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However, when you know a series is returning, much of the tension is lost. The main question was how would this situation be resolved. Some of us are still a bit annoyed that Gabrielle`s survival after Sacrifice 2 was never adequately explained, so the way back had to be convincing.
We begin as the last series ended with Xena and Gabrielle`s spirits. However, this version of the afterlife is quite different from the Elysian Fields we saw in 'Mortal Beloved' or the Amazon land of the Dead in 'Adventures in the Sin Trade.' Instead, this episode goes for a Judaeo-Christian vision of Heaven and Hell, complete with angels, arch-angels and demons. Unusually for a Xena episode, special effects are very much in evidence. I guess now Hercules is winding up Flat Earth (the SFX company) are trying to keep busy.
This episode mainly follows Xena and Gabrielle`s afterlife adventures with the arch-angel Michael and the demon Callisto and other assorted angels and devils. There is also the B story as Joxer, Amarice and Eli rescue Xena and Gabrielle`s bodies from their crosses and attempt to take them back to Greece.
But does it all work or is it just a lot of fancy but empty effects? Well yes, I thought it worked very well actually. After such a momentous death, the return of our heroic pair had to be special and this episode is quite epic in scale and ambition. Of course even their deaths can`t be simple, and I particularly liked the way Xena and Gabrielle refuse to be parted even when one is in heaven and one in hell. At one point Xena dives into an abyss heading for hell to rescue Gabrielle, such is her determination. This is the sort of action we wanted to see at the end of Sacrifice 2. Both are prepared to sacrifice everything for the other.
However, it is not Gabrielle who Xena sacrifices her soul for. As an arch-angel, Xena`s compassion for, and guilt over her actions towards Callisto overcome her, and Xena gives up her soul to take away Callisto`s pain, much to Gabrielle`s anger. These themes of guilt, love and sacrifice have arisen many times on the show, as has the good versus evil theme whose ultimate manifestation are the angels and demons whose gigantic battle are the spectacular climax to the episode.
Where some people had worries was whether all the make up and SFX would detract from the story and characters. Xena:Warrior Princess has never relied on effects that much before. Personally I loved the angel outfits. Gabrielle was a stunning arch-angel and Xena looked great as a demon. Strangely both looked odd as the opposite. Demon Gabby was very disconcerting and angel Xena not half as much fun as the bad girl! The actual flying angels were OK. Not very authentic looking, but then what does a "real" angel fly like anyway. The sets making up heaven and hell were a little disappointing. Heaven and Hell should be infinite really, although obviously the budget wasn`t quite up to that. It just looked rather quiet up there. And my goodness, it is easy to become an arch-angel! I needn`t worry about my afterlife now!
Meanwhile, I liked the story following Joxer, Amarice and Eli very much, especially the scene where they work together to take Xena and Gabrielle's frozen bodies down from the crosses. Ted Raimi shows Joxer`s grief in a very genuine way. The increasingly Christ-like Eli is suitable angst-ridden. Amarice is even more annoying than Joxer! Her character appears in quite a few episodes, and while I know why she has been introduced, I still don`t like her. She gets to sneer at Joxer and pick on Eli here. Two characters who have far more depth and integrity than her.
Finally, the actual resurrection. Well, obviously they have to return and much of the summer speculation focussed on Eli and his similarity to Jesus, leading to a miracle resurrection. The actual explanation was just a little dodgy requiring further suspension of disbelief but the moment when Xena and Gabrielle open their eyes was just wonderful. They`re back!I don`t imagine there are too many episodes like this planned. I know I am not into the SFX that much, but for this story and the heaven and hell scenario, I thought the combination of costume, make up and effects produced a visually dazzling episode. To bring them back from the dead needed to be a bit magical and mystical, and it was.
A satisfying season opener.
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