Monday, September 21, 2009

Wesley's Grumpy Old Curmudgeon Dad

Although all of the characters of Angel were profoundly shaped by their childhoods, Wesley's experiences seemed to leap out the most at us. In a way, he spent the entire series trying to extract himself from the psychological controls set up by his father.

According to this Wikipedia entry, (using information that originally appeared in Darryl Curtis' article "Wyndam of Change", from the October 2003 edition of Angel Magazine),

[regarding Wesley's fussy, by-the-book persona in Buffy the Vampire Slayer] .....Denisof came up with a background story for Wesley regarding his father to explain "why he was so repressed." The writers used this story in the show, alluding to it in early Angel episodes such as "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Belonging". While discussing Wesley's character development over the course of Angel, Denisof explains: "I decided that Wesley was internally confronting his father and that released him a little bit and made him less repressed."
Later in the same Wikipedia article, Denisof talked about the appearance of Roger Wyndam-Pryce in Season 5's "Lineage", (per Abbie Bernstein's "Pryce Challenge", from the August 2004 edition of Angel Magazine),

"I had mixed feelings [at first]. It was a lot of pressure to have to define something that had been speculated about for many years. I was worried that by making it specific, it would lose its power, both in the mind of the character and in the minds of the audience. All my concerns disappeared as soon as I read it. There are responses to powerful figures in your life, like your parents, that you can't necessarily control. Wesley's a very controlled person on the exterior and presents a very collected persona to the people around him, being with his father he would no longer be able to control his responses. That's one of the things I wanted to explore with this, the subtle ways in which you respond to the conditioning of your parents. Wesley has difficulty around his father on a physical level, on an emotional scale, and on an intellectual scale. He is extremely intimidated by his father, and at the same time, still seeking the approval that we all essentially want from our parents when we're children. The shooting [of the cyborg Wesley believed to be his father] was an exhilarating moment in which there was the most dangerous person in his life on every level, and there is a woman he is obsessed with. And to have the woman jeopardized by something as dangerous as his father - I played that moment as a moment of pure instinct. Wesley is centered in his intellect and is more uncertain in his emotional life, but in that moment, he becomes pure instinct because he has to choose between the woman he loves and his father."
Long story short - Wesley was raised by a domineering father who constantly belittled his son, and Wesley spent almost the rest of his life trying to win approval from his dad. The key to Wesley's little quirks is the fact that when you spend your life living on someone else's terms, it hinders your ability to develop a sense of self in your own right. You're stuck in an unrelenting conflict between trying to nurture your own abilities while simultaneously trying to satisfy the demands of others. In Wesley's case, he turned inward, which seemed to have affected his ability to form normal attachments and healthy relationships. Through most of his growing up years, apparently Wesley was "not like the other kids". Fortunately for him, this actually became a source of strength as he developed rare skills that were much needed within the Angel Investigations group.

When writing a post a few months ago called "Family Affairs", I was shocked to discover that Wesley appeared to have had close ties with his parents. I pointed out that Wesley still called his father on his birthdays, and one of the first thing Wes did after he "killed" the cyborg version of Roger was to call his dad just to hear his voice. To me that indicates that there was at least the possibility of a little bit of affection in his feelings towards his dad, which explains Wesley's lifelong quest for approval. Whether Roger harbored any true feelings of affection for his son is debatable.

Roger Wyndam-Pryce was definitely what I considered to be an "old school" type of dad, or more specifically, an old school dad to the nth degree. By old school, I mean, a father who constantly criticizes and avoids meting out praise in order to make the child work harder to achieve higher levels of achievement. The worst fate to befall an old school dad is to raise what he perceives to be a mediocre child. In order for that type of childrearing to work, a father has to make it abundantly clear that he still offers unconditional love. Also, the father has to give out praise at least once in a while in order to keep the child's spirits up. When praise is granted on rare occasions, the child feels he or she must have done something extraordinarily well in order to warrant the praise.

My perfect example of an old school dad is Clifton Webb's portrayal of Frank Gilbreath in the 1950 movie, "Cheaper By The Dozen". Although Webb/Gilbreath barked out orders and ran his family like a buffoonish marine corps drill sergeant, there was no mistaking the love that he had for his wife and children.

In Roger's case, did he dangle just the possibility that Wesley could earn his affections? Did Roger make sure that he kept his standards high enough to always be out of Wesley's reach? Instead of pushing and encouraging Wesley to reach those standards, he evidently cruelly taunted him for his failures every step of the way. It's a bit hard not to conclude that Roger was a vicious, conniving, sociopathic son-of-a-bitch who kept at least a veneer of respectability in order to keep stringing Wesley along. If he thought Wesley was such an idiot, why did he allow Wesley to go to the Watcher's Academy? I can forgive someone for concluding that psychologically torturing Wesley was Roger's reason for living.

Except, for whatever reason, I sensed at least a faint glimmer of goodness and affection in Roger, particularly when he related the story to Fred of how Wesley tried to resurrect a bird when he was six or seven years old. Some people cannot be pleased, no matter what, and Roger Wyndam-Pryce was an uber-curmudgeon. He could be semi-tolerable to be around professionally and on social occasions, but impossible to live with as a father. Although I'm convinced he loved Wesley in his own way, it seemed beyond him to ever be able to admit that maybe Wesley was capable of doing something right once in a while.

People like Roger are power freaks. They're completely lost if they're not bossing around everyone in sight. As Buffy found out, the Watcher's Council possibly exerted too much control for their own good. Their pushy attitudes might have attracted Roger to the Watcher's Council, but it's possible Roger himself shaped this domineering aspect of the modern version of the Watcher's Council. Another way of looking at this is, as a Watcher, you must always be on the lookout for weakness, in both your charges and your enemies. Any sign of weakness, or any errors committed, can literally become a matter of life or death!

If people like Roger become fathers, they can allow their need for dominance and control to run unchecked. There was literally nothing Wesley could have done to please his father since his father would always be able to spot an imperfection. Wesley was taught from birth to believe that he was required to do everything he could to please his father. Learning to recognize and break that pattern is a part of growing up, which Wesley finally figured out in this dialogue sequence from "Lineage",

Wesley: I've done everything you ever asked, and I've done it well.

Roger: I asked for this, hmm? I wanted to be humiliated?

Wesley: No, I suppose I don't know what you really wanted. You never had any use for me as a child, and you can't bear the thought of me as an adult. Tell me, father, what is it that galls you so, that I was never as good at the job as you... or that I just might be better?

Roger of course scoffed at this, but Wesley brought out another good point. People on power trips need to feel that they are better than everyone else. They need to be smarter and more capable than anyone else in the room. Wesley's mother recognized her son's unique abilities, but Roger, ever the alpha male, obviously couldn't stomach the thought of competition. Or rather, it was plainly obvious that Wesley was never going to be a newer version of Roger. Wesley was his own separate personality, which probably pained his father to no end. Roger could not see fit to identify Wesley's strengths and continue to nurture him. Instead, he chose to constantly berate Wesley for not being the person Roger wanted him to be.

In my next post(s) I'll talk about some conjectures I have about Wesley's mother, his natural personality and outlook, the effect Wesley's overall personality might have had on his father, his ruthless streak, and the development of his leadership abilities.

Idle Thoughts. In Season One's "I've Got You Under My Skin", Ryan/the Demon taunted Wesley by saying "All those hours locked up under the stairs, and you still weren't good enough. Not good enough for Daddy, not good enough for the Council." Obviously, the implication that Wesley had been locked up for hours under the stairs is huge! Was Wesley locked up by his dad as a punishment for wrong-doing or as a sadistic thrill? Did Roger lock him in the closet as a way to make him study? Did Wesley accidentally lock himself in the closet and his dad kept him in there just to teach him a lesson? Or did Wesley lock himself in the closet and nobody missed him? Unfortunately, as serious a charge as that is, I'm forced to somewhat ignore it since I don't have enough information to draw any definite conclusions.

I chose to take Roger's personality at face value in "Lineage" even though he was a cyborg. As Wesley and Angel pointed out, whoever was behind the cyborgs (the Circle of the Black Thorn?) probably had access to old Watcher's Council files, background information, character assessments, and psychological profiles. Wesley was fooled, so I'm allowing myself to think that cyborg Roger was a more than acceptable substitute for the real thing.

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