Thursday, July 30, 2009

Handle With Care

"Untouched" from Angel's Season 2 had it's faults, (mostly in that I didn't care for the character of Bethany), yet the episode still turned out to offer a thought-provoking exploration of how a victim's coping mechanisms can cross the line into destructive manipulative behavior.

Daisy McCrackin's Bethany developed telekinetic powers as a result of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Bethany apparently had little control of her powers, and had a tendency to cause serious injury (and even kill people) when she felt threatened. For the most part, Bethany switched back and forth between being frightened and confused as she was literally crying for help, to becoming hostile and sarcastic to those who attempted to reach out to her.

Unless I totally missed something, I don't think we ever learned her age. I assumed that Bethany had already graduated from high school and was attempting to live on her own as an adult. However, there were allusions dropped here and there that she could have been a teenage runaway. I think it makes a big difference as to whether she was a minor or had reached the age of consent. Regardless, Bethany was obviously a young woman who was ill-suited to facing the real world without a considerable amount of guidance.

It was interesting to see how the different adults in Angel reacted to Bethany. Lilah, whom I speculated in an earlier post might have had to adopt a lot of manipulative coping mechanisms of her own when she was a young girl, probably recognized Bethany as somewhat of a kindred spirit and knew how to push the right buttons. While grooming Bethany to be an assassin for Wolfram & Hart, Lilah became a mother/big sister figure to Bethany and used massive amounts of flattery to gain her trust. Bethany probably had close to zero self-esteem at that time, which Lilah used to her advantage. Significantly, I don't think the subject of Bethany's real mother ever came up.

Angel recognized Bethany as being scared and confused, and set out to gently gain her trust in order to be able to teach her how to accept herself and learn to deal with her powers. Cordelia took one look at Bethany, spotted her as a phony, and let her know in no uncertain terms that she wasn't going to be playing Bethany's game.

Bethany's arrival at the Hyperion Hotel was quite revealing. She looked oh-so-pitiful as she stumbled down the stairs in her nightgown (looking childishly demure in her cardigan and clunky shoes, of course) and collapsed for a split second into Angel's arms. Bethany had rushed out of Lilah's apartment in fright after she had unwittingly used her telekinetic powers to hit Lilah with a lamp while she was dreaming about her father. (The dream had been brought on by Lilah's use of some sort of special powders she had taken from Darla.) Presumably, Bethany wandered around for roughly 12 hours or so before she showed up at the Hyperion Hotel.

Angel, of course, was all concerned about the poor innocent young victim who stood before him. Cordelia had Bethany figured as a manipulative bitch even before she stumbled into Angel's arms. The audience had no way of knowing for sure when Bethany was being phony and when she was being sincere. I tend to think that at times Bethany wasn't consciously aware that she was being manipulative. However, Bethany's immediately hostile reaction to Cordy could certainly lead people to think that she was upset by the fact that Cordy could see right through her.

To digress a little bit, there are a lot of high-maintenance, "handle with care" people in the world. I normally think of this in terms of a consequence of aging, though there certainly are a lot of younger people afflicted with this type of personality disorder. In general, if you find that you have a very difficult time dealing with people who don't know you very well, (and don't know about your special whims), and if you find that friends or relatives accompany you whenever you have to deal with strangers as you go about your personal business, you're probably high-maintenance and/or need professional counseling.

An example I can think of is a favorite Leave It To Beaver episode, where June Cleaver's Aunt Martha came to stay with Ward and the boys for a few days while June went out of town. June was raised by her Aunt Martha, and Martha was a very opinionated woman who only tolerated a certain range of acceptable human behavior. Before she left, June ran down a huge checklist with Ward and the boys of how they should behave around Martha. I loved how Ward made June all huffy when he said, "Don't worry, June. I know what it's like to have difficult relatives, too."

Well, predictably, Martha arrived and shamed all three gentlemen into acting prim and proper at all times, even making "Theodore" go to school in knee-pants and a suit jacket. Predictably, The Beaver got beat up by the other kids in his class. Ward had to resort to way-laying Beaver in the garage after he left the house in the morning and having him change into his regular clothes before he left for school.

Anyways, this is how manipulative, high-maintenance people function. People within their spheres of influence feel compelled to change their own behaviors and think in terms of "how will this effect (Martha)(Bethany)" before taking any action. Angel was willing to take things gently and slowly and to humor Bethany. Cordelia worried about Angel being taken advantage of. Although Cordelia couldn't hear what Angel and Bethany were talking about, Bethany, in fact, was revealing just little bits and pieces of herself in dribs and drabs. She would act all sad and confused, then become hostile and deny everything that Angel was able to figure out. It would have taken forever for Angel to achieve any sort of breakthrough with Bethany, since she practically had him dancing around on puppet strings.

When Cordelia voiced her thoughts to Wesley about Bethany and her (sexual) vibe, she spurred Wesley into his full Wesley the Watcher mode where he decided to confront Bethany head-on about her situation. He correctly guessed that Bethany had been sexually abused by her father (no one was aware of this abuse until that point in the show), and decided to play Bad Cop to Angel's Good Cop. I addressed Wes' behavior with Bethany previously here, where Wesley decided that full confrontation was the best course of action. Instead of coddling the young woman, he shocked her by declaring that it would be a complete waste to spend any more time on her. Significantly, instead of literally and figuratively keeping his distance in the way that Angel was behaving with her, Wesley severely invaded her personal space by going face-to-face with her, to the point where she immediately felt threatened and telekinetically threw both Wesley and Angel quite violently across the room.

In essence, Wesley met her sexual vibe and raised it with his own threatening sexual vibe.

Although Bethany was apparently severely traumatized, (to the point where Angel sent Wesley home), Wesley undeniably achieved a breakthrough, allowing both Angel and Bethany to take things to the next level as far as helping her deal with her anger and her past traumatic events.

This was an interesting scene, where Bethany, acting as the quavering little girl, undeniably approached Angel for sex. Bethany came close to openly admitting that she was aware of her manipulative ways when she revealed, "Everyone thinks I'm so fragile and innocent. Men love it." Bethany then went on a woeful "men just use me" kind of spiel without revealing a) her reasoning for indulging in that type of behavior with men in general (Bethany might have been trying to put across the idea that she had sex with men simply because she was used to it and didn't know any other way) or b) what she hoped to gain from Angel by approaching him in this way. This was worth exploring a bit more, but the scene was cut short probably due to a combination of fear of network censorship and the need to get on with the rest of the story.

Fortunately for us, Cordelia wasn't afraid to confront Bethany when she warned her "Don't bone my boss." Cordelia recognized that Angel was in danger of losing control over Bethany without even realizing he was getting played by her. Cordelia said a little later on that Angel "...sees you as, pretty much, the damsel in distress. I think it's a little more complicated than that."

Also,

Cordelia: I think you're kind of dangerous. I'm not being mean. I like you. I do. But, you come on all helpless and ... I mean, people that thought that you were helpless before have died.
And finally,

Cordelia: I had a vision of you. That's how Angel found you. I felt everything. And those guys are better off squashed, I truly think, but somewhere in that moment of panic a decision got made and I don't want something like that to happen to my friends, or -- and I can't stress this enough -- me. No matter what, sex complicates the equation, even more than you think.
From what Cordelia was saying, it didn't matter if Bethany was or was not cognizant of her manipulative behaviors. What mattered was that she was exhibiting certain behaviors that could cause a lot of damage! Bethany pretended she understood what Cordelia was saying, but it was obvious the only thing she heard was "Don't screw Angel." Unfortunately, the scene was cut short when she was kidnapped by the Wolfram & Hart goon squad.

However, the scene did serve to bring Bethany's issues out more in the open. Bethany lost her "innocence" at a very early age. She coped with her early sexuality by being the pitiful victim, but found out later on she could use that behavior to her advantage. Instead of exploring the adult side of erotic and emotional sexual intimacy, Bethany was instead playing a mechanical game of "What happens when I do this?"

Or maybe she was exploring the "adult side of erotic and emotional sexual intimacy" in what she thought was a safe manner, with they guy who was helping her out with all of her other issues?

Predictably, Angel rescued Bethany from her kidnappers, and rescued her from her emotional traumas. I was a bit disappointed in the ending. I loved Angel's confrontation with Lilah when he brought Bethany there to pack her things, but I didn't like Bethany's melodramatic reunion with her father where she telekinetically tossed him out of the upper story of the Hyperion Hotel, only to "catch" him just as he was about to go "splat" onto the sidewalk. I thought a subtle, more controlled grown-up conversation would have been more appropriate, but I'm just quibbling at this point.

Closing Thoughts. Another theme that fascinates me is, how can you devote yourself to an unlovable victim who doesn't want any help? I find the thought of uncontrollable Bethanies running around pretty scary, and I would have just as soon seen her squashed like a bug just like her potential rapists. The Powers That Be knew she was worth saving, otherwise they wouldn't have sent Cordelia the vision. It's a credit to Angel that he never gave up on people. I'm often saddened to think of all of the people in the world who won't get the help they desperately need just because others find them too repulsive to work with. (Think of mentally ill people living in absolute filth.)

How did Cordelia spot Bethany as a phony right away? Perhaps it takes one to know one? Not that Cordelia was as bad as Bethany, but Cordelia herself demonstrated early on in the episode how she could get her way by smiling, flashing her big brown eyes, sticking out her tongue, and otherwise acting adorable.

In a quick glance at the episode list, I believe "Untouched" marked one of the last times Angel featured a Season 1 type of "victim of the week" story line. It was time for the series to move on, but it was too bad we couldn't see David Boreanaz reprise the role he did so well of using his deep understanding of human nature to bring hope and redemption to people in need. I think we had to wait until Season 5's "The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco" before we could really enjoy that side of Angel's character again.

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