The hero of Xena: Warrior Princess perishes and is resurrected multiple times over the course of the show’s six-season run. But the fandom surrounding the action-fantasy series has, 25 years later, never really died. The show’s legacy lives on, and it’s easy to see traces of the character in contemporary action heroes, like Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Xena’s continued legacy is particularly alive and well in the world of femslash, the subgenre of fanfiction focused on romantic relationships between female characters. Xena (Lucy Lawless) might be the only character with her name in the title, but the show belongs every bit to her companion, Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), and the epic arc of their camaraderie carries just as much weight as Xena’s own internal reckoning with good and evil.
A spin-off of the action-fantasy series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena is set in a fictional rendering of ancient history and pulls from Greek and other mythologies to craft an expansive fantasy world full of warlords, monsters, demons, angels, and warriors. Each episode follows a straightforward quest arc, introducing villains of the week for Xena and Gabrielle to take down, while being situated within larger, serialized stories about good vs. evil.
Also, it’s immensely horny. Xena is chock-full of kinky imagery (enough bondage and whips to make Wonder Woman blush) and queerness—Xena and Gabrielle are cultural icons in queer fandom. Though the cultural conversation around Xena: Warrior Princess usually frames this aspect of the show as coded, subtextual, and implied, it doesn’t take much of an investigative lens to perform a queer reading of the series. From the very first episode, Xena and Gabrielle are inextricable from one another. Sexual innuendo and imagery abound.
Co-creator Rob Tapert once gave a bizarre explanation for why Xena and Gabrielle never got together on the show, suggesting that it was because it would somehow take away from viewer investment in their ongoing will-they/won’t-they. There was also, of course, studio pressure to not make the show too gay: According to Tapert, Universal Television didn’t want Xena to “be perceived as a lesbian show.” The homophobia is undeniable, but it’s also ironic. Did the suppression of Xena’s queerness actually contribute to its cult status among queer women?
Xena raises compelling questions about what gets to be called queer media. Even in the writing of this article, the immediate impulse is to prove its queerness, as if such a metric were scientific and quantifiable. Xena and Gabrielle kiss—yes, on the lips—multiple times over the course of the series. They take baths together. They declare love for one another and find themselves in all sorts of sexually charged situations that never quite tip all the way into an onscreen hookup. But the subtext is bold. The onus of proving Xena’s queerness replicates the pressure placed on queer folks to define and defend relationships within conventional (read: patriarchal and heteronormative) contexts. Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, like queer love so often does, instead exists on the margins, outside of dominant definitions of partnership and romance.
To call Xena a feminist epic would be a stretch. The series’ relationship with Eastern cultures is blatantly racist; a multi-episode arc set in India in the fourth season is particularly egregious. Many of its sci-fi and fantasy contemporaries, like The X-Files, similarly embedded racism and xenophobia in their mythology—which doesn’t excuse Xena as a product of its time but rather reiterates that it was part of an expansive problem. Yes, Xena stood out in its centering of female heroes and their desires. Xena, Gabrielle, and many of the series’ other physically strong, smart, powerful women are simultaneously sexualized but also given sexual agency. But sugarcoating its legacy is lazy. Xena broke barriers—and directly influenced subsequent female action heroes like Buffy Summers—but it also held many in place.
While they may never have made their relationship official in the text of the series, Xena and Gabrielle’s partnership lives on in fandom. Some of the episodes that immediately come to mind in terms of their complicated “friendship” involve straightforwardly horny moments featuring baths and bondage, but some episodes play into the emotional complexity of their dynamic. The full breadth of Xena and Gabrielle’s journey together is marked with desire, violence, betrayal, jealousy, comfort, rage, intimacy. Their relationship is as epic as the mythologies the show mines.
The show’s queer cult status lives on and is especially reinforced by the episodes below, which all are prime examples of the Xena/Gabrielle dynamic that is endlessly compelling in fandom but also all harness the series’ overall penchant for action, drama, camp, and romance.
In “Dreamworker,” Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship is still in its first stage, which mostly consists of Xena needing to save Gabrielle from immediate danger. That is, after all, how they first meet each other. “Dreamworker” does show the early glimpses of Gabrielle transcending conventional damsel-in-distress trappings. It opens with a playful montage of Gabrielle practicing with a sword on a log. Xena pokes some fun at her, but she also warns of the larger dangers of brandishing a sword: Killing someone changes you. This is a lesson Xena knows all too well. Xena’s two most important relationships are the one she has with Gabrielle and the one she has with herself: She’s a warlord turned hero, and she’s constantly reckoning with the sins of her past. “Dreamworker” makes this literal by forcing Xena to fight her evil self in a dreamscape, leading to Lucy Lawless beating up Lucy Lawless, which is in and of itself an erotic thrill. Doppelgängers and body swaps are oft-used devices in the Xena universe, and these storylines are useful metaphors for self-discovery and identity and also brim with queer aesthetics and subtext.
Gabrielle also buys herself a “breast dagger” in this episode, but Xena confiscates it for her own safety. When Xena slips it between her own breast plates, Gabrielle replies, “It’s not like your breasts aren’t dangerous enough.” Even aside from all the innuendo, “Dreamworker” is an early peek at the profound hold Xena and Gabrielle have over each other.
Gabrielle has gone from blond to redhead and has also picked up a few new moves. The cold open mimics “Dreamworker” in that we’re shown Gabrielle fighting—this time with a little more skill—only to pull back and realize Xena’s unamused horse is her pretend enemy. But Gabrielle must emulate Xena in more ways than one in “The Greater Good”: When Xena gets pricked by a poisonous dart (by an unseen enemy who becomes a fantastic foe throughout the series), Gabrielle has to impersonate her. The visual of Gabrielle putting on Xena’s boots and donning all that leather is indeed very sensual, but there’s emotional intimacy at play, too, especially since this is the first of many times that Gabrielle has to face the idea of losing Xena. Apparently, she has some serious abandonment issues: As Xena wheezes toward death, Gabrielle shares a story about the pony she had as a child, Timpani, that got sick and died. “You know, it’s just what happens with things that you love. Sometimes they just leave you,” she says. While subsequent episodes are a lot more explicit about Xena and Gabrielle declaring their love for each other, it’s not difficult to discern that she’s talking about Xena here. And when Xena is temporarily declared dead, Gabrielle kisses her. “The Greater Good” is also an excellent introduction to the camp and goofiness of the series: Xena and Gabrielle team up with a scammer named Lord Seltzer—a purveyor of fizzy water. The action sequences here utilize Seltzer’s sparkling product as a weapon. But interwoven with that camp is the intense story of Gabrielle reckoning with Xena’s near death. Fear not: Xena wakes up just in the nick of time—under circumstances that will speak to any horse girls out there.
Season two is one of the most Sapphic seasons of Xena and therefore features prominently in this list. Its fourth episode, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” is one that requires little counter-reading to unearth the queerness; it’s all right there at the surface. As one of the series’ Halloween episodes, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is a tribute to vampires and rock-video horror. From the start, it’s heavily stylized and sexual: overlaid images of lipsticked mouths studded with sharp fangs. Gabrielle and Xena are confronted with bacchae, women who have been turned into bloodthirsty beings who serve Bacchus. There’s an extended sequence of Gabrielle dancing in slow motion with a bunch of women who she doesn’t realize are bacchae, and it looks like she’s at a lesbian club. Inevitably, Gabrielle is turned into a vampire and bites Xena with a lot more passion than any of the other bacchae apply to their victims: She has her finger in Xena’s mouth, moans, and makes the bite linger a little too long. Lesbian vampires are well-trod territory in fantasy, and Xena absolutely leans into the trope. “You almost died trying to save me, and I really want to do something to thank you,” Gabrielle says at episode’s end, and even that carries something unspoken and suggestive in it. The episode also provides a good look at the role of Joxer, the doofy sidekick character who occasionally helps out Xena and Gabrielle, though he mostly gets in the way.
One episode later, Xena reintroduces a character who plays a significant role in the Xena/Gabrielle dynamic. Callisto—the invisible threat responsible for that poisonous dart from “The Greater Good”—returns to make good on her lifelong quest for vengeance against Xena, who killed Callisto’s whole family back when she was a ruthless warlord. Callisto never fully accepts that Xena has become a force of good, making her a formidable opponent who needles Xena’s worst fears of not being able to escape her past.
Caught up in the throes of battle, Gabrielle hastily agrees to marry her childhood sweetheart, Perdicas. She’s hesitant at first and clearly wants Xena’s blessing, which Xena gives: “Seeing you happy will make me happy.” Even though the episode is about Gabrielle marrying a man, the wedding scene turns into a memorable moment between the two women: Gabrielle asks for some time alone with Xena, and we’re gifted with the image of Gabrielle in her wedding dress, clutching flowers as she stands across from Xena. It almost looks as if they’re the ones getting married, and things are taken a step further by Xena leaning down and giving Gabrielle a goodbye kiss. After that, Gabrielle even talks about Xena while perched on her new husband’s bed on their first night as newlyweds. It always goes back to Xena. The marriage is short-lived, as Callisto kills Perdicas. The loss transforms Gabrielle, who wants to learn how to fight with a sword once and for all. Xena finally obliges, and the training sequence is fraught, pulsating with Gabrielle’s grief. Gabrielle overhears Xena talking alone about her own journey: “I was ready to give up once, and then Gabrielle came into my life.” Throughout the series, Gabrielle is directly linked to Xena’s transformation into a good person. The later episode “Intimate Stranger” also touches on Callisto’s attempts to come between Xena and Gabrielle, and in general all the Callisto episodes are worth watching.
By now, Xena and Gabrielle have already kissed a couple times, but under circumstances laden with stipulations (in both instances, they’re “goodbye” kisses). In “The Quest,” Gabrielle is mourning Xena again. Xena “died” a couple episodes before, but “The Quest” eventually reveals that she isn’t fully dead; her spirit just needs to be reunited with her body. “There were so many things I wanted to tell her. Why didn’t I when I had the chance?” Gabrielle wonders. “I would have told her how empty my life was before she came and all the lessons I learned and that I love her.” With Xena gone, Gabrielle is faced with the decision of becoming the new queen of the Amazon, but she’s faced with pushback from temporary queen Velasca (played by Melinda Clarke, venturing far beyond Orange County). It’s an overall strong episode, but it’s also one for the history books when it comes to Xena and Gabrielle, featuring one of the most-talked-about kisses of their run. Xena’s spirit takes over the body of recurring character Autolycus, and she’s able to connect with Gabrielle in a spirit plane, where she informs her she’s not really dead. Gabrielle repeats the sentiment from before: “There’s so many things I want to say to you.” Xena replies, “Gabrielle, you don’t have to say a word.” Then Xena leans down for a kiss, and there’s a split second of lip-locking before the scene cuts to Gabrielle kissing Autolycus in “reality.” So yes, there’s still a slight stipulation in the sense that the kiss is cut short and replaced with a heterosexual kiss. But there simply isn’t a coherent non-romantic explanation for why Xena and Gabrielle would kiss in the spirit plane. Gabrielle also brings Xena back from the dead, and that’s romance.
“A Day In The Life” comedically breaks down the various components of Xena and Gabrielle’s adventures, focusing on some of the more mundane details alongside the action-packed ones. It’s meant to be slice-of-life, complete with bickering and inside jokes that collectively scream “longtime married couple.” This includes one of the most popular bathing scenes between Xena and Gabrielle (yes, there are multiple; see also “In Sickness And In Hell” in season four). The quest itself is straightforward: They have 24 hours on the clock to prevent a warlord from destroying a village. But it’s those more quotidian experiences—the squabbling, the teasing, the familiarity—that make this episode special. Xena often gets meta, especially in reference to its own fandom: Here, a couple of characters are introduced who are immediately captivated by Xena, resulting in a slow-motion sequence of her flipping her hair post-bath. The fan videos make themselves. Also, Xena invents kites, and she and Gabrielle fly one together. And then the episode ends with Xena and Gabrielle stargazing, Gabrielle thwacking Xena on the nose as part of their ongoing game, and then Gabrielle kissing Xena goodnight.
Things in season three of Xena get complicated, thanks largely in part to Xena and Gabrielle suddenly having offspring. Xena’s got a son named Solan being raised by centaurs, and Gabrielle’s got a straight-up evil daughter named Hope. Mommy issues abound. And it wouldn’t be a great lesbian saga without a dramatic breakup; “Maternal Instincts” is that moment for Xena and Gabrielle. Hope tricks everyone by pretending to be someone named Fayla, and at the behest of our old pal Callisto, she kills Solan. Families are messy. Gabrielle kills her own daughter and then almost kills herself, deciding against it at the last moment. She still loses everything dear to her though, as Xena does not react well to the fact that Gabrielle kept information from her that eventually led to the death of her son. Xena puts a fine point on it: “You lied to me. I trusted you and you lied to me, and now Solan is dead. My son is dead because of you.” Gabrielle tells Xena she loves her, but Xena says nothing in return, thus beginning their brief breakup.
By season four, Xena and Gabrielle are once more partners to the end, but their dynamic is strained by some dramatic irony: Xena has seen a vision that they will both die together on crosses, which she does not share with Gabrielle. Xena therefore reluctantly seizes the opportunity to push Gabrielle in a different direction, hoping it might change her destiny. A mysterious and devoutly religious warrior with cropped hair named Najara shows up at the beginning of “Crusade” and at first attacks Xena and Gabrielle thinking that they’re slave traders. When she realizes the truth—which she claims comes to her in a message from the gods she worships—she begs for their forgiveness. Najara is drawn to Gabrielle’s kind spirit, and Gabrielle is drawn to her, too, desperate for some meaning in her life after coming to terms with her daughter’s malevolence. Xena is immediately jealous but also hopes Najara might provide a better life for Gabrielle—one that maybe doesn’t end with crucifixion. “It hasn’t always been good for her being with me. I seem to have hurt her,” Xena says, probing into the complexity of their relationship, which often straddles a hurt/comfort dichotomy—yet another popular trope in fan fiction. But Najara’s outward piety belies darker truths, and Xena and Gabrielle come together once again, suggesting that their ties are unseverable. Maybe they’re destined to die just as they lived: together.
“The Rheingold,” “The Ring,” and “Return Of The Valkyrie,” a.k.a. The Ring Trilogy (season six, episodes seven, eight, and nine)
This three-episode story is heavy on Norse mythology, Lord Of The Rings-esque plotting, and snowy forest fights. It’s an epic tale, but it’s also one that’s extremely plain about Xena and Gabrielle being soulmates. That term gets thrown around a lot in the later seasons of the show, solidifying Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship as something more than friendship. Xena reconciles once again with her past, and a curse causes her to forget who she is entirely. Over the course of the trilogy, a valkyrie named Brunhilda falls in love with Gabrielle and attempts to convince her to leave Xena and be with her. There’s no subtext: Brunhilda declares her feelings and wants to be with Gabrielle. When Gabrielle rebukes her, Brunhilda proves her love by transforming into an eternal flame to protect Gabrielle and the titular ring from harm until she can be awoken by her one true soulmate, for only a soulmate can breach the flames. The only problem: Xena is Gabrielle’s soulmate, and Xena has amnesia. Flash-forward a year, and Xena’s living her new life as a wife to a man named Hrothgar in a Norse village. But memories of Gabrielle keep popping into Xena’s mind—once again, the strength of their connection is embedded in their very marrow. Xena eventually crosses through the flames and kisses Gabrielle to break the spell. As she does, she flashes back to key moments in their history together. The intimacy burns as brightly as the flames.
“Send In The Clones” is a redux of just about every episode on this list—plus more key moments between Xena and Gabrielle. Taking place in 2001, the plot is wonderfully absurdist: In the episode’s universe, Xena and Gabrielle were real historical figures, and Xena: Warrior Princess is a fictionalized retelling of actual events. A mysterious woman named Alexis teams up with a group of Xena superfans to clone the actual Xena and Gabrielle and use montages from the show as a way to program the clones’ memories. It is wild, to say the least. Alexis’ collaborators each represent a different subset of Xena enthusiasts. Mac (Ian Hughes) is a parody of fanboys horny for Xena and Gabrielle. Clea (Alison Wall) is, admittedly, written as a stereotypical lesbian, dressed for part of the episode in ripped jean, boots, and an oversized T-shirt bearing the image of a scantily clad Gabrielle. Polly (Polly Baigent), meanwhile, is most interested in Xena’s action sequences. Clea has a fondness for the quiet, intimate moments between Xena and Gabrielle, particularly the scenes often found at the ends of episodes where the two women connect over a campfire. “Gabrielle is the most important relationship in Xena’s life,” Clea says. “If you start talking about subtext, I’m gonna barf,” Mac responds—a rendering of tensions between Xena’s femslash fandom and the thirsty men in the audience. Everything about “Send In The Clones” is extremely on the nose, but it’s funny and almost dizzyingly self-referential. To make matters even more meta, the actors playing Mac, Clea, and Polly had all been on the show previously: Hughes also plays Loki and other recurring characters in the Xena/Hercules universe, Wall had appeared as the comic relief Xena admirer Minya, and Baigent was a stunt double for Lawless.