Why Xena Should NOT Have Died:
A Rejoinder to Rob Tapert

    by Tenderware (tenderware@gate.net)
 
 

Throughout its six-year run, Xena: Warrior Princess has had its occasional detractors, even among devoted fans who found some particular episode trifling if not downright offensive. To be honest, I wasn't one of those detractors because I didn't even watch the show for most of its run, thinking it was silly and that its lead, with a name like "Lucy Lawless," was probably some ex-porn star. (Sorry, Lucy.)

Finally, a friend convinced me that, given my love of lesbian subtext, I should watch XWP. Picking it up at the beginning of the fifth season, I took awhile making sense of the story line and the characters. Ironically, it was a rerun of the controversial episode Bitter Suite that made me fall in love with the show. While I agree that the Gab Drag was over the top, I appreciated the dramatic conflict of The Rift and thoroughly enjoyed the operatic musical it engendered. It was gutsy and creative, and the music was wonderful. After that, I caught reruns and bought video collections until I'd seen practically every show, save for a few toward the end of the first season when some over-paid programming genius for the USA Network (which apparently owns XWP) decided to cancel Xena reruns in favor of showing infomercials.

Anyway, my point is that I've never been a nitpicky Xena fan. I've pretty much liked all the episodes (well, except maybe for Forgiven because I thought Tara was a brat). I even liked Married with Fishsticks, which was goofy and funny and had great nutty costumes (loved ROC in the heart-shaped glasses!). Bottom line: I was hardly a hard-to-please fan.

More to the point, I came to respect Rob Tapert's vision. Although I knew better, I even shamelessly enjoyed his cinematic gaze when he slipped the soft-focus filters onto the camera lenses and let them linger erotically over half-clad female bodies, a gaze he turned as often on Gabrielle's body as on Xena's (notwithstanding the fact that the guy is married to the gorgeous Ms. Lawless). Case in point: Paradise Found (remember the scene where Xena gives Gabrielle a massage?) or, for that matter, the Great Tattoo scene of the series finale (FIN2). Those slow-motion close-ups of female hands working on Gabrielle's luscious bare back helped galvanize my ardor for the bard-turned-warrior. (ROC rocks!) With such alluring images, how could I help but become intrigued. And it wasn't long before I discovered the substance underlying those images: the depiction of a loving bond that transcended time and space and circumstance. Needless to say, I was hooked.

As it unfolded, the two-part finale looked every bit as wonderful as previous Xena episodes: in fact, it was better than most. It was an extremely entertaining, beautifully photographed, and, for the most part, very well told story. In the last five minutes, however, something went terribly wrong. Even though I initially gave Tapert the benefit of the doubt (trying to convince myself that the ending gave the show more dramatic content and made it as much about Gabrielle's growth as about Xena's redemption), I just couldn't get past the sudden turn of events in the denouement. Tapert's decision to keep Xena dead left me feeling surprisingly devastated and more than a little betrayed.

I suspect that the decision to leave Xena dead was what Lucy Lawless was referring to when she noted that the finale was "the most defiant episode we've done," adding that her husband (Tapert) "is afraid of nothing, nobody tells him, 'You can't do that'. They might try, but he'll do it his way."

I respect the stand-by-your-man reaction, but Lucy's genuine pride notwithstanding, I think even she would have to admit that there's nothing particularly bold about killing off strong women characters or, for that matter, (apropos the subtext) about ending a quasi-lesbian relationship with the tragic and untimely death of one of the partners. These have been standards of the mainstream media since well before the word "lesbian" made it past Hollywood censors. I doubt, too, that anyone at USA Network retained a vested interest in how the show ended. The rights to airing the reruns, after all, have been bought by the Oxygen network, and I can't help wondering whether the latter is now regretting its investment. Really, except for the creators of XWP (including the show's cast and crew), the only people who had anything vested in how Xena concluded were its fans.

The logical conclusion, then, is that, in deciding to kill Xena off, Tapert was defying the very fan base that had for six years staunchly supported the show, making it the highest rated first-run syndicated program in television history and, as an added bonus, helping to make Lucy Lawless the second richest woman in New Zealand: an accomplishment I hardly begrudge her, especially given the arduous work involved in producing an hour-long show week after week. Still, all things considered, the series finale smacks a little of biting-the-hand-that-feeds, and that makes Tapert considerably less gracious than he should have been.

The "Xena phenomenon" was more extraordinary than most other television fandoms. Unlike the "Trek phenomenon," for example, Xena began and ended its run as a syndicated program produced outside Hollywood. In the absence of that traditional support structure, the show arguably benefited from the support of its fans, which was apparent in its high ratings and worldwide popularity. At the same time, Xena fans exploited the burgeoning World Wide Web as a place to gather, exchange stories and ideas, and develop an active community, one that has produced in fact more than it has consumed. After all, Tapert and company created only 134 episodes. By contrast, Xenites have written thousands of fan fiction stories, and they've also generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in franchise revenues and charitable donations. It isn't surprising, then, that this community came to the attention of the show's producers and encouraged them to push the envelope on certain themes, like the show's lesbian subtext. In other words, what developed between the "official" creators of the show and its "unofficial" creators (the fans) was more symbiotic than for the standard Hollywood fare.

True to their personal involvement, when news broke that the sixth season would be the show's final one, fans began writing in to beg the creators to end the show on a high note, which for a number of us meant: let Xena and Gabrielle share a passionate kiss and ride off into the sunset together. Other fans probably had different ideas about how the show should end, maybe some vague hope that Xena would find peace and redemption. To my knowledge, however, no fan actually begged the creators to achieve this closure by killing Xena off. So is it any wonder that so many of us were left devastated and wondering why?

For a number of fans, the finale has cast a pall over everything that came before it. The experience of watching reruns is now tainted with the sure knowledge of how the relationship ends. Tragic endings have that effect. It's ironic, really, that one bad decision might ruin the franchise and rerun syndication of what was once a fun show to watch. It's a disservice to the cast and crew who poured six year's worth of hard work and talent into 134 episodes. And it's undeniably a disservice to fans, who drew strength and pleasure from the characters and the stories.

Tapert's decision to kill off Xena breaches an implicit social compact that he himself had helped to cultivate over the years, even to the point of hiring Xena fanfic writer Missy Good to pen a couple of episodes for the final season. Xenites had come to trust that the creators of the show were at least partially sensitive to what we wanted: a story about redeeming oneself through a loving and enduring partnership. The only defiance exhibited here is against the notion that this was a trust worth keeping.

The truth is that we got blind-sided by an ending that was designed precisely for that purpose: to shock and dismay its audience as much as Xena's under-motivated, last-minute revelation shocked and dismayed an unwitting Gabrielle. In fact, from the standpoint of the narrative, Gabrielle got taken in no less than we were. In retrospect, I find it remarkably out of character for Xena to have allowed--let alone encouraged--Gabrielle to embark on an adventure that put her in danger, especially for a task that Xena never intended to let Gabrielle complete. Some "friend"! Obviously, there were many instances throughout the narrative when one could well imagine Xena having had the opportunity to break the sad news to Gabrielle, sparing her the false hope and the close shaves with the Samurai with the bad accent. But apparently there's no dramatic content in sparing someone's feelings: Gab's or ours. That Xena didn't reveal the truth until the end was, of course, a plot device intended to keep the audience in suspense so that we might be, in Tapert's coy terms, "surprised and entertained."

Ultimately, however, the revelation is so contrived that it rings false. It rings false because it comes on the heels of Xena having accomplished her stated goal of killing Yodoshi and having received Akemi's declaration that she had redeemed herself. It rings false because the 40,000 deaths--unlike so many others caused by Xena--were accidental. It rings false because in the revelation that those souls could only be avenged by Xena's death, the finale sends a message that counters what had been the running theme of the show: that one can remake oneself and find redemption in love. A disappointed fan named Ariana put it best when she noted:

"[The finale] took a show that glorified life and the struggle to do what's right, the power to reinvent yourself despite the wrongs of your past, the power of love and redemption, and cut the legs out of all those things (or I suppose that should be cut the head off). In the end the moral is that there is no redemption in life. There is no forgiveness, no true atonement other than suffering as much as possible." (cited from her "Why" commentary on Whoosh!'s page for FIN2)

Put this way, the series ender seems a thinly veiled homage to capital punishment as the only appropriate means of achieving social justice and personal redemption, which is not, I think, what Xena: Warrior Princess had been all about. In fact, that message had been explicitly rejected in both the first season episode The Reckoning and in the sixth season episode Legacy.

Finally, the ending rings false because Gabrielle comes to accept Xena's decision with barely more than a whimper. Perhaps by then she was tired from having had to fend off the Samurai with the bad accent. Whatever the reason, I missed the half-crazed bashing of trees and Romans (as in The Greater Good and Ides of March, respectively), and I especially missed the heartfelt plea to "Fight to come back! [Because] this world needs you. I need you" (as Gabrielle declared in Destiny). Did the world suddenly stop needing heroes? Did Gabrielle really stop needing Xena?

Even Renee's acting--which was absolutely brilliant throughout most of the final episode--seemed a bit stilted in the last scene, particularly as she delivered what sounded suspiciously like the beginning of a bad panegyric: "A life of journeying has brought you to the farthest lands, to the very edges of the Earth." That the line was a setup for Xena's loving reply--"And to the place where I'll always remain: your heart"--only partially redeems it. For my part, the dialog in the final scene was overly formal and meant to be delivered with an alacrity that simply didn't fit the moment. Despite her best efforts, even Renee couldn't imbue such a disingenuous ending with heartfelt sincerity. Who was Tapert kidding, anyway? For all Gabrielle's apparent acceptance, some of us find very little comfort in the lie that Gabrielle isn't really alone because Xena's memory will always be with her. Any way you cut it, it's a shitty ending. Gabrielle deserved better, and so did we.

It's difficult to avoid getting bitter about Tapert's decision to end the show this way since the ending went so decisively against the grain of what fans expected to see given how sensitive to our interests the show's creators had been. Particularly grating is the way this has seemed like a sick joke played on us, right down to the almost cruel disclaimer: "Xena was permanently harmed in the making of this motion picture, but kept her spirits up." Was that supposed to be funny? Perhaps the disclaimer is meant to remind us that we shouldn't take the show too seriously or lose perspective on the things that really matter: like hunger, poverty, illness, death.

Well, yes, I can tell the difference between the "death" of a fictional character and the death of a real person. As long as those with far less invested in this television show can pull out the Reality Trump Card, Xenites are going to look pretty stupid getting so upset about something as seemingly inconsequential as the death of a character. The problem with this line of argument, however, is that we all have something invested in cultural representations since culture (mainstream, popular, alternative, or all of the above) is how we get a sense of who and what we are, where we belong, what we should do, and how we should live. So for all the smug quips about our "grieving" over a fictional character, the difference is not a species difference (Fiction versus Reality); rather, the difference is in the type of cultural representation that raises your ire as opposed to mine. Stereotypes about servile women, flaming queers, shiftless Latinos, inbred rednecks, and dimwitted jocks will always inspire critics, and among quite intelligent people who know the difference between fiction and reality. Given the right examples, I suspect we could all recognize that cultural representations really matter because they help give meaning to our everyday lives, reinforcing positive attitudes or even perpetuating negative ones.

Part of what makes the finale such a bitter pill to swallow, then, is that the creators involved with the show seemed genuinely to understand how the show might matter to some of its audience. As Lucy Lawless herself noted, "The lesbian community in particular has no role models on television." Small wonder, then, that so many of us bought so thoroughly into a show centering on two strong women characters and the loving relationship between them. In the final analysis, however, there was a good deal more lip service--literally--than substance in the ostensibly lesbian orientation of this dyke icon; but then, that's the nature of subtext, and I embrace that ambiguity. In other words, although it would have been nice (and even defiant!) if Xena and Gabrielle had kissed passionately, it doesn't really bother me that they didn't. That wasn't central to my considering Xena a lesbian role model. What mattered was the relationship.

Tapert's comments about the finale are in fact very telling. He insists that "the finale was really based on where the series started, and it seemed to complete [Xena's] journey looking for redemption." That's a remarkably cynical view of the series opener since Xena symbolically casting off her warrior garb was more about trying to remake herself into something more positive. The real problem with returning the show to its roots, however, is that the story changed as it evolved throughout its six seasons. That's not surprising. All shows begin with only the kernel of an idea: this one centering on a blood-thirsty warrior who had a change of heart and decided to seek redemption for the sins of her past. It was a good beginning, but the story didn't stay there.

Once the creators established that Xena and Gabrielle were "soulmates," they made the characters' shared experiences and transcendent love the centerpiece of the show, an epic romance that was at times sad but never hopelessly tragic. Tapert's ending sacrificed that vision for the less interesting original story line, which was more about individual redemption and growth. To successfully redeem herself and pass the warrior mantle onto Gabrielle, Xena had to die, and Gabrielle had to continue the journey alone. That Gabrielle winds up carting Xena's ashes around and sharing pleasantries with her ghost like some demented widow is supposed to make us think that the friendship endures. But there's more truth in the final shot, which has Gabrielle standing on the deck alone.

Xena was a lesbian icon because she shared her life and hopes and fears with another woman, whom she loved. If she was worthy of admiration as a hero, moreover, it wasn't because she was capable of one great heroic sacrifice that would redeem all her sins and for all time; rather, it was because she had come to accept that redemption is an arduous, lifelong process. Keeping Xena alive mattered for keeping that sense of a shared process of growth and redemption alive.

There's nothing ambiguous about death, however: even in fiction. Allusions to the possibility that Xena might be miraculously resurrected in a movie do nothing for us in the short run. Plus we've been burnt once by Tapert. The show has ended, and the end of the story told by him was that Xena died. The role model might have lived on in our imaginations if Tapert's desire for closure hadn't been quite so morbid. Of course, Xena may still live on in our imaginations, but only with considerable effort on our part at forgetting the finale, and it takes a lot of work to forget.

I'll grant that the dramatic ending and sense of closure Tapert sought might have been harder to achieve had he let Xena live, but then why not rise to the challenge? If letting Gabrielle save Xena runs the risk of proffering a trite and forgettable ending, then killing Xena off for dramatic effect is tantamount to taking the easy way out. I guess Tapert wasn't up to the challenge of writing an ending that was both dramatically "surprising and entertaining" and willing to give loyal fans even a fraction of what we wanted.

Tapert's decision has left Xena fans scrambling to recuperate the finale, to somehow make sense of this death in a way that won't devastate the community that fell in love with these characters and with the love depicted between them. That will be our challenge, and we'll rise to it out of a sense of necessity and desire and hope....and because "real life" is tragic enough.

Unfortunately, some fans are trying to come to terms with the ending simply by accepting, in good hyper-liberal fashion, that as the originator of Xena, Rob Tapert had a "right" to end "his" character any way he saw fit. The trouble with that notion is that it ignores that authors write in a cultural context and for an audience.

When Rob Tapert killed Xena off, he turned his back on his audience. He forgot that sharing one's creative vision with others isn't a right; it's a privilege. Sadly, he proved that he can't be trusted with our vision. Those soft-filtered images of Xena and Gabrielle's half-naked bodies were hardly central to what really mattered to the fans. Underneath the pseudo-lesbian teases, Tapert revealed that he never really understood what our vision was all about.
 
 Tenderware (July 1, 2001)
 


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This page is from the Delta Quadrant of Venus website. The site was originally hosted on AOL's hometown pages, which AOL shut down on October 31, 2008. The DQV site was resurrected and moved to this new home on November 30, 2008 because fans asked to have it back. Thank you for your continued interest in my stories. I'm truly touched. --T'ware

Posted July 1, 2001. Updated July 2, 2001,  to correct minor errors in spelling and grammar. Updated January 2, 2002, to delete table and add logo graphic.