A cracking early episode of Xena about death, love and giant rats, you can see the show starting to settle in here and work out what it can do and how it can best work with the ancient material.
Unusually for Xena, this episode is more or less a straight re-telling of an ancient myth. It's also a version of the myth that we know mainly from fragments (Sisyphus and his punishment appear in the Odyssey and other underworld scenes, but the story of him chaining Death is less common), which means the writers had pretty free rein in terms of interpreting it.
There were some lovely nods to wider Greek mythology here. Sisyphus refers to having angered Zeus trying to get water for his people, which isn't part of the ancient story - ancient kings are rarely as generous as that - but in several versions, he had angered Zeus by telling a river god that Zeus had abducted his daughter, so the explanation sort of fits (this is why Sisyphus is still alive at the end, which is only briefly explained in the episode - his body wasn't actually dying in the first place, Zeus sent Death to him to punish him). Sisyphus' declaration 'Don't count me out yet!' in the face of apparent certain death is rather good too, as in several versions, even once he's in the underworld, Sisyphus tricks Hades into letting him return to the world above for a visit, and then refuses to come back. This is why his punishment when he finally does come down to the underworld for good is so cruel (he's the guy who's constantly pushing a rock up a hill).
A few of the alterations to the myth are there to increase the tension in the episode, and to give it more of a sense of urgency, especially the addition of the candle that, if it burns out, will kill Death. Or something. Most, however, are thematic or artistic. The Greek Thanatos (Death) is male, bearded, and has wings, but I really like the interpretation of Death here. A female figure in white, veiled and moving in that fabulously eerie glide, like Buffy's Gentlemen, she looks both more beautiful and creepier than more traditional masculine images of Death. Maybe it's because I used to read so many ghost stories about women in white dresses as a child or something.
The most important innovation is, of course, the inclusion of Talus, the latest of Gabrielle's doomed boyfriends. While the episode is full of characters whom Xena is trying to kill, or who are incapacitated and suffering, Talus provides the essential note of tragedy the episode needs to work emotionally - just sick enough that he has to die, just healthy enough that he looks pretty doing it. The actor does a great job at making him likable enough quickly enough that you feel it when he goes, and without that tragic note, the episode couldn't work, as our heroes would probably seem to be taking death a little too much in stride. The afterlife Death leads Talus off to looks a lot more Judaeo-Christian than Greek to me - all light and implied niceness, no empty souls and creepy river - but I'm OK with that. It would be hard to root for Xena & co. to rescue Death if the afterlife was presented in the Homeric style, which is thoroughly depressing (it's no wonder Sisyphus wanted out).
I'm a sucker for stories about ghosts, the afterlife or Death, so I really enjoyed this episode. And, although this was a fairly downbeat story, Xena always remembers to bring the funny - in this case, Gabrielle trying desperately not to scream as an enormous rat nuzzles her ear while she hides behind a curtain. This is a really nice re-telling of an ancient story - fingers crossed for more like it!
Talus: It's not how long you live that matters, it's how well you live.
Disclaimer: No Jumbo Sized Cocktail Rats were harmed during the production of this motion picture.
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