Xena Versus The Three Naked Gabrielles And Ares And Aphrodite
By Alex Cranz
For about six months in 1997 I was obsessed with Xena. Not like its true fans of the day; I didn’t have posters or go to the internet to talk about it. I just recorded it and would come home on Monday afternoons and watch it. I would skip any episode that didn’t have Joxer in it though. Because when I was fourteen I was in love with Joxer and Gabrielle as a couple and I have a very distinct memory of walking out of my second viewing of Titanic listening to “My Heart Will Go On” and thinking of how perfectly that song represented Joxer and Gabrielle’s love.
Between that and the naked Gabrielles skipping out of a cave this episode was pretty damn memorable for me. It’s probably why it took me so long to seriously rewatch the show because I didn’t remember things like the Debt or next week’s Maternal Instincts. I just remembered Joxer pining, naked Gabrielle and Xena doing an incredibly silly battle involving very vocal fish.
Because yes, this is another of those farce episodes. The ones that run headlong into the silly. Shows don’t really do that any more. Even comedies are reluctant to embrace the farce quite like this. Maybe Glee, another tonally challenged show with moments of true greatness peppered into a sea of ordinary to sub par, could be comparable. Maybe.
They’re certainly comparable when it comes to continuity. This is also the second episode in a row where no mention of “the Rift” is made. Xena and Gabrielle are best buds and Xena goes so far as to confess her eternal love to Gabrielle after spending an entire day on a magically induced fishing adventure. At least in the last episode there was something a little frigid about their interactions. Here there’s only warmth in their two scenes together–that tugging sense of familiarity that makes their friendship and romance so believable.
The only real hint is on the episode’s reliance on Gabrielle’s vain sense of altruism to drive the action. It’s a neat trick that the show has managed to turn something inherently good (altruism) into such a flaw. Gabrielle sees herself as a force of a nature. Someone who changes the world for the better. She never really considers how it might harm others. There’s a nasty streak of selfishness under all the goodness and the massive ego. Which is why Aphrodite’s curse is just so damned effective.
It’s a classic, if heavily doctored variation on W. W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw. The reason this sort of wish-fulfillment story works so well is because we all have a little bit of an ego. We all like to think we can simply wish goodness into the world. That paw, or in this case scroll, is designed to knock us down a peg and reveal our hubris.
But it never quite does that for Gabrielle. Often times in this story the wisher is isolated from the world they knew because they have single-handedly transformed it and proven just how incapable they are of being, in effect, gods.
Xena can’t do that. It actually HAS gods running around wielding unlimited power. But Aphrodite and Ares, and the whole rest of the unseen pantheon, are ancient gods with very human traits. So instead of crafting a morality play they dial back the judgement of Gabrielle’s hubris and highlight the sheer irony of an imperfect god giving powers to a mortal to teach that mortal how imperfect they are.
Because this show, despite Gabrielle’s many tirades, isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about exposing the flaws of others. This show is about being a good person in spite of one’s flaws.
I love that the show’s central point isn’t applied to the gods though. Gabrielle may learn a lesson and poor Joxer may have gotten his nose bloodied in his never-ending quest to seduce Gabrielle while still be an absolute asshat, but the gods are given a little reverence. It’s such a little thing narratively but it sets them apart from the mortals.
Ares really doesn’t learn anything from his day of accidental bonding with Gabrielle beyond whether or not she’s a natural blond and as soon as his powers are restored he’s back to being a terrifically fun foil. And Aphrodite, in her bosomy pink dress, isn’t a painted in as broadly villainous strokes as Ares but she’s gets to suffer through a day of supreme stinkiness and return to her immortal form lesson entirely unlearned.
They’re static, but its used to separate them from the mortals. To show how constant they are as creatures and to highlight their few very inhuman traits.
I returned to this episode ready to roll my eyes at the pratfalls and GIF a storm up over the naked Gabrielles. I wasn’t expecting an almost clever use of a trope to better color the rules of this particular universe or some really excellent comedy work from Kevin Smith (with solid assists from O’Connor and Alexandra Tydings). It’s with a bit of trepidation I entered this one, but with satisfaction I departed. Which is more than I can say for every single character in the episode. Never have I seen so many dazed and confused looks outside of a pot comedy.
- As you’ve no doubt noticed there’s been a change in format. Summary AND review was just too much and the word counts were getting way too unwieldy for a weekly feature. So sadly the summaries have gone but the reviews are hopefully more extensive and full of analysis! And the fun bits will all remain. So follow through after the notes!
- Alexandra Tydings and Kevin Smith have fantastic sibling chemistry. I wonder if anyone told them that in mythology they totally are lovers for centuries?
- Joxer was all over the place this week. From just awful enough to warrant the jerk gag to all dashing and adorable if creepy with his gift to Gabrielle.
- Gabrielle, Aphrodite and Ares bonding over their dislike of Joxer was tops.
- Aphrodite only being able to maintain her beauty and pleasant smell through INFINITE GOD POWERS was the best. I will just assume this was an intentional jibe at fashion and beauty culture.
- I spent way too much of this episode lusting after Ares. It’s that chest man. Rawr.
How This Episode Makes Historians Weep
According to Wikipedia spray painting wasn’t invented until 1892. So Xena has some incredibly industrious worshippers.
The beer helmet is a relatively recent invention by a man named Joseph Gumbo. So Xena has industrious friends too.
I don’t even want to get started on the costuming. We had Maori “barbarians” in European horned helmets and whatever the guy looking for his kinsmen’s sword was wearing. It was probably the most accurate Greek garb to date…if we were doing a performance of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum.
- Did you see that? Xena totally sensed Aphrodite’s arrival at the beginning of the episode.
- Is friends with Gabrielle. Who through a combination of magic scroll, wild imagination and a mad ab workout takes on a whole group of barbarians.
- Takes on a group of idiot Ares lackeys with nothing but fish which she first fished out of a river.
- It is a lot of fish guys.
Where It Stands In The Series
The Rift continues! I mean if you want to interpret Xena’s trek back to Gabrielle that way. Otherwise it was noticeably absent this week.
Minya returned! She’s from one of the show’s best hours, “A Day In the Life.”
That peddler was Paul Norell. He’s played him more than once, but under a variety of different names, on both Xena and Hercules.
The episode was written by Hilary Bader who also wrote the exceptional “Been There, Done That” as well as a whole slew of episodes of both Batman and Superman. I only just discovered this and her significant contribution to some of my favorite television moments in the late 90s (she wrote for Deep Space Nine too) and will now take a moment to bow my head in silence upon learning she passed away in 2002.
No naked Gabrielles were harmed during the production of this motion picture.
Episode 11 of Season3, “Maternal Instinct”
Perhaps the most controversial episode the show ever did this is Greek tragedy done right. Be prepared to argue it in the comments!