The Function of Mystery and the Mystery of Function
July 24rd, 2010
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The second season of Angel isn’t really that different from the first.
Certainly, the show is introducing new elements (The Host and his Karaoke Bar), new characters (bringing Gunn further into the fold), and new villains (the newly resurrected Darla). However, the way each episode is structured is more or less the same as it was before, so the show hasn’t gone through some sort of radical invention or anything – in fact, the premiere was very much designed to ground the series in Angel’s day-to-day investigations rather than the overarching prophecy.
However, the following episodes of the second season indicate where the differences between the two seasons lie. The first season, as a result of the character swap with Doyle and Wesley at the mid-way point, was always building an aesthetic foundation or building a character foundation, rarely feeling as if they were taking things to that next level. The episodes which start Season Two are not that fundamentally different than those which came before, but there is (to varying degrees) a mystery and an uncertainty about their function: while there are still Wesley episodes and Gunn episodes which aspire to clear patterns, there is that added level of complexity both with the overt serialized arc as well as the sense of possibility which comes with it.
It doesn’t truly change the show, but it ratchets things up a notch in a subtle and effective fashion.
We can boil down most of these episodes into their basic function, in some level: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” introduces Angel Investigations’ new base of operations, “First Impressions” gives Gunn another origin episode for his re-introduction, “Untouched” offers another chapter in the Angel vs. Wolfram & Hart battle, while “Guise will be Guise” works to further reconcile Wesley’s bumbling personality with his current role battling demons with Angel. The show isn’t abandoning these pretty traditional episode structures, so it’s still possible to separate out each episode into what role it plays in setting up the rest of the season.
However, in some cases the functions of these episodes aren’t entirely clear when they begin, and it is never quite certain what direction they will go in. “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” purposefully keeps us in the dark about its motives, just as Angel keeps Wesley and Cordelia in the dark, and it contributes to the dream-like qualities of the episode (which are nicely balanced with the historical connection with the McCarthy witch hunts, which has the other guests in a particularly paranoid state). There was a poetry to the way the story unfolded, and while the massive standing set was a dead give-away that this would be the new base of operations it was still interesting to see how they would get to that point, and to watch Angel’s relationship with the building unfold. There’s a pretty substantial gap to be found between Angel being cursed and Whistler giving a washed up Angel a new direction in life, and filling in that gap was a good way to start the season and provide Angel with his own history as opposed to using his time on Buffy as his most substantial motivating factor.
“First Impressions” and “Guise will be Guise” are unquestionably Gunn and Wesley episodes, respectively, but the former manages to be a Cordelia episode at the same time, working her new motivation for her work into her desire to help Gunn. Shawn Ryan did what he could to make Gunn’s situation realistically gritty, but I care less about Gunn and his plight and more about how his relationship with Cordelia adds an interesting element to things. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what sorts of problems that Gunn faces in his neighbourhood, but rather what he faces within himself: as Cordelia notes, he’s fighting himself more than he’s fighting anyone else, refusing to stop raging against his surroundings because of what happened to his sister (his original back story) and what nearly happens to the young woman in this episode. Cordelia is more self-aware this season, and the attention she pays to Gunn makes for a strong pairing of personalities which clash on one level but ultimately complement one another.
As for “Guise will be Guise,” Jane Espenson does a nice job of having fun with Wesley while simultaneously demonstrating the ways in which he is more than a bumbling fool: there’s plenty of wonderful slapstick with Wesley realizing he wasn’t invited in, or realizing there’s a mirror, or realizing his hand is on a cross, but there’s also enough legitimate heroic behaviour that we realize Wesley will never be Angel but nonetheless represents someone who can help someone in trouble, in this case also grabbing himself a love interest at the same time. The episode is smart in that way, managing to take what seemed like a standalone Angel digression (his trip to the Swami) and working it back into Wesley’s storyline to bring everyone together at the end with Wesley’s role still central to the episode even with Angel back in the fold. Throw in some comedy about the coat and some solid bit of “Yoda Crap” to look at Angel’s current state of mind, and you’ve got a satisfying hour of television.
And yet, I think “Untouched” and “Dear Boy,” the one episode that has an unquestionably serial function, are the two episodes which really stand out here. “Untouched” doesn’t necessarily tie into any past storylines beyond the presence of Lilah Morgan and an emphasis on Wolfram & Hart, but I love the idea of a tug of war between Angel (who seeks to help people with powers control their abilities) and the firm (which seeks to turn people with powers into assassins and use them for evil) for the young girl. It’s an extension of the trend in S1 where Angel and Wolfam & Hart rarely fight directly, and it’s a nice bit of extension of those earlier struggles into a different realm. Seeing Wolfram & Hart in action at times feels a bit too evil, but learning that Lilah speaks in high schools to try to recruit these kids, and that she brings them into her trust and then places them in danger to force their powers to emerge, is a really intriguing bit of development into how the firm operates. Much as we got to see more of Lindsey in “Blind Date,” this episode really sheds some light in Lilah, and continues to develop Wolfram & Hart into a much more intriguing, and proactive, entity than the pilot would have suggested.
“Dear Boy,” though, is obviously the most important piece of the puzzle, bringing to a head the ongoing drama surrounding Darla. There were few signs in “Judgment” about what role Darla would play in the subsequent episodes, but immediately we see that her plan is as nefarious as one might expect: she haunts his dreams, trying to awake the demon within and turn Angel from a heroic foe to a horrific friend to Wolfram & Hart. The show is very smart to have this play only a minor role in the episodes leading up to “Dear Boy,” incapacitating Angel only in that he tends to sleep in late, and doesn’t have the same power he used to. Sure, it’s a bit awkward for the show to be filling in backstory which was already briefly touched upon in”Becoming,” but the images of Angel and Darla stalking Drusilla are key to realizing the complexity of their relationship. While the bond between a vampire and their sire can be defined by ownership, it’s clear from those scenes that Angel followed his own path in attacking Drusilla as he did, and so any expectations that he would be completely disarmed by Darla’s arrival is pushed to the side once he realizes what has happened and confronts her directly.
That confrontation is a wonderful piece of work, managing to capture the sexual energy between them while still speaking to the psychological complexity of their relationship. While Angel’s demon side (his impulses and desires) are unquestionably awakened when around Darla, the way he turns the tables on Darla is by reminding her that she is connecting with a side of her personality which no longer has a demon side to connect with: she is now human, a fact which we hadn’t learned until this episode, and which “changes everything.” While Angel is a demon with a soul, Darla is a human who acts as if she doesn’t have one, and Angel knows the pain she is going to feel when the memories of her past begin to come into conflict with that soul, and when any efforts to become the vampire she once was run into some serious problems. Darla has been given that which Angel most desires, and rather than attacking Darla physically Angel wakes her up to her psychological reality. It complete turns the season on its head, taking Darla from a potential Big Bad to another wayward soul who is trapped between Angel (who might be willing to help her) and Wolfram & Hart (who wants to use her for their own bidding).
It’s the sort of moment which makes you entirely reconsider Darla’s behaviour earlier in the season: was she communicating through dreams less because it’s more effective and more because she wanted to be able to (like Angel) experience how she used to be and how she won’t be again unless she willfully turns over her soul to become a vampire? She was brought back for the sole purpose of getting into Angel’s head, but when she starts to analyze herself will she not want more from this second chance at life? Will she not, like Angel, want to do something more than petty vengeance, connecting with people or with herself on a level she was never able to in the past? There’s a lot to like about how Darla’s reality sets up for the season to follow, and it’s something that Greenwalt and Whedon spend some time developing: we’re six episodes into the season, and rather than providing more clarity as to the season’s direction the show has taken what seemed like the start of a “Big Bad” story arc and turned it into something less concerned with function and more concerned with key themes that will likely be with the series for the entirety of its run.
We’ll see where things go from here, but the series continues to successfully blend its basic procedural elements with an expansion of its serialized storylines, and the subtle fashion in which it’s being done is at the moment sitting in the sweet spot.
- What exactly happened to the money which Angel found in the basement of the hotel? My presumption was that he was going to use the money in order to purchase the hotel, but we never saw that confirmation. I’ll look past the logical issues of why the woman was able to stay in the hotel all that time due to the supernatural “feeding off her” explanation, but I can’t help but follow the money – Lester Freamon would be mad if I didn’t.
- I hope that Gunn dropped his girlfriend of sorts off at Sacred Heart during the early days of Scrubs, and not the mid-series wacky years.
- Enjoying the continued presence of The Host, and the karaoke bar in general: it’s a smart little way to bring people together, and adds a distinct element of fun which Buffy never quite offered.
- Just as I was thinking “We haven’t seen Kate in a while,” she pops up in “Dear Boy.” Can’t say I really missed her: not sure how, precisely, a cop so marginalized gets access to a SWAT team to do an unwarranted search, and her crusade against Angel continues to operate based on paranoia rather than evidence, which makes her out to be a pretty terrible cop on top of being a marginalized one.
- Speaking of, just a couple of mentions of Buffy in the episode, with Cordelia presuming Angel was losing sleep over her and then the fake Swami inadvertantly prescribing Buffy as a way to get over Darla – not bad to get a few reminders in there, but allowing Angel to stand on his own is nice as well.
- Hadn’t put together that I’d be getting a dose of Shawn Ryan after all – The Shield, for those who haven’t gone back to the beginning, was one of the other options for the Cultural Catchup Project, so it’s nice to see some of Ryan’s earlier work as well. I do plan on getting to The Shield at some point, but it will likely have to wait until next summer.