Aside from the anguish over — 15-year-old spoiler alert! — Xena’s death in the series finale, one of the biggest questions that came out of Xena: Warrior Princess is why the titular hero (Lucy Lawless) and her bard Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) never become a couple.
As discussed at length in our Xena oral history in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, soon after the show’s 1995 debut, fans of the syndicated series, particularly those within the LGBT community, breathed life into the relationship. “The name Xena means ‘stranger,'” Lawless says of the former warlord spared by Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) to embark on a journey of redemption. “She felt she was irredeemable. That friendship between Xena and Gabrielle transmitted some message of self-worth, deservedness, and honor to people who felt very marginalized, so it had a lot of resonance in the gay community.”
But on the creative side, there was a specific reason why it never came to fruition. “We didn’t really ever want to get them 100 percent together for a very strange reason,” executive producer and co-creator Rob Tapert says. “There was Ares [Kevin Smith], God of War, who we loved. We did not want to give up the hold that character had over Xena and the enjoyment we had with telling stories of Xena and Ares. So as much as we liked that Xena and Gabrielle were two people who were the best of friends, and perhaps intimate friends, we never wanted to give up Ares.”
Still, that didn’t stop fans from championing Xena and Gabrielle. “We were surprised at first, but I think that the writing staff, who were extremely sophisticated and savvy and witty, caught on much faster than I did,” O’Connor says.
True, they did, but according to Tapert, showrunner R.J. Stewart was careful not to exploit the relationship or pander to the audience, lest they feel taken advantage of. That dynamic was also not lost on Universal Television. “Before we started shooting Xena, we shot the material that we were going to use to create the opening title sequences with,” Tapert says. “The studio was so concerned that it would be perceived as a lesbian show that they would not allow us to have Xena and Gabrielle in the same frame of the opening titles.”
“We were very aware that there was only so much we could do, because it was a show on network television,” O’Connor says. “So anytime Rob would push the envelope as much as he could, he had to work within certain guidelines.”
That’s certainly a far cry from what’s on television these days, from Grey’s Anatomy and The 100, to Transparent and Sense8. “For the LGBT community to see themselves on TV was certainly new in the ’90s,” Lawless says. “My goodness, how things have changed from Xena subtext to I Am Cait. That’s an incredible evolution in 20 years, and I think it’s a really healthy one.”
To read our Xena: Warrior Princess oral history, pick up Entertainment Weekly issue #1414, on newsstands now or available here.