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The Bitter Suite Reviewed

Probably the most eagerly and anxiously anticipated episode of series three, this was Xena-the Musical! It will surely be a much remembered episode for a several reasons. Firstly the musical aspect, but also because it was the resolution to the `rift` that dominated the first half of the third series. More notoriously, The Bitter Suite contains an especially savage scene where Xena drags Gabrielle behind a horse until she is very badly beaten, then tries to kill her by throwing her off a cliff. A great many fans were extremely upset by this.

Plot wise, we open with a distraught Gabrielle in the third day of an Amazon cleansing ritual- I guess killing her daughter DID affect her. Xena has fled to a snowy mountaintop where Ares stirs her up to get her revenge for Solan`s death. A wild looking Xena gallops in and breaks Ephiny`s arm, punches Joxer and lassoos Gabrielle`s feet, dragging her through fires and rivers and over a few boulders. Stopping at a cliff top, a feral loooking Xena picks up a badly beaten Gab, and is about top throw her off a cliff when she comes to, and kicks free. With an `I hate you!`, Gab rushes at Xena and the pair tumble over the cliff down a long drop to a waterfall, but instead of dying they enter a magical land called Illusia. This is where the singing starts as Xena meets Callisto dressed as the Fool from Tarot cards and Gabrielle meets up with a singing Joxer. As Xena meets her army and Ares, Gabrielle finds herself back in Poteidaia and meets her sister Lila. After a deadly encounter between the pair, and a little tango with Ares for Xena, they find themselves confronting their problems but are unable to hear each other because they are still blaming each other. They are then transported back to the temple of Dahak, where they realize that hatred is the enemy and that only love can save them - aahh! Before they can escape, Xena is confronted by Ming Tien and must admit to killing him and lying to Gabrielle - cue for Lucy`s best song - before they leave Illusia through a waterfall, meet Solan, and then find themselves back on a beach, unharmed and reconciled. PHEW!

It is hard to know where to start, and I know I was not alone in that I needed 3 or 4 viewings of this episode to form opinions. First off, the songs and the staging are great. Lucy Lawless` Broadway choreographer helped with some of the set pieces, and highest praise to Joseph LoDuca the composer, and Pamela Phillips Oland and Dennis Spiegel who helped LoDuca with the lyrics. Of the stars, Lucy Lawless, Kevin Smith and Ted Raimi did their own singing, while Michelle Nicastro and Susan Wood sang for Callisto and Gabrielle respectively. Lucy`s singing voice was first brought to fans` attention in series one, but the real singing surprise for me was Kevin Smith. His beautiful deep singing voice was just perfect for the seductive Ares. The tango in particular was a stand out. Also definitely worth a cheer or two were the fabulous costumes and sets. There were some very odd hats on show, but the fantasy element and sense of the bizzare were conveyed well via the sets and the costumes. The phrase "a visual feast", is sometimes over used, but this episode really was quite stunning in the visual and aural.

I am not going to go into a discussion of the merits of the songs and singers here, have a look at my CD review for that. Suffice to say, I thought it was excellent, although the girl singing for Gabrielle had an annoying voice. Very clever lyrics and a really good mixture of styles; solos, duets and group numbers, ballad, tango, wordy and clever. Wonderful to listen to, even better to see all those well staged songs.

In terms of what was the purpose of this episode, a musical was in many ways the ONLY format that would have worked. Basically, Xena and Gabrielle had to work out their differences, which would have made for a dull `talkie` episode. Realistically, of course, a disagreement like they have had, would take a long time and a lot of going over the same old ground, and recriminations and accusations. The producers have acknowledged that the rift is not totally healed now, and later episodes may return to certain aspects of Xena and Gabrielle`s troubles. However, an all singing fantasy gives them the chance to thrash out their grievances in 45 minutes, with no real bloodshed. However, this brings us back to the most conroversial element, that Gabdrag - as it has become known.

The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is the heart of the show. Xena`s quest for redemption and Gabrielle`s maturing are also important. We have seen Xena kill and maim, and flashback episodes like Destiny and The Debt showed us how ruthless Xena could be. However, the deliberate violence of the drag, and Xena`s glee were a side we never expected Xena to show. Certainly not to Gabrielle, her best friend. An impulsive punch or whack like Ephiny and Joxer got are one thing, but the sustained brutality inflicted on Gabrielle were what shocked some fans. Even allowing for Ares goading, it seemed out of character. I mentioned in my Maternal Instinct review, that Xena`s reaction at the funeral seemed more authentic. This drag was nasty and while the producers wanted to show the degree to which their relationship had deteriorated, I wonder if they made a mistake. No matter what the reasons for Xena`s actions, could Gabrielle really return to travelling with Xena as normal after that, even though the wounds were healed by Illusian magic? Comments by producer Rob Tapert since have indicated that the scene went on for longer than they anticipated, and the brutailty was down to the second unit, who filmed the long sequence, but this episode went through extensive editing, and reviewing. I think it had one of the longest post-production schdules of any episode. Basically, they needed Xena and Gabrielle to be a total loggerheads - hating one another, and to be honest, I am not sure there is any way that could have been portrayed in a completely believable way.

Anyhow, this scene aside, I think The Bitter Suite is more likely to be viewed as a triumph for the Illusia segment. Hudson Leick is once again a scene stealer, and the special effects people from Flat Earth show off their skills with a variety of visual effects such as singing animals and magical wheels. I am no expert, but there is apparently a lot of Tarot card symbolism in this episode - a deliberate intention by producer Rob Tapert to give it a cryptic atmosphere. It is also rather odd that neither Xena or Gabrielle get to sing for a long time while in Illusia. When they do sing it is only to each other aswell. Strange, but then the whole place IS about them. The final song is beautifully sung by Lucy Lawless, a real tear jerker. It is amusing that after confessing to killing Ming Tien, she barely gets to the first chorus before Gabrielle has forgiven her! A rather sweet little scene between Xena and Solan follows, accompanied by a swirling cresendo of strings, before Xena and Gabrielle are returned to a beach, unharmed. That Illusia certainly did a lot of healing - their hearts and bodies! Amazing.

A complete departure for the series, and not a tactic that can be used again really, but for this episode, to resolve the rift, the musical format worked well. This episode was a big hit with fans and critics, and was a major undertaking for the production team. Excellent songs, fabulous production designs, colourful costumes, bizzare headgear, great singing - rotten Gabdrag scene! This is an unforgettable episode and it will be facinating in years to come to see if this is viewed as an extravagant symbol of the show`s ambitious faliure or a triumphant peak of third season audacity and brilliance. For the record, I loved it! This season certainly ain`t dull!

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