Spectrum Special Edition #2

“Altared States"

Spectrum episode guides contain credits (actors, writers, and directors), plot summaries, and commentaries on every episode of a given show. To give new readers an idea of the kind of commentaries that we do, here are our comments for “Altared States,” the nineteenth episode of the first season. This is reprinted from Spectrum Special Edition 2 (though it originally appeared in Spectrum 6).

COMMENTS: Give the Xena producers credit—they have taken one of the most complex and profound events of the Old Testament and turned it into a television episode that retains much of the story’s power. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (see Gen. 22)—a mere eighteen verses—is well-known yet leads into numerous areas of debate that are far too complicated to address in the short space available here.

“Altared States” plays into that debate—perhaps even unknowingly. One central issue: Is faith (Abraham’s faith specifically, though by extension Judaism and Christianity, and perhaps even all faith) essentially guided by rationalism? Or is it essentially driven by “arationalism”* informed by supernatural (and at times paradoxical) revelation? Xena—consistent with current dominant thought—seems to side with the former, yet with ambiguity worthy of the best X-Files, the episode concludes with a hint of the latter.

Xena alters some of the original ingredients. Abrahams’s wife Sarah did not turn to paganism, and Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael disliked Isaac but had no part in the near-sacrifice. Isaac did not know Abraham was planning to sacrifice him. Also, Abraham believed that, even if Isaac died, God would bring him back to life (Heb. 11:19). Antaeus doesn’t have that confidence, making his struggle more excruciating, but also leaving out a crucial element.

For “Altared States,” the different characters present various aspects of the debate. Antaeus is the “arational” faithful believer. Maell is the non-believer using the faith for his own selfish goals. Xena and the wife are the rationalist heathens. Icus starts out as a rationalist believer, but then (for unexplained reasons) changes to an “arationalist” believer.

In the end, for which viewpoint does “Altared States” argue? It’s difficult to say, because it poses more questions than it answers. For instance, does the father hear the initial command from God or from Maell imitating God (and aided by Antaeus’s drugged condition)? Xena initially assumes the former and is horrified at the prospect, concluding that this must be an evil god. (Remember that a controversy over the killing of children is what got her thrown out of her own army.) A common anti-Christian argument is that God is cruel for allowing and/or requiring His son to die on the cross. Xena essentially states this view repeatedly (she’s referring to Antaeus and Icus, yet—as in the original Abraham/Isaac story—the parallel to God/Jesus is obvious). Does the episode endorse her initial judgment? Probably not, because later Xena thinks that Antaeus is mis-hearing God. Then she assumes that the drug causes the “voices.” Eventually she admits that she finds the one-God theory interesting and appears to have heard Him directly.

The more profound question is whether God could even have issued the command and, if so, what is the appropriate response from a moral person. The rationalist and “arationalist” would answer differently. (For a fascinating analysis of the latter position, see Soren Kierkegaard’s riveting Fear and Trembling.) “Altared States” seems to argue for the rationalist position, yet it also contains a powerful presentation of the opposite:

Xena: You’re still the leader here. You don’t have to do this.
Antaeus: You’re asking me to deny my God.
Xena: I am asking you to spare your son!
Antaeus: And teach him what? That faith is just for those times when it’s convenient to believe? That when it gets hard, and it hurts to keep faith, you let it go until it gets easy again? What’s the good in sparing his life if I rob him of the very thing that makes it worth living?

Often in television writing today, vagueness, equivocation, and indecisiveness are a coward’s way out, a way of not taking a stand on a complex or controversial issue. Even worse are scripts offering simplistic, politically correct solutions. And then (possibly because of the popularity of The X-Files) there are shows that leave stories unfinished as some kind of statement about something-or-other. Who could have guessed, then, that Xena would be the series to take that form of storytelling and apply it to a perfectly appropriate plot? After all, the battle between rationalist and “arationalist” faith goes on because the issues cannot be resolved simply.

On a less complex note, we have to mention O’Connor’s brief but (once again) wonderful performance as the drugged Gabrielle. She’s great as she talks to her “stalagmite choir” and leads them in their rehearsal!

The end-credits disclaimer: “No Unrelenting or Severely Punishing Deities ware harmed during the production of this motion picture.”

*The term “arationalism” is the best we can come up with to emphasize that this process may or may not arrive at rational choices but is not required to. We’ve rejected other terms as inaccurate: “irrationalism” would require the choices to be at odds with reason; “idealism” is too exclusionary; “empiricism” emphasizes the experience itself; “subjectivism” and “existentialism” are close but lack the objective moral obligation component; and “revelation” is used here to refer to the content instead of the process by which that content is interpreted.

© Win-Mill Productions. All rights reserved.