Sunday, August 30, 2009

Good Deeds and Their Rewards



The YouTube video up above (h/t to Friendly Atheists) shows Joss Whedon's wonderful acceptance speech that he made at Harvard University in April of this year when he accepted the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University.

Much has been made about Joss Whedon's atheism. One can't help but wonder if ratings for his shows are noticeably lower in large swaths of the Bible Belt and other highly religious regions of the world.

I admit that I didn't spend a lot of time researching this, but I was rather surprised that in the few minutes I spent on Google, I didn't find any good fundamentalist rants about the anti-Christian nature of the Buffyverse. If anyone has a good link, by all means, send it to me. I did manage to find this piece (written by a devout Christian Whedon fan) that I thought was even-handed and well thought out. The author didn't exactly let Whedon off the hook for being an atheist, but also didn't strongly condemn him either.

Regardless, I'm betting that a lot of Christians are somewhat upset that Whedon tends to lump Christianity together with all other major religions and belief systems of the world. One piece of dialogue that sticks out for me is Wesley's reply to Lilah, when she claimed that a child born to two vampires was without precedence:

"You're wrong. Mesopotamian, Greek, Hindi, Celtic myth, the Bible, even Darwin, all support the coming of something that wasn't possible before."
Although Whedon is unabashedly a non-believer in organized religion, I've never felt that he has been in any way disrespectful of Christianity itself. He's made it quite clear a number of times that he has more problems with Christians who denounce him specifically (and who also denounce atheists in general) than with the Christian faith itself, as this YouTube video posted in December 2008 shows. (I previously quoted a portion of this excerpt in my previous post here.)



At 2:36 minutes into the video, Joss stated, in response to an audience member who asked what he has against Christians,

"I don't actually have anything against anybody unless their belief precludes everybody else's. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. I've actually taken a huge amount of flack for that. People who have faith tend to think that people who don't, don't have a belief system and they don't care if they make fun of them. It's actually very difficult. Atheists...as a group, are not really recognized by the American public as people to be taken seriously. This does not mean that I rail against religion. However, the meaning of life and the meaning of what we do with our lives is something that's extremely important to me. I have included characters from many different religions, particularly in this show [Firefly], but also in the other shows as well because I'm interested in the concept. I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't, and that's just how that works......

snip

You know there's one other thing I would mention, which is from Angel, actually. One of the few times that I really got to sort of say exactly what I think about the world was in the second season of Angel, Episode 16 ['Epiphany'] when he'd gone all dark, because he does that, and that he was getting better, and he basically decided -- he'd been told: 'The world is meaningless, nothing matters.' And he said: 'Well then, this is my statement: Nothing matters, so the only thing that matters is what we do.' Which is what I believe: I believe that the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme.

But then the next thing that somebody says to him is....'you burst into my apartment without being invited, which a vampire can't do, which is like a little miracle', and I just sort of let that hang. I said, the thing I believed in most, and then I contradicted it right away, because, ultimately its the confluence, or the conflict, of those ideas that's actually really interesting. So the answer is nothing [does he have anything against Christians?] unless you've got something against me."

The Buffyverse is awash in religious symbolism, as Whedon recognizes the power behind the rich metaphors and allegories of the major religions. (Think of Lilah's Christ-like abdominal wound in Season 4's "Calvary".) Without this intense imagery, all narratives would be reduced to dry recitations of the facts, with all of the emotional impact of bullet-pointed budget reports.

In the YouTube video of his Harvard appearance up at the top of this post, Joss Whedon stated that:

"The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world. That is what we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in god means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers."
Although, judging from comments on various boards, his statement appears to many as bordering on the dogmatic, I believe that Joss is saying that it's OK for atheists/humanists to still have strong belief systems. Indeed, I can't imagine how anyone can adequately function without a core set of values. Just because a person's values aren't guided by a religious entity doesn't mean that he or she doesn't operate within some sort of a moral framework. It only means that the person isn't afraid to venture outside of their safety zone and explore other avenues of morality.

There are Christians of certain denominations who pretend to speak on behalf of all Christians, or who believe that their brand of Christianity is the only brand that will bring true salvation. I would imagine that certain believers would find Whedon's message rather alarming, that according to Angel, "In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win."

I'm far from being an expert on world religions or even on all of the differences within the Christian faith. However, I'm convinced that no religion truly preaches a pure, unadulterated carrot-and-stick approach to salvation. There's a certain unsophisticated Sunday School approach to morality where if you do good deeds now, you'll go to Heaven, and if you do bad things, you'll go to Hell. I suspect that most religions take a more subtle approach, that God (or your deity of choice) does not want you to act purely out of fear of being sent to Hell. God wants you to approach your life with joy and to derive satisfaction (as opposed to the feeling of prideful arrogance) from the good deeds you perform. Angel's contention that "..all that matters is what we do" is hardly inconsistent with that point of view.

In other words, just about everyone who has a personal belief system recognizes the need to perform good deeds. If anything, it should take a much stronger person to perform good deeds just for their own rewards, since that person is not expecting any greater glory in the end. The motivation behind the performance of good deeds, either for eternal salvation or for the satisfaction derived from the performance alone, shouldn't matter to the outside observer.

There are also many Christians who have serious doubts about the literal interpretation of the Bible. One woman I know said she used to be really upset about all of the uncertainties of her faith. She said she finally reached a point (her own Epiphany) that she accepted the fact that she'll never know the answers to all of her questions, and she now devotes her life the best she can to doing God's work. She doesn't know exactly what her greater reward will be for doing these deeds, but she is doing the work for the intrinsic satisfaction that her actions bring to her. Another Christian I know is convinced that we create our own Hell on earth by the deeds we perform in life. According to him, the worst sinners have to continue on after their deaths with the hell of knowing the full realization of the consequences of their evil deeds.

Remarkably, in Season 5, Lindsey McDonald talked about his existence in the Wolfram & Hart "holding dimension", and explained that "Turns out they can only undo you as far as you think you deserve to be undone." Seeing as how it appeared Lindsey had his heart ripped out of him every single day he was in the "holding dimension", he must have had some issues he was working through. Which begs the larger question of, if you're a sociopath and feel no remorse for the evil acts you performed, will you ever go to Hell?

In my larger Joss Whedon quote above, he mentioned how, in Season 2's "Epiphany", the creators immediately contradicted Angel's "all that matters is what we do..." statement. Kate pointed out that she was starting to believe that "we're not alone in this", since she never invited him into her apartment to save her life. I've been reading many online articles lately that point out a lot of instances of how the creators and characters seem to continuously contradict themselves in Angel. Far from being continuity issues, these contradictions effectively add tension to the stories and bring a lot more layers of complexity. Angel's existential "epiphany" and Kate's simultaneous "epiphany" of faith brought together these two competing themes quite successfully.

In real life, humans are full of contradictions and individuals often act out of competing motivations. Joss Whedon and the other creators featured that theme front and center throughout Angel, which is one of the reasons it was such a great series. We are constantly having to search within ourselves and try to figure out the best way to solve our various crises and live our lives to the fullest. Angel gave up a lot when he decided that trying to gain his reward (a return to human form) as interpreted from the Shanshu prophecy was all just an illusion. Luckily for the world, he was able to work through his crisis and reach some sort of peace with himself. Perhaps his ultimate reward was being given the strength to help out those who were truly in need.

Idle Thought. The idea of the Shanshu Prophecy never went away for Angel, culminating in his Season 5 race against Spike to drink out of the Cup of Perpetual Torment. I hope to go through the series one more time and try to determine how Angel moves away from his Season 2 "Epiphany" to his realization that there seems to be some sort of greater purpose in life after all.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Evil Side of Christianity

I'm working on a series of posts about Joss Whedon and his atheism, and his exploration of religious faith in his various TV projects. For perspective, here's an article from the TimesOnline about Phillip Garrido entitled, "Man Who Kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991 'Heard the Voice of God' ". Also, here's a link to one of the blogs he maintained, Voices Revealed, which I'm posting because I have a feeling Garrido's lawyers will be taking it down pretty soon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 4 - Epiphany

I've mentioned more than once that this scene between Angel and Kate Lockley in Season 2's "Epiphany" is incredibly moving and could possibly be my favorite scene in the entire Angel TV series. The scene was well-acted by both Elisabeth Rohm and David Boreanaz, and turned out to be a poignant ending to their on-screen relationship. I wrote about it once before from Kate's point of view here.

Producer Joss Whedon was apparently profoundly influenced by the works of the French existentialist-leaning author Albert Camus, as shown by this piece of dialogue:

Kate: I just couldn't... My whole life has been about being a cop. If I'm not part of the force it's like nothing I do means anything.

Angel: It doesn't.

Kate: Doesn't what?

Angel: Mean anything. In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win.

Kate: You seem kind of chipper about that.

Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today. - I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward, finally just to beat the other guy, but... I never got it.

Kate: And now you do?

Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because I don't think people should suffer, as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Kate: Yikes. It sounds like you had an epiphany.

Angel: I keep saying that. But nobody's listening.
Joss Whedon himself stated (please note - there were several typos that I chose to correct without the usual markups):

"One of the few times I really got to sort of say exactly what I think about the world was in the second season of Angel, episode 16 ["Epiphany"] when he'd gone all dark, because he does that, and that he was getting better, and he basically decided -- he'd been told: 'The world is meaningless, nothing matters.' And he said: 'Well then, this is my statement: Nothing matters, so the only thing that matters is what we do.' Which is what I believe: I believe the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme." [Emphasis mine.]
It was while all of this was swirling through my head a few weeks ago when I decided to re-read some of the old posts written by the late, great Tanta at Calculated Risk, and I ran across this reply that she made to a reader comment. It says, in part,

You know, ...., my niece took physics last semester, so I just got my memory refreshed on what it's like to be 18 and convinced that there is nothing we can know with certainty, therefore there is nothing we can know, therefore there is nothing we can do, and what the hell are we going to do now? I explained to her that if she had only read Camus in high school like her Tanta she'd have already been through that by the time she got to college, and might have been more entertained by Schroedinger's cat."
I have to admit that Tanta's sly comment deflated my balloon somewhat, since it reduced my blog post about what I thought was a very profound moment in the Angel series to a high school book report.

What really raised my eyebrows was when I read this next paragraph of hers, since it comes pretty close to the same solution to a conundrum that I came across with this episode. Tanta, in referring to what she considered to be an inferior Washington Post article, and also commenting on the decline of newspapers in general, continued on:

Of course no narrative account in a newspaper is going to give us Objective Unambiguous Truth. So? There is still better and worse, we can still act as if words have meaning, and we can still do something about what appears, more or less, like injustice, a word that can certainly still mean something, Heisenberg or no Heisenberg. We may have to do it from a somewhat less steely-eyed sanctimonious messianic perspective than the True Believers, but I see this as actual gravy, not something to mourn the loss of."
What was my conundrum? Was Holland Manners telling Angel a series of bald-faced lies when he took him for that elevator ride in "Reprise"? Or was Holland Manners simply giving Angel a variation of the truth, since perhaps there is no such thing as an Objective Unambiguous Truth? Even if the advice Manners meted out better served the enemy camp, should everything he said have simply been discarded without a second thought? Or was there intrinsic value in his advice that transcended all boundaries between Good and Evil? Perhaps Manners' words were a necessary starting point for Angel to pause, regroup, and go forth to renew his battles against injustice?

When we think of "apocalypse", we commonly think in terms of the final Apocalypse, where the forces of Good and Evil wage their final battle for control over whatever universe we're talking about. Everything we're doing up to that point is supposedly in preparation for the final battle. Holland Manners avoided talking about why Wolfram & Hart routinely scheduled apocalypses, but he did make clear that there's no Final Apocalypse that will ultimately bring victory to the forces of Evil or the end of the world. My interpretation is that the Senior Partners ordered up battles (or little mini-apocalypses) off and on in order to consolidate their gains (or to dispose of major nuisances, like Angel), then continue on as before.

Lindsey, in Season Five, set Angel straight (as far as we know) by telling him that the Apocalypse was already happening, and had been happening for many years. Angel acknowledged that Holland Manners' had given him the "hell on earth" speech three years before, but Angel also seemed to imply that he hadn't fallen for the speech. I'm not sure if that's totally accurate, but it was true that by Season 5, it was clear that Angel wasn't simply content to sit back and take what the Senior Partners were dishing out to him. He was back to going after the source of all Evil. Although Angel had been duped by the Senior Partners into working for them, his motivations were unchanged. If there was going to be any Final Apocalypse, he planned on fighting for Good.

It's safe to say that Holland Manners was being highly misleading to Angel. Lilah even reported triumphantly in a meeting a few episodes later that Angel was ".. back with his group, sir. According to my sources he's doing better, in the sense that he's not currently spending all of his time alone on the warpath trying to kill, well... us." The implication was that Manners helped deflect Angel's attentions away from Wolfram & Hart and back to helping out the innocents.

However misleading he was, Manners was still telling a certain version of the truth. As Lindsey stated in Season 5, "What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys." Instead of the world being covered by blackened battlefields as the forces of Good and Evil waged continuous battle, little skirmishes were being fought here and there. Practically no one would have had the ability to connect the dots and be able to tell that there was an overall pattern to all of the little outbreaks occurring on our "hell on earth".

More importantly, Manners did Angel a huge favor by turning him away from his quest to go after the Senior Partners. I believe there were little hints sprinkled here and there that The Powers That Be helped Angel out with his "moment of clarity" and his "epiphany" after his sexual encounter with Darla. Instead of bringing him perfect happiness and turning him back into the evil Angelus, Darla brought Angel total despair. This despair helped Angel focus on how he needed to renew his dedication to the cause of Good by helping out the innocents. It would be a huge stretch to say that The Powers That Be helped the Senior Partners conjure up Holland Manners in the elevator, but it was nonetheless pivotal that Manners came along right at that precise moment. Manners talked Angel out of instigating a direct confrontation with the Senior Partners, and helped push him further down his path of total despair.

The Powers That Be, quite frankly, weren't ready for Angel to fight the Final Battle, and did what they had to do to bring Angel back into his earlier lifestyle of helping the helpless.

In my next post I'll talk about the religious implications of living your life in expectation of a final reward versus simply living for the moment, and how Angel became a better person after going through his crisis of faith.

Closing Thoughts. As far as I know, Angel was never able to go directly to the Senior Partners' dimension. Darla mentioned that the "ring" (the band of Blacknil) didn't work. Lindsey responded that "...of course it doesn't work, because after Angel stole it there was a disenchanting ceremony. It took half the meeting." Was the disenchanting ceremony completed by the time Angel met with Holland Manners? It would appear that it should have still been functional, but did the band of Blacknil really work as advertised for Angel? Or was there some other magic that prevented Angel from meeting face-to-face with the Senior Partners?

In Season 5, Lindsey told Wesley et al that the Senior Partners were on a different plane, which was why they had the Circle of the Black Thorn do their bidding on earth. Anyone reading this blog is probably used to the idea that it's never impossible to travel to a different plane in the Buffyverse, provided you chant enough magic spells and defeat the requisite number of 3-headed monsters. Is it possible that the band of Blacknil only worked for the Senior Partners?

Lorne might not have been hearing voices in "Epiphany", but he still handed out masterful advice to Angel in Caritas. Lorne and Angel made a great duo, as shown by this scene and how well they worked together in "Happy Anniversary".

Just like with "Reprise", the creators did a terrific job of fitting in all of the necessary story elements in "Epiphany". They probably could have ended the series right there if they wanted to. Thankfully, Angel continued on for three more seasons.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 3 - Reprise

The ensouled Angel had been around for about 100 years before we got to know him in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel:The Series. We've been given some tantalizing clues as to how he lived his life before the mid-1990's (feeding from the blood of criminals, serving in a special capacity for the U.S. military in WWII, somehow having the means to rent rooms in the Hyperion Hotel in the 1950's, hanging out with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, living off of rats, etc.), but we really don't know about the pathway he traveled on his own personal journey of self-discovery during those years. Angel seemed to have lived a life of ups and downs, culminating in how Whistler, the balancing demon, discovered Angel feeding off of rats in New York City in 1996.

Suffice it to say, whatever path Angel was on, he seemed to be taking a rather circuitous route.

It would be unfair to say that Angel didn't really learn a lot or grow as much as he should have in his 100 years or so of ensouled existence. For one thing, Angel showed a type of wisdom that only a century of living could produce, particularly in his deep-rooted understanding and acceptance of human frailties. It's possible that he had learned many things in his lifetime, and unlearned them as later events seemed to disprove some of the special insights he might have acquired. With this in mind, Angel's apparent naivete in his single-minded quest to go after Wolfram & Hart in Season 2 starts to make a little more sense.

Angel started Season 1 in Darkness and was rapidly reverting back to Darkness in Season 2. Although Angel had a soul and could probably technically tell the difference between Right and Wrong even in his Dark states, the fact that he put himself in a position to not allow himself to be accountable to other humans seemed to be his downfall. In Season 2, Angel felt he knew what needed to be done, and his centuries of existence, ensouled or otherwise, allowed him to understand the Big Picture much more clearly than the "kids" he was hanging out with. (Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn.) In reality, the "kids", through their idealism, were correctly seeing what needed to be done at that point in time with crystal clarity and focus. Angel himself was caught in a weird hodgepodge of wisdom, naivete, idealism and realism, all of which he was desperately trying to sort out.

Although Angel was more than capable of distinguishing the shades of gray that existed between the black and white of Good and Evil, he realized that the extremes of Good and Evil still existed on their own terms. In retrospect, his decision to try to destroy the Senior Partners of Wolfram & Hart seemed childish and foolhardy, but something must have happened to make him think it was possible. For one thing, the youthful idealism of Cordy, Wes and Gunn couldn't help but rub off on him a bit. His "realism" in looking at the overall picture of how Evil operated in this world was tempered by his idealistic approach to fighting "the war".

Also, the Shanshu Prophecy, as translated by Wesley to possibly mean that the "vampire with a soul" would become human after fighting in the Apocalypse, meant more to Angel than he could possibly ever let on. The Shanshu Prophecy showed his purpose in life, and acted as a road map to his final destiny. Life was worth living for a specific reason. His years of ensouled suffering for the misery he brought to hundreds of people, and his century of atonement for his actions, would bring him to his final reward.

"Reprise" did a wonderful job of showing how Angel obtained the information he needed in order to try to put an end to Wolfram & Hart, and perhaps the forces of Evil, once and for all. Angel knew something was up from all of the black magic rites that were being performed around Los Angeles. Lorne, who considered himself to be somewhat of a neutral, betrayed his true feelings for the forces of Good by telling Angel about the 75-year review at Wolfram & Hart and the Senior Partner performing the review. Lorne also informed Angel that there was a possibility that the Senior Partner could be killed in our dimension, and how the Senior Partners resided in a dimension called the "Home Office".

Later on, Angel received more valuable information from Denver, the delightful bookseller from "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been", before the old man was tragically killed by Darla. Denver told Angel that the Senior Partner would probably manifest himself as a Kleynach demon by wearing a ring called the "band of Blacknil". In order to get to the Home Office, Angel would need to defeat the Senior Partner and obtain the "band of Blacknil". Angel had to kill the demon by using a certain blessed glove of a worthy knight, which Denver just happened to have in his possession. (Angel, to his credit, at first thought Denver was making things up.) Unfortunately, Darla showed up, killed Denver, and took the glove for her own power play purposes.

Before being killed, Denver pointed out something that Angel probably already knew: Angel was on a suicide mission to "destroy the whole lot of them" in Hell!

If interested, I'll let you read how Angel fought Darla for the glove at the offices at Wolfram & Hart, and how Angel pushed the Senior Partner/Kleynach demon through a window, allowing both of them to fall 15 stories, resulting in the Kleynach demon's complete disintegration during the fall.

Is this sounding like a children's fairy tale adventure so far?

After Angel put the band of Blacknil on, things really got interesting. Right on cue, the deceased Holland Manners appeared in a hitherto unknown outside elevator and indicated to Angel that he was there to transport Angel to the Home Office as a reward for defeating the demon.

Angel, of course, was shocked to see Holland Manners standing there, and that is the first we knew of how the contracts of Wolfram & Hart employees continued on after their deaths.

I've mentioned before that what fascinates me about Holland Manners is that the advice he meted out can often be applied equally to the forces of both Evil and Good. I'll let this dialogue exchange between Holland Manners and Angel do the talking, as they're heading dozens of floors "Down" on the elevator:

Holland: Well, this is exciting, isn't it? Going straight to the source. So, what's the big plan, Angel? Destroy the Senior Partners, smash Wolfram and Hart once and for all?

Angel:
Something like that.

Holland:
Hm-mm, now tell me just what do you imagine that would accomplish? In the end, I mean.

Angel:
It'll be - the end.

Holland:
Well, the end of you, certainly. But I meant in the larger sense.
Holland Manners was roughly half the age of the ensouled Angel, yet he seemed infinitely wiser. Manners was certainly starting to hint that Angel was perhaps being reckless and naive in his quest to destroy Evil.

Angel: In the larger sense I really don't give a crap.

Holland:
Now I don't think that's true. Be honest. You got the tiniest bit of 'give a crap' left. Otherwise you wouldn't be going on this Kamikaze mission. Now let me see, there was something - in a sacred prophecy, some oblique reference to you. Something you're supposed to prevent. Now what was that?
Holland wasn't buying the idea that Angel had simply gone all Dark and was going after the Senior Partners in a blind rage.

Angel: The Apocalypse.

Holland:
Yes, the Apocalypse, of course. - Another one of those. Well, it's true. We do have one scheduled. And I imagine if you were to prevent it you would save a great many people. Well, you should do that then. Absolutely. I wasn't thinking. Of course all those people you save from that apocalypse would then have the next one to look forward to, but, hey, it's always something, isn't it?

Angel:
You're not gonna win.

Holland:
Well - *no*. Of course we aren't. We have no intention of doing anything so prosaic as 'winning.'

Angel:
Then why?

Holland:
Hmm? I'm sorry? Why what?

Angel:
Why fight?

Holland:
That's really the question you should be asking yourself, isn't it? See, for us, there is no fight. Which is why winning doesn't enter into it. We - go on - no matter what. Our firm has always been here. In one form or another. The Inquisition. The Khmer Rouge. We were there when the very first cave man clubbed his neighbor. See, we're in the hearts and minds of every single living being. And *that* - friend - is what's making things so difficult for you. See, the world doesn't work in spite of evil, Angel. It works with us. It works because of us.

(The elevator stops. The doors open and Angel looks out to see the plaza in front of the Wolfram and Hart Office building in LA. They're back where they started.)

Holland: Welcome to the home office.

Angel:
This isn't...

Holland:
Well, you know it is. You know *that* better than anyone. Things you've seen. Things you've, well... done. You see, if there wasn't evil in every single one of them out there (Angel watches as some people in the plaza start yelling at each other) why, they wouldn't be people. They'd all be angels.

(The glove drops from Angel's hand to land on the floor of the elevator and Angel slowly shuffles out of it.)

Holland:
Have a nice day.
If what Holland Manners was saying was true, we create our own Hell on Earth. There's no reason for the forces of Evil to order up any sort of Final Apocalypse. Evil doesn't want the world to end any more than Good does. Angel, who'd spent a lifetime in what we would consider to be a make-believe land of demons, vampires, spirits and magic, was all of a sudden forced into reality. In this world, there was no room for champions fighting the forces of Evil. Evil was necessary to keep our world in a balanced state. Angel's purpose in life was abruptly yanked out from under his feet.

Holland Manners brought despair to Angel and pushed him over to total Darkness. Realizing that there was no ultimate reward in life, Angel chose to end it all by turning to Darla and re-emerging as Angelus.

In my church Bible studies classes, many of us are of the opinion that the story of Adam and Eve is not that women are evil temptresses who brought sin, misery and sorrow into our world. The real story is how Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and in doing so, learned about the very existence of Good and Evil. Instead of being animals who are tenderly cared for by God (notice how Holland Manners more charitably substituted "angels" for "animals"), we became human! We live a life of choosing between Right and Wrong, and Good and Evil. The only way we can learn true Goodness is to explore or fight Evil. The trick is to learn the difference between the two forces and try to keep lurching down the path of Good.

As horrible as Evil is, it acts as a valuable point of reference on our moral compasses.

In my next post, I'll talk about my thoughts on Angel's "Epiphany".

Idle Thoughts. I wonder if the lawyers of Wolfram & Hart became suspicious of Lorne when he spent so much time talking to Angel in Caritas?

Did Angel, in fact, destroy a Senior Partner, or did he just destroy the shell of the Kleynach demon? In other words, when the Kleynach demon disintegrated into dust, did the Senior Partner simply emerge unscathed in whatever "Home Office" dimension he came from?

It seemed that the protagonists in Angel repeatedly believed whatever lines Wolfram & Hart dished out to them. Why did Angel believe what Holland Manners was telling him? Wolfram & Hart lawyers often did tell the truth, but mostly when it suited their purposes. It begs the obvious fact that the Senior Partner had to emerge from somewhere, and l don't think the streets of Los Angeles was where it came from.

Wasn't that elevator Muzak about the most evil thing you ever heard?

"Reprise" was probably one of the best all-around episodes in the entire Angel series. I'm simply amazed at how many story lines were seamlessly woven into that one-hour show. It's only fault was that Angel didn't experience his "Epiphany" until the next episode.

For a truly great review of "Reprise", I highly recommend "Jenoff's" Peripheral Visions website for the author's Summary and Analysis.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Pause in the Action

My apologies for not quickly coming out with "Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 3", where I discuss Angel's conversation with Holland Manners in the elevator in "Reprise". I keep going back and forth between how I want to approach the blog post. Do I want to discuss the events on their own merits, or do I want to compare and contrast his crisis of faith in Season 2 with his decision to go after the Senior Partners and the Circle of the Black Thorn in Season 5?

I have to admit that while I'm struggling with my writer's block, I'm also trying to cram in as much summer fun with my kids as possible before school starts up again next month.

In the meantime, best wishes to everyone.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 2 - Idealism Versus Pragmatism

After watching this phone scene between Wes and Cordy one more time in Angel's Season 2's "Reprise", I think I'm starting to understand what was happening a little bit better. The first time I saw the scene, I interpreted it to mean that Wes and Cordy were failing to emotionally connect with each other. I wrote previously that:
.........Wesley, who was still recovering from his gunshot wound, had just broken up with Virginia. He ostensibly called Cordelia to let her know he wasn't coming into the office the next day, but it was clear he was calling because he was emotionally down and needed to hear a friendly voice. Cordelia assumed that Wesley would be spending his evening with Virginia, so she kept the conversation short and simple, albeit rather abrupt. It was telling that Wesley didn't feel comfortable telling Cordelia right then and there that he had broken up with Virginia. It was equally telling that Cordelia, who admittedly seemed a bit preoccupied, couldn't sense that something wasn't quite right with Wesley. I felt it was a clear signal that Wes and Cordy's special relationship was effectively at an end, with just a few brief (but warm) flareups rising up after that.
Later on, Wesley informed Angel in "Epiphany" that Cordelia Chase was no longer the "...carefree creature she once was" and had become a "solitary girl". He continued on:
"...It's the visions, you see. The visions that were meant to guide you. You could turn away from them. She doesn't have that luxury. She knows and experiences the pain in this city, and because of who she is, she feels compelled to do something about it. It's left her little time for anything else. You'd have known that - if you hadn't had your head firmly up your... place that isn't on top of your neck."
Now I realize that, far from simply feeling rejected by Cordelia and wallowing in his own misery after his breakup with Virginia Bryce, Wesley was thinking about how, in many ways, Cordelia had given up more than anyone else in order to continue on with the mission. While Wesley was on the phone with Cordelia, he was probably thinking that the heartbreak of his breakup with Virginia paled in comparison to Cordelia's complete lack of a social life.

It was clear, and quite touching, that Wesley seemed to identify much more closely with Cordelia than with Angel. The special "Wes and Cordy" relationship might not have been quite as overt by this part of Season 2, but the bonds were still quite strong. Wes could have made the testosterone-soaked decision to follow Angel in his quest to take on Wolfram & Hart. Instead, he stuck by his friend who was still getting the visions from the The Powers That Be, and still needed help dealing with them. I might as well add that Wesley probably still had some fond memories of that winsome Cordelia Chase he had fallen for back in Sunnydale.

Cordelia, for her part, was completely transformed by her visions. They gave her purpose and meaning in life, which she seemed to accept quite willingly despite her frequent grumblings. Cordy even seemed quite proud of her special gift, and repeatedly resisted any suggestion that perhaps she was better off without the visions.

Instead of being aimless and totally focused on the trappings of wealth, for the first time in her life Cordelia was experiencing the novelty of living a life of discipline and self-sacrifice. It must have been somewhat like the street punk who joins the Army and relishes the routine of a Spartan-like military existence. Cordelia was busy exploring a brand new world where she found actual pleasure in putting the needs of others ahead of her own selfish desires. It would have been difficult for Cordelia to lose her visions, but more importantly, she didn't want to. The last thing she wanted to do was get rid of the very thing that made her life worth living and start exploring a world of darkness and chaos with Angel.

Regardless, Wes and Cordy were still stuck in the "us against him" mentality of kids revolting against their dad. Angel was the grim pragmatist, while Wes and Cordy were still the fresh idealists. Angel could certainly understand Wes and Cordy's point of view, but he chose to abandon them rather than try to explain what he was going through. Perhaps Angel instinctively knew that Wes and Cordy simply weren't ready to start exploring the shades of gray that exist between the Black and White of Good and Evil.

Charles Gunn was an interesting case because he didn't have the same history with Angel that Wes and Cordy had. With his Season 1 introduction, the creators went through great pains to compare Gunn with Angel, by making him a creature of the night who showed strong leadership abilities as he led his gang against the vampires who were terrorizing his neighborhood. These similarities ultimately did not lead to strong emotional bonds between Gunn and Angel. At first Gunn barely tolerated the relatively inept Cordelia and Wesley, but he eventually grew to accept them, then finally established a strong friendship with the two of them.

Gunn quickly ceded alpha male territory to Angel, simply because it was overwhelmingly obvious that Angel was the alpha male. With Wes and Cordy, Gunn was outnumbered, as they made it clear that he was going to have to change to fit in with them. Although no one could accuse Gunn of not being pragmatic and realistic, all he knew was a life filled with search-and- destroy missions waged against a single type of enemy. Branching out into a world that had hundreds of different types of demons was a bit beyond his capability at that moment. Going after the Big Kahuna would have to wait until he got some experience under his belt. Gunn was probably guided not so much by youthful idealism but a pragmatic realism that he'd be better off sticking with what he knew he could handle.

For his part, Gunn could have easily abandoned Wes and Cordy after he was fired by Angel and gone back to his old neighborhood pals. Instead, I'm convinced that Gunn had bonded with Wes and Cordy, and was fascinated by the whole new world they had opened up for him. I had speculated before that Charles had some dreams of upward mobility, and had decided that life with Angel Investigations offered him a leg up from his old world.

Angel simply did not have the people skills necessary to talk to Wes, Cordy and Gunn about what he was going through. Although there was no way Cordy could have walked away from her visions, Angel could certainly try to convince her that there were other things that needed to be done besides answering the calls of The Powers That Be. He could have tried to explain to Cordy and to the others that just because he had a separate agenda, it didn't mean that he was abandoning the group. Although there was a distinct possibility that the three of them still might have disagreed with Angel or not been able to understand his line of reasoning, the all-important lines of communication could have still been left open.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Case of Zombie Attack, Head Over to Canada

I'm a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, but I'm a firm believer in hedging my bets. Thank goodness the Canucks at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa have come up with "When Zombies Attack: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection".

It remains to be seen whether this report will be discussed in Canadian military and public health planning sessions.

In case you're not interested in 18 pages of statistical analysis, I'll leave you with their conclusion:
In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.
In other words, grab your axe and start hacking away!

(h/t Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture)

Angel's Season 2 Crisis of Faith - Part 1 - The Root of All Evil

A clue as to what attracts me to the Angel TV series is the fact that I consider Angel's "crises of faith" in Season 2 and Season 5 to be two of my favorite story arcs. It's interesting how both times he decided to go directly after Wolfram & Hart, with vastly different outcomes in each season. In a way, his Season 2 crisis acted as a warm-up to his final countdown in Season 5.

I won't go over all of the key events which led Angel to his confrontation with the Senior Partners in Season 2. Suffice it to say that Wolfram & Hart decided to make Angel's life miserable by bringing his vampire sweetheart Darla back from the dead in order to drive him crazy and eventually push him over to the Evil Dark Side. The grand plan was to have "the vampire with a soul" fight on the side of Wolfram & Hart during the Apocalypse, hopefully in fulfillment of the rather vague Shanshu prophecy.

Angel, for his part, was hoping for Wesley's interpretation of the Shanshu prophecy, where he would fight on the side of Good and, after many trials and battles, be rewarded by becoming human.

Up to this point, Angel had been working against Evil on somewhat of a street-level basis. Cordelia Chase had her visions from The Powers That Be, and Angel and the rest of the gang went out and rescued people from vampires and demons. Wolfram & Hart, the Evil demonic law firm, was busy at work representing the forces of Evil. At their worst, Wolfram & Hart directly preyed on the innocent. At their best, they sustained conditions that allowed Evil to flourish.

In both Seasons 2 and Season 5, Angel had to make a decision. At what point do you start attacking the root of all Evil? The innocents whom he was protecting on a daily basis certainly felt that he was doing a worthy job, since a lot of them would have been dead if he hadn't swooped out of the shadows and saved them. If Angel decided to directly attack Wolfram & Hart, wouldn't he in essence be stating that saving individual lives was trivial, and going after the Senior Partners was more worthy of his talents?

A key piece of dialogue occurred here:

Wesley: You may have turned your back on your mission, but we haven't......Someone has to fight the good fight.

Angel:
(To himself.) Let them fight the good fight. Someone has to fight the war.
In reality, both men were correct. Like in any war, soldiers are needed to fight opposing soldiers on the battlefield, while commandos are needed to go after the enemies' headquarters and other strategic locations.

For his part, I think Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was being a bit naive for his insistence that the street-level mission was the only thing that was important. At this point in the series, Wesley was still somewhat of an idealist and, perhaps more accurately, an ideologue who had been shaped by his lifetime of Watcher training. As excellent as his training turned out to be, Wesley still needed to learn that there was a bigger world out there than what he had experienced. Wesley, who must have been raised and schooled in somewhat of a cocooned environment, seemed to have an innate need to operate within a world that gave him a clear mission statement and well-defined ground rules.

Angel could share a lot of the blame for not even attempting to adequately communicate with Wes and the others about the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture. While Angel Investigations was busy fighting vampires and demons in the back alleys, Wolfram & Hart could wreak their more hidden havoc with impunity. In the meantime, the Senior Partners had upped the ante and made the decision to go after Angel personally. No matter how much he might have wanted to, there was no way Angel could ignore Wolfram & Hart and take what they threw at him in stride.

I wrestle with the question of, how much of Angel's actions within this story arc were of a personal nature, and how much of his action were performed with the big picture in mind? Also, does acting out of personal motivations necessarily equate with being selfish? If someone is trying to destroy you, are you always acting selfishly if you try to defend yourself and go after the source?

Another key dialogue sequence occurred somewhat earlier when Wes, Cordy and Charles (whom I'll call "The Triumvirate" for the sake of convenience) confronted Angel over the fact that he allowed all of those Wolfram & Hart lawyers to be massacred by Darla and Drusilla in Holland Manners' wine cellar.

I sometimes get carried away with fictitious story lines where I don't think twice about evil humans getting blown away. However, it's crucial in this scene that The Triumvirate were still following a code of ethics that did not allow for the killing of humans, no matter how many crimes they'd committed, and no matter how far outside the law they were operating. Charles flat out told Angel that he "went too far". All three of them recognized that Angel was knowingly choosing a path that was bringing him closer to Darkness, which would inevitably bring him closer to Evil.

On a more practical level, the Triumvirate had to be concerned that if Angel was leaving dead bodies stacked up in his wake, at some point the rest of them might be charged by the police for hiding evidence, or with being accessories to murder.

I've said many times before that I don't think Darkness necessarily equates with Evil. Wesley's crisis in the latter part of Season 3 and through most of Season 4 is a perfect example of how someone can withdraw into himself and re-examine long-held beliefs about Good and Evil without actually being in danger of actually turning to Evil. Angel must have been a special case, since Angelus still resided deep within.

Since being ensouled, Angel must have had to wrestle every single day with staying within his limits, which brings me some insight as to how, in some ways, Angel seemed to have a deeper sense of humanity and forgiveness than other members of the group, particularly Wesley. In a way, I can't help but wonder if Angel was somewhat overcompensating for his demon origins by making extra efforts to try to fight unambiguously on the side of Good. Angel didn't have the luxury of acting like a reformed alcoholic who stays strictly with lemonade and orange juice. Angel had to perform violent actions on a daily basis and find the strength to keep Angelus at bay.

In Blood Money, Anne, (who ran the teen shelter) was more than a little bit perturbed with Angel for using her to go after Wolfram & Hart.

Eventually, Angel gave her all of the money and other loot that Wolfram & Hart raised (and Boone stole) from the charity fundraiser. However, it took a giant leap of faith for her to be able to trust Angel, and he just about completely destroyed her trust by failing to let her in on the fact that the "evidence" tape he gave her that supposedly showed Wolfram & Hart's duplicity in the charity scam was in fact simply a tape of Cordy and Wes goofing off.

Again, I don't have a problem with what Angel was doing, but he was definitely letting his people skills slip. Describing the plot to Anne, while risking losing her assistance, was just too much of a touchy-feely task for Angel to have to bother with at the moment. Time was of the essence, and Angel apparently didn't feel he could afford the luxury of making the effort to cultivate her trust.

As an aside, after Angel delivered the money, I thought he and Annie were friends. I was therefore shocked when Anne told the Triumvirate later on that Angel tried to help her out once, "But it turned out it was just a scam to screw this law firm."

In both instances, when Angel allowed the lawyers to be massacred, and when he "used" Anne to go after Wolfram & Hart, how much was Angel acting out of personal motivation, and how much was he acting for the greater good while keeping an eye on the big picture? Is it morally wrong to act with a dual purpose, where you're helping an individual and going after a big organization at the same time? Was I asking too much of Anne to simply put her blind trust in a man she barely knew and who seemed to have questionable motivations?

Again, and I know I'm repeating this way too much, when I first saw Angel's Season 2 crisis, (and after already seeing Season 5), I had more confidence that he was operating with the big picture in mind. After seeing the entire story arc, and particularly after he admitted to Wes, Cordy and Gunn later on that he fired them because he could feel himself falling into Darkness, I'm forced to admit that Angel was probably working more out of personal motivation than I had originally thought. I still think that Angel had the bigger picture in mind and recognized the conflicts between reacting out of personal motivations and taking actions with the big picture in mind. He knew what he was trying to accomplish. He just had no idea how to get there.

Wolfram & Hart were masters at mind games, and they knew how to exploit the code of ethics that the forces of Good followed. If Evil operates outside the law, should the Good operate outside the law in order to tame Evil? If you keep personally attacking someone who is working for Good, will the person be abandoning his mission if he stops to defend himself? Season 2 gave Angel a good dress rehearsal and allowed him to learn from his mistakes before he embarked on his Final Countdown against the Senior Partners in Season 5.

(In my next post in the series I'll be talking about how Cordy was trapped by her visions from The Powers That Be.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Note to Readers

Since I'm no longer watching two episodes of Angel each day, I might not be posting as many blog posts as usual. I'm hoping this will result in higher quality, better edited posts, since they usually turn out better when I hold off on publishing them for a day. It's not to say I won't still occasionally churn some posts out on the spur of the moment.

I always want to do some clean-up work on my "Labels", since I seem to be inconsistent on how I apply them to my posts.

In the meantime, I encourage you to poke around the archives and read some of my older entries. Feel free to leave comments or send me emails, since I'm always happy to hear from readers.

Best wishes to everyone out there.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Faceless Victims and First Responders


(Edvard Munch, The Scream).

I've written once before that
"I've....been struck by how, in a lot of episodes, the victims are practically faceless. Angel and his crew would strike quickly to defeat the demons, then disappear almost as quickly. Most of the interactions with the victims involved a simple shouted warning to run!"
Notice how you have to pause and practically go frame-by-frame to get a good look at a victim's face on Angel. Even when you're able to get a clear look at the victims, they often don't seem to have any features that you can remember them by.

I saw "Disharmony" again a few weeks ago, which featured a lot of victims being kidnapped by a vampire cult. When Angel Investigations came across the victims all locked up in the cage on the theater stage, I noticed how they swarmed around like a bunch of single-celled creatures in a Petri dish. Wesley must have set some sort of record (outside of Season 1) earlier in the episode when he helped a woman to a park bench and (I think) covered her with a coat or something.

For a bunch of idealists who were on a mission to "help the helpless", they didn't seem to want to spend much time with victims unless they were well-paying clients.

I'm actually not criticizing the show for treating the victims like this. For one thing, it would slow down the story lines too much if the writers took the time to get into the after-effects of the attacks on these people. It might have also been a self-defense mechanism for Angel and his crew to not get personally involved in the lives of these people. The victims' burdens would have been their burdens, and that would have been way too much extra baggage to carry around. Even stopping to offer referrals for counseling would have been too much, since that would have offered just enough opportunity to start bonding with the victims.

There is a certain hierarchy or spectrum of job classifications that are set up to treat victims. Each level requires its own areas of expertise, and people are drawn to different jobs based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses. Although there is the inevitable overlap between certain areas, it's best to let people do their own jobs. Angel Investigators, as First Responders, marked one end of the spectrum. AI members swooped in, killed the Big Baddies, and sent the victims on their way, or at least stabilized them if they were injured until medical help arrived. Annie, who ran the teen shelter, marked the other end of the spectrum, where she worked with victims on a day-to-day basis and assisted them with putting their lives back together again.

A case could be made that Angel Investigations was at the top of the hierarchy, since they needed to be highly skilled to defeat the worst demons of the world on a daily basis. However, it would be unfair to say that people like Annie are at the lower part of the hierarchy, since they need to deal with the shattered lives of these victims who might be in complete denial that anything had really happened. People like Annie were faced with those difficult questions victims always seem to ask like, why did it happen to me? Am I safe now, and, why can't something be done to make sure this doesn't happen again? A case could be made that the members of Angel Investigations had the easy job, since once the demon was defeated, they could chalk that up as a job well-done and head home for the night. For people like Annie, the defeat of the demon was just the beginning of a job that could last for years.

I heard an interview with a war correspondent on NPR several years ago. This particular woman was a journalist who worked extensively in the war-torn Balkan region, and she had started off by attending a class run by the U.S. State Department (I believe). The journalists were taught that in case of a direct attack, their first actions should be to attend to the civilians, do what they could to help lead people to safety, and give initial first aid treatment as necessary. As medical and rescue personnel came to the scene, the journalists were instructed to step back and let the responders do their jobs, which would therefore allow the journalists to do their jobs of reporting on the action.

I can't remember exactly how the woman addressed the issue, but it was implicit that the journalists should not get too involved with the people that they were reporting on. This is not as cruel as it sounds, since this conduct protected journalists and the journalism profession in general. These instructions from the State Department helped define a code of ethics for the reporters to operate within and allowed them to do their jobs without interfering with local operations.

It takes a certain type of person to be able to work closely with victims and not allow the victims' miseries to overrun his or her own life. Far from not caring for victims, the members of Angel Investigations probably had to bring any sort of self-defense mechanisms along that they could carry in order to allow them to keep performing their duties. Detaching themselves from the victim was probably just as potent a form of self-defense as shooting a vampire with a crossbow.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thank You, TNT

Thank you, TNT, for continually broadcasting episodes of Angel. I obviously never would have become a fan of the series if I hadn't have stumbled across it five years after it was cancelled. I'm a firm believer in never looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I can't help but wonder what thought processes TNT executives are going through to keep the series on the air. Does it have anything to do with the ratings? I can't imagine that the ratings would be that high, particularly at the 6:00 am to 8:00 am time slot. Besides, someone tried to explain to me several years ago that non-prime time ratings aren't necessarily that important with cable networks since a lot of their income is derived from deals that they make with individual cable companies and satellite networks.

I like to think that it matters to TNT that, although Angel is a niche series with a relatively small number of viewers, the viewers are extremely loyal. I would imagine that advertisers would be attracted to an audience that stays with a series rather than comes and goes. I think it's also safe to say that Angel attracts a certain type of person in its audience, which is why the series, judging from the message boards, seems to continuously attract new viewers. Advertisers may have worked out a formula a long time ago for dealing with the Angel audience, and they may be able to continue supporting the show without having to spend a lot of time figuring out what types of commercials to air.

Quite often companies have a low but steady stream of income from a particular product line. (I don't know if there's a term for it, but it's different from cash cows.) It seems like no matter how much they neglect the product line, the income still rolls in. Various attempts can be made to kill the product line, but it's usually spared because the numbers are still showing a profit. I suspect somehow Angel might be in that same category with TNT. However money is made in cable networks programming, someone must be making money somewhere off of the series. I'm just worried that it will be yanked off the air at some time (is there a contract to keep it on the air for so many years?) simply because TNT doesn't air that many series, and they might want to replace Angel with something newer.

This Whedonesque thread from 2005 talks about the move of Angel from their 5:00 pm time slot to early in the morning on TNT, and has a lot of good speculation on why cable networks juggle the air times of their shows.

What type of viewer would watch a show that airs at 6:00 am on a weekday? I would imagine most working people would be watching the news while they're getting ready to head out the door. I don't know too many people who have the luxury of starting off their days by watching two solid hours of television, or really, just one hour of television. I'm not making any judgment against people who do have the time, since it's no different from other people who watch two solid hours of television in the evening.

In my case, I was working extremely erratic hours late last March, and I had to get up after a few hours of sleep to get the rest of the household ready for work and school. I'm the type of person who, if I don't get something done right away during the day, it doesn't get done at all. During that time I would get everything done during the morning and take naps in the afternoon. Before I could get moving, however, I had to sit down with a couple of cups of coffee after the house cleared out at about 7:15 am. I found Angel during one of my morning caffeine infusions, and, the rest is history. After watching the last 45 minutes of two of the episodes of the Pylea arc, I decided I was hooked and had to see all of the episodes.

I've come across one person who discovered Angel while he was away from work recovering from a broken arm. Similarly I've found other people who discovered Angel while taking sick days from work. I also understand a lot of college students watch(ed) Angel during the morning time slot. Regardless, I understand the show is still attracting new fans. I've read interviews with both J. August Richards and Charisma Carpenter where they said fans were still approaching them about their Angel appearances as though the show was still in its first run!

I'm really kind of surprised Angel is the show that's still around while Buffy the Vampire Slayer is off the air. I have no idea when Buffy was pulled, but I was always under the impression that Angel was kind of the poor relation to Buffy. I've never seen an episode of Buffy all the way through, and I sort of wish some major cable network would put it back on the air. I have a feeling that I'm profoundly misinterpreting a lot of what I'm seeing on Angel just because I've never seen Buffy. (Although it seems like a daunting task to watch seven seasons of Buffy just so I can understand Angel better.)

In the meantime, I have nothing but nice things to say about TNT. They're keeping David Boreanaz going with Bones, and it's wonderful to see that Christian Kane is on Leverage. (I hope I take the time to see Leverage one of these days.) I've seen that J. August Richards has been on Raising the Bar several times as well. Regardless of how long Angel stays on TNT, you can't deny that it's had a very good run.

Closing Thought. I wonder what are the demographics for new viewers of Angel today versus when the series was first broadcast?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Own Reality

One thing that fascinates me about my whole Angel experience is how I'm working through different concepts of "reality". For example, do I have to accept After the Fall as what really happened after Season 5? Or can I just ignore the published continuations and make up things on my own? Also, why did I spend so much time trying to find out what really happened to Fred's soul after Illyria took possession of her body?

What absurd questions I'm burdening myself with! It's a free country and I can imagine anything I want. Also, why do I waste my time trying to figure the most logical outcome for happened to Fred's soul when there's no such thing as demonic possessions?

Another reality I've created centers around TNT's broadcast of Angel every morning (more or less) between 6:00 and 8:00 am. In my crazy little world, whatever TNT is currently showing is currently happening in the Angel world. Old habits die hard. I've recorded all of my favorite episodes and, after seeing each episode twice as of late last week, I'm no longer watching two hours of Angel each and every day. However, I'm fighting this irrational need to keep up the facade of a "now" with the Angel characters. I have not looked at the TV listings since late last week, (pat myself on the back). but I vaguely know that TNT must be currently showing early Season 3 episodes.

The idea that all five seasons are equally "now" is just too unsettling to me, as I'm making the transition from "I'm currently watching all of the episodes" to "I've already seen them all twice". I was a little worried that I would want to see all of the episodes on TNT right away again for the the third time. However, happily for my schedule, I'm no longer as obsessed with the series as I was a few months ago. I still have a lot of blog posts left in me, and I'm relieved that I can start watching my favorite episodes and story arcs at a more leisurely pace and not feel compelled to keep up with TNT. It's kind of like the frantic first bloom of a love affair is over and I'm settling into comfortable married life.

Oddball that I am, I'm imposing the idea that I have to keep watching the seasons in some sort of order. I'm allowing myself to linger at Season 2 (probably my favorite season) for a long time while I formulate some more posts. When I've had enough of Season 2, I'll move on to Season 3. Again, irrationally, I can't seem to allow myself to talk about an episode from Season 5 one day and Season 2 the next. When I get to the point where I can just jump around effortlessly between the seasons, I'll probably have to pop open a bottle of something and celebrate.

Idle Thoughts: I'm really kind of surprised that I'm slowing down my Angel viewing habits, particularly since TNT started showing my favorite string of episodes, Season 2's season-ending Pylea arc through Season 3's Episode 14, "Loyalty".

Monday, August 10, 2009

My Friend the Cop

In my mind, Angel and Charmed are forever linked because a) both series originally aired during roughly the same years (with a slightly longer run for Charmed), b) their syndicated episodes are usually aired back-to-back, c) they both featured a lot of magic and demons, d) they both had attractive casts, e) both series were played somewhat straight but were blessed with lots of wonderful whimsical moments scattered throughout and f) most importantly for my post, both series featured the "friend at the police station" as important characters.

Angel could never quite pull off the "friend at the police station" trope as well as Charmed. I'd have to re-watch a lot of episodes in order to give a really good comparison between the two series, but it all boils down to how I think the writers at Charmed were simply more committed to their cop characters than their counterparts at Angel. In the back of my mind, I always felt Whedon et al were trying to emulate and play catch-up with what they were accomplishing with their law enforcement characters over at Charmed. (I have no idea if that's really true or not. For all I know, Joss Whedon never saw an episode of Charmed in his life.) Also, did Whedon somehow feel forced into coming up with the character of Kate Lockley, since it seemed like such a natural development that the police would have to become involved with Angel's dealings sooner rather than later?

I'm really glad Whedon et al decided to downplay police involvement in Seasons 3 through 5. I'd rather have the cops unrealistically look the other way than have them show up on the scene and slow down the action of the story lines.

I'd written previously that:
In addition to Lilah, Angel/Boreanaz already had quite an interesting relationship with Elisabeth Rohm as Kate Lockley. I thought their chemistry was marvelous! Unfortunately, I think the creators really squandered their opportunity to allow Angel and Kate to have a more meaningful, nuanced, non-romantic relationship by turning Kate into a mentally unbalanced hysterical female who kept rejecting Angel even more every time she came into contact with the demon world. It took Season 2's "Epiphany" to really bring Kate and Angel together in what I thought was one of the better scenes of the whole series. By then it was too late, as it turned out to be Elisabeth Rohm's last appearance on Angel.
After I saw all of the episodes of Angel the first time, I started scanning through most of the scenes with Elisabeth Rohm during my second pass through the series. That's too bad because I think Rohm is a fine actress and did a wonderful job with Kate. I saw a woman who was completely torn apart by her conflicting loyalties, not only between Angel and the LAPD, but between her comfortable old world and a much scarier and more evil new world. One thing Whedon et al did do right was turn Kate into someone who was very reluctant to work with Angel, regardless of her attraction to him, but felt forced to work with him due to circumstances way out of her control. The genie had come out of the bottle, so to speak, and Kate couldn't escape the Evil around her even if she tried.

Although I always thought Kate was kind of rough on Angel, I guess I can finally see her point. Her partners on the force had seen all sorts of weird things on the streets and were always able to brush things off as being unsolvable mysteries. Kate no longer had the luxury of being able to brush things off because, thanks to Angel, she knew what was happening. There were forces at work that were beyond just about everyone's comprehension, and she really wasn't equipped to handle the information. It was like she was trying to fight the demon world on the wrong plane of existence.

Regardless, "Epiphany" gave Elisabeth Rohm a marvelous opportunity to bring closure to her character. In addition, David Boreanaz and Rohm always had a great on-screen rapport with each other, and the episode gave us a chance to see these actors at their very best.

When Angel lovingly saved Kate's life after her "pillathon" suicide attempt, she still wasn't ready to have much to do with him. Intriguingly, we saw them later on in the same episode having a very profound and moving chat in the courtyard at the Hyperion Hotel. We have no idea what transpired off-screen to bring the two of them back together again. Regardless, in what I now consider to be my favorite scene in the entire series, Angel not only beautifully described his own epiphany, Kate dropped her own bombshell about how "I never invited you in". (Referring to how a vampire can only enter a person's home with a verbal invitation.) I appreciated how The Powers That Be were not mentioned by name in this scene, which allowed the viewers to use their own beliefs or imaginations in deciding what really happened. The possibilities for explanation are endless, and can run the gamut between complete divine intervention to all sorts of descriptive existential metaphors for other things in life.

Kate had been stuck between two worlds, between our "reality" and the unseen forces of darkness. TPTB, God, or some other entity(ies) gave Kate the gift of believing that someone or something really was looking out for her. Kate felt she was given the message that it was still possible to be able to draw on a lot of her old beliefs and value systems as she dealt with her new world. Kate didn't have to totally reject everything she ever knew in order to soldier on.

It's too bad that the friendship between Angel and Kate could not continue on and deepen. They finally got to where they should have been in their relationship all along. However, their relationship ended on a high note, and we couldn't have asked for anything better.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rejoining the Group

I must be more forgiving than others. I'm still pissed off at how Cordy, Wes and Gunn treated Angel when he started making overtures to rejoin the group, particularly when he came to visit Wesley in the hospital in Angel's Season 2's "The Thin Dead Line". I wrote about my feelings previously here. I really thought the three of them acted like a bunch of high school kids who were quick to judge non-conformers. I was particularly irritated at Cordelia's endless "you're not my friend anymore" moments. Did no one care that Angel was struggling to re-emerge from Darkness? Although Angel fired Wes, Cordy and Gunn, they were awfully quick to turn their backs on him. I'm just glad that Angel accepted his demotion with good grace when he returned to the group.

It was heartwarming to see that Wesley himself seemed happiest to have Angel return to the fold, as we witnessed in this scene from "Epiphany". Wesley smiled and was genuinely excited that Angel cared enough to come over and save his life. However, Wesley quickly felt compelled to put his stern face back on and treat Angel like a lackey over the course of the next several episodes. I'm reasonably sure that Gunn was equally as happy to see Angel return. He just didn't have the same history with Angel that Wesley had.

While Wesley and Gunn were simply making Angel do penance while they indulged in a few alpha male needs to make themselves top dogs over Angel, Cordelia was the only one who seemed like she truly did not care to have Angel back. Cordelia, who could be pretty dense about recognizing her feelings toward others, probably had the deepest feelings for Angel of anyone in the group. Therefore, she was the one most hurt by Angel's abandonment. I don't think Cordelia handled the situation all that well, but she was barely out of high school at that point. She had a lot of growing up to do, and her dealings with Angel helped make her a lot more mature, unfortunately at the expense of their relationship.

I try to fully admit when I've had a "duh" moment, and I think I had one of those moments regarding Angel's reluctance to tell his group about his "epiphany". I had written previously that I thought it was a terrible mistake for Angel to not have told the group about the circumstances surrounding his "epiphany" since it led to tragic consequences for the group later on. (For example, the whole "pregnant Darla" episode, the shock of Lilah showing up at the Hyperion after she had already died, etc.). I blamed Angel's reticence on his hangups about talking about his sex life with his friends. I now realize it was due more to the fact that, by having sex with Darla, he was trying to revert back to Angelus.

I took it all in stride while watching the series, but now I realize that Wes, Cordy and Gunn wouldn't have been quite as understanding. Angel could hardly just blurt out to the group at the precise moment he was trying to regain their trust that just a few hours earlier he was this close to turning Evil. He probably wanted to tell them, but when is it ever a good time to tell something like that to anyone? After a while, it probably seemed like a painful memory that was best left buried, until a pregnant Darla showed up and forced his hand. I still think Angel should have been more forthcoming about what had happened, but I can certainly understand his reluctance.

Cordelia Chase probably wasn't upset so much by the fact that Angel had sex with Darla, (although I'm sure jealousy had a lot to do with it), but by the fact that he was trying to revert back to Angelus. Regardless, Cordelia seemed to be the one who was bothered the most by the revelation. She had one more chance to forgive Angel, and chose not to do so, leading to one more tragic consequence. By the time she could get over Angel's actions and agree to take their relationship to the next level, she herself was taken to the next level by Skip the Demon.

Tying Up a Few Loose Ends

The recent airing of Angel's "The Thin Dead Line" on TNT marked a bittersweet moment for me, since it was the only episode that I had not yet seen. It kind of feels like the day after Christmas for me, since I know there won't be any more surprises.

I was really disappointed when TNT opted not to show this particular episode during their previous rotation of the series, since I was cheated out of a good "Oh my poor sweet darling Wesley! " moment as he lay in his hospital bed. When I finally got a chance to see the episode, I really enjoyed it since it fit in quite well with all of the other outstanding Season 2 episodes. "The Thin Dead Line" didn't give me any "eureka" or "ah-ha" moments as far as giving me a lot of additional information, but it did help me solidify a few observations that I had already made.

The main question I'd had for quite a while was, how did Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Charles Gunn become such close friends? I knew they were supposed to be tight with each other, particularly at the end of Season 2 and through the beginning of Season 3, but I never found their friendship all that convincing. I remember Charles talking about how Wesley "took a bullet for me", and I wanted to see just exactly how that moment transpired.

As it turns out, Wesley did not heroically step in the way of a bullet that was meant for Charles. Wes simply showed up at the scene, and the zombie cop fired at Wesley because he was perceived to be a threat. I did not see any one particular moment that stood out as the beginning to a deeper friendship. I simply believe that the feelings of friendship that Gunn already had for Wesley came to the forefront the moment Wesley got shot. In fact, after scanning through some of the episodes prior to "The Thin Dead Line", I realized that Gunn and Wes started bonding practically from the moment Angel fired them. If there was any defining moment to the beginning of their friendship, it was probably when the two of them defeated the twenty-foot tall, two-headed beast in "Blood Money".

Another question I had was, why did Gunn defer to Wesley as the team leader? (I think I already covered it fairly well here.) There were several references, particularly in his early appearances, to Gunn's reckless behavior. I thought the writers took great pains in "The Thin Dead Line" to point out that Gunn was again being reckless when they showed Wes and Cordy talking about Gunn's "dumb plan" to videotape the police while he and his friends were receiving vicious beatings. Wes didn't exactly display any brilliant planning himself when he showed up and simply told the zombie cop he was making a mistake (and got shot for the effort).

Like with Gunn and Wesley's friendship, I don't think "The Thin Dead Line" covered any new territory regarding Wesley's leadership role. Almost from the beginning, Wesley took on kind of the Executive Officer position. Although Wes, Cordy and Gunn were equal partners, Wesley led the team almost by default. He was the expert on demons, and his Watcher training had put him on the path to a leadership position. His youthful feelings of exaggerated self-importance were slowly evolving into real leadership abilities. Gunn deferring to Wesley seemed more natural taken in this context.

I really noticed a step up for Wesley when the team moved back to the Hyperion Hotel, where his role as boss become much more formalized. He even had his own desk and office! We didn't see how his promotion transpired. However, quite tellingly, Wesley told his father over the telephone that "I've been put in charge of our group." To me that implies that there was some sort of discussion and agreement that Wesley was the new leader. The "consent of the governed" was the key concept here. No one seemed to object to Wesley's elevated status, and indeed, he filled his new role quite admirably until he kidnapped Connor. At that point, the rest of Angel Investigations revoked their "consent to be governed" by Wesley and cast him out of the group.

Closing Thoughts. After concentrating on these Season 2 episodes, and putting in a lot of work over it, I now find Wes and Gunn's friendship to be a lot more convincing. I know I can be difficult to please at times. If I have to work too hard to figure something out, then I think the creators didn't do their jobs properly. If something really leaps out at me, (like the painfully obvious conversation about Gunn's lack of planning skills), I accuse the creators of being too simplistic. Hopefully I've learned something out of all of this and I'll start cutting the writers a little bit more slack.

Friday, August 7, 2009

To Spoil or Not To Spoil

I found out in my Google Alerts yesterday that: Alexis Denisof started his first day of shooting Dollhouse on Wednesday, August 5, and so far, he is signed up for 4 episodes (via Alyson Hannigan's Twitter page); he's going to play a U.S. senator named Daniel Perrin, and will be a "thorn in the side" of the Dollhouse and Rossum Corp. (per EW/Popwatch); some people are guessing that, from his first day of shooting, his first appearance will be in the 2nd episode, and a lot of people prefer his British accent over his American accent (per Whedonesque).

As is probably painfully obvious from the rest of my blog, I've never been into pop culture in a huge way. Following actors and TV shows is a new experience for me, and I'm trying to set up my own set of ground rules. Like anyone else, I want to be surprised when I watch a first-run TV episode, but I can't help but look at spoilers when they start showing up on the different internet feeds. As much as I want to approach each episode fresh, if it turns out Alexis' character is going to have his throat slit and he's hung by his heels to let the blood drain out, I kind of want to know that ahead of time so I can avoid watching the show.

I also know that fake spoilers can be leaked out to the public. Although I always want to be pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than I had hoped, I certainly don't want to be disappointed if things turn out worse.

Reading the spoilers at Wikipedia and every other place else online was probably the only thing that got me through the Angel series, particularly starting with Season 3. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce suffered one tragedy after another throughout the series, and knowing that good things would start happening again to him gave me the strength to keep on going. (Like, hooking up with Lilah after being banished from the team.) The last thing I want to do is waste my time by sitting down and watching a disappointing TV show.

Other commenters are hoping that Alexis' character will kindle some sort of romance with Amy Acker's character. I feel horrible enough as it is for admitting my feelings about this matter, but dear God, NO! Having Wesley pining for Fred was one of those painful things I had to endure throughout the Angel series. I don't even want the two of them to show up in the same scenes together in Dollhouse. If anything, I want Alexis to spend all of his time with Eliza Dushku!

I don't care if Alexis is a good guy or a bad guy on Dollhouse. I just want to like his performance. I noticed a lot of negative comments in the articles that I linked to above about his natural voice. In listening to his YouTube interviews, I personally think he has a wonderful voice! But please don't let him be some sort of fake yahoo-twang Senator from Tennessee or Texas, like at least one commenter is hoping. And if there's fighting to be done, I want Alexis involved. I don't want him to send one of his aides to do his dirty work.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Few Mid-Season 2 Thoughts

Charles and Wesley, and "The Thin Dead Line"
First, good news for me! TNT is going to air the Angel Season 2 episode "The Thin Dead Line" on Tuesday, August 4.

The network opted not to include this episode in the last rotation of reruns, so it's the only episode of Angel I have not yet seen. I'm thinking "The Thin Dead Line" is significant since it supposedly marked the beginning of a deeper friendship between Charles Gunn and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. I've never found Charles and Wesley's friendship to be all that convincing, so I'm looking for some additional insight from this episode.

Angel's Descent Into Darkness
I confess that while I was watching Season 2 for the first time a few months ago, I did not recognize Angel's descent into darkness as being a harbinger of him growing closer to Evil. This is typical of what I was writing at the time. In retrospect, I can think, "Well, how much more clearer could the show's creators have been?" In my defense, two things were holding me up. First, I had already seen Season 5, and I was making the obvious parallel between Angel's Season 2 decision to go after the Senior Partners and his Season 5 decision to go after the Circle of the Black Thorn. I was convinced Angel had some sort of master plan that would all become clear to me later on. Second, I never fell for the concept in the world of fiction that if Bad People can get Good People to kill Bad People, then the Good People automatically become Bad People.

I realize that Angel locking the lawyers into the wine cellar so they could be massacred by Darla and Drusilla was a huge turning point. Even I was horribly shocked the first time I saw that scene. However, I justified it at the time because the Wolfram & Hart lawyers worked completely outside of the law. I recognize the difference between Justice and Revenge. However, if you have an entire class of people who, as lawbreakers, will never be brought into the criminal justice system, the only Justice is Revenge.

I'll write more about this at a later time.

Angel as the "Dopey Dad"
I've previously written about Angel as the father to his "kids", Wes, Cordy and Charles.

I also tentatively wrote fairly recently that Angel seemed like more of a big brother in Season 1, and more like a father figure in Season 2. I'm more convinced of that now, and I believe Angel's elevation in status helped lead to his Season 2 downfall.

Whenever you have someone in authority, an "us against him" mentality will spring up organically. Wes, Cordy and (to a lesser extent) Charles were the "kids" in Season 2, and Angel was the "dopey dad". I'm guessing this chasm occurred as a result of the move to the Hyperion Hotel, since Angel could physically remove himself farther away from the rest of the group whenever he wanted to go off and brood. Regardless, Angel somehow became more imposing, and Wes and Cordy became less comfortable discussing their concerns with Angel. (Charles gets a bit of a pass from me because he was new to the group.)

I was always curious as to why Wes and Cordy didn't make more of a big deal out of it when Angel started sleeping up to 21 hours per day. They of course mentioned it to Angel all of the time and suggested it wasn't healthy, but they didn't take the initiative to find out why this was happening. They simply kept telling Angel that he should do something about it. Did Wes and Cordy ever once consider that outside forces were trying to take control over Angel?

Wes and Cordy seemed to have fallen into the "father knows best" trap. Angel had proven himself time and again to be the best person to figure out the best course of action, and Wes and Cordy became used to deferring to his expertise. Also, it might have been kind of a relief for them to have "dopey dad" out of their hair most of the time, so they could work without his interference and also goof off whenever they felt like it. Any strange behavior Angel exhibited could be brushed off as just "dopey dad" being a dope. Wes and Cordy had become complacent, but it was a two-way street. Angel had started to cut off the lines of communication with his staff. Consequently, his staff felt a lot more reluctant to approach him unless they had something that was really urgent.

I had previously posted about the breakdown of the Season 2 relationship between Angel and the rest of the group here. I won't rehash what I wrote except to say that my opinions haven't really changed since I wrote that post. I will add that I'm starting to see Angel's decision to become subservient to the rest of the group when he rejoined them towards to the end of Season 2 in a different light. It wasn't simply Angel doing penance for wrong-doing (when he fired Wes, Cordy and Charles). If Angel came back as the leader, he could have easily made himself unavailable again by retreating into the bowels of the Hyperion Hotel, and the dynamics could have broken down all over again. By making himself a humble servant, he was forced to keep in closer touch with the rest of the group, which I really believe helped his overall personality development. He became used to being in closer constant contact with people to the point where it became more of a second nature to him. Quite frankly, Angel was a better person and became a better leader after his Season 2 experiences.