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For one of the first times I can remember, the very first pre-credits scene is of the Xena of the past - a brooding figure in a winged helmet displaying yet another of Xena's many skills - smelting and blacksmithing. The unobservant may be confused - why is Xena wearing funny clothes and what IS she doing? But once again, a close look at Lucy Lawless should give the game away. Lucy is always excellent at showing the many different facets of Xena through the ages, and her look-alikes. We can usually tell who she is by her expression. The narrowed eyes and hard mouth show us that this is the bad-girl Xena of the past. There follows a dramatic fight involving a monster and a mysterious ring that ends up in the monsters possession...what is going on? When we skip to 35 years later (yep, looks like it all happened 'Ten Winters Ago' - plus 25 years on ice of course,) and find the Xena and Gabrielle we know and love bantering in a tavern, it becomes clear to the slowest of fans that is was a flashback, however, Xena is approached by a stranger named Beowulf...yep, THAT Beowulf. After a few nice little scenes with Gabrielle involving trust and truth, Xena dumps her to go monster slaying with Beowulf. Gabrielle follows of course, and we even hear her doing a bit of barding - well, keeping a journal of how her pursuit of Xena is going. Next thing we know, Gabrielle and Xena are somewhere up north that is cold and full of blondes. I kept wondering if Agnetha and Anna-Frida from ABBA would pop out. Well, I was close. Brunnhilda shows up - the first of many blondes - who immediately bonds with Gabrielle and tells of how Xena made her mark in the area 35 years ago. This is the cue for another great flashback, and the post-Chin Xena (with the original chakram!!) arrives to dazzle disillusioned old Odin. Amazing how she ran into so many significant people in those days.
Xena is made a Valkyrie, one of Odin's girls who accompany brave warriors to their deaths at Valhalla. Xena puts a few noses out of joint as usual - particularly Grinnhilda's - Odin's lover and leader of the Valkyrie. This Xena is an intriguing one - not the rough and uncouth savage from The Debt 1, however exactly where in the Xena timeline this episode comes is a bit of a mystery. When exactly did she get her chakram? We didn't see it in The Debt or Adventures in the Sin Trade, or Past Imperfect. However, a lot of the action of this episode depends of Xena having no love for anyone in her heart, so can we assume this is PRE-Solan? Or has she just put him out of her mind?
Anyway, Xena is after the Rheingold, a gold nugget that has legendary power for any who has forsaken love. In a rather confusing set of double and triple negatives, Xena tricks Odin into telling her about it by pretending to be in love with him, and so NOT not forsaking love...I think. It works, and after a blue-screen aerial battle on her flying horse with Grinnhilda, Xena goes swimming with the Rhinemaidens. This is a fun little scene as the poor gullible girls fall for 'fun-loving' Xena straight away!! "I think I love her," says one. "So do I," says another. We, the audience, watch in amusement as conniving Xena's smirk is a DEAD giveaway! The trusting but very foolish maiden gets a broken nose courtesey of Xena's elbow for her trouble as Xena heads off with the treasured rheingold to make it into a ring. A ring that will give her the power of a god....
Meanwhile, Beowulf is leading Xena towards a fight with a monster named Grindel, which is killing many men, and she clearly knows that it is her job to slay the beast. Why does Xena feel so responsible? Did that monster from the pre-credits sequence escape? Xena and Beowulf arrive at the scene of the crimes ready for a fight, closely followed by Gabrielle and Brunnhilda. The monster arrives wearing the ring on its hideous elongated fingers.
CHOP IT OFF! We yell as Xena slashes uselessly with her sword and chakram and Beowulf tried the axe approach. It's looking grim for Xena. When Gabrielle and Brunnhilda arrive, it is to find a badly beaten Beowulf and the only sign of Xena, her breastplate....uh oh...
It is a little bit difficult to write just about this episode having seen the next 2 in the trilogy, where all the questions are answered. I think this trilogy of episodes were some of the best for a long, long time. I believe Rob Tapert is a fan of the wicked old Xena, and this trilogy is further proof that explorations of her past provide some of the very best stories. It is also a very clever mixture of the stories of Beowulf - one of the very oldest narrative poems, and the Ring stories from Nordic legend upon which Wagner based his famous series of operas. Hercules met up with some of the Norse gods a few years back, but I never did see those episodes so I don't know how these tie in. However, the thing that really intrigued me was the character of Xena. We saw someone who is clearly power hungry and ruthless, although it was good to see her NOT kill Grinnhilda in cold blood after the flying horse fight. She clearly IS after power, and the rheingold is her goal in most of her interactions with Odin.
Another interesting feature of this episode is the exchange between Xena and Gabrielle when Xena doesn't tell Gab of her knowledge of the monster she must go to kill. Of course this would have ruined any of the mystery for us audience! Did we want to see them separated? I was a bit sorry to see Xena dump Gabrielle, although that little note was rather sweet, but if this was indeed the suicide mission Xena thought it to be, that would not have been much of a goodbye!
The nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship is further developed in the latter two episodes, but we have Beowulf and Brunnhilda commenting on it here. Both question Xena and Gab about it and how close they are. Both Xena and Gab talk about their 'best friend' here. We also see Gabrielle's determination to find her friend, and Xena's acknowledgement that she will probably die.... as if!!
Now, a word about that monster. Grendel is out of the Beowulf story, however, this monster was one part destroyer (from A Family Affair), one part Alien (from the movie Alien Resurrection) and one part scarecrow! OK, a lot of twigs anyway. I think they showed a bit too much of the creature.. he did end up looking like a tall guy in a funny monster suit. Less is more - they should have kept him in the shadows I think.
So..all these unanswered questions. Will Xena survive? When will Beowulf get to do some monster slaying? What is Xena's history with the monster, which she says she "created"? Where does the Ring come into this? What is Brunnhilda's story? Is she all she seems? Why are the Rheinmaidens such drips?
A really good start to an exciting trilogy of episodes.
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