Saturday, January 23, 2010

Just When I Thought I Was Done With Billy

I'm finding that I seem to be focusing a lot on two particular episodes in Season 3 of Angel. One is "That Old Gang of Mine", with its themes of divided loyalties, conflict between Gunn and Angel, the basic rights of demons to live within our dimension, and the consolidation of Wesley's status as a group leader.

The other episode is "Billy", with its own themes of misogyny and violation of trust between Wesley and Fred, female empowerment, and Alexis Denisof's terrific character break-through acting performance.

Just when I thought I couldn't possibly write anything more about "Billy", I had to go ahead and listen to writers Jeffrey Bell's and Tim Minear's Season 3 DVD commentary for the episode. I'm not going to talk about all of the cool things they said because that would just take too long. Instead, I'll focus on information that helped clear up some of my misconceptions and gave me a better understanding of the episode in general.

I've noticed that it seems like more often than not, whenever something in Angel really touches that certain spot inside of me, Joss Whedon himself seems to be behind it. Examples include how he wrote that lovely phone sex scene in "The House Always Wins", and how he wrote two completely opposite but equally beautiful episodes, "Waiting in the Wings" and "A Hole in the World".

This time, I found out Joss Whedon wrote two of my favorite scenes in "Billy", both of them involving evil Wolfram & Hart lawyer Lilah Morgan. The first scene was when Angel paid Lilah a visit at her apartment, and was genuinely shocked at her bruised and battered appearance. The second scene was when Cordelia Chase visited Lilah, which featured that wonderfully witty dialogue about shoes and the title of "vicious bitch". (I wrote extensively about these moments here.) It turns out that Joss wrote these scenes as somewhat of a favor for the writers when they were running out of time. Although I'm not sure if Joss himself came up with these particular storylines, notice how both of these scenes feature Lilah in two of her most sympathetic moments of the entire series.

Speaking of Lilah, it's amazing how Stephanie Romanov could still look gorgeous even when the makeup artists tried to make her look like a hideous cyclops. And what about that ugly two-piece dress she wore in those two above-referenced scenes? My first thought was that she wore it for comfort, since the outfit looked kind of stretched out as though she'd been wearing and laundering it for several years. Yet, she was also wearing stacked-heeled sandals. If I was recovering from severe injuries I wouldn't be wearing a dress and high-heeled sandals, but that just might be me. Regardless, the bruising, the ugly outfit, the casual way she tied back her hair, and the sandals all seemed to fit together in an odd way.

Another interesting aspect of the episode was the controversy involving how Billy's misogyny mojo actually worked on men. Did Billy's touch inject anger into the men, in that he gave them emotions they never had before? Or did Billy's touch cause a latent primal (or "primordial") emotion that already existed in men to come up to the surface? (Bell and Minear discussed this in terms of whether men were naturally Civilized or Barbarians.) I always maintained the latter explanation, because I felt that was why Wesley was so upset after he tried to kill Fred. Wes absolutely knew that Billy's touch brought something to the surface that he'd kept buried all along, even though, as Fred correctly said, he didn't really want to kill her when he was in his normal state. It was bad enough that he turned into something that wanted to kill the girl of his dreams. As a distraught Wesley confided to Fred in this dialogue sequence, "I don't know what kind of man I am anymore."

As Minear explained it, the writers did not resolve the issue and left everything open to interpretation. However, after the original airing of the episode, this issue caused a lot of controversy on internet forums, since Angel had supposedly reached a somewhat different conclusion in a previous scene. According to Angel, "Well, that thing that Billy brought out in others? - The hatred and anger... that's something I lost a long time ago." Also, "I never hated my victims, I never killed out of anger, it was always about the - pain and the pleasure." Personally, I think Angel's statement fits my interpretation better, in that Billy couldn't draw out something that wasn't there to begin with. If anyone gets something else out of Angel's statements, please let me know.

Another raging controversy involved Angel's statement that he didn't feel any moral responsibility for the people who died due to Billy's touch. (Angel was forced to release Billy from a hell dimension at Lilah's command. In return, Lilah released Cordelia from her suffering that was caused by the brain-shattering and skin-burning false visions inflicted on her by a bizarre mind-bender type of person.) I'll let you read the dialogue, but Angel strongly maintained that he would do it again in order to save Cordelia. Cordelia felt responsible because Angel unleashed Billy onto the world on her account, and went after Billy herself.

I guess I can technically see how people could think that Angel should have felt morally responsible for his actions. (Tim Minear himself unhesitatingly said Angel made the right decision.) However, this is one of those fuzzy gray areas that you need to explore and think through the implications. Women were horribly killed because of Billy's demon touch. However, if Cordelia had died, Angel would have lost his connection to The Powers That Be, and many more people might have died as a result.

An additional important consideration is that Angel probably knew that Billy could potentially cause people to die, but he had no specific knowledge that it would actually happen. Remember, Angel had to make the same moral decision in Season 5's "A Hole in the World" and "Shells", where hundreds of thousands of people could have died if steps were taken to remove Illyria's soul out of Fred's body, thereby possibly allowing Fred's soul to reclaim her body. This is one instance where Angel grimly decided to sacrifice a loved one for the greater good, because of the certainty that a large number of people would have otherwise died.

Jeffrey Bell and Tim Minear also talked about how "Billy" started off with the potential of Wesley and Fred pairing up. Wesley confessed his feelings to Cordelia at his apartment in this scene. Then, Wesley and Fred appeared to be flirting with each other during this scene while they were starting to examine Billy's blood under the microscope. (I had trouble interpreting this scene at first, where Fred gave Wesley the slide and Wesley smiled at her. At first I thought it was all harmless, then I thought Wesley's smile was forced and he was starting to get irritated with Fred. I'm glad Bell and Minear cleared it up and informed us that everything was still OK at this point.)

This "flirtation" strikes at the very heart of the problem I have with the entire Wesley and Fred relationship. Wesley obviously adored Fred and couldn't imagine life without her. Fred seemed to like Wesley enough to be a little flirty with him (as opposed to overtly teasing him), but I never sensed she felt anything close to the same depth of emotions as he did. In a desert island situation, where they were the only two inhabitants, etc., she would have been happy enough to live with him forever (as opposed to one of millions of other guys), but there was no indication that he was The One for her. Wesley was a Nice Man who did Nice Things for her, and she wanted to do Nice Things in return. Beyond that, Fred didn't seem to suffer through any particular angsty moments about her feelings for him, outside of a little confusion when he starting hitting on her in a big way in Season 4. That's why I find Angel and Cordelia's doomed relationship that much more believable. Angel was visibly quite smitten with Cordelia, and Cordelia, having seen Angel at his very worst, spent the entire series obviously working very hard to deny her feelings for him.

Even the exquisitely beautiful last scene in "Billy", where Fred visited and tried to comfort Wesley, didn't convince me that Fred had any particular strong feelings for him. Wes was obviously horrified with how he treated her, and was unable to pull himself together enough to allow her to get close to him. By the same token, Fred didn't force the issue either, and probably wisely left him alone a few minutes later. I'm sure that if she would have stayed with him for a while she might have developed feelings for him, but I can only conclude that it wasn't meant to be. This was just another instance of her wanting to do Something Nice for the Nice Man.

Think of the possibilities that could have been explored in subsequent episodes. Fred could have stopped looking at Wesley as the always-in-control boss. Fred could have tried to talk to Wesley later on about the incident, or Wesley could have had difficulty relating to Fred on the job after that horrible night. Except for the fact that Wesley started to explore his dark side in "Billy", you can't tell in any of the following episodes that anything tragic had happened between the two of them. If we took "Billy" out of the rotation, we wouldn't see any change in their relationship, except for the fact that she eventually hooked up with Gunn.

As an interesting sidenote, "Billy" was filmed right after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Bell and Minear even spoke of how they weren't sure they'd be able to film airplanes taxiing down the runway since all planes were grounded for several days after the attacks. Another problem was trying to figure out if the audience would believe that security was lax enough to allow Cordelia and Lilah to go onto the tarmac with their various weapons. The creators got around that little problem by realizing that the episode was obviously filmed at a small airport rather than at a large one like LA International, and everyone would figure out that the security procedures would have been different for these two types of airport.

In the very last scene of "Fredless", which was the episode aired immediately prior to "Billy", Charisma Carpenter wore a T-shirt with a tiny U.S. flag sewn on it while everyone was painting Fred's room at the Hyperion Hotel. I've often wondered if that scene was also filmed after 9/11 as well, since what Charisma was doing was a common patriotic gesture. Before 9/11, it wasn't nearly as common. If her T-shirt was a 9/11-inspired wardrobe piece, then I think that was the only overt nod to 9/11 in the entire series. The 9/11 attacks profoundly influenced the US for many years, and it was often in the forefront of our thoughts. I haven't exactly been looking, but I haven't noticed any other veiled references to 9/11 in the program. I'm actually quite grateful for that, since those references would have had the potential to date Angel quite badly. At their worst, the producers could have done something quite clumsy like try to compare Wolfram & Hart to al-Qaeda. It's to Joss Whedon's credit that he and his writers were able to give the audience a timeless series that should successfully live on for many more years to come.

Closing Thoughts. After listening to other DVD commentaries about how well Lilah's scenes worked when Stephanie Romanov was filming with several other actors, I'm starting to realize that Stephanie was somewhat wasted in spending most of her time working on the Wolfram & Hart sets. Lilah really came into her own when she came out of the offices and interacted with other characters, whether they were Angel Investigations staff members or allied bad guys. Think of her various Season 3 scenes with Angel, Cordelia, Holtz, Sahjhan and Wesley. This is just yet one more example of the rather nice dilemmas that the creators faced when they assembled an unusually talented cast for their show. They just couldn't possibly put everyone in as many scenes as they deserved.

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