Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thoughts on Charles Gunn

I've been thinking for quite some time that there really is quite a parallel between the lives of Lindsey McDonald and Charles Gunn in Angel. Both came from horrific poverty-stricken backgrounds, and both were inspired to devote their lives exacting their revenge on whatever haunted them throughout their childhoods. Lindsey chose to turn his back on his childhood and embrace Evil. Charles chose to help those who suffered, and chose the path to Good.

I therefore found it quite interesting when, for the second time, I watched the introduction of Charles Gunn to the series in "War Zone", that the producers playfully took great pains to compare Gunn with Angel, right down to Gunn emerging from the shadows in his long coat and appearing on the rooftop with Angel, gazing down at the nighttime Los Angeles skyline.

As it turns out, Gunn was just as upwardly mobile as Lindsey. I can't remember the exact episodes, but even before Season 5, Gunn made several references to how anyone who thought he would choose to stay or return to the gutter was sadly mistaken. It just takes longer to acquire the trappings of success when you're fighting for Good, (justice being it's own reward and all of that baggage.) There's a lot of confusion as to why Gunn chose to seemingly turn his back on his friends and join the Angel Investigations team. I've written before that Gunn appeared to be seduced by the more upscale lifestyle and was willing to sacrifice some of his more extreme alpha male tendencies in order to be accepted into the group. So, in a way, he was climbing up the ladder just the same as Lindsey. It was quite telling that of all of the members of AI who joined Wolfram & Hart in Season 5, Charles seemed to embrace the trappings the most of everybody, simply because he would have fallen the farthest if things didn't work out.

Gunn was deep-down very sweet-natured, as we could tell in his relationship with Fred, and we could sense that his street background wasn't really his natural element. Some people seem to embrace their tough poverty-stricken lives and learn to adopt some pretty remarkable coping strategies in order to survive. Others are miserable and would like to leave, but feel honor-bound to stay and help others.

Of course, and this is what I love about the Whedonverse, you can never easily categorize people, and Charles was actually a pretty complex character. When I first encountered Charles Gunn, I could not understand why his character was so seemingly acquiescent to Angel, Wesley and Cordelia. Of course he kicked up a little bit of a fuss at first, but he quickly settled into the "yes man" role. Even Angelus, who served the valuable role of telling people the honest truth, could sense that Charles felt that he was purposefully allowing people to step all over him.

I felt uncomfortable because I thought actor J. August Richards was being underutilized. I thought the producers felt guilty about it and even made his plight part of the storyline in Season 5.

I never advise anyone to just "get over it" and take what's given to them unquestioningly. However, in the Whedonverse, I've learned that, after you recover from the initial shock, you sometimes have to eventually take what's given to you at face value and sincerely work your way through the implications. You're always free to reject things later on. Charles was full of contradictions, just like people are in real life. He was upwardly mobile, but didn't take the easy way out and fall into a life of crime. He wanted to escape the streets, but probably loved "dusting it up with vamps" more than anything else in the world.

Gunn followed a true calling for helping out those in need. He remarkably decided to answer that call at age 13. On what was probably his last day on earth, Gunn quite tellingly chose to help Annie at the youth shelter back in his old neighborhood. I know he was busy feeling guilty about Fred's death and trying everything he could to make himself suffer in atonement, but I have a feeling that Charles would have headed back to help Annie regardless.

I could understand why Charles, after a bit of posturing, decided to fall in line behind Angel. Results spoke louder than anything, and Angel was undoubtedly the best around. He was 100% devoted to the cause, he was always the smartest guy in the room, and, best of all, he could destroy just about anything in the world in a fight.

I could never fully understand why Gunn allowed himself to stand behind Wesley in the pecking order. When TNT last showed Angel's Season 2 episodes, they chose not to show "The Thin Dead Line". I was bitterly disappointed because much was made later on about how Wesley took a bullet for Gunn. I felt this episode was pivotal in the drastic change in the relationship dynamics between Charles Gunn and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, and I hope TNT airs it the next time around (which should be coming up pretty soon.) While I'm at it, I might as well openly admit that I've been wondering if TNT purposefully censored "The Thin Dead Line"? Is there something horribly objectionable about it that made TNT decide not to air it?

Regardless, as much as Charles made fun of Wesley's book learning and mildly-comic British ways, I think he also felt an inferiority complex because Wesley had a valuable skill while Gunn only provided "the muscle". I felt that several times Angel did a wonderful job of exploring conflicts within the working world, with Season 4 "Harm's Way" commenting on the thankless job of being an admin being the best example.

In corporate life (and, really, in just about any job), there's a natural divide between those who are considered to be the valuable employees and those who act as worker drones. No organization can survive without highly dedicated and competent worker drones, but management and those with special skills like to remind the drones on a regular basis that they deliver quite little in overall value to the organization and can be replaced at a moment's notice. If drones felt that they mattered at all, they might start demanding pay raises, and we can't have that!

Angel was the CEO, and Wesley and Fred were the brainy lieutenants. Cordelia had her visions, although even she showed us she was wrestling with her insecurities when she admitted she was afraid she had nothing to contribute to the group if she lost her visions. Gunn was a highly valuable employee. The mission statement of Angel Investigations was to fight demons, and Gunn was one of the best around at fighting demons. It brings to mind turf wars in a manufacturing company where the guys in finance are able to convince everyone that they are more valuable to the company than the people who design and build the end products.

Back to Wesley. By the beginning of Season 3, he was clearly "The Boss" (until Angel reasserted his natural leadership later on). I think the creators could have done a better job of showing the audience just how Wesley earned that title, but I still think they provided a reasonably clear pathway. (Note: I think it was implied that some of his growth as a leader took place in the foggy months between the end of Season 2 and the beginning of Season 3.)

Outside of Angel, Wesley was the best strategist, as he proved in the Pylea dimension. Any time you have a group with supposedly equal partners, you will inevitably have someone who starts acting in the Executive Officer capacity. In other words, when everyone else is just looking around to see who's going to move, someone will naturally step up and start taking action. The key is, will this person be considered the patsy who does all of the work? Or will this person take charge, provide the overall vision, and inspire others into action? Wesley fell into the latter category during the time when he, Gunn and Cordelia started their own business. He was extremely intelligent and had the ability to quickly plan a logical course of attack.

Even though Wesley wasn't quite the dashing heroic figure, he still inspired confidence. Charles also knew that Wesley didn't have an easy job. Despite his beginning doubts, Wes was probably more suited to carry the overall burdens than Charles. Charles figured he could devise plans to get people to go out and bust heads, but he had a lot to learn about other aspects of leading a team, like, keeping an eye on the bigger picture. Gunn could either fight Wesley tooth and nail, asserting his alpha male dominance every step of the way, or he could save everyone the time and trouble and fall in line like the rest of them. Of course, Charles did challenge Wesley quite a bit, just like every employee should. He just chose not to make an asshole out of himself.

Even though Charles seemingly accepted his place, it was more out of convenience than anything else. He was used to being a leader of a street gang, and it must not have been easy to relinquish his Top Dog status. With Angel Investigations, he was in a different world, and he had a lot to learn before he could even think of applying for the top spot. I even grew to admire him for his actions in certain ways. Let's face it: in the real world, there are leaders and there are followers. Leaders are higher up in the pyramid, and nothing can ever change that. People who think they need special status are high maintenance and need a lot of constant coddling. What a waste of everyone's valuable time! Charles didn't like being in the lower part of the pyramid, but he was too intelligent and devoted to the overall mission to make everyone shower him with exaggerated praise on a regular basis just to keep him happy. Quite frankly, Charles acted in a mature manner and was above it all.

Afterthoughts. Notice how Charles came from a lower-class gang to join an upperclass group.

Please also note that I carefully chose the wording up above when I said that Charles "chose the path to Good". I think that being Evil and being Good are equally easy. The key difference is that when you choose Evil, you have no doubts. Once you choose Evil, you're already there. (Although Lindsey showed that you can have your doubts after you've arrived at Evil.) When you choose Good, you're plagued by temptation and lingering doubts the entire time. You never feel Good enough, and the choice of Good feels like a lifetime journey where you never quite reach your destination.

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