I love everything about this episode, and admire everything the writers and producers set out to achieve. "Adventures in the Sin Trade" is a powerful, haunting and epic story, which represents outstanding television; by any standards this is superb television, and there is no doubt that this episode changed the face of Xena forever.
This episode broke so much ground in so many ways. From the interesting but fairly standard season final "Sacrifice", in the break between the seasons Xena has matured as a show. Season 3 set the scene for the big changes that were going to take place in the future of the show, but no one could have been prepared for just how much the show would be turned around. From the first scene this episode clearly shows a new side to Xena, and a new feel to the show; a darker, more dangerous, atmospheric and dramatic look and feel that continued far into the 5th season.
This episode has one of the greatest openings of the series. From the first scene it is just so powerful; we are immediately thrust into a fast and dark world, with the distress and darkness outside reflecting the absolute inner turmoil within Xena. This is Xena without Gabrielle; lost and confused, torn between who she was and who she feels she is inside. This is a woman mourning the loss of her lover, partner and best friend, who has no idea how to deal with the pain she is feeling, and finding herself quickly overwhelmed by her loss and grief. I was struck by a real sense of growth within the series, and I felt like this was the culmination of an entire season of development and improvement; Xena as a show has matured, with this episode the example.
Xena's clear distress over the loss of Gabrielle finally puts out in the open the ambiguities surrounding their relationship. No one could argue that Xena's reaction is a logical one for someone who has lost their friend; this is how you mourn the love of your life. Her beautiful and heartbreaking speech to Gabrielle's spirit in the land of the dead is so sorrowful, and yet tinged with such hope. It is an absolute tribute to Lucy's acting that we get to feel her emotions the way we do in this episode.
This episode is particularly heavy with flashbacks and, if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, one thing Xena does incredibly well are flashback episodes. Xena's dark past is so fascinating; I find myself truly unable to tear my eyes from the screen as we are shown more of her dark world. Again I was struck by just how far she has come as a person to have overcome the darkness and pain of her past.
The introduction of the skills and imagery of the shamans is also beautifully portrayed. I love this Xena; the raw and accomplished woman in control of her skills and powers. The enactment of the journey to the land of the dead is hypnotising, and is contrasted very effectively against her same journey years before.
We see here a different Borias than the one of "The Debt". This is a man who has found himself desperately in love with the woman you don't want to love. Borias is no longer able to think clearly, in his head he sees the scenario as he wants it to play out and yet the object of his affection not only doesn't return his feelings, but finds them repulsive. At this stage in Xena's life, she is unable to feel such weak human emotions as need and love for another person; her blasé attitude to her pregnancy, including her incredible lack of respect in not informing Borias, is particular significant as it paints the picture of who Xena is at this time.
We are also introduced in a powerful way to Xena's arch enemy, Alti. This episode is incredibly important as it represents the beginning of a very long and epic battle between Xena and Alti that extends far beyond this story-arc and well into the next season. Alti is everything you could possibly hope for in an enemy. She is frighteningly powerful, and portrayed with such relish by Claire Stansfield. There is such a powerful sexual vibe about Alti and her involvement with Xena. Alti already knows Xena's preference for idealistic women, and uses the assistant almost as a form of bait to draw Xena into her world. Not that she needed much to do so, Xena has been searching for this kind of means of gaining power for years and Alti simply dangles the carrot in front of her. As usual, Xena is her own worst enemy.
A particularly noteworthy part of the episode was the final scenes were Alti uses her new power of making her victims re-live the pain and suffering of their pasts. I thought the three moments of Xena's past that Alti chose were most interesting. Obviously Xena's survival of the gauntlet was a key moment in her life – the moment where she found the inner strength to turn her life around despite what she had been through. The fight with Callisto shown from the end of last season is also a highly emotive moment for Xena; there was so much at stake going up against Hope and Dahak, and in the end Xena lost what was most dear to her, instead of it being the other way around. And, of course, her crucifixion and the breaking of her legs after Caesar's betrayal changed her life forever. All these moments were both emotional and physical torments for Xena and to me this shows Alti's intelligence, skill and how much of an enemy she is. This is a woman who knows that it is not enough just to inflict the pain; the pain must come with heavy emotional burdens, because to defeat an enemy requires beating them physically and emotionally. Xena should be afraid.
So, this episode is key to the series; it is emotive and powerful and takes you as a viewer to an entirely new level. I cannot banish the images from the episode from my mind, and that to me demonstrates that this is an episode that needs to be watched, re-watched and then watched again to really appreciate the full picture. Top marks from me.