Episode 15 in Season 2 (“A Day in the Life”) included the first of many shared hot tubs, and the two women were often shown together in a bedroll, holding and comforting one another, or declaring their devotion.
Many queer viewers embraced the show because it finally let lesbian and bisexual women in on the jokes, and because a mainstream television show was intentionally catering to a queer audience, as Lawless mentioned as early as the second season in a 1996 interview with the Denver Post:
“We talk about it on set. We’re all aware of how different sectors of our audience perceive the show. If you’re talking about the lesbian element, we are aware and we’re not afraid of it. This is a love story between two people. What they do in their own time is none of our business.”
But the subtext on Xena also had a negative side — its very existence depended on the show maintaining a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of policy which prevented the characters’ sexual orientations from ever being directly addressed or referenced. Although the show did blur the lines and push the envelope for heterosexual viewers, Xena and Gabrielle’s most intimate scenes were often a hurt/comfort situation, and the kisses were officially about transferring water or giving mouth to mouth.
Xena did have male sexual partners from the past, especially in the initial episodes, and Gabrielle was often enamored with the boy of the week (and even briefly married). The attentions of Ares, Greek God of War, were consistently geared towards seducing Xena into his lair and into his bed.
These relationships did not require a subtextual reading and contrasted sharply with the repressed expression of Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship.
In a handful of episodes, Xena’s attraction to selected men also brought up issues of infidelity for our perceived lesbian couple. In Episode 18 of Season 5 and Episode 3 of Season 6 (“Antony and Cleopatra” and “Heart of Darkness” respectively), Gabrielle broke up kissing sessions between Antony and Xena, and between Xena and Lucifer. In both cases, seduction was part of “the plan,” but from Gabrielle’s eyes, Xena appeared to be enjoying herself a little too much. On the flip side, we also saw Gabrielle kissing Virgil in “Heart of Darkness” as well.
In spite of this, this episode scorched with an erotic Xena/Gabrielle dance scene, one of the few blatantly erotic touches between the two.
As the series progressed, the sly jokes and innuendo turned into loving glances and a physical closeness that was increasingly intimate in nature, beyond the kinds of interactions one sees between “just friends.” Xena and Gabrielle went through many trials to test their relationship, including death and resurrection. The love, devotion and loyalty between them was spoken repeatedly, and the two were revealed to be soulmates through generations in the future.
The relationship became the backbone of the show, and although the physical side of that equation always remained unrealized, there were no male sexual partners.
Xena and Gabrielle also created an alternative family together, which struck a chord with many lesbian viewers. This was especially apparent when Xena became pregnant (interestingly enough, by the spirit of a woman””her former nemesis Callisto). Xena’s first reaction to the news? “Gabrielle’s gonna freak.”
Xena’s mother searched for a man for her to marry and had to be reminded by Xena that she already had a family, i.e. Gabrielle. After losing and then welcoming her daughter Eve back into the fold in Episode 22 of Season 5 (“Motherhood”), Xena specifically emphasized to Gabrielle that “we got our daughter back.”
As Gabrielle lay injured in Episode 6, Season 6 (“The Abyss”), we heard more of their devotion:
Gabrielle: Xena, I have a last wish.
Xena: I don’t want to hear of it.
Gabrielle: No, I’m serious. You don’t want to know?
Xena: What is it then?
Gabrielle: I don’t want to be buried with the Amazons.
Xena: All right. Well, in fifty years, when the time comes”¦.
Gabrielle: Xena, I want lie with you, with your family in Amphipolis.
Xena: What about your family?
Gabrielle: I love them, but I’m a part of you. I want it to be like that forever. I love you.
Gabrielle: This is all my fault.
Xena: This is not your fault. This is not your fault. It’s mine for setting you on a path you were never meant to walk.
Gabrielle: Any path is OK, Xena, as long as it’s with you.