Monday, 8 October 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Mortal Beloved

I love stories about journeys to the underworld and ghost stories, so I really enjoyed this episode, in which Xena has to chase a bad guy from the underworld up to the land of the living and do a deal with Hades.

The plot devices and set-up seen here are a mixture of Classical and non-Classical. The main plot device, Hades' Helmet of Invisibility, is rewritten to suit the needs of the episode (see comments below - I had initially forgotten its existence, but it is a Thing. The ancient helmet just makes you invisible though, it doesn't do any of the other things attributed to it here). And as in many depictions of the ancient underworld, the producers can't resist the urge to throw in some elements of the Christian hell as well - although Tartarus was the Classical part of the underworld where the wicked were punished, the fire and brimstone aspect (represented here by some nice stock shots of a volcano erupting) is more a feature of Christian hell than the ancient underworld.

Many elements of the Classical underworld are incorporated here, though. The most obvious, of course, is Charon the ferryman. Here's he's a rather grotesque, broadly comic character. I'm not sure I'm wild about that interpretation - I prefer my Charons more creepy and ghoulish, generally speaking. But his boat made of bones is quite good and he does get in some funny lines.

At one point, Charon mentions 'the hanging gardens of disgusting diseases.' These, of course, are a joke, but the ancient underworld was often imagined as being split into different realms, with specific groups of people in specific areas - suicides, women who died before marriage, old men and so on. Tartarus was indeed where the wicked were punished, and in some versions (though not all) the 'good' (for varying definitions of 'good', e.g. heroic, died for Rome, etc) live in peace in the Blissful meadows/Elysian fields/etc. The Elysian fields here are a bit cheesy, but they do look very... Elysian. The idea that however pleasant they are, nothing on the other side quite matches the living world, is also quite Classical. Death was not something you really wanted, even if you were hoping for a pleasant eternity.

Other elements are a bit of a mixture. The most important quality of ancient shades, or ghosts, is that they are completely incorporeal and will pass through your fingers like air if you try to touch them. Here, just as in ancient literature, the dead are insubstantial, but Xena seems to get a minor electric shock from trying to touch Marcus rather than simply finding him body-less, and once she's in the underworld, he appears substantial and she can touch him again. That's not usually the case in ancient literature, though it varies according to what you're reading. And the ancient dead couldn't usually tell when the living were thinking about them - though they did tend to have more knowledge than when they were alive, sometimes gaining powers of prophecy, and sometimes they demonstrate knowledge of what the living have been up to while they've been gone.

The bad guy, Atyminius, is here a fairly ordinary human murderer who has become something of a bogeyman, known for killing children and girls about to be married, and sometimes chopping them up. There seem to be elements of a lamia in him, a female monster of Greek mythology, but mostly he's just an unpleasant human being who manages to steal Hades' special helmet. The harpies are creatures from Greek mythology, though in ancient literature they're not especially associated with Hades (more with Zeus).

The whole episode has a very fairy-tale atmosphere, complete with, apparently, Little Red Riding Hood at the beginning, Hades' medieval-looking castle and lots of mystical-sounding music. The underworld being at the bottom of a lake isn't exactly ancient (the location varied; caves and the edge of the sea were quite popular) but it fits, being down towards the ground, and it adds to the magical, medieval-folklore feel.

Overall, a really nice episode, if slightly OTT in places. I especially like Xena's special black underworld outfit (I think it's actually just her underwear, because she has to swim there, but still). Marcus, last seen dying in 'The Path Not Taken,' has become a bit implausibly nice, wanting to go back to eternal punishment for the sake of the innocents etc (not that much seems to be going on in Tartarus when they visit - no rocks rolling down hills, no grapes dangling over pools, nothing). However, his scenes with Xena are lovely and they have a nice chemistry, with a sweet and sad romance (I like to think they made time for a quick shag before returning to the underworld at the end). Atyminius the villain doesn't half devour the scenery, but he's kind of fun, a really hissable bad guy. And I especially like Xena taunting Hades into letting Marcus back up as a mortal and later getting him shifted to Elysium, though Hades insisting he can only give him 48 hours of life is a bit weak, considering that theoretically he was willing to let Eurydice go back to a full life. An excellent episode - I'd recommend it as an introduction to the series, since it's early and it has the humour, angsting and sense of adventure that Xena does best.


Gabrielle: Even if you reach the bottom you won't have enough air left to make it back to the surface.
Xena: Then I'll make it to the underworld one way or another.

Charon: You wanna help set things right? When Hades can't do anything? This I gotta see!

Marcus (re the wicked): They're not happy, even in Paradise.

Marcus: You know him?
Xena: I killed him...

Marcus: Love is the strongest power in the universe. It's stronger than evil. It's even stronger than death.

Atyminius: I hate jugglers (wallop). Be glad you're not a mime.

Charon: If you look on the left, you will see the Caves of Despair, and if you look on the right, you'll see the Hanging Gardens of Disgusting Diseases.

Disclaimer: No winged harpies were harmed or sent to a fiery grave during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena/Hercules reviews


  1. Funny thing... one word in this post really jumped out at me: lamia. I think I'm more obsessed with the BBC's Merlin than I realised! :p

    Sounds like this was a good episode! Pity I can't really remember much of the few episodes I have seen (mostly earlier ones). Wish I had a decent video library here like I did in Liège and I could check them out!

  2. Something waaay in the back of my mind says that Hades did have a helmet of invisibility. I can't put my finger on it, but I'll see if I can track it down. I think it was connected with the interpretation of Hades as meaning "unseen, hidden".

    1. My Greek mythology memory banks (compiled sometime between the 5th and 7th grades) are telling me that Hades did indeed have a Helmet of Invisibility, and that Hermes or one of the other Gods borrowed it and loaned it to one of the Heroes for some quest... Don't remember which though.

    2. Ooops, should have hit 'reply' - see comment below!

  3. Found it:

    It seems to come from a variant on the story of Perseus killing Medusa. It's in Hesiod and Apollodorus, so fairly well attested, but fairly briefly described.

  4. It was definitely Perseus who used it. One of my favourite stories in mythology.


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