Episode S01E08, “Denna”, aired January 10, 2009
Legend of the Seeker (IMDB) is a 2008 fantasy television series based on the Sword of Truth novel series by Terry Goodkind. It’s pretty boilerplate, hero’s journey, high fantasy.
Legend of the Seeker shares some production staff with the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and the Spartacus TV series, which frequently hinted at or showed various forms of queer or kinky sexuality. In turn, those series are descendants of the sword-and-sorcery genre of fiction, which frequently referenced sadomasochistic sexuality. E.g. the covers of the 1930s pulp Weird Tales by Margaret Brundage.
Unlike most of the media we’ve explored so far, Legend is set in a fantasy world of magic and strange creatures. Therefore, we should hold it to different standards of realism and consent.
The cold open of this episode introduces Mistress Denna, lieutenant of the series’ main antagonist, via a sequence of close shots of her suiting up in her fetishistic, red leather, skin tight costume. This includes sound effects of leather creaking and chains clinking. The low-angle shots, looking up at her in her dimly-lit, brick walled space, emphasize her sexuality and her power. She is told that the series’ main antagonist wants her to capture the protagonist, Richard, and “train him.”
She and her minions capture Richard, who spends most of the episode bound and shirtless as he is both physically tortured and emotionally seduced. Denna uses a mystical weapon called an “agiel”, a leather rod which induces intense pain at a touch, accompanied by sound effects of screams. (It also unfortunately looks like a dildo.) The visual emphasis in these scenes is as much on Richard’s vulnerable body as it is on Denna’s “hard” body. (This is known as “whump” in media fandom terms.) The torture scenes are shot very intimately, often in close two-shots as if Denna and Richard are about to kiss.
Denna’s ultimate goal is to emotionally break Richard and make him fall in love with her. Richard initially protects himself by withdrawing into a fantasy of himself with Kahlan, his love interest. As Denna wears him down, Richard puts her into his dissociation fantasy, with her blonde hair loose instead of her usual tight braid; nurturing femininity instead of cruel femininity.
It’s disappointing when Denna is revealed to have the stereotypical female weakness of jealousy. Formerly cool and collected, she is enraged when Richard asks to be tortured by one of Denna’s lieutenants instead. He says this is because he doesn’t want her to use her agiel, which causes her pain too. We also learn that Mord-Sith like Denna are captured as young girls and tortured until they are willing to kill their mothers and fathers.
The parallel plot concerns Kahlan, a series regular and Richard’s love interest. She is a “confessor”, one of a mystical order of women who can induce permanent total love with a touch. Like Denna, Kahlan’s power stems from emotional control of others, but she is very concerned with the ethical use of her power. In this episode, she separates from Richard because she fears that her growing intimacy with him will make her lose control of her power and emotionally enslave him. She is horrified when she finds that another confessor has emotionally enslaved an entire village of people, and refuses to use them to rescue Richard.
Kahlan attempts to rescue Richard on her own, but Richard prevents her from killing Denna, and she is captured too. Richard says to Kahlan that he’s losing control, and begs for her to use her power to emotionally bind him to her.
Richard: “I’d rather be your slave than hers.”
The big climax comes when Denna attempts to finalize her control over Richard by getting him to kill Kahlan instead of Denna torturing her. She gives him a dagger, but he hesitates to use it. Denna uses her agiel on Kahlan to motivate Richard.
Denna: “End her pain, Richard!”
This is where the story breaks down. For most of the episode, the conflict was between Richard’s love of Kahlan and Denna’s growing emotional control over him. Now, instead, Denna has arranged the dilemma of Richard not wanting Kahlan to suffer versus not wanting to kill her, and his emotions for Denna (real or artificial) don’t matter.
Richard drops the dagger, which Kahlan picks up and uses. This is the big fight scene of Richard and Kahlan versus Denna and her guards. Richard stabs Denna with his recovered sword, despite her magic.
Denna: “How did you…?”
Richard: “You taught me how to withstand pain.”
After escaping, Kahlan says that they must repress their mutual attraction for the sake of Richard’s mission.
Richard: “Well, if there’s one thing I learned from Denna, it’s how to suffer in silence.”
Back in torture chamber, another Mord-Sith uses magic on Denna and revives her.
It’s pretty obvious that Denna visually references dominatrixes, and particularly the Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS archetype, the woman who is both monstrous and seductive, whose sexual deviance reflects her moral and political deviance. Denna also has the same weaknesses as Ilsa: jealousy and falling in love with the male hero. As we will see in other media, there’s a tension of the possible redemption of Denna from evil.
Denna is contrasted with Kahlan, who is very concerned about the ethical use of her power, and avoids emotional intimacy for fear of abusing that power. This contrast extends to their costumes: Denna’s tight red leather and tightly braided blonde hair, compared to Kahlan’s white flowing dress and loose brunette hair. However, this avoids simplistic dualities of good and bad femininity, as Kahlan is also a capable fighter and a woman of religious and mystical authority.
According to the Sword of Truth/Legend of the Seeker wiki, Mord-Sith have a casual brown skin-tight leather outfit for everyday, a red leather version for battle or torturing, and a white version once they have broken a new “pet”. Presumably for production reasons, this was simplified to a single uniform.
Mord-Sith appear in other Legend of the Seeker episodes, and in season two, a reformed Mord-Sith, Cara, becomes a regular cast member. No doubt, a woman in a red-leather suit has strong visual appeal.