Cultural Catchup Project: Moving On while Moving Apart (Angel)

Moving On while Moving Apart

August 20th, 2010

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.

When a series makes a pretty substantial change to its basic structure, we usually respond in one of two ways: either we fret over how the series will handle that change, or we shrug our shoulders and presume that things will be back to normal eventually. This is not to say that we don’t enjoy this change, but as someone who is averse to change as a general rule it makes me anxious when I see a favourite series taking a glimpse over the edge as if it plans on jumping, even if that jump ends up being a spectacular sight.

However, I honestly didn’t flinch when Angel fired his staff at the end of “Reunion.” This isn’t because I am not enjoying the series, or that I am not engaged with its characters, but rather because the series is naturally suited to these sorts of changes. Admittedly, I knew in advance that reinvention was one of the series’ strong suits, but I didn’t expect for those reinventions to feel so purposeful: when Angel fires his staff, it feels like a logical progression of his character, and the crisis it creates doesn’t feel like an effort to shake things up for the sake of ratings. Indeed, instead of feeling shocking, the range of episodes from “Blood Money” to “Reprise” feel decidedly normal, a statement that even a substantial shift in the character dynamics of the series needn’t disrupt its basic themes or structures.

They aren’t the strongest episodes of the series, but they serve an important role: while they make the argument that Angel and his former employees will not remain apart forever, they also demonstrate how their separation only broadens the series’ potential, continuing a strong second season.

It’s been a while since I watched these episodes (it was before I left for Wisconsin, which seems like it was a month ago at this point), but I remember remarking that the balance between Angel’s soul searching and the identity crisis created for the former employees of Angel Investigations was really well handled. The series becomes far more Angel-centric during this stretch, so it makes sense that we would see less of the supporting characters than we had in the past. However, this lesser profile works nicely to capture their lack of business without a vampire with a soul as their employer, and so their stasis logically places them on the periphery of the series’ central narrative, or at least its current central narrative.

Angel is a series about people who are lost, which is why it feels so natural for Cordelia and Wesley (and, to a lesser extent, Gunn) to remain part of the narrative even when disconnected from their employer. They each aligned with Angel because they were struggling to find their identity, and just as it seemed as if they had found it they were put out onto the streets. What they learn in these episodes is that their desire to help people is not forever tied to Angel, which only heightens Angel’s identity crisis as he too struggles to find his purpose. It’s a really complex web of interactions that is mostly done indirectly: they share only a handful of scenes in the episodes (in the hospital in “The Thin Dead Line,” most memorably), but those scenes serve to capture the kind of struggles which they all face when trying to go about their daily lives. While the show might be most interested in the deep psychic wound Angel is suffering in the wake of Darla’s reappearance, the ripple effects of his own crisis all fit within the series’ general themes, which means that Cordelia and Wesley remaining on the periphery does not mean their small-scale struggle is unrelated to the central issues at hand.

I think “Happy Anniversary” is the best episode in this set, as I’ll get to in a moment, but “The Thin Dead Line” is the most important: here, the two groups literally collide when Angel teams with Kate to investigate the same Zombie Policemen who Anne hired the new Angel Investigations to look into, and what I love is the sense that if the two roles had been reversed the unfortunate result could have been avoided. If Angel, and not Wesley, had been shot, it would have been just another day at the office, and it’s possible that Wesley, not nearly as self-destructive as Angel, might have been able to keep the equally self-destructive Kate from getting herself into quite so much hot water. If Wesley hadn’t been shot, perhaps Virginia wouldn’t have broken up with him, and if Angel hadn’t involved Kate in his own side investigation (mostly out of a desire to feel connected to someone, as opposed to really needing her help), perhaps she wouldn’t have ended “Reprise” in a very, very bad state. The episode makes a pretty compelling argument for why this group of people are better off together than apart, and yet the consequences of learning that lesson only deepen their division.

There is something soul-crushing about the conclusion to “Reprise,” in which Angel discovers that he truly is Earth’s last defence against evil considering that Wolfram & Hart’s “home office” is his own reality. During a lighter period during the series’ first season, Angel might have been pleased with this: he can handle your every day demons and your occasional bit of legal trickery, so if this is the worst that evil has to offer then it’s just business, and business is good. However, this is not a lighter period, and all that revelation does is drive Angel further into his depression, seeking out Darla in order to feel something with someone; with his friends gone, and with the world around him revealed to be something worse than he imagined, he goes to Darla because they share a connection which transcends the uncertainty of the world around him. It’s why Kate calls Angel as she mixes medicine and “medicine,” thinking that he would be the one person who could relate to her isolation, and it’s why it is so tragic that Virginia leaves Wesley during his time of need; she was only trying to keep herself from coming to rely on her connection to Wesley and then losing him to the dangerous nature of his work, which is how people who fight demons for a living come to be lonely and isolated from the world around them.

What I love about “Happy Anniversary” is that it is, at its heart, a human story: while there exists a demonic threat, and the intense focus on Angel and The Host’s buddy cop routine makes it a demon-centric hour, its action is driven by a solitary physicist who tries to hold onto the one human connection which he relies on to remain grounded in reality. The episode is my favourite of this stretch mainly for the comic genius of Andy Hallett as The Host, and his character’s dynamic with Angel, but the central story really taps into the theme of these episodes without being too overt about it. Rather than having Gene’s loneliness and his desire for connection be the sole, somewhat anvil-like trigger for Angel to reflect on how much he misses the camaraderie, Greenwalt and Whedon create a rapport between Angel and The Host which actually shows how such a connection develops. When you get to the end of the episode, Angel doesn’t just remark out of nowhere that he feels bad about what he did to his friends: instead, the Host points out that everything which happened in the episode demonstrates the importance of the connection he has now lost, and it feels more meaningful for both the character and the series as a whole.

The theme of “Happy Anniversary” is the idea that sometimes you need to move on: Angel takes a case with no connection with Wolfram & Hart and discovers how satisfying it can be to stop the world from ending with someone at your side, while Wesley revels in tackling a case without the hiccups of the fire-breathing dragon-like monster slaying in “Blood Money.” It’s the same satisfaction that you feel from the series: in accepting the division of these two groups, there’s never a moment of panic or uncertainty, and instead it feels like they let the cards fall as they would. By committing to their decision, and using it to investigate themes central to the entire series but especially important at this point in time, the writers successfully turn a potentially divisive division into yet another evolution of the series’ central premise.

Cultural Observations

  • I know I just watched “Anne” pretty recently, but it still took me a few minutes to realize it was Julia Lee reprising her role – I really love the idea of picking up this character, as it’s a nice easter egg for Buffy fans to learn that the Slayer’s support helped this former vampire-obsessive teenager transform herself from homeless youth to protector of homeless youth. Sure, the depiction of homeless youth wasn’t too much better than the series’ depiction of Gunn’s acquaintances, but it’s a strong angle for the series, so thumbs up all around for her appearances in both “Blood Money” and “The Thin Dead Line.”
  • Enjoying the slow build on the Wolfram & Hart side of things: Lindsey and Lilah remain periphery characters, but when we see more of them (like in “Blood Money” and “Reprise”), it feels like a natural world for the series to be entering. The series tends to operate in different spheres, and I’d argue Wolfram & Hart is the most interesting not because of prophecy but because of Lindsey and Lilah’s ambiguous motivations and their position as villains we can relate with.
  • Elisabeth Rohm has done some fine enough work as Kate, but the real problem is that her arc just isn’t strong enough to sustain the kind of depth we get from that story: the moment when she worries that her father may have been resurrected from the dead is supposed to be shocking and horrifying, but it seemed expositional instead, a reminder about her father’s death so that its importance in her firing in “Reprise” would be established. The story just never felt natural, and while I think it was well handled in this stretch of episodes it definitely could have been better integrated as a whole.
  • It’s a weird comparison, but I sort of view this period as similar to when House’s interns quit/were fired and the show kept going with those interns as part of the main cast. Mind you, that split never really made sense, as they couldn’t find a purpose for the old interns after a few weeks and turned them into bit players, but it created similar issues initially.
  • I’ve yet to watch anything beyond “Reprise,” so however its cliffhangers resolve don’t tell me. I’ll find out when I get a chance to pick up on the series over the weekend – in the immediate future, my plan is to return to Buffy, where I didn’t get past “The Body.”
  • As many of you have noticed, I’ve set up a Formspring account and answered many Buffy and Angel related questions – feel free to leave some more after perusing the answers already present.
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41 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

41 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Moving On while Moving Apart (Angel)

  1. Jason

    I needed some cultural catchup! Thanks! Also, watch the next Angel before the next Buffy…

    • Christopher

      Yes, I agree. I think “Epiphany” should be seen before “Forever.”

      “Epiphany” aired the same night as “The Body”

      • Tausif Khan

        Epiphany is my favorite episode of Angel. My favorite serious Angel moment is when we see him in his gothic living quarters on Buffy reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.

  2. Great review, I’ve missed the Cultural Catchup Project. And yes, Epiphany is great. It has one of my favorite quotes of all time.

    • Susan

      And does the Host say that quote? Because he says a *big* fave of mine. 🙂

      • TheDMG

        My guess would be the big Angel speech near the end. I know I made a poster out of it, myself 🙂

        • Morda

          *****SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER*****

          Is the quote;

          “Meh, kill her. Give her cab fare. Whatever.” – The Host

          That line has yet to fail in making me burst out laughing, uncontrollably at that.

  3. diane

    Hi Myles! Welcome back! Glad to see you’re settling in and able to get back to your life. I deeply hate moving, and I don’t ever want to do it again.

    I was very surprised to see that this review didn’t include “Epiphany.” It really is Part Two of “Reprise”, and I suspect your review would be very different if you’d included it.

    For me, Happy Anniversary is the weakest episode of season two. Yes, Andy Hallett was a comic genius. but the main character (what’s his name, again?) is so weak that I simply can’t build up any sympathy for him. I can’t say much for his girlfriend, either. “Romantic breakup leads to the end of the world” just seems overwrought.

    “The Thin Dead Line” is an outstanding episode on so many levels, with the exception of the sociopath street thug, who never got beyond one-dimensional. In a series where so many side characters have real depth, he stands out, and not in a good way. But Angel and Kate work as well here as anywhere in the series, and Wesley’s shooting forms a bond with Gunn and Cordy that completely excludes Angel.

    I think that perhaps the elevator ride to the Home Office is my favorite moment in the series. Dead Holland Manners very politely slices Angel into mincemeat. That’s amazing writing, along with amazing delivery. Holland Manners was my first encounter with Sam Anderson, and after this episode I really can’t separate the character from the actor, any time I see him.

  4. Karen

    I’ve missed the Cultural Catchup Project, Myles! I hate when real life intrudes on the Buffyverse. lol And I wholeheartedly second diane’s hatred of moving….

    What I especially appreciate in the review of this run of the series is your recognition of the nuances in the relationships connected to Angel. Somehow, AI isn’t the Scoobie gang. Angel and *the fang gang* are indeed lost souls, better together than separate, but lost even then….

    *********Just in case this is spoilery***********

    Though I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the idea of alone-together continues to play out over the course of the entire series.

    I meant to drop this link here as an excellent Angel site, with an outstanding episode guide for those who aren’t rewatching at the moment but want to brush up…

    http://www.cityofangel.com/episodes/index.html

  5. skittledog

    Yay! New Cultural Catchup makes me happy. 🙂

    I don’t really like Happy Anniversary, though maybe I should give it another try sometime. I do enjoy Angel teaming up with the Host, but the science is er… very silly, and as an episode story it did come across a bit too much Here Is The Metaphor to me. It’s a nice observation though that Angel actually builds a connection through the episode, moving in counterpoint to the metaphor. Or… something. I may have flu, I take no responsibility for my sentences today.

    I like Kate, but I do wish she could have been a little more integrated. They never found enough organic ways for her to pop up, so she inevitably ended up feeling a bit dragged around by plot devices.

    I like how naturally the group splinters apart once a wedge starts being driven in and nobody really fights to pull it back together. Is Cordelia wrong to send Angel away from the hospital? I’m not sure, but she’s probably the least forgiving of the group in that way (at this point anyway).

    And as to letting the cards fall as they will… well. Yes. There is an occasional time or two on Angel when things are done which just clearly should not have happened and were forced in to meet some external problem, but generally speaking this is how the show works. Things change, the characters change, and the show changes with them. And you never quite get back to the status quo even though you sometimes think you have.

    I’d also say watch Epiphany before the next Buffy episode, not because Epiphany is *that good* (though I definitely have a soft spot for it) but because there is a little thing in the next Buffy episode which will give you a big hint on how the cliffhangers resolved. So if you’re serious about avoiding that level of spoiler and watching the fall-out for yourself, watch Epiphany first. Then feel free to stop and mainline Buffy. 😉

    • Good overall analysis, Myles, but I agree with skittledog on the specifics here. Not a big fan of “Happy Anniversary” (just too silly and a bit blunt for me). I think “Reprise” is the defining episode of this set, personally, and maybe even the best of the season. Holland Manners in the elevator is one of those series-wide defining moments and, consequently, high points. The speech is chilling, true, and incredibly well-acted.

      “The Thin Dead Line” has some nice material in it, but there’s also some truly cringe-worthy dialogue that comes out of the homeless shelter.

      I do love Anne’s return though. It’s such a nice touch that spans two series and makes the episode “Anne” just a little bit more powerful in retrospect.

      I also agree with the watch-“Epiphany”-before-continuing-on-with-Buffy bandwagon. Things will play more smoothly if you do.

      Myles, a general heads up: the last four episodes of both Buffy and Angel this season are pretty much 4-part finales, so it’s probably best to watch all of them in a group before jumping back to the other show. I’d recommend watching and writing through the Buffy finale before jumping over to Angel (once you hit 5×19, that is).

      Onward! 🙂

      • skittledog

        but I agree with skittledog on the specifics here.

        Ooh, I like reading things like that. 😉

        I forgot to say anything about Reprise – yes, it would be the best of this set for me. Together with Epiphany, you could make an argument that it’s the high point of the season, although I’m reluctant to declare that in a season with many good areas. I would probably call them the crux of the season; between those two, you probably have everything the season has been or will be about. (Ish. Not literally, of course, but in mood and theme terms.)

        And the scene in the lift is an excellent scene. It could so easily have been cheesy, or expositional, or just too bizarre to really take in its message, but it manages to transcend all of those things and just be awesome. I love how it takes a high-fantasy version of Angel (demons, rings, dimensions) and dump him back on the street with the little humans and their problems. And somehow make that the worse option. Brilliant.

  6. Anna

    Welcome back, I missed this!

    I’ll probably comment on the review later, but I was wondering if you have changed your mind about the flash edits between scenes? Do they still annoy you or have you gotten used to them?

    • skittledog

      I’d be interested in this too. I think I stopped noticing them after about half a season – yet when I go back to rewatch now, they still give me a bit of a surprise each time. It’s odd.

  7. Susan

    Let me echo everyone’s welcome back–you have been missed!

    Reprise is among the best Angel episodes, imo, and you need to get to Epiphany asap–yes, before you move on with Buffy. At least that one episode. I don’t want to say too much about Reprise until I can talk about Epiphany as well.

    I like a lot about Happy Anniversary–mainly all the Angel/Host “buddy movie” stuff–but the focus is too unsubtle and uninteresting overall. Not a bad ep, necessarily, just not a favorite.

    Good luck with the PhD program. I hope you can carve out some time for CCP–and I hope you think of that time as R&R!

  8. Morda

    Yeah, I would watch “Epiphany” before you get onto “Forever” Myles. There’s a particular scene(s) in the Buffy episode that will flow better if you’ve seen Epiphany first.

    Great review, as always. Echoing a few people above, Happy Anniversary is certainly not a high point of the series for me. The science is inprobable, the demons are undeveloped (to an extreme), and it’s pretty blunt about its message. Of course The Host and Angel off on a whirlwind adventure creates potato sacks of fun without even trying so that’s always good.

    Reprise is DEFINITELY the high point of the season for me (And comes close to being the highpoint of the series for me if it weren’t for pretty much everything that happens in the last half of season five…If you know what I mean **cry face**). And, ironically, it’s a high point cause it’s such a low point. It’s pretty much as pessimistic as the series (And Joss, in general) ever got. Hell is Earth. Earth is Hell. Wolfram & Hart can’t be fought or beaten or destroyed because they are just evil incarnate and evil exists everywhere; in every man, woman and child. It’s bleak as hell and that convo in the elevator is f***ing incredible. Anderson was never as good as he was there.

    I also agree that “The Thin Dead Line” is brilliant but that the “street kids” are so badly done. They should have got David Simon in for that episode and had him write it. 😛

    Also, ever since Wes, Cordy and Gunn sang “We are the Champions” in Caritas I fell in love with their group and kinda didn’t want it to end. SCREW ANGEL!!! Nah, I’m kidding (Although he is far, far, far from being my favourite character).

    Anyway, unless you’ve already seen “Forever” Myles I would recommend getting “Epiphany” done first. It’s nothing too big but events that transpire in both click better if watched in the aired order.

    • mothergunn

      Yeah, screw Angel. He’s not my favorite, either. Sometimes I really feel like everyone that knows him would be better off without him, but then they wouldn’t have each other, either.

      Tho, perhaps they’d be better off that way, too.

      • Susan

        *pouts*

        Poor Angel. He gets such a bad rap. He’s trying, really. Usually, anyway.

        • Anna

          I don’t understand the hate Angel gets. Seriously, he’s saved all their lives more than once (most recently Wesley in The Thin Dead Line), he’s given them shelter, food, money, support (okay, not *now*), and he’s forgiven them for some awful stuff they have done, sometimes even if they don’t even bother to apologize.

          Without Angel, most of the characters would be death. I mean, I hate Wesley, that doesn’t mean that I dont get that he’s useful and the team needs him. Only one who might be better off without Angel would be the Host, and possibly C****, but that was mostly the circumstances. All the others made their own choices and mistakes independent of Angel and blaming him for how the other characters end up is stupid.

          • Anna

            *would be dead* is what I meant.

          • Karen

            Hate Wesley??? :O

            I get what you mean tho.

          • Anna

            Yeah, I mean, he’s a great character with a great arc, and Alexis did a great job, but I just find him unsympathetic starting with 3.14 . Before that I’m indifferent to him but after that I hate him. I used to love him, but I just can’t anymore.

          • mothergunn

            Anna, I think you feel the same way about Wes that I do about Angel. I appreciate him (Angel) as well developed, complex character, I just don’t care for him on a personal level. Like, if I knew him in real life, I’d want him to stop talking to me and go away.

            Also, I really want to defend Wes, but now’s really not the time. I expect we’ll all have a raging debate about him and the… um, circumstances when the time comes.

          • Anna

            Mothergunn, we most likely will. But best to wait until Myles gets there.

  9. mothergunn

    I’m glad you took note of Wesley’s shooting; not only is it important in that it bonds him to the group without Angel, but it’s also grossly important to his personal arc. Oddly, I always sort of forget that it happens (probably because the episode itself isn’t a huge main-plot contributor) but then whenever I re-watch and get to that scene I’m like, “Oh, Jesus!” Super good stuff.

    • Chrystal

      Wow, now that you mention it, I completely forgot he got shot too.. and I’m two episodes from finishing the entire series (How depressed am *I*??). I’m already anticipating when I ask for the complete Angel and Buffy dvds for Christmas and start watching them again. lol

      WELL I’m off to watch the last two!

      Oh and I agree with the rest on watching Epiphany first if you haven’t already started back into Buffy. It’d just be weird otherwise.

  10. greg

    I’ve tried to like ‘Happy Anniversary’, lord knows, but I just can’t. Nothing about it makes even a lick of sense. Clearly Mr. Whedon spent far more time studying cultural theory and literature than basic science.

    What was his long-term plan, anyway? He freezes the two of them in his apartment, and what was going to happen when they were reported missing? Wouldn’t anyone (like, say; the landlord when the rent was due) come looking for them? What if there was a power outage or a fuse blew or there was a brown-out or something? Relying on the power grid to keep them in statis permanently doesn’t make it seem like he’s clearly thought this through. And what was the demons’ plan? Once the field was expanded, wouldn’t it shut the power off as soon as it hit the source? Heck, even as soon as the bubble expanded to hit the electrical cord the whole thing should have shut down.

    But it was nice seeing Angel and the Host playing mismatched buddy-cop partners.

    Seriously, though; you’re in the middle of a bunch of episodes (both on ‘Angel’ and ‘Buffy’) were it’s REALLY difficult to talk about what’s happening thematically without putting it in the context of the entire season. So avoiding spoilers just makes everyone all avoidy. It’s a thing.

  11. Bob Kat

    “Wilkommen” back; I didn’t know about the move so I “vas vorried.”

    The part that drives me to distraction is that the corrupt precinct captain in “Thin Dead Line” not only suffers no real direct retirbution for his mruderous ways but actually is able to get the system to come down on Kate. I just have no patience for what I call “JREwingism.” Yes, I admit evil people are in power but I think they usually get and stay there by being more subtle. Overt villains need to get shot; Lilahs and Lindseys are more believeable as long-termers.

    I don’t see the “Epiphany-Forever” connection myself.

    Great to see Andy devleoping as a comedic actor as well as a singer; by s-4 you’ll be seeing his heavy drama skills as well. Ye gods and little fishes, what a loss.

    • Anna

      The crossover factor. The difference between the character in Reprise and Forever makes no sense if Epiphany is skipped. Although I don’t think it works anyway, but that’s just me.

      • skittledog

        Yeah, it really doesn’t; it’s a lot like 4×22 and 7×22 that way, to my mind. There’s a point where the Buffy writers just stopped caring about what was happening on Angel, and it shows sometimes. Ah well.

      • *GENERIC SPOILERS*
        I completely disagree. I think that moment in “Forever” is quite wonderful and fits in very nicely. I felt it was much, much more natural than how it was forced in 7×22. In fact, that scene in “Forever” is one of my favorites of the episode, among many nice scenes in that episode.

        • Anna

          I agree that it’s 100 x worse in 7.21&7.22 but I just don’t buy it. I will rant about it once Myles gets there, so I’ll just leave it at that for now.

          But it does feel nice to know it is not just me, even if it’s no one else but skittledog.

    • greg

      I’m not so sure Shawn Ryan is a big fan of the subtle evil. At least, if seven seasons of ‘The Shield’ is anything to go by.

  12. diane

    One other thing, just to note the first cameo appearance in the Buffyverse by one of the writers. David Fury was one of the two men sacrificing goats at the beginning of Reprise.

    • Becker

      On the old Bronze, nearly as much time was spent talking about Fury and the goats as the ep as a whole. That was due to this whole runner Joss started about trying to save money on Buffy and replacing all the extras with goats. Then later about how there was going to be a lot of nudity, but the actors refused so all the goats would be naked. Then Joss finally gave us some goats, though their state of nudity is debatable. 😉

      Various Buffy & Angel crew members had also appeared on screen previously. RD Price, director of Blood Money (and DG’s assistant on S1-3 of Buffy) was the pizza guy who Trick ate on Buffy. ….and now I’m thinking of most of The Evil League of Evil. 😉

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