It’s a trope all but ubiquitous in today’s genre television, an event that all but guarantees an insanely passionate response from a show’s fan.
It’s a stunt, a vanity trip, a showcase for a cast’s additional talents, at worst a lark but at times a revelation.
It’s the musical episode.
These days, it’s just about unavoidable.
Many of the best loved shows of our day have resorted to that chestnut, be it a single, impeccably produced number or thirty to sixty minutes packed with song and dance. Sometimes, the musical bits are awkwardly inserted into a given series’ setting. Other times, it’s seamless.
Fringe has done it. Grey’s Anatomy has done it. The casts of Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother have burst into song. The Simpsons has numerous albums compiling their best musical bits. Even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia took its turn on the stage (and even took the episode on the road).
The most famous musical episode in television history is arguably Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More, with Feeling.” Rightfully so, as Joss Whedon’s surprisingly strong musical debut is both catchy and moving in equal measure. But few talk about one of that episode’s precursors, arguably the root of the trope.
Xena had a musical episode too, you guys.
Actually, there were two musical episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, but it all began with 1998’s “The Bitter Suite,” the twelfth episode of Xena‘s third season.
Up to that point, it had become known that Lucy Lawless was a pretty good singer, thanks to appearances on stage and belting on talk shows.
When Frankie asked if I ever watched Xena, my initial reaction was…”Warrior Princess?” I never got into the show, or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys for that matter, from which Xena spun off from. They were huge syndication hits of the 90s and became part of pop culture. Sure, I never watched each program but I know the names Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless, not just for their legitimate badass names, but because of their roles as Hercules and Xena and the general pop culture relevance both had.
Granted, “The Bitter Suite” wasn’t the first time Lawless sang in character. As a prelude to the musical episode, and to milk more dollars out of its most popular television property at the time, Universal released a Hercules/Xena animated movie, The Battle for Mount Olympus. (That it debuted straight to video just after Disney’s Hercules was likely no coincidence.)
The movie was…flawed.
As was the television episode. As with Buffy‘s musical episode, it’s probably not best to watch if you’re unfamiliar with the series and where it was at the time. Most people know the basic premise of Xena: Warrior Princess, that reformed warlord Xena journeyed across ancient Greece alongside her scribe/best friend/likely true love Gabrielle, battling evil to atone for her past misdeeds.
At that point in the series, however, the bond between the two women became frayed. Gabrielle was impregnated by the demon Dahak, and gave birth to a daughter, Hope. Xena and Gabrielle argued over how to deal with Hope, with Xena wanting to kill the child while Gabrielle desired to give her a chance. In the end, Xena was right, but too late–Hope murdered Xena’s son Solan, prompting Gabrielle to finally realize the girl was irredeemable. She killed Hope herself, but their relationship seemed irreparable at that point.
Now here’s the deal: I was actually a pretty loyal viewer of Hercules and Xena at the time, so the “Previously on Xena…” recap brought back much of the setup for me. However, “The Bitter Suite” is not very friendly to first-time viewers, coming at the midpoint of a big season-long arc. So of course, I asked T.J. to watch it as well, as a total newcomer to the show. Let’s see how well he could keep up. (By the way, if you haven’t seen it, this episode is available to view on Netflix, as is the entire series. Below is a video of Lucy Lawless and Renée O’Connor giving their commentary on the episode.)
In this episode, both are taken somehow to the Land of Illusia (I stopped there once on the way to the Philippines.) Throughout this hour-long trippy journey, Xena and Gabrielle have to confront the problems that got between them and doing so will lead them to realize how close they really were.
Xena is in some snowy area, talking to some guy who I think is Ares, the God of War. He’s trying to get her going, get her angry and hateful. So far there’s no singing and I’m very disappointed as we cut back to the hut where Gabrielle is. She’s lying down and is slapped in the face by Callisto who is apparently enemies with Xena and Gabrielle. Callisto is trying to manipulate Gabrielle into really hating our hero, who apparently used to be a bad person. (I don’t know the show at all, so please bear with me.)
All this talk and still no music during the musical episode? Gabrielle admits that yes, she indeed does hate Xena, who then comes in riding on a horse. Shit’s about to get real. Then we cut to the show’s opening video, leaving me confused. I guess this was all the cold opening.
Back to the action, Xena is surrounded by some bad guys…um, girls actually (F13’s note: Actually, these are Amazons protecting Gabrielle, who inherited their throne–long story), and Joxer is carrying Gabrielle out of the hut. The amazons then attack Xena and I have a strange feeling the Warrior Princess is going to come out on top here. She does, ties up Gabrielle by the feet and drags her along as she rides away on her horse. She drags the ish out of Gabrielle until they reach a cliff. Xena is “this” close to throwing Gabrielle’s lifeless body off the cliff into a body of water with jagged rocks, until Gab regains her consciousness back and kicks Xena in the face.
Gabrielle yells, “I hate you!” and charges Xena and they both fall off the cliff. They’re washed away into what seems like an enchanted world called Illusia and Xena is awoken by a kiss from Callisto, who looks like she’s dressed as an elf (Hot stuff!) And here comes the singing! Yes, the musical has begun!
What happens next seems like such a big trip, with talking…um singing, animals and such. Callisto is the guide here in Illusia and tells Xena she has to spin the wheel. (I hope she gets the coal miner’s glove!) Gabrielle then comes down the water just like Xena did…naked. Joxer is then jamming and singing and eventually turns grass into a dress and Gabrielle gets un-naked. Back to Xena and Callisto. They go outside of the castle and a bunch of soldiers start singing, welcoming Xena home to her evil roots.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle says she feels like she’s home, which I believe is Potidaea. It’s a much sunnier place than where Xena is from. Who needs to be a warrior princess when this place seems so much happier?
It’s a clash of two different people, Xena a born badass killer, Gabrielle an innocent person. The two worlds are colliding here in Illusia. This is like the Mega Powers exploding! The two clash, Xena stabs Gabrielle in the chest with a sword and this looks like the ballgame.
Oh no, Xena killed Gabrielle! Ares is then dancing with Xena, telling her to unleash the power of her destiny. They do a bit of a tango around the seemingly dead body of Gabielle. But, Xena seems conflicted. On one hand Gabrielle’s daughter killed her son, on the other, she just killed her onetime best friend. “Ding dong, the bitch is dead,” says Ares.
Or is she? This isn’t real, Xena is figuring it out, or is it? I don’t know but they have to work together to figure this out.
Each time they bring up the past, the echo gets louder and it becomes more difficult to hear each other. Oh, I see. Xena asks Gabrielle to tell her how she feels, maybe that’ll stop the echo. Gab says she hurts inside. Ouch. The echoes stop.
We then finally get to hear Xena sing!
“My heart is hurting beyond words,” sings Lawless, who actually wanted to do her own singing for the show. Gabrielle is hearing the pain come from Xena’s musical number. Gabrielle also sings that her heart and pain is killing her.
Gabrielle blames Xena’s vengeful plan.
“Because of you my child is dead, his blood is on your hands, (burn)” Xena sings.
A rope of fire is coming from the wheel of death and it’s pulling Gabrielle. Xena tries to save her but they both end up getting sucked into this portal of doom. Xena realizes they were brought to this Illusa place for a reason. They have to battle their demons (one of whom happens to be Karl Urban in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as Julius Caesar — F13) who are singing about their demise and they have to do it together.
Gabrielle is tied down, Xena sings as her arms are tied up on a cross. (How biblical?) They then sing to each other, and I think they’re making progress.
“If we can heal these open wounds.”
“We’ll overcome our damaged past.”
“Love will be our guide.”
The wheel of doom then opens up and they see Solan. “He’s why we’re here.”
“He’s here to lead us home,” Gabrielle says.
Gabrielle crosses into this new world, but Xena can’t. Her skin is burned by the water as a demon laughs. The demon turns out to be someone who Xena killed but Gabrielle didn’t know about it I guess. Xena asks Gabrielle for forgiveness. Xena then reaches out and Gabrielle grabs her hand. Solan and Xena then embrace and exchange “I love yous.” Very sweet. But then it looks like we go from Illusia back to reality as Xena and Gabrielle are hugging. They find their peace and the waves crash into them as they lay in the sand, laughing in a completely platonic way. The end.
We’re all adults here, T.J. I think we can all tell what those sand angels really were.
In watching “The Bitter Suite,” I came to terms with a fairly bitter truth: it’s not as good as I remembered. To be fair, the episode was critically acclaimed upon its initial airing, and even won two Emmy Awards for its songs, but I wasn’t sold as much this time around. The songs are part of the issue, as they’re a little too on the nose for me to enjoy lyrically; musically, they’re bland Disney knockoffs (though Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor’s vocal double certainly make the most of what they have).
Then there’s the story, which shunts Xena and Gabrielle to an imaginary world with little explanation–and the one they ultimately give is not very satisfactory. Throughout the story, Xena and Gabrielle are passive characters, carried from point to point with no other reasoning than the demands of the plot.
It’s a shame, because this is a major turning point in season three’s arc, the battle between the heroines and Dahak. The reconciliation between Xena and Gabrielle deserves a better story, but the one it gets is a fairly flimsy affair, upon which it’s mainly meant to hang the musical numbers. Still, there’s some impressive staging, enjoyable dancing (the highlight is a sultry tango between Lawless and the late Kevin Smith as Ares), and powerful musical performances from Lucy Lawless and Susan Wood, who dubbed Gabrielle’s songs.
The puzzle with musical episodes is that they are big events (unless it’s a show like Glee or Cop Rock), so there’s a temptation to hinge key plot twists on them. Yet they can be (and many are) usually fluffy, coasting on the surprise factor of its stars’ musical talents (well, the ones who can sing) and the spectacle of its big setpieces. And while Xena is an inherently campy show, this episode is particularly, well, lazy in its storytelling.
Still, the musical episode thrives. There have been standouts: “Once More, with Feeling” is seminal at this point, and even shows like Oz and One Life to Live have tried it.
In fact, we may have too much of a good thing now with Glee, Smash, and the children of American Idol.
Very little of that may have happened if not for Xena.