Heart of Darkness: On Gabrielle, Hope, and the Descent into the Shadow

When considering the arc of Gabrielle’s character on Xena: Warrior Princess, it is possible to argue that she is the true protagonist of the series, undergoing more changes and developments than any other character in the show. While Xena’s journey towards redemption is the driving force of the narrative, Gabrielle’s journey from innocence to experience, from light to dark, is what bookends the series; she is awarded far more complexity than most television sidekicks. This is cemented during the Rift Saga of season three, in which Gabrielle’s actions and decisions have a profound effect upon the two central characters, resulting in them attempting to kill themselves and, ultimately, each other. But while Xena is deeply affected by the events of the third season, she doesn’t change in the same way that Gabrielle does. This is caused, in no small part, by the outer projection of her shadow – Gabrielle’s demonic daughter Hope.

During the first season of the show, Gabrielle is very clearly defined as Xena’s sidekick. She progresses from innocent farmgirl to Amazon princess, but she still performs only one narrative function – to be the emotional foil to Xena’s stoic rationality. Because of this, Gabrielle is often consigned to the comic or romantic subplot; her story is important only because it reasserts Xena’s heroism. This changes in the second season, where Gabrielle becomes a more vital element to the series as a whole. Episodes like The Quest (2.13) and The Price (2.20) affirm how capable she has become since meeting Xena, but her decisions are still informed by her black-and-white morality, and she still largely relies on Xena’s ability to come and save her. While Gabrielle certainly has agency, there is still an understanding that Xena is always right, and that her unwillingness to make tough decisions is what usually lands her in trouble. This can be seen most clearly throughout the Rift Saga of the third season.

As well as being the first episode of the Rift, The Deliverer (3.04) is also the first time we see these conventions being subverted, with Gabrielle’s romantic subplot supplanting the main narrative. Centred around the ongoing hatred between Xena and Caesar, the episode is established as a war story, primarily focusing on Xena’s past and her desire to defeat the Romans. As such, Gabrielle is largely swept aside, spending the majority of the episode with a man named Khrafstar. Drawn to his views on spirituality, Gabrielle agrees to go with him to the temple of his god, unaware that it is not the god of the Israelites. Here, Gabrielle is coerced into losing her blood innocence; she stabs a priestess and is then raped by Dahak, an Iranian demon who wants to depose the Olympian gods. Xena rushes to the temple and attempts to save her friend, but though she is able to defeat Khrafstar, she is not able to undo what has already been done. The episode ends with Xena consoling a traumatised Gabrielle, who can say nothing of her feelings except, “I hurt inside,” then, “Everything’s changed. Everything.”

These actions are not only painful to Gabrielle physically, they are emotionally painful as well – largely because it is the first time her strengths have been used against her. Khrafstar manipulates her into acting against her will, exploiting her kindness and trustfulness in order to bring Dahak into the world. These questions are addressed again in Gabrielle’s Hope (3.05), where she states that she needs to be punished for what she has done. Xena and Gabrielle begin the episode in a forest, a traditional fairy tale image, a land of temptation and desire through which the characters must traverse. This forest is also home to a group of banshees, women who symbolise the wild, uncivilised aspects of the feminine. When these women refuse to hurt Gabrielle, she tells Xena, “Maybe there’s an evil in me and they want to worship that.” Of course, we know that the banshees wish to protect the child that she is now carrying, but the implication is an interesting one. Having lost her innocence, Gabrielle now feels she is marked, impure; she has discovered the “heart of darkness” and knows that, somehow, she will never be the same again. Worse than this, she feels she is responsible for these changes.

Having made their way through the forest, Xena and Gabrielle are taken in by a band of knights, the Warriors of the Pierced Heart. This is the first of many Christian images throughout the episode, though the most significant is that of Gabrielle giving birth inside a stable. Although the connotations here are overt, the imagery is somewhat antithetical. A lightning storm rages outside the castle; goats wail as if in pain; and the whole scene is so dark it looks more like a sequence from a horror film. If Gabrielle’s miraculous pregnancy establishes her as the virgin mother archetype, her child – now ironically named Hope – is linked to the messiah, even though the imagery here is explicitly demonic.

Xena is immediately convinced that the child is evil, and she tells Gabrielle that they must kill Hope in order to circumvent Dahak’s plans. Gabrielle, believing that they can supress the child’s demonic side by raising her accordingly, refuses to do what Xena tells her; she puts Hope in a basket and floats her down the river. She lies to Xena about what she has done, and Xena eventually believes that the child has been killed. This lie is the first stake to be driven between them, and thus, is the first real step towards the breakdown of their relationship. Gabrielle feels abandoned and misunderstood by Xena, and so lies to her for the very first time in the series. The episode ends with her praying in secret for Hope’s survival.

The Rift continues in The Debt I and II (3.06&3.07). Although there are no references to Hope or to what happened in Brittania, Gabrielle’s decision to betray Xena is a direct result of the preceding episodes. Gabrielle still resents Xena for her abandonment, and begins to blame her for her rape in Dahak’s temple. When Xena states that she is to abandon her again – this time to reconnect with Lao Ma – Gabrielle is consumed, not only with jealousy, but with fury as well. In Forget Me Not (3.17), Gabrielle tells Ares, “I gave her everything and it meant nothing to her. I hated her for loving someone else. I wanted her to hurt! I wanted her to be punished!” Gabrielle is no longer able to repress the parts of herself that she most condemns in other people: hatred, anger, an inability to forgive. Since the birth of Hope, Gabrielle’s shadow has been activated, and she is now forced to confront the darker sides of her personality. For the most part, Xena remains largely unaware of her friend’s internal conflict.

All of this comes to a head in Maternal Instincts (3.11), one of the darkest episodes ever made, containing infanticide, filicide, and even the attempted suicide of our heroes. Hope, who now appears to be at least ten years old, has been living for some time with the centaurs. She awakens Callisto from the lava pits, and with the intention of breaking Xena’s spirit, attempts to kill the children in the village – including Xena’s son Solon. It is not long before Gabrielle realises that the child is Hope, but like in The Deliverer, Gabrielle’s trusting nature is used against her once more, and she is soon manipulated into doing what Hope wants. Gabrielle, feeling that she has a second chance to make things right, disregards Xena’s instructions, inadvertently putting Solon in place so that Hope can kill him. This time, however, Xena is far less forgiving of Gabrielle’s mistakes. “You lied to me,” she says. “I trusted you and you lied to me. Now Solan is dead. My son is dead because of you.”

After being reproached by Xena (and after finding Solon’s body), Hope’s power over Gabrielle is temporarily broken. She stops seeing her as a defenceless child and tries to see her the way that Xena does, as “a body, a vessel, an instrument for evil.” Finally taking her advice, Gabrielle decides to poison her daughter. If Hope is her shadow, Gabrielle’s decision has clear symbolic connotations; in killing her, Gabrielle is also killing the dark side of her own psyche. Unable to integrate these sides the way that Xena can, Gabrielle feels she has no choice but to murder her own child, thereby putting an end to this difficult period of her life. But Gabrielle is also traumatised by her own ability to kill. Having knowingly killed two people – something she thought she could never do – she considers suicide by drinking the last of the poison. Gabrielle knows that this would be another mistake, but having lost both Xena and Hope at once, Gabrielle is left not knowing what else to do. Over the funeral pyres of Hope and Solon, Xena and Gabrielle walk off in different directions, their friendship broken at last.

The Bitter Suite (3.12) begins with Xena being driven mad with grief. She resolves to kill Gabrielle, thereby avenging her son’s death, and has her dragged behind a horse to the top of a cliff. Gabrielle, barely conscious, throws herself at Xena, and the two plummet into the magical world of Illusia, a place where they must both confront their inner demons.

The design of Illusia is largely based around the Tarot, and Gabrielle is first introduced as The Empress, wearing a colourful dress and a diadem of stars. The Empress represents fertility, purity and femininity – perfect symbols for the pre-Rift Gabrielle – and the fact she finds herself in Potidaea only reinforces this idea. The villagers sing to her, telling her that Xena is to blame for all the tragedy that has befallen her. Obviously, they are trying to lure her back, to make her admit that leaving was a mistake. When Lila, Gabrielle’s sister, appears, she sings, “If your child had lived, we’d surely make her welcome too.” Though Gabrielle is tempted at first, she soon realises that this was the life she was desperate to escape from, a time of permanent stasis and boredom, where “nothing changes but the time.”

In her taxonomy of horror, Carol Clover discusses the “terrible place,” a frightening place through which the protagonist must pass in order to achieve self-actualisation. For Gabrielle, this place is Dahak’s temple, and she is led back here as part of her Illusian trial; she must return to the location of her most painful ordeal. Dressed now as The Strength card, a card which represents a combination of gentility and inner courage, Gabrielle is dragged into the temple by Dahak’s flames, a potent reminder of her rape in Brittania. Her hands are covered in blood once more, and though she tells Xena she cannot continue the journey, Xena reminds her that they are being guided through Illusia for a reason. At that moment, hooded figures appear, each representing a shadow from the past, figures kept alive by the protagonists’ hatred, guilt and bitterness. For Gabrielle, one of these figures is Khrafstar, the catalyst for her shadow descent. Once she reconciles with Xena, Gabrielle is able to exorcise these demons for good, but Hope, she knows, will be a much harder presence for her to move past.

The Bitter Suite ends will Gabrielle forgiving Xena for her abandonment, and in turn, forgiving herself for betraying Xena. But a few episodes later, we see that Gabrielle is still suffering from a tremendous amount of guilt, most of which is directed towards her actions in Ch’in, her assassination of Crassus, and the murder of her own child. In Forget Me Not (3.17), she tells Joxer, “It’s my memories. I can’t shake them. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. It’s like I’m paying for something.” She has been forgiven by the most important person in her life, Xena, yet Gabrielle is still unable to move on. After a pseudo-Freudian journey through her subconscious, she learns that the painful memories are essential to her identity, that she can only appreciate happiness by acknowledging her own despair. This episode seems to tie up the Rift Saga quite neatly, but unfortunately for Gabrielle, the worst is still yet to come.

Sacrifice I (3.21) begins with Xena and Gabrielle spying on a group of cultists in the forest. They are performing a ritual, preparing the way for the “return of a goddess.” They assume that they mean Callisto, but it soon becomes apparent that the ritual is actually for the “goddess of Dahak.” Gabrielle – shocked that Hope might return – is relatively steely throughout the episode, a sharp contrast to Xena, who has to remind herself not to take it all too personally. Since killing Hope, Gabrielle has learned that things are rarely black-and-white, that she can no longer allow her emotions to cloud her judgement. But when Hope emerges from her cocoon at the end of the episode, Gabrielle is stunned into near-silence. Hope now looks exactly the same as Gabrielle, and thus establishes her role as Gabrielle’s shadow. Cold, calculating and completely devoid of emotion, she is the antithesis to Gabrielle in almost every way – the physical embodiment of everything Gabrielle has fought so hard to suppress.

In Sacrifice II (3.22), Hope’s satanic connotations are made even more explicit, wearing a red robe with a black cruciform pattern. Towards the end of the episode, as Xena prepares for battle, Hope visits Gabrielle in the forest. This is the first time the two have been alone together as adults, but Hope is more supplicating than she is murderous. “I won’t hurt you,” she tells Gabrielle. “Don’t make me do this alone. Come, be my mother.” This implication – that Hope may not have been evil if Gabrielle had been a loving mother – is an interesting one, largely because it plays to the final vestiges of Gabrielle’s guilt. In the back of her mind, Gabrielle knows there is a chance she was right all along, but she is also aware of Hope’s ability to manipulate those around her. Gabrielle rejects Hope’s offer either way and then immediately returns to Xena, prepared to stop Hope once and for all.

In the final moments of the episode, as Xena and Hope are about to kill one another, Gabrielle throws herself at her daughter, and with one last look at Xena, tumbles down into a pit of lava. In doing so, Gabrielle saves Xena’s life and finally rids the world of Hope, but more importantly, she absolves herself for all the mistakes she has made throughout the season. Gabrielle will never forgive herself until she feels she has been punished for these mistakes, and by destroying Hope – her shadow side and dark twin – she manages to save the world at the same time, just as she endangered it back in The Deliverer. If Gabrielle is the one to bring Dahak into the world, it is only right that she is the one to destroy him. It is also interesting to note that fire – Dahak’s primary element – is turned into a kind of ritual purification for Gabrielle. By falling into the flames, she is finally able to achieve self-actualisation.

Both Gabrielle and Hope return in A Family Affair (4.03), with Hope infiltrating Gabrielle’s family in Potidaea. Gabrielle first sees Hope in a mirror, assuming she is looking at her own reflection. This is another clear establishment of Hope as Gabrielle’s dark twin, as an inversion of her own identity. The conversation that follows is similar to that at the end of Sacrifice; Hope still wants answers as to why Gabrielle never loved her, but she is also more apathetic, more unfeeling towards her mother. When Gabrielle asks why Hope is still alive, she responds, “I could say the same about you…if I cared, which I don’t.” When Gabrielle flees her family home, Hope can only smirk. “Bye-bye, Mommy,” she says, cruelly.

Eventually Hope is killed by her own son, the first of six destroyers, a creature intended to bring about the apocalypse. Thinking Hope is Gabrielle, he stabs her through the collarbone, and they die in each other’s arms, embracing for the very first time. Gabrielle is visibly traumatised by the death of her child, somehow knowing she will never return. But she is also left feeling hollow and empty, telling Xena she is lost in the final scene. Gabrielle has undergone so much that she no longer recognises herself, a theme which becomes more prevalent as the fourth season progresses. But in the wake of Hope’s death, she is left unsure of what she has gained from the experience, or whether anything positive can be gleaned from her own death and rebirth. Though she still has more to learn, Gabrielle will eventually find her true path in The Ides of March (4.21), the final episode of season four.

Hope never physically appears again, but her presence haunts Gabrielle for the rest of the series. She weeps openly for her daughter in Paradise Found, and calls herself a monster when confronted with these unhappy memories. More interestingly, when hallucinating in The Abyss (6.06), she says, “Hope? My baby, my baby. Is that you? I love you. I would never hurt you. You know that, don’t you? You’re my child…She’ll hurt you. She’ll take you away from me.” Even so many years later, Gabrielle still possesses a strange love for her child (and apparently some kind of resentment towards Xena). But perhaps this is not so strange after all. Now that her physical shadow is dead, Gabrielle has learned to integrate the shadow into herself. Like Xena, Gabrielle becomes a character that is equally light and dark, unafraid to make tough choices in order to serve the greater good. She still questions her identity in the last three seasons of the show, examining her role as a warrior for peace, but she no longer needs to suppress her shadow; she has finally learned to embrace it.

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