Through watching and re-watching Season 5, I have been increasingly struck by the way the season is made up of a strange mix of themes from previous seasons. Perhaps because of the difficulties that Lucy's pregnancy created, the writers throughout this season seem to be somehow short for ideas, and so turn to previously successful concepts, (such as the Northern Amazons, Alti and the Shamaness theme, and Chin and Lao Ma) to bolster a lacklustre period in the show. Yet, within these seasons, none of the concepts work even half as well as they did originally, and the episodes feel flat and unrewarding.
Unfortunately, "Purity" is the same. It has a good premise, and some good ideas, but it seems to fall flat, and certainly does not even come close to the perfection that was "The Debt".
Firstly, I liked the whole concept of Xena and Lao Ma's daughter joining together like opposite sides of a coin to recapture Lao Ma's power. This union had a similar symmetry to the connection between Xena and Lao Ma, but unfortunately did not have anywhere near the emotional impact or power of the former union. K'ao-Hsin as a character is quite simplistic, and certainly not endearing in the way Lao Ma was instantly.
The real problems within the episode start, however, when you begin to attempt to nut out the actual workings. From what I understand, Lao Ma gave birth to two daughters (I'm guessing identical twins), Pao-Ssu and K'ao-Hsin, whom she gave up to strangers shortly after their birth to save them from the wrath of their elder brother, Ming-Tien. At some point after giving up the girls, Lao Ma has foreseen both her death, and the death of Ming-Tien. At some stage after her death, the twin girls have found out that Lao Ma was their mother. Yet prior to this, Lao Ma had further foreseen that Pao-Ssu would grow up to become full of hatred and rage towards her, and attempt to use her wisdom for evil. Thus, she sent letters to K'ao-Hsin, Pao-Ssu and Xena instructing them that "The Hawk and the Dove must become one with the Wisdom". I'm not sure how these letters were sent, or how their arrival was timed so perfectly, but I suppose that is part of Lao Ma's mystery. Thus, Xena travelled to Chin where she used Lao Ma's book to regain the power and use it combined with K'ao-Hsin against Pao-Ssu. Confusing? You betcha!
Now, I have no problem with this scenario, as far-fetched as it seems on paper. What bothers me is that viewers were left to figure this one out entirely on their own. There is very little explanation in the episode, and it took me several watches to really get the idea of how the events came about. I feel that this concept is far too complex to leave to viewers alone, and it is easy to lose the thread of the whole plot of the episode. Unfortunately, the episode then comes across as a clumsy and confusing mish-mash of plots with no basis, and no real resolution.
I have several other complaints which I will outline below.
Firstly, I am not at all comfortable with the way Gabrielle is relegated to the role of comedic side-kick again. After coming so far, this brush-aside is out of sync with previous (and future) episodes, and is quite insulting, even to a "Team-Xena" girl like me. Paired up with Joxer, Gabrielle becomes the light-hearted aspect of the episode, and not in a good way. Why couldn't she have combined with Xena to bear their part of the wisdom together? It seems to me that without Gabrielle by her side, it is highly unlikely that Xena would have been able to re-capture the power at all. They are, by this point, connected in body, mind and soul, and I feel like one cannot succeed without the other.
My second complaint (as petty as it probably sounds) is the daggy costumes that the girls don halfway through the episode. Gabrielle's is at least explained (it is to help her 'blend-in in the market' – ha, fat chance! I can't see a little blonde haired blue eyed Caucasian 'blending-in' in Chin!), but Xena just waltzes out looking like an armchair, with no explanation for the change whatsoever. With all due respect to both, they genuinely looked like they were in their pyjamas! The costumes add nothing at all to the episode, and I actually have trouble taking them seriously looking so dopey. I can only assume that the writers were hoping that Chinese-style costuming would help to convince viewers that the girls were actually in China, and not in New Zealand on location. The costumes alone were certainly not enough to help us believe that though! (And isn't it interesting how many Maori warriors made up the Chinese army of the Black Powder!)
The sub-plot of the black powder is also weak, and surprisingly I feel like it could be taken out of the episode without the episode losing anything at all.
My final observation relates to several comments that were made during the episode regarding Lao Ma being a 'mother' to all the women, K'ao-Hsin, Pao-Ssu AND Xena. It is reiterated at the conclusion when K'ao-Hsin again refers to Xena as 'sister'. I found this unusual because, at least to me, Lao Ma was in no way a mother figure to Xena. If anything, she was a lover, mentor and equal. I feel like these references to Lao Ma being a 'mother' to Xena detracts from the beauty that was actually their relationship, and fails to acknowledge that there was certainly a level of romantic love to their adoration of each other, if not physical or sexual.
I give this episode a hard time, perhaps because the original Chin episodes ("The Debt I and II") are just so important to me. Those episodes changed the series forever, and I feel like this episode is riding their coat-tails instead of standing on its own. Another disappointing episode in a disappointing season. 7.5 out of 10.