A Darker Side of Romance

April 2005
College English, Senior

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In this show, Ares is neither a stalker nor a rapist; he is the ultimate villain who is challenged by his ultimate obsession. Xena has never been anyone's victim. She could never stand idle as the receiver of injustice and stay calm about it. She is a warrior through and through who is always ready to give as good as she gets, and this is what makes this relationship unique: the constant battle of wills and wits between these two magnificent beings. Call me a hopeless romantic, but a romantic nonetheless. This relationship contains the major ingredients of a Romance of Epic proportions.

-- M.J. Martin

The show Xena Warrior Princess has always had a die-hard fan base and even now, nearly four years after the end of its six-year run (1995-2001), there are still people willing to discuss and scrutinize every aspect of the show down to the very last detail. One of the frequently analyzed topics is the relationship between Xena, the Warrior Princess and Ares, the God of War. Some viewers believe that Ares’ behavior towards Xena constituted abuse and that he was a sexual predator because he was a villain who constantly tried to win her over to the dark side by any means possible and wanted nothing more than to have her as his prize, his consort. The flaw in this view, however, is that their relationship cannot be judged by a generalization. By evaluating the nature of this relationship in its entirety without singling out certain parts and critiquing them out of context, the relationship becomes complex and intriguing—and can fit well into the genre of a dark romance because of three key elements: two strong characters behaving badly in the name of love, the characters resisting their attraction to one another and the path of true love being filled with obstacles that can keep the characters apart. As K. Stoddard Hayes, a writer for The Official Xena Magazine, stated, “Throwing obstacles in the path of true love is a surefire way to heighten the suspense and with it the audience’s involvement” (38). This is where Xena and Ares fit almost perfectly into the genre.

The Xena-Ares relationship first began in the series’ first season episode, “The Reckoning.” From the beginning, Ares, God of War—a cunning, ruthless and selfish god—was obsessed with Xena, Warrior Princess and wanted to return her to the dark side where she had been for so many years before she decided to fight for good. A strong and independent but flawed heroine, Xena continually had to push herself to stay on the path of the straight and narrow, her darkness regularly getting in the way of her desire for redemption and atonement for her past evil deeds. Throughout much of the show, Ares’ interaction with her consisted of him trying to win Xena back. Xena thwarted his every attempt, but he was relentless in his goal of having the greatest warrior leading his army and, no doubt, getting her into his bed as well. Despite his nature as God of War, his obsession eventually grew into something more and he finally admitted to himself that he loved her. While he never got the chance to be with her, in “Coming Home” she did admit, “You always go to me. But you were bad for me, Ares. You still are.” Eventually, they came to an acceptance and understanding in the end.

To be a good dark romance, the characters need to be strong, defined people and often, these two characters do many things in the name of love that could be considered slightly dysfunctional and twisted. After Ares declared, to himself, that he loved Xena, his actions in subsequent episodes did not seem to demonstrate real love to the casual viewer. In return for his help and protection against the other gods, Ares wanted to have a child with Xena. Though this was the single greatest mistake Ares ever could have made, he wasn’t just looking for a way to keep his lineage alive. In “God Fearing Child” he told her, “If I’m gonna be mortal, I could…live out my life…with you.” Clearly, his only real desire was to be with her in love. Although, as the God of War, he didn’t know how to deal with this foreign feeling of love, so he went about winning Xena as he would win a war—by throwing in deals to get what he wanted. This did not go over well with Xena, as she believed he was only looking out for his own self-interests. He was unable to tell her how he really felt about her because pride kept getting in the way. As a result, it only drove them further apart.

Both Xena and Ares also used each other to get what they wanted at times during the series. One of the prominent examples of this was in the episode “Amphipolis Under Siege” where Xena, desperate to save her daughter from the gods, came to Ares and was willing to take him up on his offer of having a child in return for his help. After toying with his feelings that she knew he had for her, Xena tricked him in the end of the episode because she had her own agenda in mind—tricking the gods into thinking she was willing to sacrifice her baby daughter to them. She had merely used his deal and ultimately, his feelings, to play out her plan, thereby making Ares her pawn. Ares, too, was acting selfishly in that episode, only agreeing to help Xena in return for having a child with her. Ultimately, both characters behaved badly at the expense of the other.

Another aspect of a dark romance is that one or both parties are resisting their attraction to one another. Xena was always dealing with the desire she had for the God of War. This was evident in many episodes such as “Path of Vengeance” when he nuzzled her neck and aroused her by letting her feel the godly power he possessed in his touch pulse through her body, “Eternal Bonds” when he gave her an erotic dream and she spent the next day remembering it with slight embarrassment and unquestionable desire, and “Amphipolis Under Siege” when, after having engaged in some passionate kissing with him, she admitted to herself that she “felt something.” She was always denying her sexual attraction to him because she knew that if she ever gave into those feelings, he would be a bad influence on her and would turn her back to the dark side like he’d always wanted. But despite his frequent plans to win her back, she was never truly repulsed by him. This was shown in many of the scenes that they shared, where he would show up and they would talk openly, even though she would often express contempt and annoyance. Bantering, witty remarks and flirting was an important part of their interaction and this type of interaction made it believable that, deep down, Xena really didn’t hate him.

Ares, too, had his moments of resistance to the love that he felt for Xena. When he first realized that he was truly in love with her in “God Fearing Child” his reaction was one that was to be expected of the God of War—he told Xena, “This is not your standard god-obsession, okay? I am having urges that I’m not real proud of.” Love shouldn’t have been a part of his being and yet, because of Xena, it was, despite himself. After all her rejections, however, at one point it drove him to almost want her dead. In “Eve” he acted as a spurned lover, wanting her to hurt as he did. He goaded an enemy of hers to kill her, but his plan failed. This pain he felt didn’t last for long, though and he finally came to accept the tender feelings he had for her—eventually leading him to give up his immortality for her love.

Finally, one important criterion of this type of romantic storyline is that there are many obstacles that can stand in the way of the romance. The major obstacles standing in the way of this relationship was Ares’ scheming to return Xena to his service. He tried every way he knew to get her back, many of which were very underhanded—driving her insane in “The Furies”, posing as her estranged father so that she’d lead his army in “Ties That Bind”, killing innocent villagers in her name in order to get her to come back to him in “The Reckoning” and switching her body with that of her arch nemesis in “Intimate Stranger.” This tension between them didn’t help their relationship and really affected Xena’s attitude toward him. She never felt like she could trust him and she knew that he’d always be bad for her even after he proved his love by giving up his immortality to save her life. She may have been deeply touched by the act, but the painful memories of the things he had done to her in the past would always remain.

The Xena-Ares relationship was also constantly driven by the conflicts that came up as a result of what each of them stood for: Xena for good, Ares for evil. Ares and Xena were always at odds with each other whenever it came to justice and the Greater Good. There were poignant moments between them and moments filled with angst and pain and there were only very rare moments of tenderness and sincerity. With all of these things standing in their way, it’s no wonder they were never able to be together in the end. When Ares asked her in “Coming Home” if they had a one in a thousand chance to be together, Xena replied, wistfully, “More like one in a billion.”

Dark romances can be captivating, heartfelt and poignant and that’s what Xena and Ares were. It may not have been anywhere near perfect as relationships go, but its complexity is what sparked interest in the viewers. The spicier, edgier relationships can be much more interesting than the easy ones and can breathe new life into the word “romance” and that’s what dark romances do—they do something unexpected that’s against mainstream standards. The Xena-Ares relationship did this with a flair and as Ares said in “Path of Vengeance”, one of his last episodes, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”