Until this point, the series had consisted of mostly very enjoyable tales, until the previous episode, the dull 'The Path Not Taken', the show's first real dud. But things bounced back, and then some, with this excellent episode.
Xena is framed for murdering a group of defenceless villagers and condemned to execution without trial, but finds that the whole situation is being manipulated by Ares, God of War, who wants to push her back into her old warlord ways.
The brief first scene, with Xena and Gabrielle walking through a hazy woods looking for an elusive road, starts the episode off well, and the gentle music used gives me goose-bumps for some reason, as it reminds me of this episode and why I love the series so much.
As Gabrielle wanders off in search of the road, Xena finds herself battling the hooded figure that has killed the villagers. It is a good duel, with Xena for once not being able to get the upper hand, and when watching the episode for the first time, has genuine mystery as to who the assailant is, especially as he vanishes into nowhere.
Of course, the attacker, and the man behind the whole scheme, eventually turns out to be Ares, God of War, well played by the now sadly deceased Kevin Smith. Ares the character had appeared a couple of times previously in ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’, but in non-human form; his appearance in this episode is the firs time we see his familiar form, as played by Kevin Smith.
In later episodes of the series, it is portrayed that Ares had known Xena prior to the events of this episode, causing somewhat of a continuity problem. There is maybe nothing that couldn't be explained away with a bit of creative reasoning (after all, Ares is a God – maybe here he had wiped Xena's previous memory of him, or put some kind of other influence over her), but even so it is a bit awkward.
Anyway, I like Xena and Ares' relationship; as Xena resists his temptations to go back to her murderous ways, yet at the same time looks like she could possibly fall in love with him at any moment. Ares, in return, admires Xena for the powerful leader that she was previously, and lusts over her for what she once was. The thread of Ares trying to lure Xena back into her bad ways is one that would continue throughout the entire series.
I really like the way Ares is brought to screen, as suave and rather charming, yet totally ruthless. In this episode is he seen as a real challenge; I wasn’t too keen on some later comedy-based episodes, where he was over-used too much as a comediac character (many of the Gods were treated too comically for my liking), somewhat deminishing his more sinister, manipulative persona such as in this episode, in my opinion.
For all of Ares’ evil plotting, possibly the most powerful moment of this episode is when Xena, driven into a blind rage by Ares' manipulation, breaks out of her cell, and, in slow motion, strikes Gabrielle. Gabrielle just picks herself up, looks at her hurt (emotionally) and leaves. It is a sign of their already deep friendship, and Gabrielle’s loyalty, that she later comes back, to Xena’s cell window, with a plan to break her free. Even beyond that, it important to note that Gabrielle, who didn't witness Xena's battle with the hooded assasin, is 100% certain of her friend’s innocence.
It is really hard to see how Xena will work her way out of the seemingly no-win situation, and her final solution is very good and credible. Without giving anything away, it also makes Ares more of an interesting nemesis, as for all of his villanous intentions, is at the same time bound by his word. Not to mention that he seems to be very impressed by Xena’s checkmate and lets her win the situation out of admiration.
I have special memories about this episode. In the U.K., this episode was actually shown on the fourth week of Channel 5’s run – previously there had been 'Sins of the Past', 'Chariots of War', and a double-bill of 'Dreamworker' and 'Cradle of Hope' ('The Path Not Taken' was not shown until the week after 'The Reckoning' for some reason). I had already taken a love to the series, and on the Saturday afternoon before this episode was broadcast I went out to buy a new stereo video recorder (replacing my ancient mono one) to record the episodes in all their stereo glory. This episode was the first thing I ever recorded on the new machine. That week my folks went away and I went to stay with my Grandmother, taking it with me. I remember late one boiling hot night, with all the windows open, watching this episode in the dark, with a thunder storm raging in the distance and lightning lighting up the room (adding to the effect), and the episode in crisp stereo. ...Sorry, went off reminiscing there!! Just one of those things that has stuck in my mind over the years.
I consider this episode to actually be a pivotal one of the series, as it introduces Ares and lays the groundwork for many future stories both involving him, and of Xena being torn between her past and present self. It highlights Xena’s dark past and the possibility of her being tempted back there very well (and is the sort of thing that we should have seen in 'The Path Not Taken' – but I've done that review and criticised it too much already!). Normally in an episode, I generally prefer ones that are more action and adventure driven, but this more drama-based episode is one of my favourites (possibly even THE favourite) of the entire first season. Wonderful.