[Contains fake wooden throwing thingies and SPOILERS!!!]
The second season of Xena: Warrior Princess (1996) boasted two significant (but temporary) character deaths… the first came at the end of ep #2.5, when a callous ‘Xena’ (Lucy Lawless) left a defeated ‘Callisto’ (Hudson Leick) to sink into a sucky quicksand pit, while she watched on and silently judged her nemesis. Boo! Thankfully, Callisto continued wreaking havoc from the wrong side of the grave with the aid of ‘Ares’ (Kevin Smith), who helped her to hijack Xena’s body via her dreams (ep #2.7)! All Callisto had to do to make the switch permanent was lay low for a couple days, to ensure that the real Xena was trapped in Tartarus (and Callisto’s body) for eternity… but the obsessive psychopath couldn’t resist taunting her foe by scheming to murder Xena’s mother (along with the rest of her home village), and teaching plucky gal-pal ‘Gabriel’ (Renée O’Connor) to embrace the dark side. Although this was an intriguing idea for a story, I think it suffered in comparison to the character’s previous outings, because of the casting interchange. Although Leick did a damn good Xena impression, and even got the voice down pat, the fact is that she’s a lot less fun to watch when she’s playing a mentally-stable heroine, rather than a bat-crap-crazy hellcat!
It also meant that Lawless (as Callisto-in-Xena’s-body) got to play the most emotionally challenging scene of the episode, when Callisto’s deceased mother appeared from the other side, to express her sorrow at what her daughter had become, and chide her to accept responsibility for her past crimes (rather than blaming everything on Xena). Lawless did a fine job with it, of course, but I can’t help thinking it would have been much more powerful/meaningful if Leick had been playing Callisto at the time. According to legend, the two characters were supposed to switch back again at the end of the episode… but Lawless accidentally injured herself while rehearsing a horse stunt for The Tonight Show, so Leick’s services were retained, and she continued to play Xena-in-Callisto’s-body for the entirety of the following episode (#2.8) as well! Lucky gal. The story involved her helping a down-on-his-luck Ares locate his stolen sword and reclaim his rightful place as “God of War”… and after doing him this solid, he was grateful enough to retrieve Xena’s real body from Tartarus, and reunite it with her soul on Earth. Hurrah!
Sadly, she didn’t take especially good care of herself after that, and ended up getting bumped-off by some random bandits just a couple episodes later (#2.12), while paying a penitent visit to the ruins of Callisto’s former hometown, Cirra… which Xena’s army ransacked back in her evil warlord days, inadvertently transforming an innocent young Callisto (played by Rebecca Kopacka) into the crazy-eyed cut-throat we all know and love today! As Gabriel schlepped her best-friend’s mostly-dead body to a mystical healer who may be able to resurrect her, we were treated to a series of flashbacks showing how a younger, piratical Xena learned her knowledge of pressure points and nerve pinches from a kick-ass stowaway named ‘M’Lila’ (Ebonie Smith), and seduced a captured Caesar-to-be named ‘Julius’ (Karl Urban). Apparently it was his cold-hearted betrayal (and sadistic crucifixion) of her, that set Xena on a more murderous path… before being redeemed by ‘Hercules’ (Kevin Sorbo), in the first season of his eponymous series, of course.
Once again, the episode was originally supposed to end with Xena being safely revivified… but because of Lawless’s off-screen mishap, she was consigned to a heavy casket for much of the following installment (#2.13), while her restless soul used self-proclaimed “King of Thieves” ‘Autolycus’ (Bruce Campbell) as an unwilling puppet to save her vacated body from the funeral pyre, and dig-up a secret supply of Ambrosia (aka “The Food of the Gods”), which could supposedly resurrect the dead… but could also grant God-like powers to a mortal, if they were alive when they ate it! Meanwhile, Gabriel was drawn into a dispute over who should lead the Amazon tribe she befriended in the previous season, facing off against a cold-hearted warmonger named ‘Velasca’ (Melinda Clarke), who then caught on to their quest, and determined to claim the Ambrosia for herself. Although our heroines (and hero) did their best to defeat her, Velasca still managed to snag a sample of Ambrosia before breathing her last, so that she could rise again as a cackling demi-goddess capable of shooting lightning bolts out of her hands! Eep! In the following episode (#2.14), a revitalised Xena decided that the only way to stop the rampaging virago was to team up with another immortal of equal strength and skill… but Hercules wasn’t available at short notice for unspecified reasons, so they had to settle for Callisto instead. At this point, of course, I found myself asking “Wait… when the hell did Callisto become immortal?”
Well, it happened over in an episode of The Legendary Journeys (#3.12), in which Hera offered Callisto’s damned soul another chance at life, in return for killing Hercules by luring him into a booby-trapped labyrinth, which supposedly contained the Tree of Life… the fruit of which could grant immortality to the living, but also counteract the fatal poison she’d dropped in the punch bowl at the eponymous beefcake’s birthday party, to drive all his loved ones insane! To cut a long story short (as I did myself, using the fast-forward button) Hercules escaped with enough life-giving fruit to save his family and friends, and left the now-immortal Callisto locked in the subterranean maze!
Weirdly, when she was unearthed in X:WP, Callisto was sporting a long diagonal scar across her face, which looked like a jagged knife wound, even though the only possible damage she could have taken during the fight with Hercules was when she stumbled face-first into a burning tree branch! Instead of a continuity goof, I’m just going to assume that she slashed her own face up, either to punish herself for getting imprisoned again, or to test out her (apparently insufficient) healing powers. Either way, Xena sprang her from her solitary confinement, much to Gabriel’s disgust, and Callisto agreed to help them ambush Velasca on one condition: They had to make a detour to a random nearby town, where Xena stood in the square and publicly confessed her culpability for the destruction of Cirra, back in the day. Naturally, Callisto betrayed them at the first available opportunity, and tried to team up with the enemy… but Velasca was way too arrogant/paranoid to accept her assistance, and they ended up scrapping anyway. After much to-and-fro, Callisto got a taste of some left-over Ambrosia, and gained her own god-like powers… though they didn’t do her much good when Xena lured her and Velasca out onto a rickety rope bridge, then dumped them both into a bubbling pit of lava, never to be seen or heard from again… maybe? Fun fact: Although Velasca only appeared in two episodes across the entire series, she proved so popular with fans that she earned her own action figure, complete with removable Tribal Mask and Ambrosia Cave accessories!
Aside from all the Callisto-centric hijinks, this season also boasted one of the greatest/funnest episodes the show ever produced: “A Day In The Life” (#2.15), directed by none other than Michael Hurst (of playing-‘Iolaus’-in-H:LG fame). The unique selling point of this episode is that it’s really more of a fly-on-the-wall-style sitcom than an action-adventure, with lots of playful banter and adorable domestic bickering between the two leads… plus Gabriel’s repeated attempts to “Cato” her ever-alert mentor. This episode really stands out as a comedic and creative high-point among some of the more generic warlord-of-the-week stories… while also providing plenty potential inspiration for the sapphic-subtext ‘shippers (including a long bathing scene in which an apparently naked Xena and Gabriel wash each other). Crikey!