Cultural Catchup Project: “Disharmony” (Angel)

“Disharmony”

September 18th, 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 Harmony arrives in Los Angeles, it is a bit of narrative pleasure for me as a viewer: the realization that Cordelia wouldn’t be aware that Harmony had been turned into a vampire was downright delightful, and seeing Harmony dance her way around the issue was yet another comic highlight for Mercedes McNab. Because I have been watching Buffy alongside Angel, I understood the disconnect between the characters’ awareness and my own, and it framed the early scenes in “Disharmony” in a very clear fashion.

However, watching the episode made me realize that Angel viewers without the same knowledge would have read Harmony’s arrival in the opposite fashion: where Harmony’s transformation into a vampire was almost a joke for those “in the know,” it might have been legitimately suspenseful for those without that knowledge. “Disharmony” is so impressive because it manages to overcome this potential disparity, coming together as a compelling investigation of friendship in the wake of Angel’s epiphany regardless of one’s level of Harmony-related knowledge.

Although I much prefer intertextual pleasures, I must admit.

The narrative thread of “Disharmony” is pretty predictable: Harmony arrives, Harmony is delightfully annoying, and then Harmony turns to the side of evil before eventually running away to hopefully return again sometime soon. However, while the Doug Sanders side of the episode is pretty predictable (and pretty underdeveloped, in some ways), the episode is more about how that story sheds light on the strained relationships within the newly reformed Angel Investigations. While there are certainly some fun elements to that story, elements in which we find fairly straightforward pleasure, there is a deeper meaning beyond the laughter which allows the episode to really connect.

First and foremost, it’s a reminder that we really haven’t seen that much of Cordelia’s life outside of work within the series. This is part of the point, of course, as this season she has seemed to find a greater purpose in helping the helpless than she did before, but Harmony’s arrival awakens memories that the character has been disassociated with. It’s why I find it so fascinating that, for viewers who hadn’t seen Buffy, Harmony would have been just a generic high school friend visiting Cordelia as opposed to a mean girl-turned-vampire rebounding from a relationship with William the Bloody. And thus the episode isn’t about Harmony so much as it is about Cordelia, and even with knowledge of Harmony’s awesomeness I felt like things really turned to Cordelia at a certain point.

That point, I think, was when Cordelia told Angel that they were no longer friends: it’s one thing for her to be mad at him, but to break the bounds of friendship entirely was a big step, especially when she simultaneously reignites her friendship with Harmony even after learning that she is a vampire. Suddenly, Cordelia stops becoming an employee and starts becoming a human being, which was what Angel ignored when he went rogue and abandoned his friends: he treated them as people he could fire instead of friends he was leaving behind, and so Cordelia’s words really sting here. And so it’s nice to see Cordelia get to kick a little ass and be able to make a decision for herself (in allowing Harmony to escape unstaked), and fitting that eventually she is won over by a bountiful collection of new clothes. Rather than suggesting that she is shallow, the gesture is instead evidence that Angel was paying attention: clothes are not only something she loves, but they were also something which he gave away to Anne’s shelter after their professional parting of ways, making this a perfect (and quite enjoyable) way for the two to reconnect.

Of course, the episode is also a laugh riot, both in subtle and broad fashions. I love the subtle line where Harmony tells Cordelia that she does, indeed, have to officially invite Harmony to stay at her place, and yet I also love the carefully-planned “Vampire vs. Lesbian” conversation that Cordelia has with Willow. It’s just a really tremendous piece of writing from David Fury, and a very smart crossover moment with Buffy’s universe for those of us watching both: the fact that Willow is newly identifying as a lesbian means that the joke starts much earlier for us, and yet the punchline still kills just as we thought it would (the choice of “Lesbo” for Cordelia is over the top without being too over the top, for example). It also manages to feel like a really realistic conversation even when it was clearly scripted very thoughtfully, which is not an easy feat by any means.

“Disharmony” isn’t a huge or substantial episode of Angel, but it’s one of those memorable ones: some clever dialogue and a meaningful yet passing crossover would be fine on its own, but that it so nicely brings Cordelia and Angel back to speaking terms gives the episode function and purpose which a purely standalone hour would lack.

Cultural Observations

  • Still not entirely sure how the pyramid scheme works: Doug Sanders was never developed enough to really give him a purpose, so I couldn’t understand what he was getting out of this personally (as most pyramid schemes would tend to benefit the organizer in ways it would not benefit the other members). Still, the cult-ish environment was fun for them to create, so I’ll forgive my quibbles.
  • Not surprising to see Cordelia bring up the potential of Angel sleeping with Darla as a dodged bullet, but I’ll be curious to see whether that secret will come out, and whether it will be seen as problematic even when it had no effect on our hero.
  • Thoughts on “Dead End” tomorrow, likely.
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28 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

28 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: “Disharmony” (Angel)

  1. Eldritch

    “Not surprising to see Cordelia bring up the potential of Angel sleeping with Darla as a dodged bullet, but I’ll be curious to see whether that secret will come out, and whether it will be seen as problematic even when it had no effect on our hero.”

    Right. Me too.

  2. Eldritch

    I enjoyed the front end of the episode. Cordelia and Harmony together were very funny. The tension whether/when Harmony would attack was terrific.

    But I found the pyramid scheme and it’s leader pretty boring. I get that it was a parody of the pyramid/self help schemes that still seem to rain down on us, but … meh. Also, I agree that the scheme itself didn’t really make sense, but that was just one point in a weak segment.

    I understand why Cordelia wanted to let Harmony go. Harmony, or at least her body, had been a friend. But that body is now controlled by a demon. Just as Xander had to kill Jesse, because he was no longer his friend, Cordelia had the obligation to kill (or allow her cohorts to kill) Harmony.

    Though comical, Harmony is now just a vicious killing machine. She won’t be drinking True Blood. How many innocent people will Harmony kill in the future? How many lives will she destroy? How many family will be shattered by those deaths? Buffy allowed Angel and Spike to live, because they ceased to be danger. Not so Harmony.

    Accepting the calling to destroy evil is a tough one. Cordelia should have made the hard choice here. She failed.

    • Susan

      “Accepting the calling to destroy evil is a tough one. Cordelia should have made the hard choice here. She failed.”

      Agreed. And yet, I’m quite glad Cordelia made the choice she made.

      • Tausif Khan

        I don’t know if some one had made the decision to stake Angel rather than ensoul him then the whole idea of beings being able to buy back a sense of themselves that they can do something in the universe is naught.

        I don’t think the issue is black and white about whether to kill something or someone.

        Xander kills his friend in the beginning and this is a good character setting for him because he usually takes the black white might makes right position and is therefore generally against all demons.

        Cordelia on the other hand has a different arc. She comes from a place (popularity) of deciding what is right or wrong good or bad based on what is cool or not. By dating Xander she starts to break that and gains an understanding of real problems in the world. It is a nice touch that she is willing to go out with Doyle despite the fact that he is half demon. This shows that Cordelia is growing up and allowing greater complexity to enter her life. She only expects to be cared for and to care back.

        She sees in Angel that not all demons are inherently bad and that in Angel there is some bit of Liam still knocking about. So there is a chance that in vampire Harmony there is still a bit of real Harmony knocking about (quite a bit if you notice that her character does not change much as she turns from high school popular person to vampire). Cordelia believes that she should not loose part of her humanity by stepping into the kill or be killed territory of thought.

        Furthermore, Whedon wants to explore tough decisions. He also wants to show that people presented with the same decisions twice will not feel the same way. Buffy is forced to kill Angel twice. The first time she is willing to do it. The second time she is less willing. The same complexity exists if you put the same situation in front of different characters. Whedon has said one of his favorite things is to set two characters with really strong (and not incorrect) opinions against each other in conversation because this is emblematic of the real complexity we face in everyday life. Issues aren’t clear and because one person believes one thing then that does not mean they are always right.

    • Karen

      While I agree, on the surface, that Harmony should be destroyed and Cordy’s failure is a sign of weakness in some ways, I also wonder… This is one of those episodes that harkens back to the issues of the simplistic views of the Watchers’ Council regarding the nature of vampires, and Angel’s comment that nearly contradicts Buffy (in Dopplegangland, I think? A strength of the Buffyverse is also a weakness for me…the arcs play so well that small moments for me aren’t always hardwired to the episode I viewed.)

      Is there something else at work in the transference of personality from the human to the vampire? Are some people able to *be* a more moral vampire? Is the demon able to be fought, if given the proper chance?

      Mild spoiler ahead Myles……

      One of the most heartbreaking statements in the series (imo) is made later by Harmony in S5’s end, who effectively charges Angel with a lack of empathy when it comes to this issue.

      • Eldritch

        “Is there something else at work in the transference of personality from the human to the vampire? Are some people able to *be* a more moral vampire? Is the demon able to be fought, if given the proper chance?”

        Transference of personality? Sure, I think a case can be made for Harmony. As a vampire, she seems to be the same frivolous airhead she was an a human. However, this is not the issue. What’s at issue is that she’s a souless, murderous, amoral beast. She’s just as frivolous at killing any tasty-looking human as she is at choosing a nail polish.

        Now that Cordelia and gang have released Harmony, what’s in her future? She will kill repeatedly and remorselessly (until, I suppose SPOILER: season 5).

        END SPOILER.
        Will she kill daily? hourly? How many people will die because Cordelia felt sentimental toward her former friend’s demon possessed body?

        Within the ethos of the Buffy/Angel (Bangel?) universe, she’s evil. Evil things are clear and present threats to human life. And evil things must be killed.* They must be killed to save human life. This is not a demon/soul distinction. Bangle’s ethic is not to kill demons, since some demons are not threats.

        * Granted they didn’t kill Spike in B4. He was evil, but he was defanged, so to speak, by the chip in his head. He was no longer dangerous. So Buffy let him live.
        Thus the actual rule is that dangerous, evil things must be killed. Here, Harmony is both evil and dangerous.

        The only thing that makes Harmony’s immediate staking a gray issue is her likability. Cordelia likes her because they were friends in high school. She lost Harmony’s friendship when she got caught dating Xander, so she’s doubly sentimental to reclaim that friendship.

        The audience also finds Harmony likable. She’s comic relief. And on an entertainment level, sure, I can see not wanting to kill off a popular character. But she’s evil, and dangerous. She re-proved her lethality with her easy betrayal of Team Angel. She was willing to kill her new-made friends, without remorse or hesitation. She will continue to kill people in that flippant, causal manner. Releasing her into the wild is the same thing Cordy and Angel pressing a button which kills 100 innocent people.

        But sure, I can see the writers not wanting to kill off a popular character. Harmony’s character adds spice to the show. Were it not for that, Spike would have been staked in B1.

        I’m just saying that in the ethos of the show, Angel, Wesley, and Cordy had an obligation to step up. Buffy was ready to step up when — okay that would be a spoiler since it hasn’t happened yet — in a future episode, Buffy will step up in a similar situation, because it will be the right thing to do. She will make the hard decision. But in this episode, Angel, and Cordelia failed to do what was right.

        • Tausif Khan

          Given the current state of things Harmony would keep on killing given that she is a vampire. However, other things could have happened to her if she came to the center of the narrative of either show. Spike was a vampire even when he had the chip. However, he aides the scoobies. Whedon is all about buying back bad actions a character has done. Therefore if Harmony ended up replacing Cordelia in team Angel I am pretty sure they would have looked into getting her soul back. We don’t know whether she would have kept on killing. We don’t know what is ahead for the character (that is what made Buffy successful because Joss had major plot points but everything else was fair game). Whedon liked that even small characters having arcs. Case in point Jonathan!

          • Tausif Khan

            the “!” was not meant as anger it was meant as excitement about Jonathan.

          • Tausif Khan

            There is also something in here that I probably shouldn’t have said but since there is no deleting on this blog I will not highlight what it is.

        • Anne

          I agree they didn’t make the hard choice that they should have made. Staking Harmony would have been the right thing to do. However fun she seems, whatever feelings of friendship Cordelia feels the fact remains Harmony is a dangerous evil thing. However making the right choice isn’t always easy. Even good people (Team Angel in this case) fail to step up and let personal feelings get in the way. I wish the scene Becker mentioned had been left in. It would have driven home the point that Harmony should have been staked.

          • Eldritch

            Well, now that I’ve got my moral righteousness out of my system, I can see that staking Harmony wouldn’t have fit with the light and humorous tone of the episode. Staking a beloved character would have been grim.

            And maybe Whedon was right to want to end the episode on Team Angel.

            But, that scene of Harmony starting her own pyramid scheme would have been killer!

          • Becker

            Well, the feeling that scene provoked was not so much that she was going to be a danger but have as much success with it as she did with her vamp gang on Buffy. Harmony: not so much the evil mastermind.

    • Gill

      Hmmm. Harmony has by this time entered that very small group of vampires unlikely to be killed because, whether or not they have a soul, they have a personality – like Dru, Darla, Spike and Angelus. Which doesn’t mean Joss won’t kill them, as he did Mr Trick, just that if they are killed off it will have significant emotional resonance.

      Harmony is evil, but so clearly inept at being evil that one can forgive Cordy for not seeing her as that much of a threat. In that way she is different from Jesse, who was quite clearly out to kill his former friends as soon as he revealed himself as a vampire.

  3. Tausif Khan

    I watched this episode of Angel without having seen Buffy so I had no idea who the character of Harmony was. She did seem like a generic high school friend.

    However, when I went back and saw Cordelia’s high school days I found that Harmony was a pretty formative part. Harmony was the one who pointed out to Cordelia how much of an outcast she was becoming by dating Xander and hanging out Buffy and her friends. This arc is extended into Angel because this continues to emphasize how in touch with real life and real problems Cordelia has become. At the same time this highlights for Cordelia how far from her original life plans she had drifted. So it is a nice touch all around.

    The vampire lesbian comparison could have been conceivably understood by Cordelia in reference to Vampire Willow (who according to Buffyverse Willow “is kinda gay”).

    I think the pyramid scheme works for the top vampire in the same way that the pyramid scheme worked for The Master (in that more people become vampires, more people can be eaten and their status as a great vampire grows given the strength of the line they start). Siring vampires is a pyramid game of finding lost souls and then turning them into soulless beings. A siring of a vampire is just the visual depiction of this.

  4. Susan

    Myles, I’ve almost completely lapped you. Since your Buffy/Angel project started, I’ve watched both series through for, jeez, the twenty-something-th time, had a Firefly intermission, and I’m most of the way through Buffy S3 on the next pass (just finished “Choices” before I wrote this).

    It had been my intention to keep pace with you, but my self-control where the Whedonverse is concerned is non-existent. Especially now that you’ve started at Madison and are entirely too distracted! 🙂

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed “Disharmony” so much. She certainly brings a kind of sparkle wherever she goes. She’s way more fun as a vampire than she was as your run-of-the-mill teen princess, too.

    The Cordelia/Angel dynamic gets some interesting development in this episode. I struggle often with the ways their relationship develops, but what’s happening here feels organic and true.

    The pyramid scheme is lame, yes, but I’m amused by the idea of vampires being lured into it. I wonder what the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Vampires are?

  5. Harmony always brings some hilarious-ness to the show, and I absolutely love Mercedes McNabb.

  6. Becker

    OK, a long time ago I had mentioned how Joss over ruled everyone and cut a great scene from an episode. It was this one. Joss cut the final scene because he wanted the show to end on the main cast. Then time constraints cut Wes’ last line sayong how he could have used a new something or other.

    The deleted scene: Harmony took Cordy’s words to non-beating heart. Over ultra-cheesy Mexicanish music written and performed (on a Casio keyboard!) by Buffy post guy Brian Wankum, Harmony is in some Mexican cave with two Mexican vamps. Harmony-“Turn dos, uh, the rest for food.” Vamps-“Turn dos, de rest for food.” Harmony-“Yay!” 14 people in the room loved it. Joss said to cut it. I wish it was included as a deleted scene, the cheesy music totally made it.

    And the pyramid scheme was to both create a vamp army and keep enough people around to eat. Though pyramid schemes eventually fold, this would have lasted a lot longer as there more people to turn or eat than gullible people to get financially sucked into a pyramid scheme. I think the choice of that was also to show that that was the kind of thing Harmony would go for. Evil made simple.

    • Eldritch

      Well, that does sound like a great scene. Sort of picks up on my idea that Harmony would go on to kill more people.

      • Becker

        Though it came across more that she was as likely to suceed with this as she did when she called out Buffy, and got in a slap fight with Xander instead.

        • Eldritch

          Got it. It was a light and humorous episode. The cut scene was humorous. My whole moral tangent was (I thought kinda interesting, but) not really relevant to the writers’ intent.

  7. Eldritch

    “Though pyramid schemes eventually fold, this would have lasted a lot longer as there more people to turn or eat than gullible people to get financially sucked into a pyramid scheme.”

    Sort of takes us to the logical conclusion of the movie “Daybreakers” in which vampires turn everyone and there are no humans left.

  8. Bob Kat

    Maybe there’s a certain ecological balance of the vampire population and killing Harmony would make room for a less inept one? Plus she can serve as sort of a go-between?

    Regadless of that, what justification is there for Buffy to just let Dru walk away at the end of “Crush”?

    I think this epsiode takes place very shortly before (obviously it *is* before) “Tough Love;” part of what triggers Willow to use the specific phrase “lesbo street cred.”

    I love the idea of Harmony in Mexico; I have her runnning into Jonathan and Andrew in an unposted fic.

  9. Gill

    Yes, this is a delightful episode, though yet another argument for watching the show in tandem with its parent. I love the idea of clothes as a means of restoring the friendship – it’s a recurring theme with Cordy, if you remember the Prom dress at the end of Buffy S3. Shallow in its way, but also extremely symbolic of caring, relationship building and deep knowledge of the individual. Cordy’s clothes are quite relevant in the main arc at the end of this season of AtS too, in their own way.

    I am very eager to see your responses to the final arc of S5 Buffy, but it is a real pleasure to read your thoughts on this episode too, and prompts me to revisit the show, which I have seen rather fewer times than Buffy itself.

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