Cultural Catchup Project: The Disc Stands Alone (Angel)

The Disc Stands Alone

June 10th, 2011

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

I’ve been falling behind a bit on my Angel catchup, although it isn’t without reason. After finishing the first disc of Season 3, I found myself confronting three very different episodes that were slightly more distinctive than I might have expected. Some offer standalone stories which gesture towards future developments, some look to focus on our supporting characters and their journey to this point, and some offer a more general thematic consideration as facilitated through a carefully designed monster of the week.

There just wasn’t any sort of hook for me to focus on which would unite “That Vision Thing,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” and “Carpe Noctem,” and the recent heatwave zapped away my energy to dive any further into the series to try to find that thread.

And so, while I would like to offer something more, here’s a fairly basis episode-by-episode rundown of the remainder of Disc 1.

“That Vision Thing”

Obviously, it’s not surprising that Wolfram and Hart continue to play a role in Angel’s business, or that they continue to serve as antagonists within the story world. And on some level, there’s something oddly perfunctory about this episode, focusing as it does on Lilah and Gavin each trying out their own strategies for destroying Angel.

But I think that’s part of the point the show is making. Although the episode is a bit surprisingly small-scale given the potentially damaging ramifications of allowing the prisoner to escape, I think it mostly establishes that Wolfram and Hart will also have an evil plan hatching, and that Angel’s goal can’t always be to destroy them forever. Here, in order to save Cordelia, he is forced to give them what they want, knowing that it might mean having to save the world again in the future. Wolfram and Hart isn’t a “Big Bad” in the traditional sense, which means that these types of stories can’t be treated as the start of a larger arc. It’s just life going by, evil being evil – they’re the L.A. equivalent of the Hellmouth, really, albeit with some interesting human agency at the center of it all.

I continue to enjoy Wolfram and Hart, and thought there were a number of strong scenes in this outing. The entire scene between Angel and Skip the guard was quite charming (even if the credits meant that I recognized David Denman immediately instead of enjoying the fun of trying to place the voice amidst the makeup), and there’s a few other humor beats that seemed like they really landed. They’re also continuing to walk that fine line between camp and suspense with Darla’s pregnancy, a storyline that could seem broad but has been effectively isolated in Darla as a character (and Julie Benz as an actress).

Indeed, the entire episode ends up taking what could seem like broad thematic work (the blurring of the line between good/evil, Wolfram and Hart’s latest plot, etc.) and letting it play out without shattering the very fabric of the series. Instead, all of the pain is focused on Cordelia, allowing her suffering (and the destruction of her world as she knows it) to be the only real consequence. It makes for a focused episode, one that might gesture towards future developments but isn’t beholden to those connections to land. It’s not a classic episode, as the low stakes sort of take some of the wind out of it, but I like the choice and think it bodes well for the season’s approach to both Wolfram and Hart and these types of stories in general.

“That Old Gang of Mine”

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: are Gunn episodes always going to seem so deflating?

It is possible that “That Old Gang of Mine” is actually better than some of the earlier Gunn fare, but just something about the episode rubbed me the wrong way. I understand what the episode was going for, trading off a Cordelia episode with a chance to investigate Gunn and Angel’s relationship. Now, the episode is not wrong that there is an interesting angle to this relationship given Gunn’s history of taking down vampires. However, the show only ever discusses this history in episodes about Gunn; on a weekly basis, Gunn is just a convenient supporting character who makes the sleuthing/slaying power of Angel investigations more logistically possible.

My biggest issue with “This Old Gang of Mine,” which was certainly one of the weakest outings I’ve seen from Tim Minear, was that it actually did nothing to improve Gunn’s standing within the group. It’s not as though we’ve been doubting his commitment to Angel in any way, or that we felt that the return of his friends could potentially unearth anti-Demon sentiments within his personality. Instead, Gunn’s past resurfaces without any sense of resonance, just a convenient threat of the week which I resented both for killing Merl (poor Merl) and for giving into a few too many gang clichés for my liking. They were perhaps a bit more subtle than they’ve been in previous episodes, but the extremist outsider spurning violence was just way overdone, and a few charming moments (“I wasn’t trying to sound snooty” is a delightful line) just felt washed out by the muddled nature of it all.

I agree that more needs to be done with Gunn’s character, and J. August Richards is solid if unspectacular when the show calls on him to do more. There just wasn’t any legitimate suspense here, relying on broad cliché and narrow history to justify a story without the kind of spark necessary to create actual character development.

“Carpe Noctem”

While I don’t think this is a particularly strong episode, I will say that it is a particularly smart one. By creating a device through which Angel is taken over by a horny grandpa, the show is allowed to explore the sexual tension between Angel and Lilah (a fun sort of hypothetical, likely explored on occasion through fan fiction) while simultaneously reinforcing the inability for the show to explore the chemistry between Angel and Fred. The former is sort of indulgent, while the latter finds a way to allow Amy Acker to portray both sudden and complete heartbreak and a quiet understanding.

As the show explores Fred’s reconnection with the world she used to know, Acker really shines through. There’s something very playful about her demeanor in these three episodes, but there’s also those moments of naiveté which are only natural given the circumstances. Her crush on Angel certainly qualities in this latter category, and the show is smart to get that out of the way sooner rather than later. This isn’t a “Will They, Won’t They” relationship, or at least not in the traditional sense, so the show had to find a way to set them on a path to reconcile their respective understandings of their relationship.

While the somewhat broad nature of the episode’s setup works against a more complex understanding of this relationship, as great as that moment where Wesley is seen as Fred is, I think that it shows a real sense of control over this scenario. There’s an odd sort of parallel between the old man struggling to escape the confines of a retirement home as his heart begins to fail him and Fred struggling to re-enter society. In both cases, they see Angel as a way out, albeit one through magic and another through love. It doesn’t quite become poignant with the former, given that he is a bit too much of an evil cad for that, but the scenes with Angel struggling to escape identify the kind of life that drove him to this point, just as we could see in Angel’s previous scenes with Fred how she would logically be attracted to what is effectively her savior.

It had the potential to be a bit all over the map, but both Boreanaz (channeling the human equivalent of Angelus) and Acker (who broke my heart a number of times over) made it seem real even within the magical nature of it all. Probably my favorite of the three episodes, and likely a good launching point from a set of more standalone pieces into some more substantial fare in the discs ahead.

Cultural Observations

  • We didn’t get a whole lot of focus on her, but I like the idea of Lilah Morgan simultaneously protecting Angel from Gavin while trying to find her own way to take him down. There’s a desire for control there, which is why her decision to give up that control and make out with him on his desk that much more interesting. Curious to see where her character goes over the course of the season.
  • I would also expect that the focus on romance in “Carpe Noctem” also serves as a subtle nod towards Darla’s side story, which is likely on a collision course for Los Angeles in the episodes ahead.
  • Sometimes my notes are too vague, and when I go to write a week later I don’t know what I meant. So, it took me until writing this bullet point that the humorous line about lapel pins was about whether or not they were killing good guys or bad guys. I enjoyed that.
  • A fun appearance from Kal Penn, once again proving that Fezzes are both cool and useful for hiding enormous external brain capable of psychic torture.
  • Based on previous Buffy conversations, it seems like I might be best handling the next episode of Buffy on its own given its role in the season – want to try to have that ready to post for Monday while I’m traveling.
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12 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

12 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: The Disc Stands Alone (Angel)

  1. Glad to see you agree that “That Old Gang of Mine” isn’t a particularly strong episode. I know a lot of people really like it, but I thought it was overly preachy and just kind of pointless. Really like the other two episodes, though: “Carpe Noctem” is a very solid and underappreciated MOTW outing.

  2. morda898

    Interesting points rasied. Tim Minear has publicly (at least on the commentary to “Billy”) declared his hate of “That Old Gang of Mine” and, although I certainly don’t hate it, I can understand where he’s coming from. As Angel episodes go, it is weak. And, unfortunately, the weaker episodes of the show tend to go to Gunn which I think is a shame cause Richards is a realy solid actor. But you’re right. Gunn is “the muscle” and nothing more EXCEPT when the plot calls for it (which is rare indeed). If, once you’re done, you listen to any of the commentaries (which I recommend you do. Fanboy or not, Joss Whedon is a commentary king. BELIEVE ME!) you’ll learn how Joss and co. felt about Gunn and his role in the show. It’s quite interesting.

    I think it’s interesting the structural parallels between the seasons of Buffy and Angel. Both first seasons were interesting but didn’t feel fully formed. Both second seasons were much darker and more serialised than the first (Also Angel goes “evil/dark” in both) and in seasons three they both start off kind of weak but then power on to become one of each of their show’s strongest, most consistent seasons….And I won’t go into the rest.

    I love what you said about Lilah. She’s always been a favourite of mine for pure entertainment value but I’d never considered that thing about her want for control over Gavin by giving Angel the plans. That’s something I love about Angel. Villains and heroes are willing to barter in order to get what they want. In Angel’s case, it’s Cordy’s life/health, in Lilah’s it’s to consolidate her power at Wolfram & Hart by weakening her primary competition. There’s more depth there than I think most people consider.

    I’m not sure I agree with what you siad about Carpe Noctem. At least in terms of its quality. I really enjoy that episode. It’s funny and fun and interesting and I think Boreanaz gives a really solid performance – perhaps one of his bests.

    Understand this Myles, Amy Acker will break your heart a hundred times again before the show is done. There’s one episode in particular…I’m getting welled up just thinking about it. She is, second to Kaylee Frye, the most adorable thing on the planet. I love Fred.

    Anywho, glad you started up again…again.

  3. Myles, I think you’re absolutely spot-on to say that there isn’t much of a throughline here. These three episdoes are all right, I guess, but they’re pretty flat. Part of the problem is that the season’s arc doesn’t start until Darla gets to town, so these three sort of dabble in the general themes of the show (good and evil isn’t black-and-white, sometimes you have to do bad things for good reasons, do we kill demons or protect them, etc etc etc.).

    I would probably nominate TOGOM for worst episode of Angel ever. (Anyone want to suggest other contenders?) There was one good thing about watching it for the first time — when there was suddenly violence in Caritas I felt like I’d been physically punched in the stomach — the show had done that good a job of making me feel psychologically safe in that set. Aside from that, it’s an awful plot, with a terrible case of white-writers-can’t-write-black-dialogue-osis.

    I agree with Morda that CN is hilarious. I think it’s endlessly re-watchable, and Boreanaz cracks me up every time. “So I’m…. [looks at what he's wearing]…. Of course I am.”

    Fred is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

    • morda898

      “She” might beat it. Or maybe “Couplet”. The plot to that episodes is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. At least in the Whedonverse. Personally, I hate “The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco”. I keep trying to give it another chance, but every time I watch it I like it less and less. I don’t know why, I just do not like that episode. Although I love the title. But apart from them, TOGOM would probably win (or, I guess, lose). “Double or Nothing” isn’t that much better. Poor, poor Gunn.

      • Ah, yes, of course. “She” and “Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco.” I must have blocked them out of my memory for some reason :-)

        I have a soft spot for “Double or Nothing.”

        • greg

          I still believe that ‘Double Or Nothing’ is the worst episode Mutant Enemy ever produced. ‘Old Gang’ is practically OMWF by comparison.

        • diane

          Speaking of soft spots, I have one for Numero Cinco. It goes so far afield, and I love where it goes.
          Gang of Mine is an easy contender for worst of series, right behind “She”. It just feels like a bunch of white boys writing a gang war. There’s nothing that feels authentic, and nothing that would make me care. Except for Fred…. I do like that she stands up for herself.
          Lilah really steps out on her own now that Lindsey is gone. She’s turning into a player at W&H, and she’s so much fun to watch. No more on that topic for now, though.
          One thing I do appreciate about Joss’s shows is the way they can layer in back-story in these early-season stand-alones. Sometimes it’s a major arc, sometimes it’s a minor arc that plays out disconnectedly over a couple of seasons, and sometimes it’s just what you see and nothing more. At the time, you really don’t know. I don’t think anyone does that as well as Joss.

        • Sarah

          “Double or Nothing” is my all-time least favorite episode. There are probably (probably) objectively worse ones, but DoN is an exercise in how to drain your show of momentum while doing some of your worst, contradictory character development yet. “That Old Gang of Mine” is basically like, “so…this is what black people are like, right?” which is, admittedly, pretty lame, but it has its moments. “Double or Nothing” is a combination of that same racial ignorance with character ignorance on top of it. Ugh. Gangster’s Paradise. That is just so embarrassing for them.

  4. Lyvanna

    ‘Carpe Noctem’ is just an incredibly fun episode with, as you say, DB playing a version of Angelus. I particularly like the look on Gunn’s face when ‘Angel’ gives him a tip, ‘Angel’ assuming he’s gay because of his wardrobe and the talk then with Wesley and the look of pure joy on ‘Angel’s’ face when he punches the guy and realises he has powers… then runs away giggling. But it also has a lot of fun relationship aspects too with Lilah, Fred, Wes and Cordy and there is enough there to make sure it’s not just a simple throw-away.

    ‘That Old Gang Of Mine’…. well, I feel like this episode has potential, there are some good ideas there but overall it’s poorly executed. I know Tim Minear had a lot of problems with the way it was directed. Gunn does suffer with some pretty poor episodes and at this point I don’t feel like they know what to do with his character. At the end of S2 he chooses Angel Investigations over his old gang so the idea of showing fallout from that is a good one as is the idea of showing how much Gunn has changed from his year (and a bit) with AI. Also Fred singing ‘Crazy’? Genius. But the standoff in the bar and the bad blood between Gunn and various character doesn’t feel earned by what came before.

    I’m not sure I have much comment to make on ‘That Vision Thing’ for the moment. You’ve pretty much nailed all the good stuff about this episode, Lilah vs Gavin, Skip the demon and Angel giving in, slightly, to W & H. We also see, following on from last season’s finale, how important Cordy’s visions have become to her and how much they are something she needs.

  5. Karen

    I’m someone who doesn’t admire S3 as much as others. Yes there are some amazing character arcs and some outstanding episodes, but there are some things set in motion that I am not enthusiastic about, to say the least.

    As far as TVT, TOGOM, and CN – I agree Carpe Noctem is the strongest of the three. In addition to David Boreanaz playing Marcus-Angelus, I thought the actor (Rance Howard) did an equally fine job handling “Angel” so that we really transferred our sympathy to Angel’s dilemma trapped in that body.

  6. tjbw

    I would also expect that the focus on romance in “Carpe Noctem” also serves as a subtle nod towards Darla’s side story, which is likely on a collision course for Los Angeles in the episodes ahead.

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion at this time except that this made me laugh.

  7. I don’t have anything constructive to add. This string of episodes didn’t do much for me either. But I do have to tell you, Myles, that dropping the line “fezzes are cool” gave me a good giggle. You just don’t get to use that in conversation very often…

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