Wednesday, April 5, 2017

5 Thoughts on "Athens City Academy of Performing Bards"

Calling "Athens City of Performing Bards" (Xena: Warrior Princess Season 1, Episode 13) one of the best clip shows of all time would be talking out of my ass -- the only other clip show episode I can think of is "The Prince Who Runs Through the Night" from Revolutionary Girl Utena -- but it's still an impulse I have. And I think it's worth saying, at least, that it's a wildly successful recap episode that manages to successfully develop characters and themes and to produce great moments. The rest of this post will be a quick rundown of some of the cool shit in this episode.

  1. The storytelling advice is kind of garbage, but makes sense for Gabrielle. The points are basically: Your story needs a moral, and it needs to be visual. These are things that I think are self-evidently the kind of craft garbage that can be useful for the inexperienced but is ultimately harmful; and I like that it's coming from Gabrielle here, who is the most autodidact of the bunch. She's a very empathetic character but she's also super gifted in a way that leads to cockiness (see "Hooves & Harlots") in the fiction, and this kind of misguided helpfulness genuinely feels like it develops the character.

  2. The show to this point is surprisingly interested in systemic problems; two of the dozen prior episodes feature scenarios in which war is on the horizon, and the culprit is quickly rooted out as the financially interested party (an arms dealer and a ('neutral') warlord. So when this episode stages its central conflict -- Gabrielle's not being properly registered -- as a story of organized power of students/workers against an administrative/owner class, it works pretty well. It's also tied into the Spartacus usage, which brings us to the next point.

  3. It's a recap episode that's actually pretty necessary, and done in a way that provides not just wrap-up but context. The others who are trying to get into the Academy tell stories that pull from old Hercules movies and the Kubrick film Spartacus, situating Xena in the context of a history of period pieces. It also pulls from the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journey in which Xena the character was created, providing backstory that the show itself has largely only gestured toward to this point. On top of that, it has Gabrielle tell these stories from the position of being someone insistent on a moral and visual focus, so it reinforces that the conflicts to this point are not just the development of Xena's character but an attempt at an education of a sort.

  4. The last time I watched this episode was around three years ago, and I think we had decided that we were going to make an EP about this first season (you can find that here). When we were making that, I was writing a short essay (as a sort of liner notes) putting Xena: Warrior Princess into the frame Malcolm Harris developed for his essay "Upping the Antihero" -- what he called a "consultant procedural." The argument wasn't that it fit perfectly, but that it was surprisingly apt for a show that significantly predated the shows he was discussing, especially given that he was arguing for a specific reading of it as a collusion of genre and material developments. The stories that Gabrielle tells in "Athens Academy of Performing Bards" reinforce just how much Xena's deeds (to this point in the series) rely on governmental stability -- whether that's a town council, a druidic cult, or a king -- that gives episodic stability to her adventures while simultaneously allowing her to act outside of the law. Each set of clips more or less boils down to: a thing happened; we consulted a pseudo-governmental body which reacted in X or Y fashion; Xena won the day through cunning and prowess. I still think there's something to that connection, anyway.

  5. Two little pieces of character development also make this a pretty great episode. The first, at the very beginning, is for Xena: when Gabrielle wants to go to the Academy, she first makes sure that Gabrielle at least thinks she's doing it for the right reasons, and then unconditionally supports her. The second is in Gabrielle's relationship with Orion/Homer: he's maybe the half-dozenth love interest she's had, and the first that signals that she's aware of this happening. Rather than go full bore on the romantic elements, she takes a role more typical of Xena to this point, except with her skills. She reads the situation and supports him through his troubles with his dad, and ends with him as something between a potential lover and a friend. It's a nice way to acknowledge that the show has relied on certain structural pillars and that it feels confident enough to shake them a bit, while at the same time giving Gabrielle precedent for not having to rely on them to make sense as a character.

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