Defying Seriality – The Catharsis of Pylea
“Belonging”/”Over The Rainbow”/”Through the Looking Glass”/”There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb”
November 25th, 2010
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Gee, do you think Pylea and Oz might have something in common?
The Pylea arc, which concludes Angel’s second season starting with “Belonging” and ending with “There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb,” (with “Over the Rainbow” and “Through the Looking Glass” in between) is obviously playing on the classic story through episode titles, explicit references (Cordelia’s first instinct, for example), and in the general theme of being taken away to a different world to save the day and learn something about yourself in the process.
To get it out of the way, this was a highly enjoyable arc: Pylea offers some strong story possibilities along with some surprising connections to the series’ mythology, the introduction of Fred and the prominence of The Host are most welcome, and seeing Cordelia front and center has been two seasons in the making. Plus, the Pylea arc offers some of the series’ strongest balancing of suspense and comedy yet, successfully mixing some strong emotional moments with some truly hilarious ones.
And yet the Pylea arc wants to be more. Instead of being your traditional conclusion to a serialized season of television, resolving ongoing tensions, it introduces something entirely new. It wants to be a sort of catharsis, an exciting adventure to another world where every character is offered a sort of trial run for their lives back in Los Angeles. Cordelia discovers what it is like to be revered, Angel faces the true potential of his inner demon, Wesley must take a society’s future into his hands, while Gunn…well, Gunn sort of learns a lesson along the way, I guess?
While I think the arc largely works extremely well, there are moments where this sort of fantastical allegory for their real world problems becomes a bit contrived. This has been a complicated season of television, and at times the story tries too hard to speak to arcs which were developed to varying degrees during the year. Some individual stories do risk being a bit on the nose at the expense of Pylea itself, but as a broader coming together of our central characters, a realization of their friendship and a true reconcilation in the wake of Angel’s return to the fold, the arc works well.
Especially considering the gutpunch at the end.
To start with a brief concern, the point where Wesley and Gunn are creating a strategy for the Pylean forces to storm the castle and kill the Covenant’s leader is one which stands out for me. It’s the moment where Wesley takes over, where he gets to show his leadership prowess independent of Angel (who, let’s remember, had some trouble relinquishing that role in “Becoming”). Gunn, meanwhile, realizes that the plan will sacrifice many of the people they are helping, a clear reference back to his friend’s death in the same episode. The message ends up being that Wesley is a capable leader, whose plan eventually works to perfection, while Gunn needs to learn that sometimes people need to be sacrificed for freedom to win out in the end.
I have two problems with this scene. The first is that the Pyleans are largely irrelevant, turned into chess pieces; I get that this isn’t about them, but these rebels are given so little personality that they become a tool to make these connections back to their lives in L.A. I might normally not consider this a problem, as we do have Fred and The Host’s family, but those are such isolated characterization that the simplicity of this organization limits the impact of their sacrifice. I wanted to feel the meaning of their sacrifice, what this meant to Pylea, but instead it became all about Wesley.
My second problem is that Gunn’s storyline is woefully underdeveloped in comparison to his co-stars. Admittedly, this is representative of the season as a whole, but the way that his decision to tag along is worked into this scene just seems lazy. While Wesley’s story is not quite on the level of Cordelia and Angel, at the very least there is a sense that he is given a position of importance that asks him to make a tough decision. By comparison, Gunn gets a brief lesson from Wesley on the value of sacrifice, a nod towards the fact that Gunn is going to need to realize that the big picture is more important than a few of his fellow vamp hunters being felled. I don’t necessarily think this is wrong, but it’s more than a bit forced, and struggles to resonate for more than a few seconds.
The trip to Pylea is all about answering the questions of identity raised in “Belonging”: Cordelia’s big commercial is a disaster thanks to a despicable director, Angel is still sort of recovering from his time with Darla, Wesley struggles to reconcile his new leadership position with his father’s lack of approval, and Gunn thinks that he doesn’t want to fight evil so much as he wants to protect his friends. Pylea is meant to offer all of them a mirror into their own lives, and for Wesley and Gunn this takes the form of minor moments like the above. They are there to rescue Cordelia, and in that effort they learn lessons that they’ll take back through the portal – done and done. It’s almost like they’re on the Holodeck, to bring in another bit of genre television: in an alternate reality, they find situations that can be applied to their own lives.
By comparison, Pylea is more than that for Angel and Cordelia. They get the full-on Dorothy arc, being whisked away from a dreary and depressing world to discover a land filled with opportunity. Of course, Cordelia discovers a world where humans are called cows and considered slaves first, but eventually she becomes a princess and achieves the fame and fortune she always thought acting would provide her. Angel, meanwhile, doesn’t burn up in the sun on Pylea, offering a life apparently free from the limitations and pressures that he left behind. It is a world where he walks free from his burdens, whether they be sunlight or Darla, and where Cordelia’s aspirations have been fulfilled.
As you likely all know, this all goes horribly wrong in time, but I love the moments where they realize everything they ever wanted. I love Angel checking out his hair in the mirror, and I love Cordelia discussing her throne. There is nothing better than seeing a wish fulfilled, and nothing worse than those moments where the consequences become clear. The arc gets things right by having enough moments of calm that the fun elements of the story have some time to breathe, but maintaining a strong enough pace that we never feel entirely comfortable in Pylea. There’s always something that’s a little bit off, something that keeps this from feeling like “home.”
Or, perhaps more accurately, something that makes it feel too much like home. I loved the discovery of the Trionic texts being the origin for “Wolfram & Hart,” as it does two key things in the episode. First, it’s a reminder that there’s a real world back in Los Angeles, which is key to the episode’s success (if, as noted, a bit too prevalent in some key moments towards the end of the arc). And second, it ensures that Pylea won’t just be a trip a daily trip to the Holodeck. Even if it’s just a red herring, an Easter Egg and little more, the potential for Pylea to be somehow connected to a larger origin of the evil that Angel Investigations fights on a daily basis is key to ensuring that we haven’t forgotten what the series’ real focus is, striking a good balance with our empathy for Pylean society.
Of course, it’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things, since the arc is primarily concerned with Angel, Cordelia, and a certain young physicist/librarian named Fred. I’ll start with Cordelia, as I was probably the most outright pleased with her development here. It wasn’t exactly a surprising arc: she’s terrified by the slavery, delighted to end up a princess, wooed by her champion, and eventually satisfied with her life of searing pain with the reward of knowing she is helping to save the lives of the innocent. She proves herself willing to look the gift horse in the mouth by doubting the glitz and glamor, and I like that she discovers a prophecy driven not by some sort of demonic impregnation (which, as she points out, would have been déjà vu) but rather a scenario wherein her burden transfers onto another. While her life is still in danger, and the cult is still a bit broad, the story allows Cordelia to make complex decisions along the way. That she gets to choose to redefine that burden as a blessing, and to strike the final blow which allows her champion to take over Pylea and usher in a new era of reconstruction, is a real point of empowerment for the character. Charisma Carpenter was great throughout, and the story is a testament to this character as the true heart of this series (despite whatever sort of ice queen reputation she might have at one point held within this universe).
As for Angel, I buy the effect that this transformation has on him. It’s about Angel finally seeing in himself what others see in him all the time, the visceral manifestation of the descent into darkness that scared his colleagues earlier in the season. There we could say that Angel was perhaps overreacting, perhaps having been better off if his friends could have helped him through that rough period, but here there is no doubt that he has crossed a line. While I thought the demon seemed pretty tame, perhaps damaged by the fact that it continued to wear Angel’s clothing, the symbolic meaning behind the scene was a nice upending of Angel’s own brush with fame immediately beforehand. I almost feel that his attack on Gunn was unnecessary, that an isolated sense of terror would have been equally effective.
It does help, admittedly, that Amy Acker becomes a prominent presence. I am not so “unspoiled” to not know that Fred will play an important role in the seasons to come, and that Acker will become a key figure in the Whedonverse because of it, but I was still delighted by Fred’s introduction. The role has a chance of seeming too distant, perhaps a precursor to a figure like River Tam who lives in a liminal space between realities, but Acker has a brightness that reads through even her most esoteric moments. Even that brief glimpse in Cordelia’s vision and some kind words from her former colleague are enough to give us hope that she is still human, making her loss of humanity that much more tragic. It also makes her role in assisting Angel in his moments of reflection – that pun was unintentional when I first wrote it, but intentional in keeping it – that much more important: she is also trying to hold onto the last remnants of her humanity, whether through calling her breakfast oatmeal or experimenting with tree bark enchiladas, which makes them a perfect pair (who have a couple of borderline romantic moments, although I have no idea if the show intends to move in that direction).
Now, while these individual stories work out nicely, the conclusion of the Pylea side of the arc is a bit more ragged. Leaving Cordelia’s Groosalugg in control is fine, but the character never really evolved into anything but a pretty face, and the lack of any further personification of the people beyond either slave owners or authority figures rings hollow. The final showdown is similar, in that the kill switch is built up as this big threat but yet the dude takes time to monologue before hitting it? If we had met more of the slaves that he threatened to kill, and if he had perhaps been forced to choose between killing them (and crippling the work force) or surrendering and still crippling the work force due to Cordelia’s intention to free them, I think the situation could have felt more tense and personal. Instead it felt perfunctory, and as much as I enjoy Cordelia knocking an evil dude unconscious it could have been a lot more.
In writing about that moment, and imagining a more complex scenario, I realize that a televisual comparison for an arc like this one is Doctor Who. There, while there are expectations that each episode might reveal something about the Doctor and their new companion (this was especially true in the most recent season), the standalone story has to make a more substantial statement on its own. Here, that didn’t quite happen, which I’ll admit was a bit disappointing. And yet I was aware that this was the characters’ story and not Pylea, and so it was more about Cordelia turning her back on a potential life as a princess to fulfill the bidding of the Powers that Be, Angel coming to terms with who he almost became and who he wants to be, Wesley finding new confidence in his leadership abilities, The Host closing the book on his past, Fred returning to the world she left behind, and Gunn…well, Gunn was there too.
And yet perhaps the finest moment in the entire arc is that it doesn’t end with The Host singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or Angel saying that there’s no place like the Hyperion. No, it ends on Willow in the Hyperion’s lobby, a gut punch in every possible way. My staggered viewing patterns, necessitated by the sheer volume of work I’ve been dealing with between teaching and classes this fall, was advantageous in only one way. For people watching live, I can imagine going from the conclusion to Buffy’s fifth season and having to compose one’s self for the action-adventure fantasy ongoing in Pyrea; then, just as you’re ready for a happy ending, you see Willow and your heart sinks in your chest.
For me, that was that much more powerful. Not only did I spend two hours in Pyrea without any sort of break, but it has been over a month since I watched “The Gift”: I had completely forgotten the context in which this episode aired, and I found myself scrambling for a breath in that moment. It was as if Dorothy had come home from Oz to discover that her family’s farm had been destroyed, that she was in a hospital instead of her own bed. It was a sign that, no matter what this trip into another dimension told these characters about themselves, the world they’re returning to is the antithesis of magical and wonderful.
It is a dark and dreary world, and Pylea does nothing to change this. It does, however, offer a fun and intriguing backdrop on which some very strong character consolidation is completed. Since Angel doesn’t have “seasonal” arcs in the same way as Buffy, it’s an ideal conclusion in that it really does tie everything together without necessarily “resolving” anything. The world they return to is the same world it was before, but this brief foray into another world offers interest and novelty that gives way to character and emotion which reflects strongly on the quality of the season which came before it.
And on the season to come.
- Yes, as noted, this one took me a while. I probably could have done it earlier, but I think I was always consciously holding off until Thanksgiving when I knew I would have a day to turn over to it. Hope it was worth the wait, and no – I do not know when the next leg is starting.
- I enjoyed that Angel was turning previous episodes of the series into hero stories for the villagers (I believe it was “I Fall to Pieces,” correct?).
- I’m really paranoid about spoilers when it comes to Pylea: in setting up the whole end of slavery point, as Gunn points out the political unrest that is about to take over, the door is open to a return, but I don’t want to know about it. Not that I think you’d spoil it, but I’m sure you’re going to be tempted (I know I would be!).
- As noted, there was some great comedy here, and Numfar and his dances were probably the highlight. It was just a really great running gag, with the shifts from Joy to Honor and then, perfectly off-screen, the Dance of Shame.
- With each passing episode, Andy Hallett’s too-early passing becomes more tragic – much love for The Host, even if his role (for a return to his home dimension) seemed pretty limited here.
- I’ll save any substantial thoughts on the proposed Buffy reboot, by the way, until the thing exists beyond a script. For now? It’s a terrible idea, but its ability to change what has already been made is nil, so I’m largely nonplussed.