A strange thing happened in the fifth season of Xena Warrior Princess: the secondary lead, Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), was suddenly allowed to develop into an interesting character. For the three seasons, her idealistic notions and occasional egotism caused situations that Xena had to fix, and yet we were constantly told, via Xena’s dialog, that Gabrielle was Good and Innocent and… oh, just basically the radiance of heaven made flesh. Gag.
In “The Debt”, she went so far as to betray Xena to an enemy out of spite, because Xena had gone to help a friend that wasn’t dear Gabby. And in the next season, we had an episode where she actually admitted her ugly motives. But still, we were continuously told that she was Little Miss Sunshine, no matter what we saw on screen.
At the end of the fourth season, we got our first hint that maybe Gabrielle was finally going to get over herself. Maybe even Xena would start looking at her without the rose-colored glasses. And then Lucy Lawless got pregnant, which reduced her availability in Season 5, which in turn required some adjustments on the part of the production/writing staff. Their response was brilliant:
They let Gabby grow up and become a lead in her own right.
Now, they could have just rammed her down our throats as is – given us lots of episodes where she fell in love, or got kidnapped, or spent more onscreen time letting her ego put Xena in a bind. Same shit, bigger shovel. Instead Gabby’s very humbling experience at the end of Season 4 taught her that she really wasn’t who she thought she was, and she needed to figure out who she was going to be. She quickly chose a focused goal – to become more of a warrior – and with a couple of totally understandable missteps, rapidly became a more adult version of Gabrielle.
This required some actual thinking and creativity on the part of the show’s staff. Gabrielle had always been Xena’s foil: she looked for peaceful solutions while Xena assumed battle was inevitable. If Gabrielle became a skilled warrior like Xena, could she still be that foil?
Absolutely. Gabrielle didn’t stop preferring peace: she just got sharper at judging when peaceful solutions had failed. And another interesting thing happened: Xena continued her arc of becoming more likely to look for peaceful solutions, and the two met halfway. End result: character growth, and two flawed, interesting female characters.