Sunday, May 3, 2009

Lilah & Wesley - Dominance & Submission

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

Right away I'd like to acknowledge how much of this post was influenced by Lewis Call's fantastic article at the Slayage site, "Sounds Like Kinky Business to Me: Subtextual and Textual Representations of Erotic Power in the Buffyverse".

Before I read the article, I think I was somewhat on the same track as Call, but he certainly introduced new themes that helped me further develop my way-too-wispy ideas. I wish I could go back in time and not have read his article until after I finished this post, since, now I can't remember which ideas I thought of on my own and which ideas were introduced to me by Call. In the meantime, thanks to Mr. Call for opening up my eyes to a lot of new possibilities in the Wesley/Lilah relationship.

One aspect I do particularly remember thinking of on my own was how I loved watching the delicious power plays for dominance continuously being waged between Lilah and Wesley. In fact, the whole ebb and flow between dominance and submission coursed back and forth so rapidly that, for some odd reason, I was reminded of a needle on a compass wildly fluctuating in an erratic magnetic field. You almost needed a score card to keep track of all of the "One point for Lilah" and "One point for Wesley" moments that occurred not only during their scenes of normal dialogue, but also during their unspoken romantic moments. To me, that was the unique aspect of their relationship that kept me charged up through the entire story arc. I've written before about how I almost couldn't enjoy the rest of the episodes they appeared in, simply because I was so keyed into their intimate scenes.

Another thing that struck me was how, on the surface, if you read a particular set of dialogue between them, one of them could appear to be in the dominant position (and please realize I mean that in a figurative sense), yet by actually observing them, you could sense that the seemingly submissive person was in reality the dominant one. By temporarily ceding control of the situation, the submissive one was dominant simply by being in a position to be able to grant authority to the other person. You could go crazy trying to use all of your wits to find out which of them was the true dominant figure at any given moment. An analogy I could think of was a delightful bit of dialogue in The Princess Bride where Wallace Shawn's character Vizzini described the thought process behind choosing the unpoisoned wine goblet. In Vizzini's own words,
"But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me."
This is only a fraction of Vizzini's thought process. You can read the rest at IMDB.

Taking the analogy a bit further, let's take a hypothetical yet typical scene between Lilah and Wesley. Lilah would come up to Wesley (as far as us the viewer could tell, she was usually the huntress, the aggressor.) Lilah would immediately say something bold and cutting that would put her into the dominant position. She was taking control in her opening move, so to speak. Wesley would refuse to take the bait, but would instead, in his typically understated English way, do or say something to quietly take back the upper hand. Lilah would somewhat pretend to protest, and continue to act as the aggressor, even as she willingly slipped into the submissive stance. Lilah would pretend to try to save face, but clearly, Wesley held all the power. Or did he, since Lilah was the one who gave him the power? Was Lilah in fact the dominant authority who appeared to give up her power in order to get what she wanted from Wesley? Or did power ultimately reside with Wesley, since Lilah was primarily inspired to put on the entire show in an attempt to make a power play over Wesley?

One particular example I can think of occurred in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" when Wesley confronted Lilah for setting up a trap so he would warn Angel Investigations to leave the Hyperion Hotel in order to rescue Cordelia. Lorne was left unprotected at the Hotel, which allowed the evil-doers at Wolfram & Hart to steal the part of his brain that held information about the upcoming appearance of The Beast. I wonder how Fizzini would have scored all of the power play fluctuations?

Like I mentioned above, you can't even keep track of who was dominant versus who was submissive just based on the dialogue alone. You have to observe the facial expressions and body language of these two very gifted actors in order to understand all of the subtleties of the situation. Alexis Denisof excelled in modulating his voice to get his point across. I quickly learned while watching the series that when he switched to a slightly higher pitched, softer, seductive, husky voice, you'd better look out! Stephanie Romanov could fold her arms, hold her ground and stare anyone down, yet her eyes betrayed everything. She's one of those rare actresses who can eliminate the need for about five lines of dialogue just by using her eyes to display her conflicting emotions over the course of about two seconds of screen time.

In "Slouching Toward Bethlehem", after Wesley found out he had been "played" by Lilah, he angrily went to her apartment to confront her. (The only time the audience was aware that he visited her place.) Right away, he was set up to be the dominant one, since he was in the aggressor mode. Lilah was all cool, composed and logical, and appeared to immediately take on the dominant position. Wesley was the angry party and did his best to re-assert his dominance, (while appearing to be submissive by leaning up against some unknown piece of furniture while Lilah held her ground). He seemed to temporarily lose out as Lilah was able to skillfully come up with valid counterarguments to every accusation he could come up with. Lilah appeared to deliver the coup de grace when she proclaimed, "If I thought you'd ever trust me, I would've never played you like that."

Match over? Not quite yet. Wesley, in appearing to accept his submissive status, and still leaning back (where he was at a lower level than if he was standing straight), looked at her with confusion, love and reproach, and said in that soft, husky voice of his, "It's never simple, is it?"

Lilah, looked at him for a brief moment with a look of utter triumph. However her eyes quickly morphed into a mixture of worry and regret, as though she was thinking to herself, "Shit, I think I just blew it with Wes." As what happened in quite a few of their scenes together, either Wesley or Lilah became the dominant power simply by voluntarily taking on the submissive position.

In the very next episode Lilah tried to "bribe" Wesley with the expensive gift while Wesley cheated me out of what promised to be a particularly steamy love scene with her as he scampered off to see Fred's lecture. Lilah tried to keep the relationship going throughout the rest of Season 4, but no matter how hard she tried, and no matter how hard she tried to re-assert her dominance, Wesley was in complete control from therein out.

The steamy love scenes were filled with these fluctuations of power, as witnessed in "Ground State" where the two were engaged in heavy, panting foreplay around Wesley's apartment, passionately flinging each other around on the furniture and the floor. (As a side note, for whatever reason, most of the acting in this scene did very little for me, except for at the very end.) The dialogue was a delicious hodgepodge of each trying to outdo each other for domination. Towards the end, Lilah was on the floor, with Wesley on top. Wesley told Lilah to "shut up" about her evil plans. Lilah said, challengingly, "Make me!" Wes said nothing, but raised his eyebrows, then lowered himself down the length of her body, out of view of the camera. Lilah suddenly started laughing in delight, since Wesley was obviously performing oral sex on her.

Oral sex is always an interesting case when it comes to the subject of domination. Who's the dominant power? The giver or the receiver? Lilah offered a direct challenge to Wes to shut her up, where she was giving a clear invitation for him to take charge. Wes rose up to the challenge, so to speak, by taking on the possibly submissive role of offering pleasure.

A particularly delicious scene for me was earlier in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" when Lilah famously made Wesley pay the $1.00 bill for calling what they were having a "relationship". They started out with a luxurious little post-coital cuddle (and isn't it sweet that Wesley could enjoy luxurious little post-coital cuddles, even if he was on the clock, as it were, denying his own "relationship" with Angel?). When Wesley said the magic word, Lilah rolled over on top of him and teased him with the schoolgirl sing-song taunt of "You called this a 'relationship'. You lost the bet...." With her on top, lovingly taunting him, proclaiming victory with the bet, she could have been the dominant party. Wesley gave clear signals of submission by giving a sheepish, "Oh, damn" while arching his back and spreading his arms in the classic "surrender" pose. Except, Lilah was simultaneously lowering herself as if offering herself to Wesley. Wes gave a rare Season 4 lovely smile as he reached for his wallet to pull out the dollar bill, looking not at all displeased that he lost the bet, while looking quite confident, and very much in control.

When I watched all of the Wes/Lilah scenes, I couldn't help but wonder what made these scenes so magical for me? Was it the two attractive leads? The scriptwriters? The director(s)? The vision of Joss Whedon himself, or some other unnamed source?

I guess a better question would be, what percentage could you assign to each of the overall factors mentioned above to make these scenes so successful? And who was responsible for expertly choreographing the power plays for dominance in each of their scenes? As I alluded to earlier, the scripts themselves don't tell the whole story, but do the scriptwriters give additional information to the directors to make sure the scenes are filmed in the way they envisioned?

Or did a lot of this just happen, with me inventing power plays that weren't really there?

I would love to think that Alexis and Stephanie cooked up a lot of the sizzle just by working together, since the thought of a director calling for a break in the action just to make sure they're grinding their hips properly is a real turnoff for me. I believe that at the time the scenes were being filmed, Stephanie had only been married a short time, and Alexis was newly engaged to Alyson Hannigan. So we have that interesting dynamic to keep in the back of our minds when we watch the love scenes.

Naturally, a huge part of the attractiveness of the Wes/Lilah scenes is my own attraction to Wesley/Alexis Denisof. Whenever I see him on TV, I immediately want to run up to him, face him, unbutton his shirt, and hug him by putting my arms around his waist underneath the shirt. I've never been able to figure out what my favorite "type" of guy is, but I do notice there are some men who just seem to exude certain pheromones that just draw me right to them. How Wesley/Alexis is able to exude these pheromones through a TV screen, I'll never know.

The production staff couldn't pair up Wesley with just anyone and draw me in with the love scenes, no matter how attracted I am to Wesley's character. Could you imagine how disastrous it would have been if Wesley hooked up with Season 5's Eve? In fact, Eve is such an annoying character, I can't tell if she was supposed to be unlikeable and annoying (something Lilah/Stephanie could never pull off no matter how evil her character), or if the Whedon production team made a big goof in introducing her character. I can't help but think that Sarah Thompson was not the right actress for the role, particularly since her intimate scenes with Angel and Lindsey were so utterly revolting. Business school graduates will recognize Eve as one of those stuck-up, by the books girls who have no real aptitudes or talents, (or even any looks), but will somehow manage to ace their classes and land plumb assignments in their first jobs after graduation.

Lilah/Stephane Romanov, on the other hand, is a character I always liked, and someone I'd secretly like to be (except for the evil part.) Brilliant, ambitious, sexy, funny. What's not to like about Lilah? I'm sure there are entire drawers full of term papers on why someone like me has no problem with certain female actresses romancing my favorite handsome hunks, while other actresses bring out the inner jealousy harpy from me.

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