Moving On while Moving Apart
August 20th, 2010
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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.
- 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.