Saturday, May 23, 2009

Crisis of Faith

Episodes I've Seen So Far, In Order: (Season Two: "Judgment", "Over the Rainbow", "There's No Place Like Plrtz Girb". All of Seasons Three and Four [Except for "Peace Out"]. All of Season Five. All of Season One.)

I detailed in a prior post how one of the reasons I'm attracted to the Angel series is because its constant examination of the shades of gray between the black and white of good and evil. Ironically, one of the best episodes I've seen that explored that theme was "Blind Date", where Lindsey McDonald suffered his crisis of faith after learning Wolfram & Hart was sending out a blind hitwoman (Vanessa Brewer) to assassinate three blind children who were considered to be future enemies of the Senior Partners. I say "ironically", because a lot of the most thought-provoking dialogue came not from Angel or any of the other Good Guys, but from Bad Guy Holland Manners.

Having said that, I'll contradict myself and say that the best dialogue came from Angel in this scene, where he's pouring out his frustrations to Wes and Cordy for being unable to do anything to put Vanessa behind bars.

Angel: How am I expected to do battle if I can't even get into the ring?

Wesley: You have a place, Angel. Our battle will be fought elsewhere.

Angel: It's still their world, Wesley. Structured for power -- not truth. It's their system, and it's one that works. It works because there is no guilt. There is no torment, no consequences. It's pure. I remember what that was like. Sometimes I miss that clarity.
There is so much truth to that. If you pick a side and are firmly committed to that group's causes, the answers come so much more easily without the need for time-consuming introspection. I think blind (pardon the pun) devotion to either Good or Evil is unhealthy, but I can't help but think that taking the path to Evil is a much easier way to go. The reasons for joining the forces of Evil are so deceptively simple and seductive. (This is how the world operates. It's easy. Other people are weak or stupid for not taking what's so readily available.) You have to be a much stronger person to even commit to taking the road to Good, since you are forced to make moral decisions every step of the way.

One of the hallmarks of someone suffering a crisis of faith is the feeling of ennui, or, as Holland Manners explained so well,

Holland: .....Now I have to say, you don't seem that happy lately. Could I take a wild stab as to what I think that might be?

Lindsey: Sure.

Holland: It's your age. You're a young man. You've hitched your wagon to our star. Oh, and it's a bright star. But now you're starting to feel a little 'Is that all there is?'

Lindsey: Sometimes you question things, but I mean it's no big --

Holland: Yeah, I did a lot of crazy things when I was your age -- searching and all. Took me a while to realize how the world was put together and where I belonged in it. And actually the world isn't that complicated. It's designed for those who know how to use it.

Lindsey: Yes, sir.

Holland: Don't give me that 'yes, sir' crap. I want you to think about these things. You're not going to be happy until you find your place in the scheme of things. Okay, enough of the old guy's lecture......
What's remarkable to me about this exchange is that Holland Manners did not expect blind loyalty from Lindsey. As a matter of fact, he probably would have been disappointed if Lindsey simply followed orders, like the colorless attorney Lee. The best way to perform your work is to take the initiative, and the best way to develop your sense of initiative is to question everything, by constantly asking "What if?"

It's obvious that Holland saw a lot of himself in Lindsey, and recognized what Lindsey was going through. I don't normally like to cut and paste a lot of dialogue into my posts, but I'm making an exception one more time for this remarkable exchange.

Holland: ....Well, then you're in a crisis, son. A crisis of faith. Do you believe in love? I'm not speaking romantically. I'm talking about that sharp, clear sense of self a man gains once he's truly found his place in the world. It's no mean feat, since most men are cowards and just move with the crowd. Very few make their own destinies. They have the courage of their convictions, and they know how to behave in a crisis.

Lindsey: Like now?

Holland: Like now. You have everything it takes to go all the way here -- drive, ambition, excellence -- but you don't know where you belong. And until you do, I guess we both have some important questions to answer. Now, my first one is, do I nod to my friend behind me? No, I don't. Because I know you, and I know a little something about character. I think what you actually need is a few days off to think about it. And I'm sure once you have, you're gonna do the right thing.

Lindsey: I can -- I can go.

Holland: You can go. Lindsey, I believe in you. Look deep enough inside yourself --you'll find that love.
What's amazing to me is that this same dialogue could have been used by a couple of people working for the side of good!

One of the worst mistakes someone who is comfortable in his or her beliefs can do is to try to prevent someone else from questioning her own faith. A classic example is a religious parent giving her child grief because the child starts to doubt the existence of God. There comes a time when a child has to stop hearing about the existence of God and start discovering God on her own. A necessary part of the process may be denying that God even exists! The child can then begin her journey of discovering what a world is like without God. Eventually, she may realize that, although she can find a lot of the answers on her own, there is still something missing, which is a unifying purpose for our place in the universe. Could that "something missing" be God? A lot of the strongest believers I know went through their very own protracted crises of faith. In essence, their periods of doubt ultimately strengthened their beliefs!

A religious parent can be horrified at what the child is going through. What if the child never comes back to God? What if the child makes all of the wrong decisions, and despite the parent's best efforts, chooses the road to Evil? My first response is that some of the most morally responsible people in the world are atheists, and some of the worst people in the world attend church every Sunday. My next response is, no one has the right to take complete control or responsibility over another human being. No one can possibly take his place in the world if he is constantly second-guessing himself by asking "What would my parent want me to do?" That person would be caught in a perpetual state of arrested development, and wouldn't be of much use to anyone, including himself. And besides, do you know how much work it would take for parents to be the constant thought police for their children?

This is a very roundabout way of saying that Holland predicted great things from Lindsey, but knew Lindsey wouldn't even begin to scratch his potential until he grew stronger after surviving his crisis of faith. The Senior Partners risked losing Lindsey, but the rewards of getting a bigger and better Lindsey out of the deal was well worth the risk. I can't help but think that Holland ordered the very bland Lee to be killed not because of something he did, but to drive home to both Lindsey and Lilah that sometimes trying to do your very best without challenging yourself is just not good enough.

Lindsey told Angel of his own motivations for choosing his path in life. He came from a dirt-poor background, and was disgusted how his father just let the authorities come in and take the house away when Lindsey was just seven years old. Even worse, his dad even joked with the guys during the deed-signing. To Lindsey, and to a lot of the power-hungry, there's nothing worse than human weakness. If you lose, or if you choose to lose out on material possessions, you're a loser for life. Which brings me to another fascinating aspect this episode brings up, on how two different people, being faced with the same crisis of confidence, can choose different paths. Angel was constantly questioning his beliefs and always came back to protecting the innocent and the poor. Lindsey could have thrown his lot in with protecting the poor and perhaps ultimately could have become a public defender. He obviously chose the more lucrative path of representing wealthy (and immoral) paying clients.

From everything I've seen, I've always been disappointed with Angel's attitude towards Lindsey. He could never accept that Lindsey might change, and failed to allow his natural faith in redemption to manifest itself. I know part of it has to do with the fact that I think Christian Kane is a marvelous actor who turned Lindsey McDonald into a likable, nuanced character. I also have to accept that Angel had been around for 200 years and just maybe knew a lot more about human behavior than I do. He'd probably run into a lot of Lindseys over the years. Besides the obvious consideration that Lindsey could have just been setting up a trap, Angel might have known that even bad people have their good moments. Just because someone has a soft spot, (in this case, Lindsey did not want to see children getting hurt), doesn't mean a person is basically good.

Angel could probably recognize that Lindsey was rotten to the core. At best, they could work out uneasy truces in order to temporarily fight certain battles on the same side. And really, Lindsey did exhibit a certain sense of honor when it came to keeping his word. You just had to watch your back when the smoke cleared. But, just as Angel predicted, Lindsey pretty willingly went back to Wolfram & Hart, particularly after Holland offered him the big promotion.

Back to Lindsey and his soft spot for children. In general, people whom I will simplistically call "Bad" have no sympathy for the plight of disadvantaged children. Lindsey's particular soft spot obviously came from his miserable childhood, when he couldn't figure out why anyone would willingly raise their children under such horrible conditions. Also notice how Lindsey was given the assignment of manufacturing a wretched childhood for Vanessa, to be used the next time she had to face a judge.

Usually, the Bad Guys don't completely fabricate evidence. They are very skillful at taking what's available and twisting the truth to serve their needs. (The Good Guys are very capable of doing the very same thing.) With the normal unpleasant experiences and playground scrapes we all go through while growing up, it would be pretty easy to paint even a perfectly normal childhood as being as awful as anything Charles Dickens could come up with. In essence, it's very easy for the Bad Guys to come up with reasons to justify their actions (e.g., if we don't protect the Captains of Industry, we'll have no industry, ad nauseum.)

I'll end with another terrific quote from Holland (spoken to Lindsey):

Holland: I handpicked you when you were a sophomore at Hastings, not because you were smart, not because you were a poor kid who had to do better than anyone else, but because you had potential -- potential for seeing things as they are. It's not about good or evil, it's about who wields the most power. And we wield a lot of it here, and you know what? I think the world is better for it.
I think that wraps everything up in one tidy package. "It's not about good or evil, it's about who wields the most power." When you throw your lot in with the Bad Guys, you're completely off the hook as far as having to make difficult moral decisions.

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