My sister is a huge musical theater nerd. She actually went to school up in NYC to train and got a degree in vocal performance (opera, specifically), and there isn’t a day that goes by where she doesn’t talk about something related to one of those topics or the other. Then you’ve got me, somebody who can appreciate the genre but is generally off-put by people randomly bursting into song. However, there are two instances in television that this isn’t true: “Once More with Feeling” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and …
“The Bitter Suite” in Xena: Warrior Princess.
Funnily enough, I think that Joss Whedon wanted to create a musical episode of BTVS but didn’t because of “The Bitter Suite” – he didn’t want it to look like he was copying Xena, which … okay, fine, I guess, but I think that if it had occurred much earlier in the series (Season 4), it wouldn’t have the same potency as it did in Season Six.
But this challenge is about Xena, not Buffy, so let’s get into it:
I’m not going to delve into this plot-wise like I have for the other two episodes I’ve discussed because, well, plot really isn’t the point of “The Bitter Suite.” It’s about reconciliation and forgiveness, and not just between the two main characters – they have to forgive themselves, as well. Although I normally frown at the idea of a musical episode (I hated the Grey’s Anatomy one so much), I really do feel that, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the best way to get these characters to communicate their feelings is by forcing them to do so in a magical land of song.
Although I not the biggest fan of The Rift* storyline, which ultimately ends at the season finale, the series writers did a great job of making it work for the characters’ individual development and for their relationship’s course. Gabrielle was always trying to do what she thought was right, even if it kind of threw things into chaos, and Xena had to constantly battle who she was before she started down her noble path, eventually leading her to Gabrielle. The events of Season Three do test both women – their respective children die, they betray each other’s trust multiple times – so it’s understandable that their friendship is strained, at best.
At the beginning of “The Bitter Suite,” Xena’s brutality emerges once again as she attacks Gabrielle (thanks, Ares), and Gabrielle’s lost blood innocence, combined with her own anger and grief, transforms her into a comparably violent person, something the Gabrielle from earlier seasons would be horrified at witnessing.
Reformation isn’t easy: you hurt people you love, sometimes unintentionally – which is usually more easily forgivable – and other times, with such a disregard for them that you might lose them forever, even if you do sincerely apologize and try to make amends. I know this all too well. I’ve been very lucky in a lot of ways, that people understood why I was so self-destructive for so long, but coming to terms with the pain I’ve personally dealt is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve never murdered anyone, obviously, but I can relate to both Xena and Gabrielle here. Both are on a redemptive path – Xena for choosing to give into her basest instincts for years, even when she was given a chance to better herself with Lao Ma, and Gabrielle for killing a woman, even if it wasn’t entirely her fault that she was in that situation to begin with. The problem here is, though, is that both Xena and Gabrielle were too focused outwardly, choosing vessels instead of themselves to work on. It’s always easier to fix other people’s problems than it is to fix your own.
It actually reminds me of the scene in “The Debt, Part I,” where Lao Ma is trying to teach Xena how to break a pot telekinetically; Lao Ma fights so hard to keep from laughing at Xena’s constipated face, glaring at the damn pot with such rage. But that’s what she and Gabrielle were doing instead of dealing with their negative feelings. Xena upheld Gabrielle as this bastion of goodness, which is why her friend’s numerous betrayals were so hard for her to accept. If even someone like Gabrielle can fall short, what is she even fighting for? And then Gabrielle channeled all her fear of the world being as bad as everyone said it was onto her child (a literal demon spawn, magically implanted into her womb, by the way), hoping that the baby would overcome her nature. Gabrielle’s blind belief that she could will Hope to be a caring human instead of evil incarnate shatters her own dedication to following that path.
And then Illusia forces Xena and Gabrielle to actually face these truths, their pasts, and their love for each other. Before they can reunite, they have to be honest and open … vulnerable, something that neither woman at this point is super cool with, but over the course of the episode, they do reconcile, even if their relationship is forever changed. The show really did start down a different path after this episode, and I’m not even gonna be mad.
I, of course, have to mention the amazing costumes, all based on Rider-Waite tarot cards, which I didn’t catch that on my first viewing. Granted, I knew nothing about tarot cards back in 1997 – 1998, so that’s to be expected. Callisto as The Fool is just perfect, too, symbolically and sartorially. Hudson Leick looks adorable here!
Runners-Up: “The King of Assassins,” “Been There, Done That”
* In general, I really dislike magical pregnancy stories, which is my main reason for being squicky about the entire plotline.