Lines in the Mehndi

Whilst Xena: Warrior Princess was largely set in Greece and dealt with an amalgam of Greek history and mythology, the show also took place in Britain, Rome, Norway, Japan, China, Africa and Anatolia – usually as a way of depicting Xena’s various exploits as a villainess. In season four, Xena and Gabrielle travel together to India, a journey which forces them both to confront their own spiritual raisons d’être. By incorporating elements of Eastern mythology and philosophy, the show was able to scrutinise Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship on a completely different level, whilst also forcing them both to examine themselves more metaphysically than ever before. Although these episodes proved controversial for a number of reasons, they forced Xena and Gabrielle to grow and develop as characters, allowing them to both attain a kind of self-actualisation in the final episode of the season.

Season three of Xena is largely concerned with the consequences of our heroines travelling together. Gabrielle is suddenly forced to make difficult decisions by herself, leading to the loss of her blood innocence, to her rape in Brittania, and to the birth of her demonic daughter Hope. In turn, Xena is forced to confront how destructive her lifestyle is for Gabrielle, questioning if their life together is really mutually beneficial. “How many more times are you gonna follow me into battle?” she asks in When In Rome… (3.16). “How many more times am I gonna hurt you?” Though Gabrielle understands that she has willingly chosen to share her life with Xena, she still struggles to make peace with the decisions she has made, leading to her suicide in the final episode of the season. When Gabrielle returns in A Family Affair (4.03), she tells Xena that she is lost; she has changed so much that she no longer recognises herself. Xena, unsure of exactly how best to help her friend, can only tell her, “I’m looking for answers too, but how we look for them doesn’t matter – as long as we look for them together.” This is the situation at the beginning of season four.

If season three is centred around Xena and Gabrielle’s friendship then season four is concerned with their lives as individuals, questioning whether or not they can simultaneously follow separate paths and remain close friends. This comes to a head in the so-called India Arc, a sequence of four episodes in which our heroes undergo spiritual transformations whilst travelling through India. But despite the events of season three, Xena and Gabrielle first fall back into old habits; both characters are forced to make painful decisions that weigh heavily on their respective psyches. In A Good Day (4.05), Xena – driven once again by her hatred for Caesar – asks Gabrielle to lead an army of villagers into battle. Despite her initial refusal, Gabrielle finally acquiesces, resulting in her feeling responsible for the deaths of countless innocent lives. Because of this, Gabrielle continues to examine her role as Xena’s sidekick, asking herself if she can reconcile her compassionate nature with her life as a warrior for peace. Xena’s conundrum, on the other hand, is in relation to whether or not she is genuinely a good influence on Gabrielle’s life, a problem she addresses explicitly in episodes like Crusader (4.08), Past Imperfect (4.09) and Paradise Found (4.13). This is underscored by Xena’s vision of their crucifixion, an image that reoccurs throughout the season. Knowing that she will eventually be responsible for Gabrielle’s death, Xena continually questions the implications of their life together, secretly wondering if the vision can be thwarted if they go their separate ways. These issues are all addressed in the India Arc, but while these episodes provide them with a certain amount of answers, they also throw up a number of additional problems that must subsequently be addressed by the end of the season.

The India Arc begins with Paradise Found. Falling through a hole in a cave, Xena and Gabrielle find themselves in a paradisal dream-world, a place which reminds them immediately of Illusia. This world is ruled by Aiden, a yoga master, who claims he can help them overcome their inner demons. Though Xena is immediately suspicious of his spiritual powers, Gabrielle – still haunted by the events of the past season – is more receptive to his abilities, learning yoga and placing herself under his tutelage. Aiden tells her, “You want to heal the world, right? And I believe you can – but first, you’ve got to heal yourself.” Gabrielle, finally confronting the pain of her past, begins to feel that she is doing just this, but as Xena points out later, “Anything that looks too good to be true usually is.”

As the episode continues, Xena and Gabrielle are driven to the extremes of their personalities. While Gabrielle becomes peaceful to the point of passivity, Xena becomes increasingly agitated, plagued by visions which steadily become more and more violent. Xena is soon so terrified she will end up hurting Gabrielle that she decides to confront Aiden, asking him what he thinks she should do. “You can leave,” he tells her brusquely. “If the darkness in you wins, no-one is safe – not even the people you love.” This is exactly what Xena most fears, and she resolves to leave Gabrielle in Aiden’s care before it’s too late. But after saying her goodbyes, Xena discovers that Aiden is actually feeding on the purity of others, draining them of their goodness and turning them into strange, faceless statues. Embracing her dark side, Xena physically transforms into a monster, trusting that Gabrielle will wake from her trance to prevent her from killing Aiden. When Gabrielle does just this, Aiden disappears and the world begins to melt away; Aiden’s spell is finally broken.

Paradise Found is interesting in that it functions like a parable or an allegory, more concerned with symbolism and metaphor than conventional narrative storytelling. Like The Bitter Suite (3.12), the journey into a dream-world allows for more of a focus on the metaphysical aspects of the characters, pushing them to extremes that might not otherwise by explored. In one scene, Gabrielle lies serenely on the white half of a yin-yang bed, while Xena – unable to relax – does furious sit-ups in the dark. As Gabrielle becomes more passive and submissive in Aiden’s dream-world, Xena becomes more savage, depicting how different the characters still are on a symbolic level. Gabrielle is too trusting, particularly towards those who promise spiritual knowledge, while Xena is too mistrusting of herself, constantly fearing that her dark side will re-emerge to undo the good she has since performed. As such, Paradise Found can be viewed as an examination of Xena and Gabrielle’s respective shadows, addressing the many fears attached to their past experiences. When they finally return to the real world, Gabrielle confesses something she has learned from Aiden: “I sometimes talk about your dark side like it’s some kind of disease, but without it, neither one of us would be here.” Xena too has learned that tapping into her dark side can be beneficial to them both – but only when Gabrielle is there to prevent her from going too far.

But the main purpose of Paradise Found is to show that both women are still questioning the boundaries of their relationship. After the dramatic events of season three – in which the differences between them led to murder, betrayal and filicide – Xena and Gabrielle are asking themselves if they can grow as separate individuals without having to part ways. This idea, forming the crux of the fourth season, is addressed most explicitly in the next three episodes, with India forming a spiritual backdrop to these questions of identity.

In Devi (4.14), Xena and Gabrielle – now in India – encounter a street magician named Eli. When his assistant Maya becomes possessed by a demon, Gabrielle inadvertently performs an exorcism, leading the people of the village to worship her as a healing deity (or Devi). When Gabrielle brings back the sight of a blind villager, she becomes convinced that she really is a Devi, telling Xena she finally has “the power to control life and death.” Xena is immediately wary of Gabrielle’s powers, but when she discovers that her friend is actually possessed by a demon, Xena is forced to find a real Devi in order to save her.

Devi continues the themes established in Paradise Found, examining Gabrielle’s capacity to be too trusting when it comes to the acquisition of spiritual knowledge. It is clear that her desire to heal the world is in direct relation to her desire to heal herself, and is cemented by her search for meaning after the painful events of the third season. Xena, on the other hand, is even more mistrusting of these gifts after her encounters with Alti in Adventures in the Sin Trade (4.01). In one scene, she tells Gabrielle, “There are spirits that are good and bad, but they’re smart, and sometimes you can’t tell one from another.” Her vision of their crucifixion also informs her mistrust, with Xena fearing that every adventure will somehow result in Gabrielle’s death at the hands of the Romans. In Past Imperfect, Gabrielle responds to these fears by saying, “The threat of a battle does not mean I’m going to end up like your vision. Xena, you’re expecting Medusa behind every tree!”

But Devi is less concerned with Xena’s journey than it is with Gabrielle’s, and it is her experiences in India which allow her to begin to achieve actualisation. According to Valerie Estelle Frankel, Gabrielle must first “give up her sense of self – her moral certainty as well as her arrogance – and learn true humility.” She is convinced that her new powers can only be a source for good, failing to see past the adulation of the many villagers. It is only revealed that she is possessed by Tataka in the final act of the episode, when it is almost too late to save her. In this way, Devi functions as a morality tale, a fable illustrating the dangers of excessive pride. Gabrielle may have noble aims in life, but her belief in her own abilities (compounded with her desire to absolve herself of past mistakes) leads her to trust others far too readily. Though the India Arc represents a transitional stage for our heroes, it is Gabrielle who must let go of the past in order to progress as a functioning adult.

Whilst Paradise Found and Devi explore Xena and Gabrielle’s lives as individuals, Between the Lines (4.15) examines the interconnection between the two characters, introducing the idea of reincarnation into the series. Here we learn that Xena and Gabrielle are destined to be together forever, and that though their paths may diverge, they are eternally connected. After saving a woman named Naima from sacrifice, Naima sends them on a journey into their future lives in order “to save [their] karmic circle.” Xena is Arminestra, an elderly Mother Theresa-type character, while in this incarnation, Gabrielle has become a fierce warrior named Shakti. Shakti and Arminestra may not be lovers, soulmates or even best friends, but they are still an integral part of each other’s lives, saving one another from the evil shamaness Alti – a woman fixated on destroying Xena’s soul.

Xena and Gabrielle are able to defeat Alti through the use of mehndi, intricate patterns drawn on the skin. Sheila Briggs suggests that “mehndi is not just body ornamentation with religious significance; it is also the force for good within the universe itself.” Coming alive as shafts of coloured light, our heroes are able to defeat Alti once and for all, banishing her soul back to the spirit realm. Before Naima ascends into the sky as an enlightened one, she tells Xena and Gabrielle that their souls are intertwined. “Think of yourselves as lines in the mehndi,” she says, “separated, but forever connected.”

In many ways, Between the Lines is the turning point of the fourth season, dispelling the fears that Xena and Gabrielle have carried with them since A Family Affair (4.03). Though they spent much of the season questioning whether or not their life together was mutually beneficial, Between the Lines suggests that their lives are destined to always be connected in some capacity: “in many lives – past and future.” It also confirms that continuing to grow as individuals needn’t mean growing apart, that they can help each other on their own respective paths. This episode is also significant, according to Valerie Estelle Frankel, in that it stresses “that Gabrielle’s path is just as fierce as her friend’s, while Xena is a peacemaker in her own way. They are never reborn as villains.”

But in spite of this, The Way (4.16) begins with Xena being thrown into an existential panic after the events of the previous episode. Troubled by the fact that she is to be the Mother of Peace in her next life, Xena questions whether or not her destiny is set in stone. “Maybe I was shown my future life for a reason,” she tells Gabrielle. “Maybe I’m supposed to change the way that I’m living this life here and now.” These doubts plague Xena for most of the episode, leading her to pray to Krishna, the god of compassion in Hindu mythology. Krishna (who controversially appears in the episode) emphasises that different paths can be right for different people, telling her that she will become a saint in her next life, but only if she stays true to her path as a warrior. “When you ride into combat,” he tells her, “act without attachment, and carry with you the confidence that you are fulfilling your calling in life. Then you will know the way.” After this conversation, Xena understands that she can only find redemption by following the Way of the Warrior, and is momentarily transformed into Kali, the goddess of death. As a symbol of destruction, this image has clear connotations for Xena; she understands, quite simply, that her true purpose in life is to destroy evil.

Under the instruction of Eli, now a messianic saviour figure, Gabrielle resolves to follow the Way of Love, a path largely characterised by non-violent pacifism. After the traumatic events of the third season, Eli’s refusal to perpetuate “the cycle of hatred that has ravaged the earth for centuries” is extremely tempting to Gabrielle, echoing the sentiment that she expressed to Xena back in season one. “There’s only one way to end this cycle of hatred,” she says in Callisto (1.22), “and it’s through love…and forgiveness.”

At the end of the episode, Xena and Gabrielle recognise that they have chosen different paths. Xena suggests that Gabrielle stay with Eli for a while, but Gabrielle refuses, telling her, “You and I stay together… We’ll end up in the same place; I’m sure of it.” But despite Gabrielle’s assurances, their relationship has never been so clearly delineated; it is difficult to imagine how this new dynamic will work logistically. Throwing her staff in the Ganges, Gabrielle is completely defenceless – a situation not dissimilar to the first few episodes of the series – but this throws up a number of problems for the duo. Kathleen Kennedy points out that “Eli’s way offers Gabrielle the possibility of defeating evil with pure uncorrupted love, but this is a hope that neither Gabrielle nor Xena can sustain.” These problems are addressed in The Convert (4.18), where Gabrielle begins to question Eli’s teachings. “It seems that when push comes to shove,” she says, “sometimes the only choice is to push back, but…I can’t do that.” It’s a puzzle she doesn’t know how to solve, and one she must ultimately work out alone.

Season Four ends with Xena reaffirming her commitment to the Way of the Warrior, but when Xena is in danger, Gabrielle abandons the Way of Love entirely, killing a number of Roman soldiers in order to save her. Later, awaiting their execution, Xena apologises for making Gabrielle lose her way. Gabrielle says, “I had a choice – to do nothing or save my friend. I chose the Way of Friendship.” Xena is filled with remorse at this, but Gabrielle’s serenity in this scene is more like that of a martyred saint. Eli explains that “in order to become a perfect vessel for love, one has to cease all activity – not only physical, but mental as well. It’s only when you’ve reached that state of emptiness that you’re ready, at last, to be filled with love.” Though Xena and Gabrielle are about to die, both have discovered their true paths; they are ready to move on to the next stages of their journey.

Although Gabrielle later abandons the path she discovered in India, these episodes are important in that they force the characters to question their place in the world. Xena and Gabrielle both change as a result of the events of these episodes, and they progress afterwards with a renewed faith in their relationship. Their respective paths may be conflicting, but thanks to their time in India, they both understand that their lives are interconnected throughout eternity, regardless of the choices they subsequently make. Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship continues to change and develop in the final two seasons of the show, but after the India Arc, it is never tested in quite the same way again. Safe in the knowledge that they are true soulmates, Xena and Gabrielle can move forward, allowing each other the space to grow as individuals. It is only then that they fully understand Naima’s words from Between the Lines, that like the patterns in the mehndi, they are “separated, but forever connected.”

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