odin. It's not clear that the Norse god deserves the same fortune, but at least he gives up on the absolute power offered by the Ring. He never flinches from Xena, even knowing that she can kill a god, which makes him seem stronger at times than Ares. Xena hasn't really reformed the northern pantheon the way she and Hercules played havoc with the Greeks, but they're not really her problem. She takes responsibility for the damage she causes, Grindl's rampages and Odin's bloodlust, and she returns the Rheingold to where it belongs.
We meet many interesting characters, particularly the Valkyries Grinhilda, Brunhilda, and Waltraute, plus the Anglo-Saxon heroes Beowulf and Hrothgar, and a number of other characters from Wagnerian opera and Norse myth. If the Norse three-parter has many parallels with previous Xena stories -- particularly the Christian tale in which Xena loses her memories of violence following her salvation from the cross -- it also undoes some of the damage of the Christian arc, if only by suggesting that Eli's Way is not the only Way to find one's inner self and life purpose. Once more on this series, the love of two women transcends mortal life and enters the realm of legend.