Two Steps Forward, Few Looks Back in “To Shanshu in L.A.”
July 11th, 2010
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I can’t resist the comparison, as both episodes find their respective series still searching for their identity while closing their first season, looking for a source of momentum. Don’t get me wrong, I like “To Shanshu in L.A.” just fine, but what felt so natural for Buffy (a final showdown with the season’s “Big Bad,” a first glimpse at the evil which sits underneath Sunnydale) feels comparatively contrived when it happens to Angel. While Wolfram & Hart have been built up all season, and there is some really successful subtle serialization in the episodes leading up to the finale, the finale leaves nothing to the imagination beyond the mysteries of “What Does the Prophecy Mean?” and “Who’s in the Box,” which really won’t matter until next season. The resolutions to these mysteries are exciting, and I very much like where the show is heading in terms of its plot, but the episode plants its thematic flag at base camp instead of trying for the summit.
If a great season finale wraps up the season’s storylines while looking forward to what happens next, “To Shanshu in L.A.” is only really successful with the latter, although that’s by design: the show is clearly not done with a majority of the elements introduced this season, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t feel like “Prophecy Girl.” Yes, I’d argue that the episode reflects some of the ways in which Angel lacks the momentum inherent to the conclusion of Buffy’s first season, but it’s yet another example of the show charting its own course, and even with some of my concerns about the way the episode is designed I’ve very excited by the world it has created and its potential moving forward.
I really sort of love the way that “War Zone” and “Blind Date” feed into the finale, with Charles Gunn and his group of vampire hunters and David Nabbit becoming recurring elements from the former and Lindsey’s dalliance with the side of good becoming a compelling subtext for the finale within the latter. Considering that we’re going to be following a much larger battle between Angel and Wolfram & Hart in the finale, it’s important that we meet Holland Manners, and that Lindsey’s position at Wolfram & Hart is given greater context; neither “War Zone” or “Blind Date” are that spectacular on their own, but the way they slowly build up a slightly larger world is a nice bit of momentum heading into the finale.
I just wish that it had started earlier, and that the Angel storyline within “To Shanshu in L.A.” would have felt reflective of this kind of development. There are signs in these episodes of Angel starting to lose his lust for life, as he gets frustrated upon the blind assassin being set free and realizes that he’s fighting on Wolfram & Hart’s turf. However, we haven’t really seen this developing over the season, and I felt like Angel’s deep depression seemed like it lacked any sort of motivation. The finale takes Angel to that dark place in order make his realization that Cordelia and Wesley are what he needs and wants, and that they are his reason for living, more substantial, but that feels extraordinarily cheap to me. You can claim that it’s subtlety, but the episode fails to make a connection with Angel’s funk and any of the things which have happened over the course of the season. It’s not as if there aren’t connections to be made: Doyle’s death, his relationship with Kate, his relationship with Buffy and his time with Faith were all pretty substantial events in Angel’s life, but none of them are raised in terms of capturing why Angel has nothing to “live” for.
Just as “Prophecy Girl” deals with Buffy dealing with a prophecy which foreshadows her death, the episode has Angel fighting against a prophecy of his own, although its meaning changes through the course of the episode. There’s meaning in the way which Angel sort of shrugs off the prophecy: while Buffy was a sixteen-year old girl who believed she had a life to live, Angel has lived long enough that he has seen prophecies come and go, and so it’s natural he would respond differently. However, I don’t feel as if his discovery that he cares for Wesley and Cordelia is really anything new, as we’ve seen him worry about Cordelia before (like in “Rm w/a Vu” amongst other episodes), and he clearly appreciates Wesley’s assistance (why, he was just talking about his appreciation for his research skills in “Blind Date”). I feel like Greenwalt’s scrip turns a reminder into a revelation, manipulating Angel’s character to more easily emphasize the themes that they want to end the season with. Yes, the tightness of this particular group is a key part of the season’s accomplishment, but the way that connection manifests itself here feels at odds with the organic way in which it developed over the course of the back half of the season. I didn’t feel like we needed to be told many of the things which the episode tries to tell us, and I feel like time would have been better spent in other arenas.
In particular, I think that more needed to be done with Vocah, the underworld warrior who does a whole lot of damage in the episode. I understand that we don’t understand much about the evil forces at work in the series, and that the whole point of Wolfram & Hart is that they supervise rather than actually act out evil deeds, but it seemed strange for this new character with unclear motivations to be doing all of this damage. I like what of the prophecy is revealed within the episode, and I appreciate the idea that Angel is sort of at the mercy of those with a better understanding of the text, but I think the episode would have been stronger if we had a better sense of who Vocah was, even in terms of giving him a personality beyond a Phantom of the Opera mask and a deep voice. In the end, the episode is really only interested in his destructive capacities, his ability to kill the Oracles, and blow up Wesley, and all of those other nefarious activities; it’s a functional character, but it’s not a memorable one, and while Wolfram & Hart may be the key attraction here I do think that the episode suffered as a result of the character’s linear thinking.
The linearity of the finale is sort of a problem for me, as I think the season was decidedly non-linear – starting with Doyle’s death, the show was purposefully designed to disorient the viewer and resist traditional narrative development, and the season’s mashup of numerous different episode styles spoke to the ways in which the show was not on a clear path towards a particular target. “To Shanshu in L.A.” is obviously designed to change this particular fact, setting up a clear villain (in Darla), and also establishing some key underlying serialized elements which have less to do with residual serialization from Buffy and more to do with the series moving forward. In some ways this episode functions in a similar fashion to Buffy’s fourth season, bridging the gap between two different parts of the characters’ lives, but what Buffy had 22 episodes to accomplish Angel really only has one (or three if you count the final disc as a series of connected episodes, which I’d be open to).
And it shows in the way the episode rushes certain developments: in that final sequence, Cordelia seems as if she’s been suddenly changed by experiencing the pain of all of those seeking help rather than simply those who the Powers that Be enable her to see, but her change hasn’t been sudden at all. Throughout the season she has become more and more connected with Angel’s mission and Angel as a character, so this notion of a “new” Cordelia having appeared overnight is more than a bit strange for me. I understand that she hasn’t actually changed (as we see when she goes from helpful sandwich maker to her usual stream of consciousness-driven self), but even the idea that “everything has changed” with this episode is too apparent within the script itself. I get that this is the transition point between the first and second seasons, but the ways in which this happens naturally (like seeing Wolfram & Hart become more fully-formed) is far more successful than the more pained efforts to create a moment of revelation for Angel and the central group. Whereas “Prophecy Girl” felt like Buffy facing an all-important final test which in the process brought everyone closer together amidst a complicated situation, this finale feels very clearly designed to introduce these elements, and there’s a baldness to its storytelling which keeps me from really engaging with the ideas at hand.
There are plenty of ideas here: the idea that life and death can mean the same thing, for example, or that the very thing which created Angel may be the one thing which could destroy him, or the big idea that Angel could some day become human and truly experience life if he survives through a litany of terrors. However, for the most part, the episode doesn’t actually do anything with them: it certainly makes a compelling case for the fact that Angel needs his friends, and it certainly creates a compelling scenario heading into the second season, but it doesn’t really do anything in and of itself to demonstrate that sort of potential. It relies on the season’s collective impact without really doing any work to bother bringing all of that together, which you could argue demonstrates a subtle touch but which I’d tend to think is just too subtle to be substantial on its own accord.
It’s an important episode for the series, I reckon, but it is not itself a great piece of television, which is perhaps fitting considering that describes the season as a whole: it’s all very important in forming the series’ identity, but nothing here captures the whole of the series’ potential. While I find “To Shanshu in L.A.” to be flawed in a number of ways, it never proclaims itself to be great: rather, it sits as the promise of greatness, an unabashed nod to the future to convince viewers (and perhaps the network) that we want to see how this show evolves in its second season (and beyond, considering how many trials Angel must face to regain his humanity).
And while I’d like to have seen a slightly more sophisticated narrative to demonstrate how that second season might operate, consider me a believer in that which Greenwalt has foretold.
- Okay, I was really convinced that David Nabbit’s extraordinarily large cheque was going to end up in the hands of the teenagers by episode’s end as Angel’s way of helping them feed their people and survive in their battle against the Vampires. The scene didn’t really make that much sense otherwise, so I presumed it was one of those bits of foreshadowing, but apparently I was wrong!
- Still not sure what the show is really doing with Kate: it makes sense that she would pop up here, but the scene was a bit too much “Hey, remember when my father died,” which seems to ignore what went down in “Sanctuary.”
- Neat little crossover with Willow on the phone helping Cordelia unlock the files in “Blind Date” (a phone call which seems to take place during the opening scenes of “Primeval”), although it’s a bit strange that Angel’s visit to Sunnydale in “The Yoko Factor” goes completely unmentioned. I get that they want the two storylines to remain separate, but I felt Angel’s visit was sort of pointless, and was kind of hoping for his return to shed some light on it.
- Figure this is as good a place as any to point out how darn good Sam Anderson is as Holland – I only really know his work from Lost, but seeing Bernard in this kind of role was a really interesting bit of casting shock, and I thought he nicely toed the line between evil and authoritative that the role requires. The scenes in Wolfram & Hart in “Blind Date” were particularly successful at establishing what kind of working environment it is, and I’m looking forward to seeing more in the future.
- A good cheesy line is always welcome, so “don’t always believe what you’re foretold” after Angel uses the axe to cut off Lindsey’s hand is sort of wonderful.