Whenever we circle around the topic of best redemption arcs in fiction (TV, books, etc.), crowd favorites tend to be Zuko of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) and recently, Catra, of the recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018). I am always surprised at one notable absence: Xena: Warrior Princess (1996) with Xena’s complicated (and subtextually queer) six season long redemption arc.1
I’ve often wondered about this fascination with redemption arcs, why it tugs at our story-sense so hard, why we write them so often for children’s shows, and what we can learn from them—what we need to learn from them, especially as adults. This fascination could come from many places. There’s the very Christian idea that through belief in Christ, all earthly sins will be forgiven, and it has its own adherents and interpretations. But there’s also the simple—or perhaps not so simple—acknowledgement that even the tales of Christian forgiveness appeal to the fact that part of being human means hurting people and being sorry for it. We have all hurt people or likely will hurt people in the future, accidentally or, even more likely, on purpose, especially in pursuit of our own ends. In short, according to many moral codes, religious or otherwise, we’re flawed. When we watch shows or read books for their redemption arcs, maybe we’re indulging in the fantasy that we too can be forgiven—or the fantasy that those who have wronged us will put themselves at our mercy in an attempt to atone.
In the first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, “Sins of the Past” (no, it’s not subtle), we meet Xena the Warlord. She’s on her way back home to Amphipolis without her army. She strips off her armor and buries it with her weaponry in a clearing just outside of a little town called Potadeia (where she’s about to meet her soulmate, obviously, as one does). From the very beginning of the series, she regrets the crimes she committed as a warlord, though it will take many episodes for her to fully come to grips with the lasting damage she’s caused others and how she’s received and perceived by others.
Shortly after she buries her armor, though, she comes across a warlord’s minion trying to round up some villagers to enslave. Xena fights the brigands, digs back up the weapons of her past, and turns them on her fellow warlords. It’s apt foreshadowing for the way Xena proceeds to attempt to atone for her crimes across the series: turning the violence she once used against the vulnerable to their defense instead. This is also when she meets Gabrielle (cough-soulmate-cough). Gabrielle is innocent, kind, and persuasive: Xena’s perfect foil. (And look at the casting: small, blonde, colorful, compared to Xena’s tall, dark, and handso—I mean, broody.) In this episode and thereafter, it’s her faith in Xena’s potential for good that persuades skeptics to give Xena another chance. Gabrielle is Xena’s vouchsafe, and later on, Xena’s touchstone when she needs to remember her new path.
Let’s step outside of fantasy ancient Greece for a second and consider—where are you on your path? Have you even acknowledged the harm you’ve done? The harm done in your name, or the power you wield? It’s a question worth asking as our societies are mired in global and local systems where too few have taken these steps.
All right, back to fantasy ancient Greece, because that’s what we’re here for: powerful women with swords and guilty consciences. And what’s a woman to do when those are her primary assets to offer the world? Well, she begins a lifetime pilgrimage of good deeds. Deeds she is particularly equipped for—seducing and fighting warlords, kings, emperors, and gods to free the vulnerable in their thrall.
Here, we come to Ares, God of War, who wants Xena back as his greatest warmonger and worshipper. He’s willing to give her untold power if she comes to his side, and the more she refuses, the more desperate he becomes. There’s a particular seduction to his offer (and I don’t mean physical, though occasionally, yes, a physical seduction, and Ares isn’t a bad-looking dude, I can see why someone would be tempted). It’s the seduction of a return to the status quo. The changes Xena wants to make in her life are not passive ones—they require effort and pain and a willingness to accept failure not as a stopping point but another chance to do better. A willingness to accept critique. It would be easier, even rewarded, if she took the offers to return to the top of the warlords. Instead, she tries to negate that privilege—usually. (She’s not perfect, and the cracks in her perfection are or lead to some of the most stirring episodes, like “The Debt I&II,” “Destiny,” “Adventures in the Sin Trade I&II” and “The Ides of March,” just to name a few of my favorites.)
We also grapple with one of my favorite questions in media and life—what’s a woman’s role in relation to committing violence? How and when are women, femmes, and those perceived (however incorrectly) as women allowed to perpetuate violence? With the exception of Ares, most of Xena’s powerful and recurring enemies (and allies) are women. One in particular is part of why Xena’s redemption arc is so compelling: Callisto. First, we must acknowledge a victim is not a means to their aggressor’s rise to goodness. Thankfully, Xena is never quite let off the hook.
When we first meet Callisto in season one, we’re like, yes, new woman warrior on the scene! We love a good rival! As the story unfolds, however, we get something else instead: Callisto was a child in one of the villages that Xena the Warlord destroyed. Now Callisto is playing on the rarity of women warlords to ruin Xena’s burgeoning reputation as a good guy by sacking towns with Xena’s signature battle-cry.
It’s a classic case of your past coming to bite you in the ass, and it’s one of the reasons that we have to acknowledge the hard truth of redemption—no one has to forgive you. And someone not forgiving you for ruining their life or even breaking their favorite toy doesn’t make them the bad guy. It means you have to reckon with accepting that the harm you caused isn’t about you. You cannot demand that someone let you “make it up to them” any more than you can demand their forgiveness so that you can assuage your guilt and feel like a good person again.
What we get throughout the series with Xena and Callisto’s relationship (that’s right, you don’t get to confront your past misdeeds one good time, thanks very much, my hands are clean now) is an examination of cyclical violence and trauma, not unlike that which we see played out in the global stage of imperialism and slavery, and the subsequent hatred and resentment. This is not to say the narrative is perfect; despite their history, Callisto is clearly intended to be the villain and Xena the hero (Callisto is literally demonized in later episodes, and the viewer is reminded that Xena, the aggressor, is still the center of this narrative, which is perhaps the primary critique to offer of any redemption narrative). Thinking about the story now, 25 years later, I wish the relationship between the two were troubled even more. In some ways, though, Xena was ahead of its time. In her reactionary pain and quest for vengeance against Xena, Callisto creates even more victims who will grow to hate them both for the role they played in ruining yet another generation. Callisto also reminds the viewer that there are mental costs on the victims of violence, too—and how, exactly, do you provide recompense for causing that sort of pain?
Callisto is just one victim of Xena the Warlord that we meet, and Xena is not always so successful at managing the balance of violence, even with Gabrielle’s faith and guidance. Like I said earlier, Xena has a particular skillset, and when all you have is a hammer… In the middle seasons, we really struggle with Xena as this tendency strains all of her relationships, especially her partnership with the pacifist Gabrielle. In “The Debt,” someone from Xena’s past—someone who helped Xena, who took care of her—calls in a debt: she wants Xena to kill someone for her. Gabrielle begs Xena not to, and across the two-part episode, we are reminded that even those who love you the most will turn on you if you renege on your promises to change. In a series of betrayals, Xena and Gabrielle have to work through a journey of forgiveness on a small scale (see “The Bitter Suite”) that becomes another touchstone not just for their friendship (cough-soulmateship-cough), but for the arc of Xena’s destiny. So many people in her past—Ares, Callisto, even Julius Caesar (see “Destiny”)—tried to dictate the end of her story, that she was, is, and will die a murderer, and that she would be a fool for not taking the power that came with it. And, yes, sometimes, she believes them. The consequences of these setbacks are even more dire—the souls of thousands of people hang in the balance and in the last episodes, Xena must choose how much she’s willing to give up to make right the past.
One of the hardest parts about making up for past mistakes—even past complacency can be a mistake—is that those mistakes happened for a reason. There was some sort of inertia there that kept us from making the decision with the less harmful outcome. Maybe the inertia we had to overcome was ignorance—now you need to make the effort to learn, but gah, sometimes history books are dull, or it takes more than buying one book or attending one diversity and inclusion lecture to understand the scope of a systemic problem or the perspective of a victim.
Or maybe the inertia is that you’re actively benefiting from a privilege that you need—it sustains your health, your life, your financial security, your peace of mind—and to question that, let alone to dismantle that system in the hopes of building a more equitable one that not only ceases future damage but repairs past damages… well, that’s a pretty big obstacle to get over. You’d be putting yourself at risk, maybe even in physical danger. Times like this, you have to ask the hard question: what would Xena do?
To become a part of the solution, and thus earn any redemption to be had, you must do the labour yourself, without asking someone else to do it for you. You might even have to die for it! Xena did—several times. Xena didn’t ask Callisto to tell her all of the ways she could change. Xena looked at her actions, the results, and then put the equation together herself. She wanted to do the hard, self-critical math. Do you?
And therein lies the power of Xena’s story. Not in the late-millennia special effects or the musical episodes (…yes), but in the willingness to follow a flawed character through an arc of growth and temptation, triumph and setback. When you’ve contributed to harm actively or passively, you’re responsible for your own redemption. Keep that ledger book honestly in your heart. No one will know if you fudge the numbers but you. You have to live with it and die by it.
1 There are likely the simple generational factors (how old the Xena franchise is) and accessibility factors (Xena is no longer freely available on primary streaming platforms; at the writing of this essay, however, it is available on Tubi in the United States).
© 2021 C.L. Clark