Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Through the Looking Glass; or, Welcome To My Nightmare

written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel

Virginia: ... I guess - before all this happened [when Wesley was shot by the zombie cop] I never really considered just how dangerous your work was.

Well, of course what I do is dangerous. You forgetting how we met? You were strapped to a sacrificial altar while the goddess Yeska was called forth from the nether regions to consume you.

Virginia: But I grew up with all that sort of stuff. Creepy crawlies and scary monsters I can handle. But guns? Kind of makes it all a little too real, you know?

(From Season 2's "Reprise".)

One reason I mourned the premature breakup of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and Virginia Bryce in Season 2 of Angel is because they came from such similar backgrounds. We know that there's no such thing as vampires, monsters and demons, but Wes and Virginia grew up learning the exact opposite. In a way, both of them would have been ill-equipped to survive outside of their elite world of magic. Wesley even went so far as to admit to Virginia, after he was fired by Angel, that there wasn't much he could do outside of being a "renowned specialist in...supernatural aid and rescue".

Contrast Wes and Virginia's attitudes with people who come in contact with supernatural forces for the first time against their wills. It's clear that most ordinary people within the Angelverse did not recognize the demon world. (Think of how Lorne had to disguise himself every time he went out in public.) Wes, who had a firm grasp on how he lived within an exclusive secret society, was the one who seemed to defend these people when their denial systems went into overdrive. In Season 1's "The Prodigal", in referring to police detective Kate Lockley, he told Angel,

"Well, she'll come around. I think you'll find most people require some period of adjustment after being confronted with the dark forces which surround us."
In Season 2's "Reprise", Wesley asked for understanding for a client who refused to pay her bill when Wes, Charles and Cordy removed the third eye growing out of her daughter's head.

"No, let her go. Clearly it's easier for the Sharps to cast us as con artists rather than to accept the grim reality that Skilosh spawn nearly hatched full grown out of their child's skull."

I wonder, once you step through the looking glass and start to notice these supernatural forces, is there a way to step back out? Can you go back to your normal world of "reality", or will you continue to be haunted by ghosts and demons for the rest of your life? Throughout the Angel series, Angel and his crew rescued countless numbers of almost faceless victims in very brief scenes.

Did these people become true believers in the supernatural after these attacks? Or did their denial instincts kick in, where they attributed everything they saw to poor lighting and/or too much alcohol? Although we can be blinded our entire lives with an overactive sense of denial, it can also act as a self-defense mechanism that allows us to keep our sanity.

Kate Lockley. Kate's fellow police officers came across demons on a regular basis, but always seemed to chalk up strange happenings as unexplainable events. Angel even recognized that tendency, as he explained to Kate, "Kate, you’ve seen this kind of thing before, probably a lot. You just didn’t have a name for it, that’s all."

In fact, there seemed to be an unwritten code that the officers shouldn't investigate these occurrences too strenuously. There could have been many reasons for this, but it would all have eventually boiled down to one fundamental element. The officers all could have been telling Kate: "Just trust us. You don't want to know." It certainly didn't help that the upper echelons of the police force had ties to Wolfram & Hart!

Kate's downfall perhaps wasn't so much the fact that she recognized the supernatural, but as a true professional, she further investigated what was happening in order to find out the truth. Kate not only dealt with these dark forces when they crossed her desk, she went looking for them. In other words, the officers peered into the looking glass, then walked away. Kate stepped all the way through.

Angel forced the world of the supernatural onto Kate. (Although I don't blame Angel for this, since, in his best judgment, he did what needed to be done.) I believe that any other person could have made the choice at that time to break ties with Angel and continue on as before. Kate did not have that luxury. She was intelligent, analytical and flat out too good at her job for her own good. She had learned as a detective to find clues and examine all of the evidence, and see which direction her conclusions led her.

Kate was eventually able to find peace, but only after falling all the way to the bottom during her suicide attempt. We have no idea how much of the supernatural world she mingled with after leaving the force in Season 2, although I vaguely know her character appears in the Angel continuation series After the Fall.

Random Observation. I also wonder if, after you step through the looking glass, is it somewhat like undergoing a religious conversion? Do you become indoctrinated into a new way of thinking, and start observing things that you simply did not notice before? Where, vampires and demons start appearing in what used to just be empty dark alleyways? Carrying the religious analogy a bit further, I'm not a Catholic. As such, I guarantee you I will never have a vision of the Virgin Mary or start bleeding from stigmata wounds. If I decide to convert to Catholicism later on, all bets will be off, and I'll likely start noticing images of the Virgin Mary on my grilled cheese sandwiches.

It's possible that I'm being bombarded on a daily basis by holy signs, visions and symbols from Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Bahaism. I might not notice a thing, simply because of my lack of knowledge of those cultures and religions.

Winifred "Fred" Burkle was another major Angel character who underwent a forced conversion. With her, I could make a case that she willingly stepped a little too closely to the looking glass and didn't like what she found.

We have no real clues on her religious upbringing, except for the fact that she grew up in a normal family in Texas. Since that state is firmly within the Bible Belt, Fred might have gone to church with her parents when she was growing up and attended Sunday School as a child. In Season 4's "Spin the Bottle", we found out that as a teen she was fascinated by the idea of government conspiracies and space aliens.

After Fred moved to California to study physics as a grad student, presumably she was working on some ideas about space-time continuums before she got sucked into the portal into Pylea. I believe Fred was already interested in the theoretical possibilities of time travel and portal hopping when she unfortunately found out the hard way that the theories were only too real. Although Fred didn't like what she found, (be careful what you wish for), what might have helped sustained her for those five years was the knowledge that some of her suspicions had come true.

When she first came back to our world, Fred had had enough of make-believe land and desperately wanted to return to a "safe" reality. Of course, if you're hanging out with Angel Investigations, that's an impossibility.

After a bit of prodding, in Season 3's "Fredless", Fred was more than willing to return back with her parents to resume a normal life in Texas. Tellingly, her parents didn't seem all that nonplussed when they were attacked by the giant bugs. Indeed, they seemed rather pleased by the whole event, which indicates that Fred had inherited some of their enthusiasm for an alternate reality.

Fred had her own "epiphany" when she realized that the crystals from the giants bugs were actually eggs, and she made her parents drive her back to the Hyperion Hotel to help save the day. After Angel congratulated her on her good work, Fred said, "Aw, it was nothing. Just a stunning revelation of my true path in life, that's all."

More tellingly, she went on:
"Look - I could go home with you and pretend the last five years didn't happen. - I could even pretend to have a normal life. - But the truth of it is... Well, I'm not normal anymore. I guess what I'm getting at is... - I-I missed you both so bad [talking to her parents]. But - I belong here. (Turns to the gang) Un-unless I don't. Which if- if you all don't wanna put up with me, I completely understand..."
Fred had probably sensed all of her life that "we are not alone". Since her suspicions were undeniably confirmed, she took the intelligent view that she could never go back to living the life of a sheltered young girl. In other words, she had grown up. My only question is, if Fred had gone back to Texas, would she have continued to run into supernatural activity, since her awareness level had been raised considerably? Her own parents certainly seemed to equate Texas with "safety", while equating Los Angeles with "danger".

Connor. I didn't intend on writing about Connor when I started this post, but I just happened to catch part of Season 5's "Origin" where he was re-introduced back into the series as a well-adjusted normal youth. It's obvious that Connor's "parents" had never knowingly bumped into the supernatural world until they witnessed their "son" being pinned to the side of the garage by a speeding van - and he only suffered a few superficial injuries!

Connor was being set up by demon conjurer Cyvus Vail to kill his mortal enemy, Sahjhan, in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Vail was the same conjurer who had performed the mindwipe for Wolfram & Hart to erase everyone's memories of Connor's real life, and gave Connor the illusion of having been raised in a normal family environment.

Connor took the news that he was some sort of superhero in stride, but clearly wanted to protect his family from further grief. It appears that it was for that reason only that he agreed to go into battle against Sahjhan.

Later on, in dramatic fashion, Wesley broke the cube of the Orlon Window, which released all of Wes and Connor's repressed memories. Connor, returning to his more feral personality, cut off Sahjhan's head, and immediately proclaimed that he wasn't cut out for fighting. Connor had every reason in the world to go back to his previous ways and devote his life to defeating the supernatural forces of Evil. Instead, he appeared to be one of the few people in Angel who stepped into the looking glass and was able to step back out, as this dialogue sequence shows:

Angel: We still haven't found Vail, but we will.

I'm not too worried about him. Nothing he can show me I haven't already seen. Anyway... I just wanted to say good-bye. I gotta go back to my life now.

Oh...do you really have to leave? I mean, right now?

I kinda think I should. I need to take care of my parents. This isn't their world. They really don't feel safe here. (looks meaningfully at Angel) You gotta do what you can to protect your family. I learned that from my father.

Unlike the Burkles, Connor's family obviously didn't embrace the existence of the supernatural world (although they didn't deny it). Also, unlike Fred, Connor didn't feel the calling to join Angel and his crew. Instead he preferred to help shepherd his parents back into something resembling the "real" world. Connor did help out Angel in his fight against Marcus Hamilton in the series' finale, but one has a feeling that Connor would forever be able to step into the looking glass at his convenience, and jump right back out again.

Idle Thoughts. I've always been fascinated by that scene in Season 3's "Couplet" where Groo slayed the demon in broad daylight in full view of a few dozen people in a public park. Although a woman was obviously being viciously attacked, the onlookers acted the entire time as though they were watching a staged spectacle, similar to when "warriors" break out into "spontaneous" combat in the middle of a renaissance festival. They even broke into applause at the conclusion of the event! I wonder how both the victim and the onlookers were able to explain away the events in their own minds after their experiences? I have a feeling that a lot of people told friends and family "I saw the craziest thing today", then promptly forgot about it.

Notice what happened to the Sharps in Season 2's "Reprise" and "Epiphany" when they tried to jump back out from the looking glass after Wes, Cordy and Gunn eliminated the third demonic eye growing out from the back of the daughter's head.

(Minor revisions 10/24/09).

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