There’s a lot of nostalgia that comes with rewatching Xena: Warrior Princess, which I guess applies to all television shows that aired prior to 2000 for me, but that’s another discussion for another time. I remember watching these season one episodes the first time as a fourth/fifth grader and thinking that they were all great, and now, as an adult, I have to remind myself that episodic television like this is not necessarily meant to be twisty all the time, especially back then. Xena is arguably just Have Gun Will Travel – or maybe Don Quixote, minus the windmill obsession – in Fake Ancient Greece, so you want to make sure a conflict can be resolved within that thirty-minute span, and I think the writers did a fairly decent job of keeping things interesting, despite the inevitable happy ending.
But then there are the episodes that legitimately surprise you, even after you’ve watched them so many times you have lost count, and that’s where Season One’s “Mortal Beloved” sits for me.
“Mortal Beloved” is one of the first episodes of a fantasy show – or any show, really – I watched that distinctly dealt with morally gray concepts and began a lifetime of questioning almost everything I’d been taught. Interracial relationships can happen and not be, like, a major plot point? A good person can be sent to Hell? Deeds don’t always define a person? Context matters? Preteen Jenn was a bit confused by all of this but also very interested.
Quick summary: Xena is reunited with an old lover, Marcus, who had died a few episodes before (he was stabbed protecting a princess from a warlord), and the two work together to 1) retrieve Hades’ Helmet of Invisibility from a psychopath and 2) restore the Elysian Fields to the good people who deserve its lush landscapes and lazy days. Spoiler alert: they succeed, and Marcus has to die again, which is legitimately sad.
There are a lot of things wrong with this episode. Just off the top of my head:
- How does the main bad guy, Atyminius, having Hades’ helmet cause all the good souls to go to Tartarus (Hell) and allow the bad souls to go wherever they want?
- Does Hades only look at people’s deeds usually before judging them to eternal torment?
- How did Atyminius steal Hades’ helmet?
- So alive people can just, like, go into Tartarus/Elysian Fields?
- Also, how deep is the lake where the River Styx is? I know Xena is a badass, but swimming to the bottom of a lake seems a little impossible. I have many other issues with this part, but hey, this is a fantasy series.
- Why does Xena have to stab Marcus at the end of his 48-hour Alive Again Tour? Can’t he just, I don’t know, fall over, dead? It seems a bit unnecessarily brutal TBH and also makes no sense?
- The CGI harpies are hilariously bad.
Despite all this, though, I absolutely adore this episode. I can say definitively that “Mortal Beloved” started me down the path of questioning everything I’d been taught in my Christian household. At first, it was mostly in my head – observations, studying the Bible, etc. – but it gradually evolved into me openly asking questions. As you might expect, that didn’t go over well with my parents, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to watch Xena. I just was encouraged to watch other things. So I didn’t actually see the later seasons until a few years after the show ended (thanks, college!). My parents behaved similarly when Buffy the Vampire Slayer got into more “adult” themes – when Buffy had sex with Angel in Season Two and especially when Willow began her relationship with Tara – but I was a bit older and much more avidly independent at that point, so their influence wasn’t as strong. I might not have been that way, though, if they hadn’t been so anti-Xena when I was younger.
In essence, “Mortal Beloved” specifically began my feminist, liberal journey, and I’m thankful to Xena: Warrior Princess for it.
Runners-Up: “Hooves and Harlots,” “Death in Chains”