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Saving Queen Varia...

XENA does 'Saving Private Ryan' was the word on this one, and it was a story about the pains of leading soldiers into hopeless battles. The focus of this episode was very much on Gabrielle, who is forced into leading the combined Amazon forces after Varia is kidnapped.

Personally, I wasn't a fan of the movie 'Saving Private Ryan' that much. I don't quite get why people want to see people getting blown to pieces. I suppose in some ways though, violence, shooting and killing is seen as sanitised and clean, easy and painless on screen. Films like 'Saving Private Ryan' try to be more realistic. Just not my sort of movies.

When I saw Michael Hurst's name on the credits for this episode, it was almost a guarantee of bloody and bone crunching fight scenes. Hurst's work on Amazon High and Antony and Cleopatra was notable for the hard hitting fights. We certainly get the violence in this episode, especially in the scene where Gabrielle leads the Amazon troops in an attempted landing on a beach.

Belerophon (with no winged Pegasus, sadly) is another loony with a grudge. For once though, it's not Xena he is most pissed at. It is the Amazons, who he feels deserted his mother Artemis. And of course, seeing as Xena KILLED Artemis, she *IS* on his hit list too...of course. I actually think Craig Parker did a pretty good job with another obsessed killer character. OK, so he did look like Nik Kershaw in that awful snood, and I am not sure his method of wiping out the Amazons was the most logical, but he did have a certain drive about him, although inevitably, he was cannon fodder (or the sword fighting equivalent)for Xena ultimately.

The point of the episode seemed to be how Gabrielle would react in the role of General. Obviously, we know Xena is a great leader. She can do 100 impossible things before breakfast - dead easy. But what about Gab? Her development as a character has been a fascinating one to watch - and there have been far more changes in Gabrielle than in Xena. Way back in S4's A Good Day, Gabrielle was also placed in a position to lead an army, but she was not terribly comfortable in the role, and found the losses hard. It is a measure of the way her character has developed that she looks very comfortable as a leader here. Indeed, her compassion and passion make her someone you can imagine following. She is forced into strategising and making the tough decisions that leaders have to. Not an easy task, but Gabrielle faces up to her respinsibilities, despite her more peaceful nature. Actually, she almost goes too far the other way, at one point she is prepared to leave the wounded behind in the firing line because to carry them would slow the group down. That scene is an interesting one to watch. Xena looks at Gabrielle incredulously, and you can see the realisation of what she just said hit Gabrielle. She almost looks as if she has scared herself. There is no further discussion, she just realises that she cannot leave people behind.

I have always been primarily a Lucy Lawless fan when it came to the acting on the show. It's not that I didn't think Renee O'Connor was any good, but she had rarely really grabbed me in the way Lucy had on so many occasions. (OK, I'll give her the killing scene in The Deliverer and a few others.) However, in this episode, for almost the first time I can remember, I found myself watching and admiring Renee's acting more than Lucy's. I was very impressed with the quiet despair, but strength of character she showed in some of the end scenes. The one where Gabrielle addresses the troops before the final fight with Bellerophon was one, and the following scene with Xena. And my very favourite bit, the very end of the episode, when the Amazons have won, but there is no whooping or celebrating. The blood spattered Gabrielle reconciles with Varia and then looks directly into the camera to deliver the line "to a strong Amazon nation". Renee just blew me away then. She was a million miles from the girlish Gabrielle of Sins of the Past, or the sobbing Gabrielle at the end of A Good Day. Definitely Renee's best dramatic performance on the show I think.

So the acting was good, but what about the story. Well, it was really just an excuse to get Gabrielle into a losing position, and had lots of plot holes. I was a bit unsure about Varia's role in the story. Would the head strong warrior we have seen in other episode really have handed Gabrielle over? The scene with her her stumbling blindfold was cool looking, but why didn't she just reach up and remove the blindfold? How on earth did Bellerophon have SUCH accurate catapaults? And they were loading them up extremely fast too. Then there is that last battle. Yes, Gabrielle DID give a great rousing speech, but the trap was a dead cert wasn't it. Bellerophon showed the usual thick 'baddie of the week' attitude that meant he walked right into the trap. Did he not think Amazons=trees=trap?

Once again, Michael Hurst is to be commended for great camera work. His episodes always look special, and besides the brutality of the fights, we had an episode shot largely in very bright sunlight - for a change. XENA episode are often dark and gloomy - maybe its the New Zealand weather! The battle scenes in particular and their aftermath are dazzlingly bright.

Hurst is a very visual director, and images stick in the mind from this episode. It's a flashy trick, but I liked that shot of the extreme close up of the dead Bellerophon's eye, pulling back and back to a long shot. Then there is the chat that Xena and Gabrielle have on a sand dune with a bright blue sky as their backdrop. Also, the image of Varia stumbling along blindfolded - another memorable image. Considering the short shooting times on XENA, Hurst always produced interestingf episodes. Read a recent interview with him in the XENA magazine where he discusses his work as a director on the show.



Another horrors of war and the challenge of leadership episode, with plotting weaknesses, but saved by great photography and excellent acting.

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