I’m pretty sure that the trend of the musical episode in modern television actually started with Chicago Hope. You don’t have Mandy Patinkin (or at least, you didn’t then) as one of your male leads without going out of your way to find excuses to have him sing. Nobody seems to remember that one, though. The one everyone remembers, of course, is “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not here to diss on OMWF, it’s terrific. Definitely the best of the lot, song-wise. But somewhere between the two (and predating OMWF by a good two years) there was “Bitter Suite,” the first of two musical episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess
“Bitter Suite” was the climax of a long game storyline. For those of you who need catching up, Xena (Lucy Lawless) used to be a fearsome warlord, but then she had a come-to-Jesus (or, in her case, Hercules), and switched teams. She and her bestie Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) roam the countryside, getting in adventures and helping people. They adventure with friends along the way, and the occasional god. When they first got together, it was kind of a hero/sidekick situation. Gabrielle was this kid from a small town, with big dreams, and when Xena swung through her wee hamlet, Gabrielle begged the Warrior Princess to let her come with.
The show evolved, the characters evolved, and the relationship evolved. The fact that they were basically a married couple occurred to the fandom before it did the writers of the show, but the writers and the actresses were both keen to lean into the idea. We never saw them making out, and lord knows they both took lovers over the course of the show (for a show that became so iconic in the lesbian community, I feel it is important to remember that technically, they were both bisexual), but they were definitely each others’ other halves. Sororal, sapphistical, whatever—it was a beautiful relationship.
“Bitter Suite” happened in the second half of the third season. By now, the show had found its legs, knew what it was doing, and wasn’t playing around. One of the things I liked about it was its ability (at least, at that point) to walk the line between heavy and campy. Season 3, in particular, I thought was good at finding that balance. Also, for me, it was never about Xena. She may have been the titular character, but I was there for Gabrielle, especially S3 Gabrielle. Gabrielle was an early poster child for character development. She started out as a wide-eyed kid who was more of a plot device than anything else.
By S3, she had a definitive personality, very different from her TV wife. She had learned to fight (with a staff, so though she did lots of bad-guy-bashing, she drew no blood and never deliberately killed anyone), was an Amazon princess, and she had styled herself as a bard, writing down their adventures. As a bonus, while no longer wet behind the ears, Gabrielle was the optimistic one, the one who genuinely believed that everyone they met would be their new friend. Xena may have walked the path of redemption, but Gabrielle was the one with the pure heart. Not only that, but as far as partners go, for all the love that was there, Xena was often quite crappy to Gabrielle. The show owned it later, but this whole story arc was a bigtime demonstration of that.
I said “Bitter Suite” was the result of a long game, right? Back in the day, evil Xena had a son. Even she knew she wasn’t fit to be a mother, so she gave the little boy, Solan, to some friendly centaurs to raise. Skip the next decade, and Xena and Gabrielle come face-to-face with Solan and his adopted family. It takes them a while and some ups and downs, but Solan and Xena eventually become friends, though she never tells him she’s his mother.
Early on in Season 3, Xena gets word that her old enemy Boadicea is going up against Caesar (Karl Urban). Xena’s got an old score to settle with Caesar too…to the point of obsession. Once an ally, Caesar betrayed Xena the warlord, and had her crucified and her legs broken. She’s healed up just fine, but the chance for some payback is too good to pass up. Despite Gabrielle’s protests that vengeance isn’t the healthiest of paths, off they go to Britannia. While there, they make friends with a handsome young man named Khrafstar (Marton Csokas), who bonds with Gabrielle, and talks about the One God he worships. However, it turns out that this god is not the One God of the Israelites…it is a dark god called Dahak, and he’s even got the Greek gods intimidated. His followers have been planning his takeover of the world, and they need a very special sacrifice to do it.
Remember when I said that for all her fighting, Gabrielle had never actually killed anyone? Khrafstar and the disciples of Dahak trick her into stabbing a woman through the heart (Gabrielle thinks she’s defending Khrafstar). Her blood innocence lost, Gabrielle finds herself on the altar, surrounded by fire. Xena destroys Khrafstar and the minions there, but the damage has been done. Not only has Gabrielle killed someone, a thing she swore she would never do, but in the next episode, finds that she is pregnant. Dahak chose her for her purity of soul, and made her the vessel through which his spawn would be born.
It’s a mystical pregnancy, so she goes to term almost overnight. Xena is wary right from the beginning, believing that this baby can’t possibly be anything but evil. When the little girl is born, Gabrielle names her Hope, and refuses to accept that Xena is right. The child is half hers, she argues. She’ll have a dark side, but if Xena could overcome her own dark side, why won’t Hope be able to? Xena, however, is uncompromising, and insists that the infant be killed. She’s a real jerk about it, if you ask me. Nowhere is there any show of sympathy for her friend, or any sign she even wants to understand what Hope means to Gabrielle.
It’s not just maternal instincts that tie Gabrielle to her daughter. Gabrielle was horribly violated (in more ways than one). No wonder she is desperate to cling to the idea that something, anything good could have come of it. Finally, however, Gabrielle has to own up to the fact that Xena is right (the baby has killed like four people, hard to ignore). Unable to kill the child, Gabrielle tucks Hope into a basket, and sets her to float in the river, at the mercy of the gods. She tells Xena Hope is dead, that she has killed her child.
I think this was the first crack in the armour of their relationship, though neither of them realise it at the time. It was a smart storytelling choice of the writers when you think about it. Motherhood is a primal emotion (yes, I am generalising, I know that there are some crap moms out there who don’t feel this at all), and the best way to drive a wedge between two women is to mess with the kids. Xena isn’t happy that her orders weren’t immediately obeyed, and Gabrielle is still mourning her blood innocence, her hope, and her Hope.
They carry on as usual, though, and a few episodes later, they visit the centaur settlement where Solan lives. He’s a feisty pre-teen now, and all he wants is to leave his home and travel the world with his friend Xena. And all this would be fine, except there’s a little girl in a bad blonde wig lurking around the centaur village, and of course she turns out to be Hope. Hope is full on evil, working with their old enemy Callisto (Hudson Leick) to bring her father Dahak into the world, and torment as many humans as possible while she’s at it.
By the end of the episode, Solan is dead, as is his adoptive father. Gabrielle has personally fed poison to Hope, and almost drank it herself, but ultimately chose to live. Standing before the funeral pyres of Solan and his father, the women grieve, and Gabrielle reaches out to her friend. Xena won’t budge (she never does, and this is one of the reasons I always preferred Gabrielle), and storms away. Whew, that was a lot of exposition for the actual episode…couldn’t be helped. The story arc and the characters are beautifully complicated, so it was necessary.
At the top of “Bitter Suite”, they have gone their separate ways. Gabrielle has gone to the Amazons to undergo their “purification ritual”…for three days, she has to lay in a hut, fasting, being whipped, hallucinating, trying to work through her guilt and pain. Joxer (Ted Raimi), their friend who has always been in love with her though he knows he hasn’t got a chance, is waiting impatiently outside. Xena, meanwhile, is off in the mountains, singing her sadness to the sky. The god Ares (Kevin Smith) appears to her—Ares is constantly trying to turn Xena back to her old self, his favourite warlord. It only takes a bit of prodding on his part to turn her grief to rage (an emotion with which she is much more comfortable), and that rage is directed at Gabrielle.
Xena gallops into the Amazon camp, with blood in her eye. Let’s take a moment to remember that even when Gabrielle isn’t half-conscious and terribly weak, that she’s no match for Xena. Xena pulls out her trusty whip and catches Gabrielle around the ankles. Back in the day, we used to call this the Gab-drag, and it never gets any easier to watch. Talk about kicking someone when they’re down. First Xena drags her friend for a couple of miles, then holds the unconscious Gabrielle high over her head, ready to chuck her over a cliff and into the sea. Gabrielle wakes up just in time, kicks Xena in the head, and the two of them face off.
Xena hates Gabrielle because her son is dead at Hope’s hands, and if Gabrielle had followed orders and killed Hope, that wouldn’t have happened. Gabrielle hates Xena because it was Xena’s desire for revenge on Caesar that put her in the hands of Dahak in the first place. I myself am pissed off at Xena because throughout this, she has refused to take responsibility for anything, and has been an unsympathetic hardass about it. If not for that, Hope would never have existed. “I hate you!” Gabrielle screams at her best friend, as Xena cries out for vengeance. She rushes Xena, and the two of them fall over the cliff together, and plunge into the water.
The current separates them. When Xena awakens in a colourful, fantastic place, she is confronted by Callisto. Only it’s not really her, it’s just an image who calls herself Aleph, who is singing and dancing. She tells Xena that she is in Illusia, where everything is a song and dance, and through the journey she is about to face, maybe Xena will learn something about herself.
I read somewhere that the whole point of something being a musical is that you sing when something is so emotional that it is beyond mere speech. I think that’s true, at least of the good musicals. And that’s definitely the point of Illusia—it’s a deus ex machina, to heal the rift between the two. As far as conceits go to get everyone singing, it makes sense. Lucy Lawless is a decent singer (though to be honest, she oversings the heck out of everything in this), as was Kevin Smith. Neither Renee nor Hudson did their own singing, but the voiceovers they got matched, and everyone manages to lip-synch well. The score itself is very Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, most of the modern Disney) in style. Joseph LoDuca actually got Emmy nominations for two of the songs, though he didn’t win.
Say what you want about Xena: Warrior Princess—you can never say they didn’t do their homework. The entire show was set in history and mythology, and while they certainly took liberties and made it their own, everything was well researched. That holds true here too, down to the costumes. A big motif for Illusia is tarot. Xena, Gabrielle, and everyone they meet is done up like cards from the Major Arcana of a tarot deck. The image of Callisto, as Xena’s guide, quotes passages from The Book of Tokens, by Paul Foster Case, furthering the tarot theme.
At first, Xena and Gabrielle have separate production numbers. Xena is met by Ares (he sings an oh-so-sexy tango number to her called “Melt Into Me”) and a gaggle of warriors, all rejoicing at the return of their Warrior Princess. Gabrielle is first guided by an image of Joxer, then finds herself with her sister Lila, back in her peaceful home village of Potadaia. They sing to Gabrielle that Xena was no real friend, everything is Xena’s fault…while the warriors are telling Xena essentially the same thing. When the two finally face each other, Xena cuts Gabrielle down without a second thought.
Of course, it wasn’t really her that Xena killed, it was an illusion—but the real Gabrielle saw the whole thing. They find themselves in a dark echo chamber, shouting accusations at each other about the past. The echoes build in intensity and volume, until finally Xena realizes that the echoes are the past, tormenting them. The answer? Tell each other how they feel, right now, nothing about the past. The duet they sing, “Hearts Are Hurting,” is one of the ones that got the Emmy nomination, and you can see why. It is poignant and sad, and unfortunately, not enough to fix things. I have to say, it did my heart good to hear Gabrielle call Xena out—“Xena, why is it never your fault?”
They wind up shouting at each other again, and the scene shifts. Gabrielle finds herself being dragged back to the altar where Dahak took her, and Xena is suddenly back up on the cross Caesar had bound her to before having her legs broken. Nightmare versions of themselves appear—evil Gabrielle holds a mallet, ready to smash Xena’s legs, and evil Xena wields the same dagger with which Gabrielle was tricked into killing the priestess of Dahak. The other characters (Ares, Callisto, Joxer, even Khrafstar and Caesar) appear, chanting a song about hatred, while a black, ghostlike figure swirls around them. The nightmare Xena and Gabrielle raise their weapons to strike. At the last moment, the real Xena calls out the name of her friend.
Realising that what they have been fighting all along is hatred, the friends sing a reprise of “Hearts Are Hurting.” This time, it is about regret and reconciliation. They realise that their love for each other is stronger than anything, and if they hold to that, they can overcome the past and help each other to mend. Their bonds disappear. The nightmare visions vanish…all but one. The ghostlike figure, Torment, is still there. Disregarding it for the moment, the two see a sunlit waterfall, and know it is the way home. Standing on the other side of the waterfall is Solan. They realise that this whole trip to Illusia is because of him, that he is the one who brought them there, and now he’s come to show the way out. Gabrielle jumps through the waterfall with ease, but when Xena tries to cross, the water turns to acid, and Torment laughs. Xena still has one more lie that has to come to light.
The one bit I left out of the long game that was this plotline was their trip to the kingdom of Chin. That’s its own long story (a two-parter, earlier in the season), but the long and the short of it was that Xena went there to kill a man named Ming T’ien. Trust me, Ming T’ien was a terrible person and deserved killing, but it caused a rift between the friends because Xena did her usual thing of refusing to communicate her purpose to Gabrielle. All Gabrielle knew was that Xena was going far away to commit a murder, and refused to tell her why. It all worked out in that they left Chin with their skins and friendship intact, but Xena lied to Gabrielle, and told her she had let Ming T’ien live.
That’s who Torment is under his cloak—the one deception left between them. Since not only does every lie between them need to come out in this episode, but Lucy Lawless gets to sing the big 11:00 number, Xena finally confesses everything. This is the other Emmy-nominated song, “The Love of Your Love,” and it’s beautiful. She owns up to everything, and begs Gabrielle’s forgiveness. “Forgive me, and find out that you will be able to forgive yourself too.” Then she turns to Solan.
Finally, she tells him she is his mother. She tells him she is so sorry for not having been a real mother to him, that she has missed so much of his life. She takes this opportunity to give him the one piece of parental advice she is able to give him—to let love and forgiveness rule his life, no matter how hard it is. If he is able to do that, she says, then not only will he love others, but he will be able to love himself all the more. Gabrielle reaches her hand through the waterfall to Xena, who clasps it, and this time is able to cross. At Gabrielle’s urging, Xena embraces Solan, tells him she loves him, and at long last, hears him call her Mother and say he loves her too. When the camera pulls back, it is Gabrielle she is holding, and they are home again.
It’s a beautiful episode. I grant you, the songs in “Once More, With Feeling” are better. I would never say otherwise…but I’ve always thought that this one had a stronger story, and a better excuse to have everyone singing. It didn’t make me any less unbiased in favour of Gabrielle over Xena. The Gab-drag? Please. If it had been me, I would have stayed behind in Illusia with Joxer, singing the score to West Side Story. She’s lucky Gabrielle is more forgiving of that kind of abuse than I am.
If I write about Xena: Warrior Princess again, it will be for our Cancelled Too Late series, because it was. It absolutely did not need the six seasons it wound up getting. Like so many shows, I felt it peaked in Season 3 (though I know many who would disagree with me), and “Bitter Suite” is a glorious high point in an already excellent season. They later went on to do a second musical episode that didn’t have an original score, but that one was campy, silly, and fun. “Bitter Suite” (and the show in general) doesn’t get as much credit in the annals of television as I think it should. Back in the day, the primary badass women on the TV were Xena and Buffy. It was kind of a Beatles/Stones thing, and I was definitely Team Xena (well, Team Gabrielle). I came to love Buffy (well, Angel) a lot in later years, but I often feel the need to remind people—Buffy’s musical episode may have been better in many ways, but Xena’s was first.