Mar 15, 2021
Xena: Warrior Princess “Maternal Instincts”
As another Mother’s Day will soon be upon us, I thought it appropriate to look at one of the most dramatic episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. Before I begin with the episode itself, I’ll briefly cover what occurred prior to this episode, as it’s the continuation of a few previous storylines.
After “Callisto”, the title character re-emerged the following season in “Return of Callisto”, where she made Gabrielle a widow before Xena killed her by leaving her to be engulfed in quicksand. However, thanks to intervention from Ares, Xena and her adversary swapped bodies for the episodes “Intimate Stranger” and “Ten Little Warlords” (this was partly to accommodate Lucy Lawless, who was recovering from an injury at the time) before Callisto was finally vanquished. Alas, she would return to lock horns with Hercules, becoming a god in the process, just before he locked her up. It was a few episodes after that, in “A Necessary Evil”, that Xena would break Callisto out in order to help her fight a power-obsessed Amazon named Velasca who became a god herself. That episode ended with both Callisto and Velasca being trapped in lava.
The following season had Xena and Gabrielle go to Britannia in the episode “The Deliverer” to help people fight Julius Caesar, whom Xena was itching to get revenge on when he nearly killed her years earlier. Gabrielle became smitten with a guy who told her of his own god, only for her to find out that said god was a malevolent force known as Dahak, who proceeded to force Gabrielle onto his altar, and as we learn in the follow-up “Gabrielle’s Hope”, impregnate her. That baby, who Gabrielle named Hope, was soon born and Xena wasted no time expressing her doubts that she wasn’t a baby, but rather an evil force. But Gabrielle tried to convince her otherwise, and the episode ended with her tricking Xena into thinking Hope was dead, when she actually sent her safely down a river.
“Maternal Instincts” begins with our heroines returning to a Centaur village they visited the previous season, in “Orphan of War”. In that episode, Xena informed Gabrielle about her illegitimate son Solan (David Taylor), who doesn’t know Xena is his mom. But Xena asked Centaur Kaleipus (Jeff Boyd) to raise him in order to protect him from her enemies, a task he happily accepted because he was a friend of Solan’s father Borias. Solan was initially hostile toward Xena, blaming her for his father’s death, but he warmed up to her by the episode’s end.
This is why he and Kaleipus happily greet them at the start of this episode. Another reason to celebrate is a recent treaty between the various Centaur factions.
Elsewhere, a young girl (Amy Morrison) is playing near the edge of the pit where Callisto and Velasca were imprisoned. After her ball goes over the edge, the girl looks down and a chasm opens, spitting out a pillar of fire. Callisto emerges, and the child seems to pass out. I guess she didn’t care about Velasca.
After the title sequence, Gabrielle is surprised by the appearance of her Amazon friend Ephiny (Danielle Cormack) and her son Xenan. They catch up with Gabrielle, informing her of what happened while she and Xena were in Britannia, and Gabrielle lies and says that Hope died.
At the same time, Callisto is disgusted with the decorations celebrating the treaty, and subsequently torches them, as well as two Centaur sentries. Kaleipus and Xena assess the damage, with the latter surmising that only Callisto could’ve done this.
Once alone, Gabrielle discovers that little girl hiding. She quietly shows herself and introduces herself as Fayla. She informs Gabrielle that Callisto knows Xena’s secret. Xena realizes that Callisto knows Solan is her son, so she, Gabrielle, and Kaleipus agree to hide him in nearby caves. But Fayla disappears before they can ask her if she wants to hide there as well. She’s next seen with Callisto, who can’t wait to see Xena’s reaction when Solan is killed. Fayla basically tells her to be patient, because destroying Xena is only the first step to ensuring her father Dahak’s rule over the world.
Gabrielle is getting together the plan to fight Callisto when she runs into Fayla. She’s shocked to see Fayla with the toy lamb Gabrielle got from Senticles in “A Solstice Carol”, and subsequently gave to Hope. Fayla explains that she was found with the lamb, and when she says she was in a basket floating in a river, it makes Gabrielle realize that she’s Hope. Gabrielle tells her to wait for her in her hut.
Xena is seen running through a forest when Callisto appears. After knocking Xena down with her powers, Callisto turns her attention to the hooded figure beside her, thinking it’s Solan. But it turns out to be Gabrielle, and Callisto bolts.
Kaleipus is in the caves where he encounters Hope. She quickly uses her powers to throw a sword into him. Xena and Gabrielle find him dying, and his final words are for Xena to raise Solan. As Solan mourns Kaleipus, he asks to remain with Xena, telling her he cares for her. Xena reluctantly agrees, saying they have much to discuss.
Callisto arrives to see a weakened Hope in the caves. She tells Hope that she’ll go after Solan now, but Hope informs her that she’ll join the other gods and mortals when Dahak arrives. Callisto agrees, and Hope says that they should kill not only Solan, but the other children in the village.
Gabrielle finds Hope, and as they both cry, she admits that she’s her mother. Hope tells her that she helped Callisto escape, and that the children are in danger. Gabrielle says they should inform Xena, confident that she can now convince the Warrior Princess that Hope is benevolent. To that end, Gabrielle tells Hope to go to a safe place for now. That place turns out to be Kaleipus’s hut, where Solan is. Hope gives a malevolent grin once she’s alone with Solan.
Ephiny goes off to gather the children after Gabrielle informs her and Xena of Callisto’s plan. Xena says she’s unsure of what they’ve been told, and Gabrielle’s vehement counter-argument convinces a shocked Xena that the girl is Hope. Gabrielle apologizes for lying to Xena, who states that poison may be able to kill Hope. This continues their argument, as Gabrielle says Hope is a victim, which is why she sent her to Kaleipus’s hut. Xena races there to find Solan dead. She forcefully tells a shocked Gabrielle to leave before crying out in anguish. These cries are heard by Callisto, who smiles, but only briefly.
Gabrielle pours poison in a wineskin and hides it as Hope appears. Hope tells her that she ran off after entering the hut and seeing Solan dead. This almost convinces Gabrielle that Callisto killed Solan, until Hope mentions his name, which Gabrielle never gave to her.
Callisto walks through the seemingly deserted village, when suddenly Xena shoots an arrow into her body, which naturally doesn’t hurt her. Callisto turns to Xena, and sensing her anger at losing her son, basically tells her “welcome to my world”. This is followed by Callisto shooting fireballs at everything, while Xena and hidden archers proceed to shoot arrows into her. Not that this does any good, as Callisto forces the arrows out and into the bodies of the archers. But Xena manages to keep her from hurting Ephiny and the children, even though Callisto keeps knocking her down.
Tracking her would-be victims into the caves, Callisto is confronted by Xena. But Callisto basically says that nothing matters anymore. Even though she’s finally gotten the vengeance on Xena she’s dreamed of, there’s nothing satisfying about it. This is no doubt why she basically allows Xena to pummel her until the cave itself collapses on her, with Xena, Ephiny, and the children escaping.
Xena walks off and sees that Gabrielle has poisoned Hope, who’s now covered with a blanket. Gabrielle almost gives herself the poison as well, but pours it onto the ground. And the looks they give each other are definitely not those of affection.
The episode ends with our heroines standing by the burning bodies of their children. Gabrielle tearfully says that Solan and Kaleipus would still be alive if she had killed Hope in Britannia, but Xena coldly cuts her off, saying that her lies have led to Solan’s death. In anguish, they walk off in separate directions.
Like Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Preemptive Strike”, this episode is a downbeat tale involving betrayal that serves as an emotional punch to the gut, with great performances by all. This storyline would continue with the next episode, the acclaimed “The Bitter Suite”.
However, one aspect that would end up being problematic is Callisto. On the one hand, it was a dramatically good choice to take her character in a different direction. One reason Khan is considered Star Trek’s greatest villain is because he has different motivations in both of his appearances. In “Space Seed”, he simply wanted to conquer, and the fact that he had access to technology centuries ahead of him upon his awakening was an added bonus. In Star Trek II, he simply wanted revenge, even ignoring the fact that he was able to obtain a weapon that could destroy worlds. As Callisto made more than two appearances, it would’ve easily become repetitive to have her appear again and again simply seeking revenge on Xena. Hence, actually allowing her to get that revenge was an interesting idea.
But the fact that she now says that she feels empty doesn’t leave much room for her character to grow. Alas, subsequent appearances by the character, while entertaining, don’t have the dramatic punch that her earlier appearances did.
As it turned out, the Hope storyline didn’t exactly end on a satisfying note either, as she would re-appear (played by Renee O’Connor) in the two-part season finale “Sacrifice”, only to be killed off in a lackluster way the following season in “A Family Affair”. Dahak himself would meet his demise thanks to Hercules in a multi-episode arc on that series with, disappointingly, no mention or appearance by either of our heroines.
Hence, “Maternal Instincts” is a wonderfully intense drama that turned out to be a double-edged sword for the series.